(The Equiery • November 2012)

by Kathy Erisman, with photos by Linda Davis

It seemed like just another patrol day on the DC Mall for a police horse and his human partner: walking by a Metro bus, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument with flags billowing in the breeze, continuing on past the White House… and suddenly two armed men in dark glasses leap from the bushes. The horse springs to the side, quickly turning to face down the threat, in this case, the “Men in Black” agents J and K. Well actually, specially made cardboard cutouts of the famous movie characters played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. All were part of the Obstacle Course Test at the North American Police Equestrian Championships held September 29-30 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, MD.

Now in its 29th year, the competition was hosted by the Maryland National Capital Park Police (MNCPP), both Montgomery County and Prince George’s County divisions, and the United States Park Police (USPP). The North American Championships provide mounted police from all over the U.S. and Canada with the opportunity to showcase their horsemanship and the relationship they have developed with their equine partners.

Over 100 officers from almost 25 departments arrived from as far away as Toronto, Canada and Kalamazoo, Michigan to compete in Equitation, Inspection and the much-talked-about Obstacle Course. Official sponsors had booths and information available during both days of the event and kids got to enjoy pony rides and free horseshoes.

Mr. Clean
Saturday started with the “spit and polish” of the Uniform Inspection class, in which competitors are judged in “Class A” or dress uniform on their appearance and their mounts’ cleanliness. A group who knows a thing or two about buffing a horse and a buckle judged the class this year: The Old Guard (3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment), the oldest active infantry regiment in the U.S. The regiment was formed in 1794 and is currently our Nation’s premier Memorial and Ceremonial Unit, giving our fallen heroes past and present final honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

After several hours of scrubbing, buffing and polishing, “Mr. Clean” Jose Baerga and his big black gelding Tonka of New Castle, Delaware captured the Robert Lewis Parnell Perpetual Trophy. Second in the class of 12 went to MNCPP-PG Ofc. Shane Skeet and Zorro.

Equitation Endeavors
Next on Saturday’s schedule were the many Equitation classes, which were divided into Expert and Novice divisions. The Novice division was introduced into the competition a few years ago to attract the interest of new riders, such as Marc Fanelli of MNCPP-MC, whose first time on a horse was the first day of mounted training about five years ago. Each division also has a Career Law Enforcement class and an Auxiliary class. Western Equitation was added this year.

In previous years, Equitation had been judged more or less as a hunter hack class. Several years ago the Brigadier Trophy, named for a Toronto police horse killed in the line of duty in 2006, was added as a combined Equitation and Obstacle trophy. Thus an actual equitation score was needed. “We went to using a test that looks like a dressage test in order to get a score. You can’t get a score in a hack class,” said Sgt. Rick Pelicano of MNCPP-MC and chair of the 2012 NAPEC Organizing Committee.

The tests and judges are different for each division, with elements that every police horse, not just highly schooled horses, can perform properly. According to Sgt. Pelicano, “Police horses young or old should know their leads, rein back and leg yield. We are trying to find the best rider on the day, so we like it to be an equitation test, but obviously the horse helps in that regard.”

After riding their tests, the Equitation competitors may have thought they could return to the barn to prepare for the Obstacle Course, which was run on Sunday. Some could, but for the top 10, a special treat was added. They returned for an old school style hunter hack, harking back to the good ol’ days, and were asked to switch horses. Lt. Stacy Collins (USPP) said of the switch, “Riders can look really good and ride well on the one and only horse they ride all of the time. A really good rider will look good and ride well on any horse. By having the top 10 riders switch horses, the best riders really float to the top.”

Ultimately, retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Jerry Mayo awarded the blue ribbon and the Chesapeake Training Center Trophy for the Expert division to MNCPP-MC Ofc. Megan Lau. Maryland and DC entries who also earned ribbons were Ofc. Mariea Clower (USPP-DC), who finished third, and Ofc. Candace Sewell (MNCPP-PG), who finished fifth.

Christie Dowling of the newly formed Howard County Police Auxiliary took home second place in the Expert Auxiliary class while Anne Pelicano, an MNCPP volunteer, was fourth.

Former member of the PA State Police Tactical Mounted Unit and lifelong horsewoman Colleen Shelly had an equally difficult task judging the Novice division. The blue went to MNCPP-MC again, with Ofc. Marc Fanelli earning first. The remaining slate of ribbon winners was chock full of Marylanders. Second place went to Ofc. Myrical Gratton (MNCPP-PG) with third going to Ofc. Joshua Scully (MNCPP-MC). Fourth went to Ofc. Robin Szewczyk (Metropolitan Police Dept.), sixth to Ofc. Samuth Keo (MNCPP-PG), ninth to Ofc. Shane Skeet (MNCPP-PG) and 10th to Ofc. Robert Jones (MNCPP-PG).

Howard County Police Auxiliary member Jacki Edens placed second in the Novice Auxiliary division.

The Show Stopper
The Obstacle Course class is the true test of the police horse’s mettle. It is the course that makes this event different from other horse shows, one that sparks fear and awe deep in the heart of non-police horsemen. This course would send most horses galloping for the hills, for as we all know, horses run first and ask questions later. But the police horse needs to put those fears aside and perform quietly while amid unruly crowds, in traffic and in just about any situation where other horse folks are thinking, “Are you nuts?”

