Horseshoes clop, clop, clop against the bricks, manes flopping with each step, as one admirer after another approaches with a question not typically asked to other law enforcement officers.
Can I pet it?
Yes, the handler tells a dozen or more every hour. Most college students steer clear of police on a night like this, but these mounted Athens Police Department units are the biggest and most popular on the block.
The mounted units are active during events expected to bring out large crowds, such as Welcome Weekend, Fest season and, of course, the annual Halloween Block Party.
“It helps a lot with crowd control,” says Athens Police Department patrolman Neal Dicken. “We are 8 feet off the ground so we can visibly see a crowd and they can see us.”
What residents and students may not know is the horses are actually owned by the officers themselves.
Dicken has been a patrolman for APD since 1997, a year after the horse units first debuted in town. He owns three of the six horses on the force and cares for them on his 62-acre farm.
In addition to their normal pay, the city pays officers like Dicken $12.50 per hour to “rent” the horses to patrol a given event. The city also pays for horseshoes and some other necessary supplies.
“The city doesn’t have the resources to own and maintain all the horses, and it also helps us offset some of our own costs of keeping them,” Dicken says. “It’s a good deal for all of us.”
While there is not a formal certification process, the city only employs horses considered well-prepared for joining the force. Dicken is one of three commissioner officers for the Buckeye Sheriff’s Mounted Association, which assesses horses through criteria such as obstacle courses, formations and handcuffing procedures.
“We’re not going to put someone, even a horse, on our street who is not prepared,” he says.
Contrary to popular belief, the department allows students to pet the horses with them if they ask. It is only a felony if someone assaults the horse.
“You do see a lot of crazy things,” Dicken says. “We have arrested people for punching and slapping the horses, but those are mostly out-of-towners. The students here know and respect us for the most part.”
In that sense, the mounted units are utilized as much to encourage positive interaction as they are for safety purposes. Such units can be seen at BBQ on the Bricks, a yearly gathering meant to bring together the OU and law enforcement communities.
Erica Pfannenschmidt, a sophomore at Ohio University, is one of the many students who made an effort Saturday night to say hello.
“It’s not as scary seeing the cops on horses,” the 19-year-old says. “Petting them is definitely a highlight of going out any weekend.”
Originally published on A1 of The Athens Messenger on October 30, 2018.