When traffic jammed the corridor between Seawall Boulevard and Menard Park in Galveston on the Fourth of July, Galveston police officers raced to the scene. Sgt. Archie Chapman and his thoroughbred partner, Jackson, was among them.
“On horseback, we were able to ride through the cars to the point of congestion and help relieve it,” Chapman said. “A patrol officer in a car would have been stuck.”
During special events and on weekends, the mounted patrol unit directs frustrated drivers in gridlock, handles glass and alcohol enforcement and even gives chase — without the deafening blare of a siren.
Thoroughbred horses like Jackson are synonymous with racing and the Derby and often are considered too hot-tempered for mounted patrol units. More suitable horses for mounted patrol units are paints, quarter horses and palominos.
But Jackson is different, Chapman said.
“He’s easygoing and he’ll let you pet him,” he said.
The 40-hour mounted patrol training program for the Galveston Police Department is conducted by Detective John Blackwell, the most tenured officer in the mounted patrol unit, and retired Sgt. Carmen Parker, who works for the Port of Galveston police.
“We learned basic horsemanship and how to ride in a pack or in a line,” Chapman said. “We also did scenario training that simulated street sweeps and preparation for riot situations.”
The horses also learn to work together.
“They get used to being around each other, and it’s a bonding experience for the officer and the horse,” Chapman said. “It showed us what we are capable of doing on horseback.”
During training, horses are exposed to loud noises such as fireworks.
“Horses can be unpredictable,” Chapman said. “They’re prey animals, so the smallest thing can spook them.”
Trust between the horse and the officer must be established, Chapman said.
While mounted officers may be thought of as ceremonial fixtures, they have a practical purpose as well.
“We’re more mobile, especially on the beach and in marshes,” Chapman said. “Horses can go where a vehicle cannot.”
The mounted patrol unit responds to calls for disturbances, missing or lost children and narcotics violations.
“Horses are more quiet than cars, so you’ve got the element of surprise,” Chapman said.
The Galveston Police Department’s mounted patrol unit was founded in 1988 as a full-time unit. The unit was disbanded in 1992 because of budget constraints. At the time, the city reached an agreement with mounted officers, so the officers could maintain ownership of the horses as long as they assumed financial responsibility.
Blackwell joined the mounted patrol unit in 1997.
“In all the years I’ve worked for GPD, I’ve done investigation and patrol, pretty much the gamut,” Blackwell said. “I trust my horse more than some of the officers I work with simply because of the time I put in with him. If I don’t work with a particular officer a lot, I don’t know how they might respond to a certain situation. I know how Cash will respond.”
Today, there are eight members of Galveston Police Department’s mounted patrol unit.
Mounted patrol officers are more accessible to the public.
“Anytime someone has a question they’re able to stop us,” Chapman said. “We’re easy to approach, and kids love the horses.”
With all the preparation and maintenance that goes into keeping a horse, mounted officers are a dedicated group.
“You have to be committed — financially and otherwise — to join the mounted patrol unit,” Chapman said. “It takes a lot of work to care for a horse.”
Chapman keeps three horses on his property in Santa Fe, including officer Tommy Maffei’s horse, Justice. Chapman’s wife, an experienced rider, helps to care for the horses.
“People look at it and they see us on a clean horse in a clean uniform, riding around, and think it’s easy,” Blackwell said. “Once you get into it, you realize that it’s a lot of work.”