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HARRISON – The Mounted Division of the Clare County Sheriff Department was joined by members of other mounted divisions last weekend as it hosted the three-day annual Tactical Horsemanship Academy at the Clare County Fairground in Harrison.
Captain Jesse Loudenslager, who heads the local group, said the focus of the weekend was on partnership and communication between rider and horse, and between riding partners. He also said it would be of key importance that riders keep safety in mind, i.e., if a horse started to get “cranky” the rider needed to make sure there was plenty of space between the horses.
Riders who are qualified through their department, and whose departmental policy allows them to carry a firearm, were allowed to carry their firearm through the weekend. That was in keeping with the advisement that, other than their uniform, riders should wear all equipment they would likely be wearing when on the job with their horse. Including their bulletproof vests and duty belts – especially important because those items change the way the body moves.
“We try to wear our stuff as much as possible when we’re working these practices,” Loudenslager said. “If they want to wear a helmet, we don’t look down on them for that; we want them to be safe whatever they do.”
Loudenslager noted the Tactical Horsemanship Academy had been developed and run for many years by Grant Solomon of Kalamazoo. He said Solomon had retired after 58 years in the mounted division and had served more than 30 years as its captain in Kalamazoo County.
“He is a distinguished horse trainer and has proven himself several times over at Kentucky, and has just an awesome program with his horses,” Loudenslager said. “This program we’re doing kind of stems from where Grant started.”
He said that when Solomon decided at, age 79, he was getting too old to run the program, it was obvious the program could not be allowed to die.
“We feel it’s a very important thing and something that’s really needed by riders and horses,” Loudenslager said. “So, we decided, with his permission, to take over the program, adopting some of his stuff and added to it. We’re doing a lot of different things with his program.”
Solomon attended the Harrison event and offered riders some insight into being a mounted police officer: what the rider and horse need to know and be able to do. He spoke of the necessity for a partnership between horse and rider, as well as the public’s extraordinary response to an officer on horseback as opposed to an officer on foot or in a vehicle.
“I’ve often said, you give me a 120-pound woman on a trained horse as a police officer and she’s worth 10 officers on foot,” Solomon said. “The horse is the force – if it’s trained – and that is the key word.”
Solomon said that training means being trained to do only what the rider asks it to do. That can translate to a horse standing still unless told to step. He said a signal to take a small step is enough to move people safely in a crowd – particularly important when the crowd is comprised of kids. And, as Solomon stated, horses are “kid magnets.”
“You need to know what you want them to do, what you can expect of them, based on your departmental rules,” he said. “Whatever the issue at hand is, you need to be able to transmit that to the horse, and then he takes it from there. This animal is the enforcer and if it is trained to do the things you want of him, he will make it happen.”
Solomon also related a mid-’80s story about his first large violent crowd encounter while assisting the Kalamazoo Sheriff Department in tackling the long-held tradition of the Back to School Riot at Western Michigan University. The story – which included tear gas – is too long to include here, but let’s just say it was impressive. And, yes, the horses won, no one was injured, and that 1986 riot was the last one of its kind.
“You have anywhere from 1,200- to 2,500-pound animals,” Solomon said. “Anybody in their right mind is going to cut you some slack if you walk through there and say ‘Sir, I’d like you to move over.’ You try to do that with 16 foot-officers – I don’t care how big or bad you are – it ain’t gonna happen.”
The Academy hosted roughly 20 mounted division riders who hailed from Cheboygan, Clinton, Lake, Mecosta, Menominee and Ottawa counties, as well as host Clare County.
When the horses and riders assembled Friday afternoon to begin training, they were divided into two groups: one working with horses on the obstacle course in the corral next to the stable, while the other worked on rider control/horse response in the open area east of the T-barn. Both groups were walking/working alongside their horses, helping them to deal with encountering moving or sounding objects and to stay calm and attentive to their partners. After the groups had finished their work, they swapped locales and tasks.
Then it was time to do it all over again, but this time with riders up in the saddle.
While Eric Little of the Big Rapids City Police Department instructed riders in touch/pressure communication, he was assisted by members of the Clare County Mounted Division who acted as stimulators, waving glittery tassels and plastic shopping bags on sticks, among other things.
In the corralled obstacle course, Kevin MacRitchie of the Cheboygan Sheriff Department Mounted Division and Dan Moore, Clare County Mounted Division, schooled riders on how to introduce the horse to obstacles, beginning by simply leading the horse past them. Many horses required multiple attempts at some obstacles, and most eventually managed them comfortably many times over. Several horses got off to a rough start with some obstacles, but that’s to be expected. After all, it’s only logical that if something is frightening, the natural response is to get away from it – that’s just horse sense.
The horses did encounter a wide variety of obstacles: fluttering plastic bags attached to a wall; a wooden bridge to be walked up and over; a flat board platform on a pipe fulcrum that shifted with the horse’s weight, tipping down as the horse passed the center point; a hula-hoop; a handled double roller apparatus that some horses shied away from while another unflustered horse would push it along; an inflatable Darth Vader whose sound added a new experience; several different elements which had moving plastic tarps or foam noodles and had to be walked by, under or through; several pilon formations which required precise steppage to navigate; a large iron grate flush to the ground; and a large tractor tire to be stepped through. It wasn’t simply stepping through a tire – the tire was filled with shifting, crunching plastic water bottles.
Basically, the horses were exposed to many unusual movements, sounds and situations, and their riders were put into the position of having to help their horses manage the discomfort the situations caused. In so doing, the horses and riders further bonded and grew their partnerships.
“We try to make sure everyone gets a taste of a little bit of everything,” Loudenslager said. “And that they have a strong idea of what we want them and their horse to perform, which is a good solid task.”
Loudenslager said the goal was not to train officers, although there would be MCOLES officers attending.
“The goal is to make the best horse we can possibly make.”
The weekend schedule included evening education presentations for the riders. Scheduled for Friday evening was Jerry Becker, Director of Emergency Management for Clare County. His talk was to focus on emergency management and planning for what to expect/look for at an event. Slated for Saturday evening was Trooper Brian Lucha, Service Trooper for the Michigan State Police-Mount Pleasant Post, who was scheduled to address riders about personal safety.
The weekend also was to include a noon Sunday arrival of an Aero Med helicopter out of Traverse City, an opportunity for horses to be exposed to a helicopter, making it less frightening when encountered during a true rescue operation. And while the Mounted Division’s training goes on rain or shine, it does not continue when lightning is present – neither does Aero Med. So, the threatening weather Sunday led Aero Med to call about 11:30 a.m. and cancel what could have been an exceptional opportunity for both riders and horses.
It should be remembered that these committed riders keep themselves trained and ready to assist people because it is important to them. And they do it all on their own dime – no subsidies, no reimbursements. That is dedication in its most altruistic form, and something which the community should laud heartily – and often.