For over a decade, Sergeant Mike McCreary of the Sparks Police Department has managed the Mounted Unit, a program comprised of eight police officers who patrol on horseback.
Since 2001, the Sparks’ Mounted Unit is most likely the longest withstanding horse/police volunteer program in Northern Nevada. Of the eight officers currently serving in this division, all have varying experience with horses. As a mostly self-sufficient program running off of a $1,500 budget, Mounted Unit officers are responsible for boarding, feeding, and maintaining their horses.
“Every officer owns their own horse and pays for everything themselves,” says McCreary. Although a lot of the onus is on the officers to support the program, the City does help pay for the horses’ spring/fall vaccines and are insured while out on duty. In its inception, Sierra Sid’s Casino gave a donation for saddles and police tactical gear.
Horses complement the police force in many ways, but are mainly useful in crowd control situations because it gives officers more visibility perched above people. The horses within the unit aid officers at events like Hot August Nights, the Best of the West Rib Cook-off, and weekly farmers markets.
“Ninety percent of what we do is public relations,” McCreary said. “It gives us a chance to interact with people; they are more willing to approach us when we’re on our horses. My favorite event is Hot August Nights because it allows the officers to interact with the crowd more,” he noted, which isn’t quite as easy in events where food is involved like the Rib Cook-off.
He said that his other favorite event is trick-or-treating at the Governor’s Mansion because the kids love seeing the horses. A few folks keep tabs on the horses and come back to the same events year after year to check up on them. Although some people may be intimidated by horses because they are so big, but McCreary says that there has never been an issue in the 15 years since the Mounted Unit’s inception.
To prepare for working events with large crowds, the horses in the Mounted Unit go through a week-long school where they are exposed to obstacle courses with police sirens, smoke, gunshots, and practically anything that resembles a riot-like atmosphere. Once they can prove that they can stay calm and keep people safe in any situation, they are put into the field.
But McCreary admits that not all horses are interested in being police officers, and they are definitely not forced into this line of work. “It takes the right horse to do this job; I tried out three horses before finding the right one. But we’ve been pretty fortunate to have ones that want to do it.”
The Sparks Mounted Unit has all kinds of horses in its troop including a mustang, Percherons, and quarter horses.
McCreary boards three horses of his own that he takes to work and that his family rides as well. In regards to working with different breeds of horses, McCreary says, “Mustangs are harder to get used to because of their slider responses, whereas draft horses have been bred and bred for so long that they seem to be easier to work with, they’re pretty tolerant.”
Along with managing crowds, horses assist the police department in search and rescue events and suspect apprehension. A few years ago, the Mounted Unit patrolled Symbiosis, a mini Burning Man-like event that took place on Pyramid Lake. Someone’s dog bit another camper, so the police went to talk to them. But when they approached the festival goer, he took off running. “It was kind of crazy chasing him through camps,” McCreary says. But McCreary and his horse eventually caught up with him.
The Sparks Police Department also used to work in conjunction with the Reno PD on events, where McCreary says they tend to have different kinds of crowds than in Sparks. “On New Year’s Eve we were trying to break up a crowd in Reno and beer bottles and beads were being thrown at us. I got pepper-sprayed and couldn’t see,” McCreary says.
Although he was blinded, luckily it didn’t affect his horse and he could carry him away from the chaos.
McCreary said that the horses were hit with bottles, but stayed calm. “They take it and are pretty forgiving, especially when matched with other good, strong horses. They feed off of each other in their attitudes.”
McCreary and the Mounted Unit have performed search and rescues in Reno, Austin, and Carson City, as well as been in other pursuits and have arrested drunk drivers. “The opportunity to be on a horse just makes it easier; any kind of police work can be done on a horse,” he says.
In using horses for police work, McCreary thinks that the horses enjoy having a purpose. “My horse for sure loves the attention, but we do have a horse who doesn’t care for people or like to be pet.” Even though some horses are more focused on the job than others, McCreary thinks that it’s pretty obvious that the horses like what they do.
“We’re very fortunate that we can keep our program going throughout the budget cuts and recession. We are the only police department in the area to keep it going as long as we have,” McCreary says.
Here’s a quick peek at some of the horses you may see on the streets of Sparks:
Winnemucca- this black and white Paint horse is 16 years old and has been on the police force for 11 of those years. “He’s my most solid horse,” McCreary says.
Diesel- This 11-year-old Clydesdale has been with McCreary ever since he was a colt. “He’s real easy to train.”
Scout- Even though McCreary’s wife rides this 11-year-old Buckskin for her own personal use, Scout has gone out in the field to work the Rib Cook-off and school visitations.
Johnny Cash- Although now retired, Johnny Cash is a prison-trained mustang ridden by Officer Heather Hart. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City uses inmates to help train once-wild mustangs.