Horse-friendly alleys discussed

Sacramento soon may get something it hasn’t seen in decades — new water troughs and hitching posts.

And folks, that ain’t nothin’ to snort at. Especially if you’re a police horse on your appointed rounds.

Seventy to 80 years after falling out of use, horse-friendly street hardware may make its way into alleys that are being developed as part of a new "alley activation" effort. A trough and a post, paid for through private funding, will be added first to one of two pilot alleys under development in the Handle District.

More are possible on other Midtown alleys as property owners get involved in the effort, said Julie Young, a developer who launched the organized alley-use movement here.

"I would suspect you would see those every four to five alleys," she said.

The idea arose when developers working on the alley projects asked the Sacramento Police Department what could be done with the alleys to reduce crime. Sgt. Chris Taylor, who heads the department’s four-year-old Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design program, recommended the troughs and posts along with certain kinds of lighting and a list of other suggestions.

That was welcome news to the force’s tiny Mounted Police Unit. And to the furry ears of Bolo, Oak, Loot, Breyer and Ted.

The first trough and post will be installed in the pilot alleys, which stretch from 17th to 19th streets between L Street and Capitol Avenue. As a mostly public relations unit, the Mounted Police, led by Sgt. Sherry Bell, concentrate on Old Sacramento and K Street Mall up to the Sacramento Convention Center.

Places to water and tie up the five geldings will allow the unit to cover a larger stretch of its beat, which extends east to 19th Street. Officers currently venture that far once a week or when they get calls.

"If you have them, the mounted unit is more likely to travel down that way at lunch time, because they know that there will be water there and a place to hitch," said Sgt. Norm Leong, police department spokesman. "If there are services there for horses, the horses are more likely to use it."

Funding for the troughs and posts, which are recommendations only, would not come from the police budget, Leong said. Costs and funding haven’t been worked out for areas other than the pilot alleys, Young said.

The unit wouldn’t extend patrols throughout Midtown, but would have water and posts available if needed, he added.

Now, police horses get water at a large water feature at City Hall or from the decorative fountains at 13th and K streets. If an officer needs to dismount to take a restroom break, the horse must be tied to a tree or lamp post, which aren’t always sturdy enough for the job.

The unit has been used during big events ranging from the 2003 protest against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Trade Organization to the New Year’s Eve ball drop on K Street Mall last year.

"They say a horse is worth 10 people (officers) on foot for crowd control," said Billy Lyons, a 42-year veteran of the force who retired as a Mounted Police officer. "It gets the officer up high and they can see more."

During big demonstrations, Sacramento Police and the California Highway Patrol’s mounted unit, which patrols the state Capitol, must get horse reinforcements from Sacramento County, Folsom, and Placerville and San Joaquin counties, Bell said.

Sacramento has had police horses since the Gold Rush. Horses carried officers and pulled police wagons through the streets until the 1930s or ’40s. By the end of their era, there was just one mounted officer patrolling downtown and another patrolling Land Park, which once had a bridle path, Lyons said.

The police horse stable had been near Alhambra Boulevard and K Street.

Today, Sacramento’s horses spend each night tucked away in a barn on Front Street. The building was part of a Navy and Marine Corps base built in 1937, and was used later used as a detox facility. The unit shares the barn with CHP.

Last week, a vet made a housecall to check up on three horses. Mounted Police officer Dave Turner walked horses while the vet watched. Other horses stood in the sunshine in turnouts and ready pens. Cats and a peacock named "Sam" roamed the grounds.

The Mounted Police Unit was revived about nine years ago by officers Mike Lopez and Allan Grundel, who put themselves through a mounted police school in San Francisco and won a $120,000 grant to start the part-time unit. The city’s SWAT team helped build stalls in the barn. The officers had to buy their own horses. That unit proved its worth while working the Thursday Night Market, Bell said.

Two full-time officers staff the unit: Turner and Skyler Baldock. Bell oversees the department’s Marine Unit and foot patrol, in addition to the mounted unit. Lyons and another retired officer have not been replaced due to lack of funding, said Bell. She’s trying to re-establish a reserve unit of officers with their own horses.