Designed by a committee consisting of Lt. Stacy Collins (USPP-DC), Capt. Kevin Piscatelli (NJ, retired) and Corp. John Ardovini (MNCPP-PG), the goal was to develop a patrol-oriented course. Lt. Collins explained, “A patrol horse does not stand in a box waiting to be scared. Our horses move. Everything in the obstacle course simulated something a patrol horse could be exposed to on patrol.”

The designers also wanted the course of 10 obstacles to be equitable for city and rural patrol horses alike. Each obstacle had an almost equal number of hesitations, if not flat-out refusals. The competitors were presented with such monsters as giant bags suspended from a frame that they had to walk through, a Metro bus with screeching brakes, a steam grate, and a simulated Occupy Tent City that was complete with loud music and noises blaring constantly.

They also faced challenges such as stepping into a box filled with water. Chris Brighoff, whose New Windsor farm was used for construction to maintain secrecy, explained, “Horses don’t like to step into still water. They will walk into running water, but they don’t know where the bottom is in standing water.”

Competitors had six minutes to complete the course with two minutes being devoted to the last obstacle, which required the officer to pick up a traffic barrel (complete with bells inside) and weave one-handed through a maze. Once through the maze, the traffic barrel was placed on a base that had a jiggling dog toy with an attached tail. This last part caused a parting of ways for three horse and rider teams.

The Occupy Tent City was the most troublesome for Ofc. Megan Lau (MNCPP-MC) and Tonka, a seven-year-old Percheron/Morgan cross. “He is not a fan of low moving things. The tents had ‘giggle balls’ inside them, which caused them to move like they were breathing. I was very happy that he was able to regain himself for the last obstacle and finish the course,” she said. In the end, the pair finished 10th in the Combined Expert division.

Marc Fanelli (MNCPP-MC) was happy that his 16-year-old Belgian/Arab partner Ricky finished the course. “At the last competition held in Montgomery County, Ricky would not enter the ring for the obstacle portion,” he remarked. This year, Ricky not only entered the ring, having a few stumbles at the steam grate and the last obstacle, causing Fanelli to dismount and reset the obstacle, but the pair finished seventh in the Combined Novice division. Fanelli said of his partner, “I think he has made great strides in the last five years and I am lucky and honored to have him as my partner.”

Other Marylanders to ribbon in the obstacle course in the Novice Combined division were Ofc. Brian Biggs (USPP-DC) and Jacko in second place, Ofc. Gary Fuller (USPP-DC) and Louie in third, Damon Atwater (MNCPP-PG) and Gypsy in fourth, Laura Teeple (USPP-DC) and Windsor in fifth, Ofc. Myrical Gratton (MNCPP-PG) and Nate in sixth, Ofc. Shane Skeet (MNCPP-PG) and Zorro in eighth and Ofc. Robin Szewczyk (MPD) and Thunder in ninth.

Teams of three horse/rider pairs also competed for team honors with the MNCPP-MC team of Ofc. Johnny Beason and Hondo, Ofc. Kelley Hagen and Lil E, and Ofc. Megan Lau and Tonka placing fourth.

The William D. McCarthy Trophy is presented to the individual Obstacle Champion. The trophy is named for Philadelphia police officer William McCarthy, who on September 22, 1987, was killed along with his horse Skipper in the line of duty. This year’s winner, Trooper, from the Toronto Police Service, will have his likeness captured as a Breyer model. Pat Berkley, COB of NAPEC, said, “This new Breyer model will not only bring significant attention to an extraordinary law enforcement equine partner, but the visibility and reach of the Breyer model and their retail partners will create a spotlight on the important role and service that mounted units provide.”

The 30th Anniversary of the North American Police Equestrian Championships will take place next September.

The First Championship by Kathy Erisman

Before 1982, mounted police competitions had been held for many years with each participating department fielding a team of five riders performing synchronized riding, crowd control formations and an individual hack class.

When a young “rookie” to the USPP questioned what that format had to do with real police work, Ralph Pfister decided to try to do something about it. After all, patrol horses do not trot in circles as group. Pfister got together with fellow mounted officers Mike Wynnyk (MNCPP-PG), Alex Wynnyk (USPP) and Steve Johnson (USPP) to develop a different type of competition. Their goal was to highlight the individual horse and rider and to have “a course to demonstrate what we believed the mounted police officer was all about: trust between horse and rider.” They also did away with team competition, thus allowing departments to send a single horse and rider, which opened the competition up to more entries.

“It is the day-to-day contact of horse and rider that builds the trust between the two and produces the capable partnership,” Pfister said. After a great deal of hard work, the first Police Equestrian Competition was held at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro in September of 1983.

Sixty mounted pairs came to compete from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, the United States Park Police and MNCPP (both Prince George’s and Montgomery County divisions). A few Secret Service agents also rode in the competition. Ronald Reagan was President and even had his security detail learn to ride so that his own horse Gimidish, a Hanoverian, could be entered in the Equitation class that year.

Overall, it was a success in spite of “little money, extraordinary volunteers, one judge for no pay, a keg of beer, and the camaraderie produced between mounted units,” Pfister remembered. The camaraderie and high energy of the volunteers remained the same as the PEC morphed into NAPEC and became incorporated as a 501-(C) organization. They have since attracted national corporate sponsors such as Stubben, Nutramax Laboratories, Dehner and Breyer, as well as local sponsors such as The Equiery, Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue and the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

That rookie who instigated the new format is now retired, and oh so happy that he did not maintain the status quo. So are mounted police officers everywhere.

©TheEquiery2012