It’s hard to miss a horse walking around downtown Oxford. That’s exactly what the Oxford Police Department is counting on as they patrol.
The mounted patrol is frequently deployed on the Square about once or twice a week to help OPD supervise the proceedings. That can be in the way of traffic or crowd control, which is achieved in part just by the imposing presence of a horse with an officer saddled.
“A mounted officer can be spotted from two blocks away,” officer David Misenhelter, head of the mounted patrol, said. “It means we can see further down the street, and the violator can see us too. Someone thinking about breaking into a car will see us. Someone that needs help – they see us.”
The patrol was implemented in late 2009 with most of the startup funded from the officers’ pockets. Currently, the OPD has eight horses and 12 riders for the mounted patrol. Commonly, four horses split into two teams are deployed on a given night.
The police budget allows for the care of five horses. Officers individually own the other three horses. The budget takes care of basic expenses like feed while the non-profit organization Friends of the Mounted Patrol-Oxford supports the unit in the way of training and veterinary expenses.
“It’s a daily responsibility, and a lot goes into horse ownership,” Misenhelter said. “We can’t lose shoes or have hoof injuries. If the horse isn’t happy, healthy and shod, we can’t deploy that horse.”
Training is a two-way street. Both the horse and the officer have to be prepared for what might occur on the street.
“We’ll throw everything at them in training,” Misenhelter said. “Part of it is confidence building for the horse and rider. It’s confidence for the rider and trust for the horse. That horse will learn to trust the rider when you put it under adverse situations in training.”
This training helps the officer understand the eccentricities of the particular horse. In the training, the police puts the horse through everything they could possible encounter. That could be mundane items like flags, bags or trashcans to more startling occurrences like gunfire, flairs, lights or sirens.
“You would think big, loud, scary things are what gets them, but it’s the little quiet stuff that bothers a horse,” Misenhelter said. “Sometimes they don’t care and aren’t bothered by any of the loud stuff. However, a plastic bag makes him jump. That’s what we need to train him with. We’ll put plastic bags in his stall while he eats. He’ll learn it isn’t that big of a deal, and it’s not a bad thing.”
By the time the horse actually gets to the streets, they’re ready. The horses become so at peace during the patrol that they’ll even dose off when stationary in certain places.
“The horses know the corners are a resting place,” Misenhelter said. “They’ve done it enough to know he can relax there. If the horse is scared to death doing this, I don’t want that horse because he’s not happy.”
For the policemen, the training is much more basic. It’s just about learning to patrol with another living being. Most of the practices are common for horsemanship.
“Most of my time is training my riders how to basically live with the horse,” Misenhelter said. “It’s not just a vehicle. It’s a living being that relies on you for everything. I teach the patrolmen the psychology of the horse and its needs.”
This tool gives the police department the ability to much better manage events in Oxford, like Double Decker or a football weekend. The Square is normally congested with many one-way streets that would be difficult for a police car to navigate effectively.
“You’re more mobile and visible while saddled,” Misenhelter said. “When traffic is backed up on one-way streets and alleys, a policeman on horseback can navigate through. He can see more, and the presence is stronger.”
For those actually partaking in the festivities, the mounted patrol is a welcome sight. That’s due to more than just the added security.
“I feel like the officers on horseback are much more approachable than a policeman in a car,” Oxford citizen Joseph Murphy said. “They seem more like people while saddled instead of distant while in a car. It’s less intimidating for some reason.”
That’s the type of reaction the police department hopes for. The mounted patrol exists because of that, and because both the officers and the horses enjoy working together.
“A horse is a 1200-pound animal with a mind of its own. If it didn’t want to be here, he wouldn’t be here,” Misenhelter said. “The officers just do this because we enjoy it.”