If you love horses, here's your chance to see them up close - personal - and working. The Nassau County mounted police unit which led the World of Horses' Parade of Breeds Sat. June 3 at Belmont Park as the 2000 Belmont Stakes Festival got underway will also be on the sidelines for the 132nd running of the Belmont Stakes June 10.
"This is one of our better details," said Lt. Robert Turk, who heads the unit. During the World of Horses exhibitions, he added, "We got to see the other side of horsemanship."
The mounted unit is normally on patrol or controlling crowds. At Belmont Park, the officers have a chance to meet the public and offer a close-up look at their equine partners.
The mounted unit, formed in 1978 and based at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, presently has 16 human members and 17 horses. Some of the horses are thoroughbreds, like the runners at Belmont Park, but the police horses are trained to deal with unruly crowds, loud noises, gunfire, traffic and other distractions that would upset most of their relatives.
The horses, all geldings, are acquired through donations, the preferred colors being brown, chestnut or roan for the sake of conformity. Their suitability for police work is determined during a 90 day training period.
Mounted Officer Mike McClure recently lectured to the Muttontown Horsemen's Association at an educational meeting held at the Vernon School. The purpose was to help the members in handling their horses as they meet unexpected situations while traveling along the horse trails in Nassau County.
Such things as cars, big yellow school buses, balloons and sudden traffic noises are not things horses are used to in their environment. The riders listened intently as Officer McClure told how the mounted police train their horses - using great patience, time and repetition. He said, horses are herd animals, if one goes so do the others: they use that knowledge in training, sometimes having a more experienced horse go along to lead a new horse through a new lesson.
He said in horse training, "You have to become part of the herd - the leader of the herd."
The police horses train at the Nassau County (former) Guggenheim Estate on Sands Point. He said most horses work with the mounted officers for about 10 years. After that, they try to find places for them to retire.
They look for a good quiet horse to train, and get them used to the noises they will hear on the job, such as at shopping malls like Green Acres and Roosevelt Field and in villages. Oyster Bay is a good example since they are used during the Oyster Festival. Traditionally, the mounted police close the streets in Oyster Bay at 6 p.m. on the two nights of the festival, the Saturday and Sunday after Columbus Day.
The horses are especially effective in handling large groups of people. They wear face shields so they won't lose an eye. "We're the ones who get beat up," quipped the officer.
In crowd control, they have the strongest horse take the lead and the other horses follow. "Most people are intimidated with the sight of a 400 lb. horse and think, 'It's time to get out of here.'" If someone hits the horse, they are arrested immediately. "Most people don't want to hurt the horses," he said.
Horses are best for training between 6 and 12 years old. After 12, they have accumulated bad habits, he said. Training the officers too, is easier if they have no bad habits, said Officer McClure. "Riding horses is not right for everybody." Some people balk at the rest of the job - cleaning muck out of the stalls.
They are an exclusive group "Sixteen out of 3,500 NC police officers. Most officers stay on the assignment about 10 years," said P.O. McClure.
The Nassau County mounted unit has participated in many Belmont Stakes celebrations. Its appearance at Belmont Park, next weekend, said Lt. Turk, "is a great public relations tool for the department."
Belmont Park is easy to reach by car and public transportation. It is located off exit 26-D of the Cross Island Parkway, and there are entrances on Hempstead Turnpike. Admission is $2 for the grandstand and $4 for the clubhouse. Parking is $2 general, $4 preferred and $6 valet.
For information call (718) 641-4700.