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Philly Mounted Police Unit Starts From Scratch

Underneath the stable roof at Willow Lake Farm in Ambler, Chanthavy Hearn readies her horse, Pat, for the morning training. The newcomer to the Philadelphia Mounted Police Unit listens to veteran Dave Toth explain how to adjust the stirrups.

"When you get out in the ring, you'll have to sit on him and move them up or down," Toth says as he hooks the silver stirrup under a leather strap.

Toth knows what he's talking about. He was a member of Philadelphia's mounted police for five years before it was disbanded in 2004 because of budget cuts. Now reinstated, the unit must rebuild from scratch, gathering equipment and horses while looking for a permanent home within the city limits.

The process, including training horses and officers, takes patience and perseverance.

At the peak of the unit's 32-year tenure, it had 190 horses, but shrank as technology improved and police on bicycles replaced police on horses, says Lt. Dan McCann, the unit's commanding officer. At the time of its demise in 2004, the force had 19 horses and 17 officers. By the end of 2011, McCann hopes to have 12 horses, and in the future, 25.

An officer on a horse is worth 10 on the ground, according to Marquise Robinson, an assistant trainer. Police on horses control crowds, but also patrol parks and streets. The new unit made its debut on July Fourth with four officers on horseback on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The unit also patrolled South Street in July after the Greek Picnic.

Toth, 45, says he was depressed when the unit was cut. He was assigned to the airport, but is happy to be back with horses.

"Nobody ever stops learning," he says. "If you spend five years with one horse, then you work with a different horse, it's back to Square One."

Hearn, 30, is one of 13 in the mounted unit. She and five others started their 16-week training last week.

Officers need not have riding experience, though Hearn took lessons for a few months as a hobby.

"I just can't believe I'm getting paid. It's like putting together two things that I like to do together," she says. "It was always a dream of mine."

The force has seven donated horses -- four from the Newark, N.J., mounted police and three from a rescue ranch in Quakertown. The Police Department has purchased four trained horses from a farm in Maryland.

After riders are able to control a horse, they can practice keeping it calm around trucks, buses, and people.

During training on this Thursday morning, Hearn enters the ring, a basketball court-size area with black gravel and dirt. Amid hens clucking and roosters crowing, four officers on horses patrol the perimeter.

The riders practice trotting without their feet in the stirrups, so they can learn to feel comfortable in the saddle, Robinson explains. While the other horses walk, Hearn and Pat trot around the ring until they reach the end of the line.

The path to build back the mounted police has been anything but smooth. When McCann got the Newark horses, he scrambled to house them.

The force first used White Pine Farm in Bucks County in March, and moved to the Ambler farm in May. Both are outside the city limits, and the drive to the Police Academy, where the unit members first report, was far.

This week, the force will move to a stable near Pennypack Park, a 15-minute commute compared with nearly an hour to Ambler.

Police and city officials have visited seven sites for a possible permanent location near Center City, West Philadelphia and lower North Philadelphia -- spots where mounted police will patrol. The plan is to either renovate a stable or build one that would house 42 horses, according to Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety.

The mounted police received a $350,000 federal grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2010 to cover first-year operational costs -- saddles, feed, uniforms, and maintenance.

For its second year, the unit received a $100,000 state grant. The mounted police will use grants and donations for the first two years, then be included in the 2013 city budget, chief administrative officer Nola Joyce said.

Donations are welcome; on Thursday, Jimmy Binns, founder of CopWheels Inc., donated two trailers so the unit can transport six horses.

"Whenever you auction off all your stuff, you're starting from scratch," Robinson says. "Whatever people give you, you're willing to accept it."

Hearn says she is excited to go out on the streets once she finishes her training.

For now, she rides. Saddle time is the only way they can get better, she says. Even when that means failing.

She leads Pat around the ring. But Pat goes a bit fast, Hearn can't stay balanced, and as they turn the corner, she thumps to the ground and lands on her back, unhurt.

It has happened before, she says. But she has the tenacity the mounted police force has showed in its struggle to return.

"You're going to get bumped, scraped," she says. "You just have to get back on there."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service