Down under the Chamberlayne overpass, across from a loud and active railroad track, sits a tattered stable, housing several horses and their horsemen. It is easy to drive past the stable, which faces a very busy Brook Road, especially since its curb appeal resembles that of an abandoned warehouse. But once you walk inside, you’ll be welcomed by Richmond’s Finest and their four-legged partners.
Greeting visitors at the door are Scooter, Rio and Toby, three of the finest police horses on the force. All of whom seem to be excited to have visitors, Toby in particular. Toby is an 8-year-old Draft horse who is as sweet as pie. Standing across from him is his rider, Officer Gene Carter.
“Toby is the horse I’ve had since the beginning,” says Officer Carter. “He’s a real sweet horse and the one I learned to ride on.”
Officer Carter has been a member of the Mounted Unit since 2016. Toby has been with him every step of the way. Horses and officers train for about three months before they are ready to take on the tasks of the Mounted Unit. The intense training is vital to building a strong and healthy bond between the two. And because everyday on the job is different, it’s imperative that the horse and its officer have total trust in one another.
“There’s not a bad bone in his body,” shares Officer Carter. “I have an awesome relationship with this guy. He will do anything for me.”
And apparently, the officers will do anything for their horses. In the early mornings, the officers come to work to tend to their four-legged partners before they begin their daily tasks. Once assignments are distributed, they go out into the city as pairs.
“In the mornings, we come in, get our assignments, then groom and saddle the horses,” shares Officer Amanda Acuff.
Officer Acuff is one of the Unit trainers. She joined the Mounting Squad in 2011 with much riding experience. Her partner, Scooter, is a lively, 14-year-old, Quarter Horse who, like Officer Acuff, joined the Unit in 2011.
“If we’re riding close by, like if we’re in Jackson Ward or Northside, we’ll ride out from here,” explains Officer Acuff. “We’ve ridden all the way to Carytown and Shockoe Bottom from here. Other times, we’ll trailer out to Southside and other areas. But typically, we can go anywhere we are needed.”
The Mounted Unit is needed, in more ways than one. Since 1894, the Richmond Police Mounted Unit has patrolled throughout the city, maneuvering through a variety of terrains, performing crowd control during major events and assisting with search and rescue missions. However, their most valuable role is their ability to build positive community relations. According to a 2014 study by Oxford University, a mounted officer is six times more likely to be approached by a citizen than an officer on foot. This fact holds true right here in Richmond. Both Officers Carter and Acuff agree that by sheer virtue of their high visibility, the public is encouraged to approach them, speak with them and engage with their horses. It is because of this, that the Mounted Unit is considered Ambassadors for the City.
“People actually come out of their homes to say hello to us,” shares Officer Acuff. “If they hear us walking, they’ll come out to talk to us, as opposed to someone in a police car, or even a bicycle officer. They are more apt to come talk to us because of the horses. It’s all about the horses.”
Officer Carter agrees, “From kids to adults who would never, ever come out to talk to a police officer; people flock to these guys. So it’s a big icebreaker and a way to open up a line of communication, which is really unique in policing. It’s really awesome for us to have that.”
Even when times are a little hard the horses are there to help de-escalate the situation in an almost therapeutic way.
“These horses have a very calming effect on people, because of their size,” shares Officer Carter. “Somebody that may be a little more active with an officer on the ground is less active when a horse is beside them. They de-escalate things. That’s why they are also good for crowd control, because they de-escalate situations. Everybody is safer.”
But not every horse can become a police horse. Only one out of ten will fit the bill. Horses that are very inquisitive, patient, forgiving and even a little lazy are perfect for the job. These are the types of horses that, in times of confusion, tend to listen to the direction of their riders rather than their natural instincts.
“The horses feed off of our energy,” says Officer Acuff. “They are very intuitive animals. Horses are flight animals by nature. If a threat is brought to the herd, they will run. But these guys are trained to trust us. They only run when we say. And they will stay when we want them to stay.”
The experience the horse has in its earlier years also assists with the selection and training process. Toby worked with the Amish. So, he was used to traffic. Scooter was a school horse before he became a police horse. So, he was comfortable around groups of people. But no matter how perfect a horse is for the job, there will come a time when he must retire. Most police horses will only serve for 10 years before they go off to enjoy the rest of their lives.
Officer Acuff explains, “Horses can live up till 30 years old. So, we want to retire them when they are still medically sound and in shape. We don’t want to work them into the ground.”
There is one horse who isn’t yet ready to let the force go. Rio, a 17-year-old Warmblood, has been with the Mounted Unit since he was five years old. Manned by Sergeant Jeremy Nierman, Rio is one of the more mature horses, possibly stuck in his ways, and seems to have no plans of leaving anytime soon.
“He’s the old guy of the group,” says Sergeant Nierman of Rio. “He’s been around for about 12 years and he really just enjoys what he does.”
But like all the other officers before him, Rio will have to retire at some point. And when that time comes, the officers will get first dibs on taking them home.
Officer Carter already has plans to take Toby home. “I will take him home when I retire. I hope to be an officer long enough so that I can take him home when I retire.”
As for Rio, once he decides to retire, he’ll head off to a farm where he’ll be free to roam while doing some therapy work.
But pretty soon, all of the police horses will be able to graze on farm-like terrain. According to Friends of the Richmond Mounted Squad, the non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to support the horses of the Richmond Mounted Squad, construction for a brand new equestrian center will begin this fall. Located on Crestview and Government road, on the back side of Historic Church Hill, the center will include a 12-stall barn, training rings, parking area, locker rooms, turnouts for the horses, grazing pastures, meeting rooms and many more amenities. The center will also be handicap accessible.
But for now, these horses will continue to live happily in their tattered stable and work in their city. From the looks of it, they really seem to love it.