From left to right: Officer Scott McDonald and Ozzy, Officer Wayne McVey and Charlie, and Officer Eric Lukacs and Liam proudly show off the horses’ new official name badges. In addition, the horses wear reflective leg bands for increased visibility and roached manes so potential perpetrators cannot hang onto their manes in an altercation.
They’re big. They’re strong. And they’re here to keep a solid hoof on the fast-moving streets of Lancaster City. Duke, Charlie, Liam, and Ozzy are the proud stars of the Lancaster, PA Mounted Police Unit, along with Lieutenant Timothy Frey, Detective Sergeant Sonja Stebbins, and Mounted Officers Wayne McVey, Eric Lukacs, and Scott McDonald. The mounted unit does everything that police officers in cars do: answer 911 calls, go to domestics, report thefts and burglaries, issue traffic and parking tickets…except it is all from the broad backs of their trusty horses.
Hay, Oats, and Officer Badges
In addition to chasing bad guys, the officers are assigned horses and take care of their daily upkeep, including grooming and feeding. For 20 years, the equine division shared stall space with the doe-eyed petting farm animals in Long’s Park’s red barn until, in 2000, a widespread campaign raised funds specifically to build the current barn. Still situated in Long’s Park, just west of the city, the new barn now has four individual stalls, a wash bay, a tack room, as well as an upstairs half-hay loft, half-work space with a bathroom and refrigerator. The tack room is like any other in the horse world – brimming with equipment and molasses cookies—except the word POLICE emblazoned on halters, breastcollars, and saddlebags, along with personalized badges for each of the horses. “The badges are new…now people know which horse is which, and I only have to answer all of the other questions,” laughs Officer Wayne McVey, a police veteran of 20 years with 15 of those being with the mounted unit. “The number one question we answer is why we don’t allow them to eat while they’re on duty. At home, they have at it, we have all different types of treats, but some people would love nothing more than to pull one over on the police and stick something in a treat. It’s not worth the risk.”
Horses have proven to be a distinctive way of policing the city, in more ways than one. Apart from the increased mobility, visibility, and approachability, the horses do have a few quirks. “If we’re on a call, we’ll use an extra lead rope to latch them to a front porch, sign, or street light. Usually they’ll just stand there and hang out, but we have to be careful about what’s on the porch. We’ve had to replace a lot of people’s flowers, and then there’s just dirt everywhere, ripped out of flowerpots and everything. We do replace those, but we do need to be cognisant about our surroundings,” says Officer McVey.
Police Horse Requirements
The horses run the gamut of ages and breeds, from the smallest, a Quarter Horse named Ozzy, to the oldest, a 13-year-old Percheron named Duke, but they are all massively muscular, even by normal equine standards. The newest addition, Officer McVey’s bright bay mount Charlie, is a hefty 2,222 pounds and nearly 18 hands high. While the horses are primarily chosen for their temperament and unflappability, most mounted units select drafts or draft crosses. “They have the height and the breadth necessary for crowd control and easy visibility, and we’ve learned that most drafts are pretty low-key and not high strung like some of the Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses. If we’re on the job, I can’t be worrying about my horse spooking at everything or being flighty,” says Officer McVey. “We tend to find them easier to train and more eager to please. They don’t like being told they can’t do something. There’s a mentality there that we like.”
The horses need to not only be a substantial size for crowd control, but also sturdy enough to carry the officers and their gear. Year-round they wear bulletproof vests that weigh more than 20 pounds, and in the winter, they add heavy leather jackets to the mix. “There’s some serious weight to our outfits. We mostly wear our barn pants and regular polos—only breeches when we have to wear them—for fancy ceremonies and such. Except Eric [Lukacs], he likes to be fancy all the time.”
When looking for a new horse, like when Officer McVey’s old partner Zeke passed away in 2009, the officer will test many horses before deciding on one that will fit the lifestyle of the mounted police. “I look for how they are to tack up, if they stand still, how they act on the ground, and then when I go to get on, (and some owners hate me for this) I go into the arena and knock down all of the jumps and barrels. I want to see if the horse spooks or jumps back, or if he will be brave and walk right up to an obstacle,” Officer McVey explains. “I want him to not step on anything, but push through it. We teach them not to pick their feet up, but to kind of shuffle along kicking their front feet out. If there’s a protestor, or a drunk who won’t move or won’t get up, I don’t want my horse to step on him and hurt him. I use this all of the time—Charlie’s great—instead of getting off the horse and saying ‘beat it,’ I’ll take Charlie up to him and ‘boop!’ he will shuffle into the guy. And that was Charlie when I found him…he destroyed every jump in that arena, he’s a monster and will plow over or through anything. He seems to be working out,” Officer McVey jokes.
