Pet Tales: Equine police officer saddles up for students at School for the Deaf

Children at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf were wide-eyed as the big beautiful horse walked to within inches of them and stood quietly as the boldest youngsters rushed forward to touch his velvety nose and stroke his silky neck. Others inched away from the horse and the police officer mounted on the broad back.

“It’s OK to be scared at first. Many people are. This is a big animal,” said senior patrol officer Christopher Swanson, who has ridden since 1990 with the Allegheny County Police Mounted Unit.

“He weighs about 1,800 pounds. His name is Milo, he’s 10 years old, and he’s worked with us for a year,” Officer Swanson informed students, staff and children visiting on Tuesday during the weeklong Junior Police Academy activities.

Enrollment at the School for the Deaf is 177, and about 40 percent of students live during the school week in a residence hall on the 21-acre campus in Edgewood, which is graced with tall trees and large grassy greens.

Riding horses typically weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. Milo is much bigger because his mother is a draft horse and his father is an Appendix-registered quarter horse, which means he is part thoroughbred. Several of the county horses are draft breeds, including Livy, 5, a Percheron, and Henry, 16, a 2,300-pound Belgian. Bred to plow fields and to pull carriages and heavy loads, draft horses are popular with police departments because their calm dispositions make them unlikely to “spook” in crowded, noisy venues.

Within minutes, Milo won over the crowd and was surrounded by adoring fans — about 20 children, some of them students at the school and nine of them from surrounding communities who came for the Junior Police Academy. Milo stood patiently, keeping his big hooves still.

Officer Swanson was mounted throughout the 90-minute encounter with students and staff. Stable worker Nora Argyle came with the duo, skillfully maneuvering the big horse trailer through the narrow gate of the campus and helping to groom Milo for his visit.

Allegheny County’s 11 police horses “are people pleasers” who love the cheers they get at parades and the petting and photos they get from the people they meet up close, Sgt. Wes McClellan said in an earlier telephone interview. He’s the unit commander of the mounted patrol.

All of the horses have been donated to the county. Milo had been trained by a woman who rode him in fox hunts, “but he apparently didn’t like that,” Officer Swanson said. “He does like police work.”

The main job for Milo and his stable mates is crowd control, which in Allegheny County includes street celebrations and parades when the Penguins win the Stanley Cup and the Steelers win the Super Bowl. They’re on duty for big city events including a Kenny Chesney concert and First Night. During the recent Fourth of July celebration Downtown, their officers were very pleased that training paid off and the horses were not spooked by the fireworks. In one of their more tense assignments, county horses were deployed to a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1997.

“One officer on horseback is equal to 10 officers on foot” when dealing with crowds, he said.

Perhaps their most pleasant duty is meet and greets with school children.

“We do it as often as we can,” Officer Swanson said. And that’s about 20 visits per year. Schools and other groups can also arrange field trips to visit the horses where they live, at the Round Barn in the county’s South Park.

“People will approach an officer on horseback easier than an officer in a car or on foot,” he said. “It’s a softer introduction between police and the public.”

Students at the School for the Deaf had many questions. Some asked using American Sign Language, and interpreter Dan Conley used his voice to pass on their requests. Others spoke and asked their own questions.

“Are we able to pet the horses when they are working?” one young boy asked.

Officer Swanson answered, “Ask the officer.” They usually say yes and usually are happy to agree to selfie photos with people and the horses.

Other questions (and the officer’s answers) included:

• Which is faster, a rabbit or a horse?

A rabbit might initially be faster, but a horse will quickly overtake and outrun a rabbit.

• Can horses ride in the snow? Will they get cold?

Horses ride well in the snow, and in the winter their coats grow longer and thicker to keep them warm.

• Can they swim?

All horses can swim.

• Does Milo do tricks?

Milo has not been taught to do tricks. Officer Swanson did demonstrate how mounted officers use their hands, feet and legs to give inaudible commands to walk forward, backward or sideways.

• How long can they work? How do you know they are ready to retire?

“They tell us when they are ready to retire,” he said. With good care horses can live 30 to 40 years, but retirement age varies widely. “We have a very strict rule that the horses will live out their life in comfort.” Some retire to the county’s Round Hill Farm, and good retirement homes are found for all of them.

• Did you give that horse a haircut?

“Yes we did give Milo a haircut. A Mohawk,” he said of his black mane that has been clipped short and sticks up off the horse’s neck.

As Officer Swanson answered the questions, he noted that Milo’s ears were angled back because “he’s listening to me.”

Most people would say Milo is a brown horse with black mane, tail and legs. Officer Swanson said his color is what horse people call “grullo” — a shade of “dun” with a black stripe on his back and stripes at the top of the black markings on his legs.

This was the second year for the Junior Police Academy but the first year the activities included a horse.

“The first year was so successful we wanted to do it again,” said Steven Farmer, CEO at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The goal is “to show what law enforcement does on a daily basis and to develop a good relationship” between police and the community. “We work with first responders,” especially with nearby departments. Officers from Edgewood, Swissvale and Churchill were at the school activities this week.

The University of Pittsburgh police department sent bicycle officers Mallory Skrbin and Ravi Wilcher with two mountain bikes. Students were engaged and attentive, although Officer Skrbin quipped that she was glad the bicycle demo came before the horse, because the horse would have been a tough act to follow.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.