Jacques Kelly: Where the Police Department's horses live

The horses in Baltimore’s mounted police unit have helped keep the city’s peace since 1886. Stabled downtown, these eight are Baltimore’s equine stars of parades, Inner Harbor crowd events and routine patrols along city streets.

I visited the steeds and their officers at their home, a converted Tower Ford dealership near City Hall and the city’s vehicle impound lot. This urban barn has been their home since 1972.

“Not every horse can do this job,” said Sgt. Russ Robar, the unit’s head. “We find that only one horse out of 10 we look at will work out.”

He said there are three primary job qualifications. His horses must tolerate getting baths in a stall that was once a vehicle service bay. They also have to be clipped — their coats are regularly trimmed and their manes are roached, or curled upward. They also must have the temperament to be transported in trailers to events.

“If a horse has a high anxiety,” Robar said, “they aren’t going to be able to deliver what we need for this job.”

The horses in the unit are named Slurpee, Pax, Big D, Vernon, Hercules, Blair and Porter. Most have roots in the agricultural fields of Pennsylvania. They are massive draft horses (Belgians and Percherons) who have made the transition from Lancaster and Bucks counties to Baltimore’s asphalt.

“They mainly came from Amish farms and were retired after years of pulling plows and farm wagons,” Robar said. “They grew up around people. The children on the Amish farms would be climbing all over them. They’re used to people.”

Each horse has his own story.

There’s Big D, named for Forrest E. “Dino” Taylor, a city officer who died in 2012. Big D was a gift from Taylor’s family

“He’s our alpha lead horse, a no-nonsense workhorse,” Robar said. “He came from an Amish farm.”

Vernon was a gift of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood association. Hercules was a rescue from the kill pen at a New Holland, Pa., sales barn.

“Pax came from Last Chance Farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. He was a voluntary surrender from an anonymous donor,” Robar said. “He came down to Baltimore and never missed a beat.”

Slurpee was a gift from the 7-Eleven convenience stores.

“He hadn’t been ridden before, but once here, he really took to the streets.” said Robar.

Blair has Amish roots and spent much of his life pulling a wagon to the Green Dragon farmers market in Ephrata, Pa. Porter also arrived in Baltimore from Last Chance Ranch, the animal rescue mission in Quakertown.

Robar said that while most people know the mounted unit from parades and their presence at the Inner Harbor on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, a police officer on a horse also has an advantage in a Baltimore’s back alleys.

“We can see over fences and find people hiding from us,” he said.

The unit is now scheduled to get a new home. Officials announced last month that a state-of-the-art stable and educational facility will be built on the B&O Railroad Museum’s campus near South Stricker Street.

“The unit has become a real joy to work with, and folks are really excited about their new home,” said Ross Peddicord, director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. “It has the potential to become one of the most-visited and invaluable equine and tourism attractions in the city and state.

“Baltimore's mounted police are becoming an integral part of the Maryland horse industry,” Peddicord continued. “They are a part of major horse events like the Preakness, the spring steeplechases and also at our HorseLand exhibit, which drew over 50,000 visitors this year at the Maryland State Fair. The officers and their horses are a real magnet.”

And tonight, if you’re up late, you might see the mounted patrol in action. They regularly help clear the crowds off Baltimore Street when The Block bars close on Saturday night.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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