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If you spend time at the Oceanfront, you’ve probably noticed police officers patrolling the area on horseback.
Mounted officers have greater visibility and crowd-control capabilities, but Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Julie Hilton says the greatest advantage is an improved ability to engage with the community, particularly at a time when trust in police is suffering.
“Around the country police are getting a bad rap, and a large part of the work we do is public relations,” Hilton said. “Because we are on horses, we are very approachable. Families and tourists interact with us, and come up for photo opportunities. That’s the fun part of this job and one thing I never get tired of.”
The Virginia Beach Mounted Patrol was created in 1985, and has been a part of Hilton’s duties for 16 years. At this time, the Virginia Beach police force has nine mounted patrol officers, and about a dozen horses, which live on a farm owned by the force in Princess Anne.
Mounted police still conduct the same police work as other officers, but they do things a little differently.
An officer must complete at least three years of standard policing before joining the mounted patrol, Hilton said. Like K9 or detective work, mounted patrol is considered a special operation, and requires 10 weeks of dedicated equine training.
The horses, which are obtained through donations by the community, come from backgrounds of all kinds.
"One of our horses grew up on a farm and lived with a goat. He's not scared of anything. Another horse was an expensive, high-level horse that did a lot of competitive dressage riding," said Hilton. "My horse, Patrick, was supposed to be a jumper horse, but he was too skittish."
Once received, the horses are subject to a trial period and extensive training.
"A lot of times, people want to get rid of the horses for certain reasons so we have a 90-day trial to determine what is going on with the them," Hilton said.
During that time, the horses are introduced to sensory training, which consists of fireworks, walking across plastic tarps, pushing objects with their bodies, and other activities the horses are not used to doing, according to Hilton.
"We gradually work with them to see how they will react to being out in the public. Some have meltdowns. Even after that 90 days they still require a lot of work," she said. "Patrick is still a work-in-progress. But as I get to know him he starts to trust me more."
For Hilton, establishing a bond of trust with the horse is crucial.
"Horses by nature are flight animals. Everything is scary to them, and we are telling them to do scary things like push through fighting people or crowds throwing bottles," Hilton said. "So they have to get their confidence from us. We become the alpha, per say, because horses have a pecking order. They need to look at us as leaders they can trust."
Another way to keep horses at ease is to work in pairs, said Hilton.
"They like to be with a buddy and they are much more productive that way, so that's why we ride with partners." she said. "For someone coming from a patrol where they usually work alone, that's something they have to get used to, but it really helps the horses that are not so confident on their own."
Since starting her work in the mounted patrol, Hilton has worked with four horses. Several have since been retired to Hilton's home farm, she said.
Despite her experience, she didn't expect to make a career out of mounted policing.
"I never thought I would be doing a job like this. A lot of people come out here and decide they are not cut out for it," she said. "But now I love horses and I could't imagine not working with them."
Pohl may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org