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Need for Steeds

In the saddle with the Vermont Mounted Response Unit


Published April 17, 2007 at 8:46 p.m.

The words "1000-pound police officer" conjure an image of the lawful alter-ego of Fat Bastard, the metric-ton-weighing Scottish villain in Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It's doubtful that such a character could run 30 miles per hour, smell the anxiety of a drug dealer, or prompt nearby children to pet his nose.

But five such 1000-pound officers endowed with those capabilities reside in Monkton. Their names are Storm, Dakota, Sweets, Sky and McKay. Doughnuts are not on their diet, but plenty of hay is. They are a few of the four-legged members of the Vermont Mounted Response Unit, an elite team of police horses and rangers that provide field services to police departments, search-and-rescue squads and event organizers.

The VMRU, also known as the Vermont Horse Patrol, or the Green Mountain Mounties, is based at Catamount Ranch, a secluded training facility with the top-secret feel of a special-forces camp. It is here that Grant Mitchell instructs willing tyros - horses and humans - in the arts of riding like a ranger, self-defense on horseback and equine "bombproofing," or making a horse confident and unskittish. He also teaches his students wilderness first aid, backcountry survival, personal security for women, and other skills that blend preventive wisdom with tactical know-how.

Mitchell, a fit but graying Robert Redford type, is a retired Merchant Marine captain. Catamount Ranch embodies the dream he articulated to four close friends in 1970, when they were seniors at Mansfield High School in Jericho. "It was part of the time," Mitchell remembers. "It was the height of the Vietnam War, and I had a strong sense of responsibility to the community." Mitchell worked as a crew chief with UVM Rescue and a tracker for the Lamoille County Sheriff's Department before he started training police horses in 1979. The ranch was based in Eden for a brief spell until 2005, when Mitchell settled down at a 35-acre equine oasis on the rugged border between Bristol and Monkton.

Its centerpiece is a house that Mitchell and his partner, Stefanie Otterson, converted from a sportsmen's club. The long driveway is lined by spacious, fenced-in paddocks where horses of various breeds roam freely. The police team - athletic, Rocky Mountain Horses of medium height, in shades of chocolate and wheat - share a playground where they lounge together, looking relaxed. Across the way in a round training pen, a blond-maned Haflinger owned by a private client trots in circles when cars go by. According to Mitchell, the horse was saddled too young and needs remedial work.

Rocky Mountain Horses come from the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. They were bred about 200 years ago, around the same time Vermont's state animal, the Morgan horse, began proving its worth. DNA tests indicate that Mitchell's police horses are descendants of the Spanish Barbs that came to the Americas with the conquistadors.

"They have tremendous loyalty, and an intelligence that is as good as it can be," Mitchell says, adding that these are qualities more important for a police mount than are sex or age. The horses are gaited, meaning they have an ultra-smooth, four-beat walk. But because of the rise of tractors and automobiles, Rocky Mountains landed on the Endangered Species List in the 1960s. A lone stallion named Tobe is credited with keeping the breed alive. "There are now over 10,000 in the world," Mitchell reports. "They've made a phenomenal comeback."

The Vermont police horses differ from the breed used in major cities such as New York. Those are draft horses, which are 8 inches taller than Rockies; they're meant to be powerful and imposing, and mainly perform crowd control. The New England forests are too dense for such a breed; Rocky Mountains are just tall enough to see over a crowd, but not so tall that a rider gets knocked off by tree branches.

Like a K-9 police dog, a police mount benefits from a close relationship with its ranger, who is usually its owner and boarder. Jeff and Donna Lord are a husband-and-wife Ranger team who keep their mounts at their property in Ferrisburgh. "We heard about Catamount Ranch when it was up in Eden, and we went to an open house and met Grant," recalls Jeff, a telecommunications executive. "We were just thrilled to take our passion for horses and use it in a way that helps the community."

The couple was also enamored with Mitchell, who has an impressive and eclectic skill set. "The guy has fought pirates on the open seas - literally," Jeff Lord exclaims. "But these days, pirates have AK-47s, steal multimillion-dollar yachts, kill the owners and throw them overboard."

Rangers-in-training, called Cadets, must acquire a wide range of expertise, from horsemanship to horse training to wilderness medicine, before they become state-licensed security guards. To explain why the training is so extensive, Lord offers the hypothetical example of a backcountry rescue where a horse slips and falls on a search dog. "So," he says, "we have to be able to do first aid on canines, horses and humans. You look at all the stuff you have to learn, and you're like, oh, man, this is going to take years. But Grant's got a method that works. All of a sudden, you find yourself out there using your skills, almost without thinking about it."

Ranger duty can be exciting and adventuresome, but it doesn't have to be. "Sometimes the work's as simple as helping someone find their car, like at the [Grand Isle] Apple Fest," Lord points out. "There were 10 older women wandering around looking for their cars, and because we're up so high, we just led them right to it."

Mitchell's posse worked the Burlington City Marathon last year, covering 50,000 spectators and 7000 runners with just five horses. "Church Street was packed with people," Mitchell says, "and the horses were controlling the crowd." That ratio of people to police horses reflects the results of a national study showing that one horse can be as effective as 10 to 15 officers on foot.

The VMRU also works frequently with Green Mountain Concert Services, an event coordinator that stages concerts at, among other places, the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds. Concert venues allow Mitchell to showcase his specialized air-scent training program. Horses have five times the scent-power of canines, and they can be effective at sniffing out drug dealers.

That's right: dealers, not drugs. "The horses are going after emotions," Mitchell hints.

He elaborates: "Each one of us is putting out about 100,000 scent molecules per minute. Our scent molecules change with our thought patterns, and the horses pick up on it. Sky - his human-scent expert - "has picked up on people as much as 2 miles out, and she's still in training." Donna Lord, the executive director of the Vergennes Opera House, says she and a few other rangers nabbed 11 dealers in one day last summer.

"Sky's specialty is working through the crowd and telling us who the dealers are. Then we gradually work the dealers out of the crowd, and ID them for the K-9 unit, who makes the arrest," Mitchell says. While the horse processes scent molecules, the rangers pick up on body language. "People who don't have any experience with horses still like horses. When we see a person who is really trying to stay away from us, nine times out of 10 there's something illicit going on there," Mitchell explains.

Storm, Mitchell's primary mount, is scent-trained to identify firearms. "He lets me know who's carrying a firearm and where they're carrying it," Mitchell says. "So between [Sky and Storm], when they're working together, it's really quite awesome."

Sergeant Tom Fraga of the South Burlington Police Department is sold on the horses' utility. The Mounties have helped the town frequently with National Night Out, a community event that attracts upwards of 5000 people in August. "They took complete control of the parking and pedestrian traffic . . . and I got more compliments from the community than ever before, in 14 years of putting on the event," Fraga says. "They interacted with the public quite well."

Fraga also notes that the horses are well cared for on the job site, where a mobile command post is set up to feed, water and shelter them. When you observe the even cushier treatment Mitchell's horses receive at Catamount Ranch, it's easy to see why People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals doesn't object to the humane use of horses in law enforcement. Each horse has a tailored diet card and an unlimited supply of hay. The daily exercise regimen is more reminiscent of a spa than of a ranch: Horses get 45-minute full-body massages before being taken on hoof-hardening training rides that can last from 40 minutes to three hours.

Back at the ranch, the horses seem quite at ease, though they don't always exhibit the dignity expected of law-enforcement officers. One of them rises from his nap and urinates on a pile of hay. "Dakota, that is so rude!" Mitchell chides. "He's claiming hay."