Patrolmen on horseback bring a visible presence to their beats.
The scent of hay and horse manure hovers around the stables near UAB every morning. A trio of cats dart back and forth, in and out of the stalls. The horses ignore them. Pistol, a “paint-colored” stallion assigned to Birmingham Police Mounted Patrol Officer Mike Binion, leans over to steal some tiny morsels of dry cat food from a bowl, his huge mouth rendering the pieces even tinier. Officer Binion has ridden Pistol for six years. “A lot of us come in here on our off day to clean them up. Even though they are owned by the city, they’re ours,” Binion says as he brushes his horse. “I love Pistol like he was my own child. I’ve gotten so close to Pistol that if anything happened to him, I would probably leave the unit.”
The Birmingham Police Department has had a mounted patrol unit for almost 30 years. All the horses are donated. The horses at the Mounted Unit are brought to the mounted patrol at age 8 or 10, and retire in their mid-twenties. One of the first horses in the unit was Booger Red, who retired in 2002 at age 35. “He was old when he got here. He retired a fossil,” laughs Binion. A 30-day trial period for each prospective patrol horse determines if they are adaptable to the streets. About half of the animals get the job.
Much of the training involves making horses comfortable with various obstacles that are similar to those encountered on the streets. They play with six-foot diameter, multi-colored beach balls that condition the horses to accept constantly changing colors and moving objects. Horses can be “spooked” by anything: walking under a railroad trestle with a train going by overhead, gunfire, crossing bridges, the steam rising from a manhole in the street. “You have to know what a horse will do under such conditions,” says Binion of the loud noises that horses must endure without panicking. “Steam from a manhole could be Satan coming out of the ground to a horse . . . You’re training him each time you ride him. If he’s scared of a water puddle, you train him to avoid the puddle, but to still get used to the puddle.” Sergeant Glen White, another of the seven patrolmen in the Mounted Patrol, explains that horses see in two-dimensions rather than 3-D, as humans do. “They have no depth perception,” says White. “A manhole cover on the street appears as a hole from hell to be avoided.”
Binion and White have trained with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and have ridden Birmingham patrol horses in both the Clinton and Bush presidential inaugural parades. Binion’s patrol beat includes The Summit, and he doesn’t hesitate to direct traffic by taking his horse onto Highway 280. “None of those horses are scared of 280 traffic,” the officer notes with pride. “Pistol eats grass in the median while the cars go by.”
In 1998, police on horseback went onto Legion Field to break up a fight between two college bands at the city’s annual Battle of the Bands contest. Instruments were brandished as weapons but the horses took it all in stride. They’re very adaptable for crowd control, even when mace is sprayed. Oddly, horses are not affected by mace. “They can just blow it out like anything else,” laughs Binion. These carefully trained animals also have amazing discipline around children, who are prone to walk beneath the horses when members of the mounted patrol visit schools for educational purposes. “Pistol looks back at me, begging me to do something about the kids,” laughs Binion as he kisses the horse on the nose.
“Everybody has been thrown once or twice while on duty,” Binion admits. Binion was on a horse named Apache in 1998. Something scared Apache, forcing him to back up while on Second Avenue North in front of Massey’s Corral. A pickup truck struck the horse. The officer bounced off the truck’s roof and slammed head-first onto the pavement on his helmet. “A very, very horrifying experience,” remembers Binion. “Apache raised his head and looked back at me, then laid his head back down.” The horse died within minutes.
“High visibility” is Sgt. White’s description of patrolling on horseback. “On a street corner, we can look both ways and see for a couple blocks. It’s not like the limited visibility of being in a squad car. We can sit in a parking lot and see over all the cars. It’s a better view . . . and they can see you.” Horses are on patrol from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day. High visibility is good public relations, too. People notice horses, says White. “You won’t see people come up to you in a police car. But they’ll come up to you on a horse.” &