Horse experience is not a requirement for joining the unit, but it helps. Lyons and Bell had horses in the past, but Baldock had no experience with the animals when he joined the unit.

A 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift includes feeding, cleaning and grooming horses; cleaning dung from stalls and holding pens; and taking care of tack — plus going out on rounds.

"They’re not like cars. You have to be here twice a day," Lyons said. He’s been with the unit almost from the beginning.

Officers also clean up after their horses if they poop in Old Sacramento or anywhere pedestrians walk.

The officers have developed strong bonds with the horses. Lyons and Oak have worked together for so long that the 20-year-old bay will kiss him over and over again, given the chance. The horse follows Lyons everywhere and knows how to open metal gates with its teeth.

Since retiring in 2006, Lyons has spent many hours volunteering to keep the unit going. Bell nicknamed him "Eye Candy" because she calls him to go out in parades, but not enforcement.

"He gives me so much time, I’d be lost without him," she said.

All but one of the horses are quarter horses. Bolo is a cross between a quarter horse and a Belgian draft horse. Baldock, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall, usually rides him.

Bolo’s name was "Coors" when he first joined the unit. But that name didn’t quite fit the Police Department, so it was changed to Bolo, which stands for "Be On the Look Out,"Bell said.

Six-year-old Bolo is the unit’s youngest horse, but also the most stalwart.

"When it hits the fan, he’s the guy you want to be on," Lyons said.

The horses are chosen for calm temperaments and trained not to react to situations that might spook other horses, such as sudden movements or people shouting.

Loot is another horse known for not spooking easily. That’s partly due to his personality and partly because Loot’s done the job longer than the other four horses.

"He’s like, ‘I know what I have to do and I want to go do it,’ " Bell said.

The unit normally patrols or trains 7 days a week. Horses and officers may respond to fights, crashes, aggressive panhandlers and shoplifters. But usually, working with the unit is very different than other police assignments, said Bell, who’s been on the force for 20 years.

Horses and riders spend plenty of time greeting visitors in Old Sacramento. They also represent the department in parades.

"I’ve dealt with some of the worst stuff you could ever see in society. But on the Mounted Unit, we get to deal with people in a positive environment," Bell said.

Photos by Suzanne Hurt, a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. For more photos of Sacramento’s Mounted Police Unit, click here

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November 9, 2009 | 2:21 PM

This sounds really neat. I grew up with parents who were horse owners, so I can see there are some questions that have not been answered. Will the following be considered? How large would the troughs be? Would water sit in them over night or emptied daily to avoid creating a breeding spot for West Nile Virus? Would the troughs be refilled every morning? Would they be filled only when the horse needs to be watered? Would the officers do that? Do officers now carry scoops for the horse droppings and where do they deposit it?

In view of the tremendous amount of litter around bars, clubs, coffee houses, etc. would the water or empty trough get contaminated from people throwing various kinds of litter including jokesters emptying beer cans in the water or empty trough? Or use them as urinals? Who will clean out the leaves and debris from trees, etc.? Where will they dump it? How will the troughs affect or restrict alley passage ways?

There may be other questions. I don’t ask these questions in opposition but to make sure that these points are considered.

November 9, 2009 | 4:43 PM

Is there a plan to address the inevitable issue of, shall we say, “horse exhaust”?

November 10, 2009 | 11:16 AM

This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard this week…

What is wrong with bikes?

November 11, 2009 | 10:46 AM

The major issue is that as prey animals, horses will spook, bolt, buck, get scared of things they don’t understand and take “flight”–sometimes. As a lifelong horse owner (6 right now) I know first-hand that no horse on earth is “bomb proof” and getting dumped on concrete really hurts! But, if riding a 1,200 pd. animal around town really helps our officers, then I applaud the continued use of equines in law enforcement. Oh, and remember to always wear your helmets, vests, boots and gloves while riding.

November 11, 2009 | 11:08 AM

Thanks for the questions. Officers clean up after their horses if the animals poop anywhere in Old Sacramento or any place where pedestrians may walk in other areas. 

I’ll look into these while I’m working on a followup story.

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