EVANSVILLE - The idea to add police horses to Evansville Police Department was a pipe dream for several years before outside donations made a mounted patrol unit possible, according to local officials.
EPD started getting serious about a police horse unit about two years ago, Police Chief Billy Bolin said Wednesday, but the idea has been “batted around” for six to seven years.
Worry about logistics — paying to feed and house the horses, among other concerns — delayed any plans, because police officials decided they could not justify spending taxpayer money on it.
Now, the horses’ feed, vet bills and other expenses are fully funded by donations like a recent 3-year, $20,000 sponsorship by loan provider OneMain Financial and other fundraising organized by booster group EPD Foundation.
“We just have to pay the manpower we’d be paying anyway,” Bolin said. “It was a no-brainer.”
The police department pays Detective Jeff Vantlin and Sgt. Tyrone Wood for their time to staff community events like the Fall Festival, according to Bolin, but does not have to meet any other expenses.
The officers own their horses – 5-year-old half-draft, half-quarter horse Speck and 11-year-old Percheron draft cross Blondie.
Vantlin, a 23-year veteran of Evansville Police Department, is familiar with with working with horses. He said he grew up riding the animals, and used to herd cattle at a farm where he worked.
He and Speck went through intense training to be part of the mounted patrol unit. Vantlin practiced shooting a gun and handcuffing people from the back of a horse, while Speck had baby carriages rolled under him and loud noises set off nearby to train the horse not to be skittish.
“They’re prey animals, so things chase them. They think everything is going to kill them,” Vantlin said. “But once you get them used to it, they realize it’s not going to hurt them, they’re fine with it. And they look to their rider for security.”
That bond between Vantlin and Speck was important when the detective had to coach Speck through an odd fear – “he was scared of brushes for the longest time.”
“I realized if I stand beside him and hold the brush out here,” Vantlin said, gesturing with an imaginary brush, “and bring it in, he was fine with it. Because if it was going to get us, it was going to get both of us. He trusted me.”
Vantlin’s looking forward to riding Speck in a police chase. But he said the horses will be especially useful during missing persons searches.
“In the school they taught us to listen to your horse,” Vantlin said. “You’ll notice he’s real curious. He looks at stuff, you gotta go check that out.”
The horses will see and smell people before an officer notices them. If police are looking for a lost child, Vantlin said, a horse walking down the street might even tempt the child to come up to officers so they can pet the animal.
“You can cover so much more ground, faster, than what an officer on foot can do,” Vantlin said.
That’s why EPD will use the mounted patrol for crowd control, too, Bolin said. The horses and riders can move through a crowd more easily than a squad car or officers on foot could.
“They can see above crowds, they can see above barriers,” Bolin said.
Bolin hopes the mounted patrol unit will be a public safety tool that will also build public trust.
“In the short time we’ve had them, I think they’ve been more beneficial than I thought they would be,” Bolin said. “The public… they eat it up. They absolutely love it. We’re getting a lot more interaction than even I thought they would.”
Vantlin, Wood and the horses met children at the Boys and Girls Club in Evansville on Wednesday, and Vantlin said the animals made a hit.
“As far as community outreach, it’s fantastic,” he said. “I think it’s a great tool for relationships. Everybody seems to like horses.”