Community Columns

Criminals can't horse around with police equestrian unit

The holiday season at Vintage Fair is a busy time for the stores — and for those who try to take advantage of the shoppers.

One such person was a would-be car burglar. But he was spotted by police and tried to run. The suspect could hear the distance between himself and the police shrinking due to an unusual sound — that of horse hooves. Within seconds the horse sent its shoulder into the suspect, who went tumbling head over heels onto the pavement. The suspect was soon under arrest, thanks to the work of the Modesto Police Department Equestrian Unit.

The appearance of mounted policemen during the holidays is credited with a 25 percent decrease in car burglaries at the mall, according to the department's Web site.

The unit was formed in 1984 as a response to the increasingly violent aspects of Graffiti Night. The thinking: An officer on horseback can, because of the height, better see what is going on in large groups. Also, on a horse, the officer can move through a crowd more easily.

Officer Gary Martinez, one of the original two officers of the unit, still serves with the equestrian team, riding a horse named Sean. His first "partner," Dynamite Dan, is semi-retired but doesn't want to be fully retired.

The supervisor of the mounted officers is Sgt. Tim Helton, who rides Skido, a half quarter horse, which is the preferred breed for mounted units. Helton joined the group in 1990; Skido joined in 1992, after an earlier life in racing. That experience also helps Skido deal with crowds.

The unit receives more than 100 assignments a year, which includes patrolling downtown Modesto on weekends, working the parks on the Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo and the Concerts in the Park. The Modesto officers assist other city departments, such as Hollister's for its Fourth of July and Chico State's at Halloween. They've also done work in Tuolumne and Fresno counties. Modesto's equestrian unit has also trained other departments forming mounted police forces.

Each member purchases his own horse and provides transportation and care for their horse, including feed, shoes and trips to the vet. A police horse must have not only the physical ability for the job, but also the temperament and the smarts. Skido, for example, had three months of training before he was ready to work with the public.

While the costs can be daunting, the horses provide a very positive image for the department and are always well received wherever they go.

The horses are popular with children, and even people who have been arrested by members of the mounted force bring their kids to see the horses. Helton says people are more likely to ask directions of an officer on horseback than of one in a patrol car.

With more 20 years' experience, the Modesto Police Department Equestrian Unit is an integral part of the department's efforts and is also popular with the public.

McAndrews is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. E-mail him at columns@modbee.com.

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