Called To Duty

By ROB ANDERSEN

randersen@timesobserver.com

In their on-going search for ‘a few good horses’, the Pennsylvania State Police recruited Damien.

Because it looked like a good match, Alan Smith of Sugar Grove donated Damien, a Friesian-Quarter horse cross breed horse, to the Pennsylvania State Police Tactical Mounted Unit on July 6, 2013.

“My sister found an article on the Internet about the state police ‘looking for a few good horses’ to replace retiring mounts for their mounted police force,” Smith said.

Smith said the Crawford County Fair usually has the unit for crowd control, but last year, for varying reasons they didn’t. He had previously contacted Cpl. Mike Funk, commander of the Mounted Unit, about donating Damien. Since the equestrian patrol wasn’t going to the fair, Funk, who is a Crawford County native, came to see the horse.

Smith said Funk told him, “We want to come take a look at that horse, and make sure there are no problems.”

Cpl. Carrie Neidigh of the Tactical Mounted Unit explained, “We are always looking for a good horse. We look for geldings, draft or draft cross, 16 hands or taller and between 5 and 15 years old. Damien is about 16.3 in hands, so 67 inches from the ground to his withers where his back and neck meet. He is right around the average size in our barn. The smallest being 16 hands and the largest being 18.2. In the horse world, a hand is approximately four inches., making the minimum 64 inches.”

“Damien, is eager to learn and is not fearful. When he is unsure of something he tends to want to look at it. The more exposure he receives on things the better he is. He is excellent on the ground, which means he is mindful of his handler,” Neidigh said.

The unit is stationed in Hershey at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy, and Neidigh said there are 25 horses and six full-time members who train the horses and riders, maintain the barn and perform minor veterinary care. Additionally, there are 23 field riders from crime and patrol details that spend 30 days of training through the year, plus provide support for the details.

She said details include the G-20 Conference, the Republican National Convention, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl parade, the Philadelphia Phillies’ World Series parade, the Crawford County and York fairs, Philadelphia Eagles home football games, Slippery Rock, Indiana University, Shippensburg, Bloomsburg and Penn State homecomings, searches for missing persons and evidence, and more.

Last year, they had a total of 119 details, always with at least one member of the full-time staff present.

“Once we bring in a new horse we work with him for 120 days to see if he would be a good match for our unit. First we see if he is ride-able. Once we know we can place a saddle and a person on his back we start sensory (and) obstacle training,” Neidigh said. “This includes having a horse walk over a mattress, tarp, tires, grates, wooden bridges, through smoke, around flares, fireworks and crowds.

“Being at the academy, we can use the cadets to simulate a crowd of ‘unruly’ people. We are looking (to see) how the horse reacts to everything and how willing he is to participate. He doesn’t have to like it, he can stand and ponder things, he can even step away from it,” she said. “However if he runs from it or is uncontrollable and never relaxes, those are the types of horses that don’t fit with our unit. Once we see how a horse reacts to things at the academy we take them into downtown Hershey.”

“In town they are subjected to traffic, trains, roller coasters, screaming people from the park, pavement, bridges, etcetera. If the horse is uncontrollable in that setting they would not be a keeper for us since we do a lot of work on the streets,” she added.

Smith said that he traveled to Hershey on July 25 to visit with Damien, and the horse recognized his voice from the other end of the barn.

“I raised him from a foal, and he remembers me,” he said, adding that he had apologized for taking time out of the staff’s day, but they said, ‘You gave us a great horse. We have all day for you.'”

Smith said still has Damien’s brother, but where Damien resembles a quarter horse, his brother looks like a Friesian, although both are red-bays. He added that the police also cut his 30-inch mane off so it wouldn’t get in the way while working, although Damien still has his curly forelock.

When the time comes for the state police to retire Damien, Smith said he still owns the horse and will have first “dibs” to reclaim him.

Horses not reclaimed by the owner are placed in good homes, or even with the officers that rode them, according to the state police.