By Mari Smith
“A horse is a horse, of course, of course.“ This may be true for Mr. Ed, but the Kalamazoo County Sheriff Mounted Division has a lengthy and impressive history that includes not only its human volunteers, but its four-legged volunteers, as well. The unit, known originally as a posse, was started in 1960. Its initial purpose was search and rescue. The posse performed tasks such as searching for lost cattle or for an elderly person who may have wandered.
In the early 1970s, Grant Solomon, a Mounted Division member since 1961, attended a State Fair in Detroit, where he and his wife Beth observed the Detroit Mounted Police. They spoke with the head of the unit, who offered training in mounted police tactics to the Kalamazoo division. For the next ten years, the Kalamazoo division went annually to Detroit to absorb the training offered by the Detroit Mounted Police. This special relationship ended only when the Detroit training officer retired.
Solomon took over the training, but emphasizes that every member trains his or her own horse to pay attention to the member, as that is the key to a successful division. Ten years ago, the Solomons continued their commitment to the Division by building a training arena on their property. They use the arena to help Mounted Division members ensure that all members achieve the level of performance expected by the Division.
Some of the training techniques Solomon learned from his Detroit mentor. For example, to help train a horse on several levels, Solomon uses a traffic flare because it involves hearing, seeing, and smelling. When Solomon passes a flare near the horse, the objective is, with the guidance of its owner, to get the horse to stay in place. Ensuring that the horses can handle different environments is critical
Despite common public perception, the entire unit is composed of volunteers and supported solely by contributions. Division members not only donate their time, they also attend the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy, qualify with a firearm, and qualify their horse twice a year, all at their own expense. To be able to transport the horse on demand, members must own their own horse and trailer, as the Division is on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Members also pay for any additional training and competition costs. Ward Lawrence, Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department liaison to the Mounted Division, estimates that a Division volunteer has invested a minimum of thirty thousand dollars in the position.
There are approximately 20 members, three of whom are police officers. The majority are women. Solomon emphasizes that if they “. . . can ride trained horses, they are a formidable force, regardless of the size and build of the officer.” Training is always ongoing and the Division has rejected both volunteers and horses.
The Division serves in many capacities, including Western Michigan University home football games, Kalamazoo festivals, presidential appearances, and crowd management. Members also patrol neighborhoods with high crime rates. Both Solomon and Ward emphasize that it is the animals that have both a positive, as well as a dominant, effect on the event. The horse can be an imposing, 1200-pound symbol of the authority that rides it, but it can also draw positive attention from the public.
Ward believes that law enforcement has suffered a loss of contact with the community since officers began working out of automobiles. He feels having horses in the community fosters positive interaction with the public. Solomon commented that, when the unit is in the Edison neighborhood of Kalamazoo, for example, children and parents alike are drawn to the calm nature of the horses and forget that law enforcement is even present. This positive interaction between the community and the Division has earned it a standing invitation from the City of Kalamazoo to ride in this neighborhood. Solomon states that, “When the horses are there, there are no problems.”
Ward, who has been with the Mounted Division since 1996 and has served as liaison between the Sheriff’s Department and Division volunteers since 1998, praises the Kalamazoo unit on many levels. They have remained strong, despite seeing larger units fold under shrinking funding. He points out that the Boston (Massachusetts) unit, the oldest mounted division in the country, dissolved because of lack of funding. The Kalamazoo Division is maintained solely by donations, and Dan Weston, former Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety chief, has worked tirelessly to obtain grants for the squad. Thanks to those efforts, the Division has been able to acquire much-needed equipment to keep the unit operating at top level. This includes grants from Bronson Hospital and the Vicksburg Foundation that have, over the years, supplied helmets, digital communication devices, and bullet-proof vests.
The Mounted Division prides itself on being able to have five officers with horses anywhere in the County in less than an hour. Both Solomon and Ward take immeasurable pride in the Division, which the Sheriff strongly supports. As other mounted divisions fade, the Kalamazoo Division remains trained and ready to assist similarly-trained units anywhere in the state. Annually, the twenty-member squad averages an amazing three to four thousand hours in the saddle. Ward proudly describes the volunteers who created, maintain, and serve in the Mounted Division, as people who “… put service above self.”