To keep a hand free for other police duties, the horses also need to know how to neck rein. The officers use training exercises so the horses will stay unflustered with anything that could, quite literally, be thrown at them. “Sometimes we’ll do silly things like take a football out and just throw it back and forth while we’re trotting around. It gets them used to objects flying around near their heads. Other times we will take tennis balls or empty water bottles and throw them at their chests and haunches,” Officer McVey clarifies. “We don’t lob them, but people do throw things at us, more frequently than you’d think, and we want them prepared in a safe and controlled setting for when it does sting in real life. These guys are great though, they just take it.”
The officers practice traditional equitation in an English saddle, focusing on good posture and control of the horse, while utilizing obstacles to simulate real-life situations. “We’ll use tarps on the ground, build walls out of 50 gallon barrels and have the horses knock through them, and then essentially have the horses play soccer with those barrels and keep them rolling.” Extra D-rings on the saddles hold a little bit of everything, from parking citations and accident reports to the more personal set of extra gloves and CPR mask in the saddlebags.
Intense Sensory Training
Since the mounted unit patrols many fireworks shows throughout the year, including July 4th, Celebrate Lancaster, and the Barnstormer baseball games, the officers train hard to accustom their horses to the unexpected noises. The training ramps up in excitement, from shooting blanks to throwing firecrackers and smoke grenades. “When we train with other units, we will practice using CS gas [a riot control tear gas]. It’s potent stuff, worse than mace, and if you inhale any of that, you’re dropping like a rock. We ride with gas masks on, if I didn’t it would drop me in a second, but it doesn’t even faze the horses,” reveals Officer McVey.
The mucus membranes in the horses’ eyes and nose aren’t affected by the chemicals and they can walk right into it, lending a huge advantage if a riot situation should ever occur. “I have a picture of Charlie from this one training session where we basically popped the gas canister and threw it into a 50 gallon drum, and Charlie walked right up to it and stuck his head right in, with the smoke billowing up over him. The horses are more worried about the hissing of the gas escaping the canisters than the smoke itself.”
As for the riders, “if you’re not falling off during training, you’re not doing it to get better and not pushing hard enough,” warns Officer McVey. “Push yourself to the point where you’re about ready to fall off or force your horse to do something uncomfortable because sometimes it does happen. That’s why we practice arrest techniques where we are literally trying to pull each other off the horse, because sometime it might happen in the street and you could get yanked off your horse. We have to be prepared.”
Funded Solely Through Donations
In the barn, narrow wooden stairs lead up to a small, cluttered room. “It’s our version of a bachelor pad,” says Officer McVey. “We go to the police station if we arrest somebody, but otherwise this is where we go to work.” A computer plays a slideshow in the background of the officers and their horses at different events, and the walls are papered with more odds and ends— most notably a newspaper clipping of Officers McVey and Lukacs posing with their mounts in the Clipper Stadium. “We’re involved in a bunch of things. We’re patrolling in the city daily and we go to schools. We were in the Strasburg Memorial Day Parade, in our fancy red uniforms from back in the day, and the next year they put us in the Strasburg calendar. Everyone’s used to their jumper horse or their trail horse, but to see a horse being used for police work, arresting people, it’s very unique.”
While the officers have salaries and benefits, the city budget does not include the horses and their care. A private foundation, the Lancaster City Police Foundation (lancpolicefoundation.org), pays not only for their continued care and equipment, but also the canine unit. Lieutenant Frey adds, “A lot of departments are doing away with the mounted units because budgets are tight and they just can’t afford them. We’ve been very lucky to have a lot of community support—that’s what keeps this thing running.”
Officer McVey concludes, “We’re the ambassadors for the city. And it’s not even us, it’s the horses. We’re just the guys who ride them.”