Mike Lesperance stands in the barn with his loyal “partner,” Randy, a 1,150-pound Morgan gelding. The sleek purebred has been part of the Detroit Police force for 14 years. Lesperance has been riding him just as long.
“He has been my partner longer than anyone,” says the 32-year police veteran, as he pats the chestnut beauty.
For years Lesperance patrolled the streets with Randy doing what officers in cruisers do: chase bad guys, issue tickets and make arrests. But those days are over for the Detroit Mounted Police. At least until the department, which is short on cash and staff, can provide the unit with more resources.
The mounted force peaked in 1979 with 65 horses and 56 officers. Today there are only 18 horses and seven officers.
The Detroit Mounted Police was founded in 1893 to corral loose farm animals. In its roughly 110 years of existence, about 600 officers have served with the Mounted Police.
It stopped patrolling the streets about six years ago after several senior officers retired, depleting the already bare-bones unit. Now, the unit’s primary duty is crowd control at major events such as the Thanksgiving Day parade.
Despite their reduced role, nothing is spared to keep the horses fit and ready to roll when duty calls.
Lesperance’s day begins at 7 a.m. with shoveling manure out of the stalls at the Bethune Street stable, which is about three blocks from the Fisher Building. He is solely responsible for the animals’ care on the day shift. Three other full-time officers care for the horses in the afternoon and evening, and at another stable at Rouge Park. Lesperance has been tending to the mounts for 25 years, and he loves it.
It’s easy to see why. The calm, relaxing setting is much different from Detroit’s other police precincts. Inside the stable, it’s hard to imagine it’s located in an urban core. Neighborhood children regularly visit and feed the horses apples.
“They know all the horses’ names,” Lesperance says of the kids.
He spent his first seven years on the force doing undercover work and drug busts. Like many Detroit officers, he saw some rough stuff. Lesperance wanted to stay with the department, but thought he might burn out before he was ready to retire. That’s why he applied for a transfer to the Mounted Police.
“It’s a coveted duty,” says Lt. Fred Bowens, who heads the unit. “There’s a waiting list.”
About 10 officers are on that list, but the unit has not accepted transfers in four years. The force is short-staffed and can’t spare the manpower, says Bowens. The department’s first priority is responding to citizen calls and they need officers in squad cars to do that, he says. Bowens would not say what the current budget is for the Mounted Police.
To be eligible for the Mounted Police, an officer should have some experience riding horses, says Bowens. A strong back helps, since the job is physically demanding.
Officers must pass a 10-week training course in which they learn how to handle the horses in an urban setting.
The horses themselves are trained for three to six months. During that time, the officers simulate situations the horses will encounter — crowds, for example. They slowly expose them to city streets, making the horses accustomed to loud noises and strangers.
“If it can’t take contact with citizens, we don’t keep that horse,” says Lesperance.
In fact, the unit encourages the public to pet the animals. It helps build good community relations, he says. The only time the public is prohibited from interacting with the horses is when they are managing crowds at a demonstration or other potentially controversial event.
Only a few horses have died while serving on the force, says Lesperance. A new horse that was tied up downtown broke lose and was hit by a car and killed.
“Some run back to the barn. They can negotiate the traffic lights,” he says.
Another threw an officer, then fell back on its head and cracked its skull. A third broke its leg during a performance at the State Fair.
“It was euthanized immediately,” says Lesperance.
Before the unit had so few officers, it accepted “green” horses that had never been ridden, saddled or trained. But there are no longer enough officers who can spend the necessary time breaking them in. And some horses, even after the training, are not suitable for the unit. Last month, a 12-year old horse bucked off an officer, who broke his pelvis. He’d thrown a sergeant six months earlier. The horse had to be returned to the horse broker, who is looking for a calmer one for the unit.
It is evident from the way the horses are treated at the stable that the officers are deeply attached to them. Each officer names his horse and remains with it until one of them retires.
“We feel a tremendous responsibility to our horses,” says Lesperance.
A critical part of caring for the mounts is cleaning their stalls. This prevents their hooves from developing fungal infections. Lesperance vigilantly cleans several times a day.
He makes sure their water pails are full — horses drink 10 to 15 gallons daily. Most of the herd is fed about 30 pounds of hay and 5 pounds of oats daily. But some of the senior horses, such as 24-year-old Flash, the eldest of the bunch, are on special diets developed by the department veterinarian. (The average age of the horses in the herd is between 18 and 20. The average life span of a horse is about 32 years.)
The horses are carefully examined by Lesperance each day to determine if they have sustained any wounds. Part of an officer’s 10-week training includes basic first aid for horses. Lesperance tends to minor wounds and calls in the vet for serious ones such as the torn muscle 22-year-old Mustache suffered recently. Hot and cold compresses and aspirin are bringing the horse back to health.
Sergeant Taras Lichonczak thinks Mustache was injured while being transported from the Rouge Park stable.
“He has always been shaky in the trailer,” says Lichonczak. “He kicks the walls.”
Larger horses are permanently lodged at the Rouge Park stable, which has a corral, giving them a chance to graze and exercise. Others, like Mustache, rotate between the two stables.
At Bethune Street, Lesperance rides each horse for about 30 minutes each day to keep them in shape. Mustache will be hand-walked until his leg heals.
The veterinarian along with the blacksmith who visits once a week find farms willing to take good care of the horses.
“When they retire, we find good homes for them,” says Lesperance.
About 25 officers who work in the precincts are fully trained to ride the horses when necessary. When President George W. Bush was in town this year, for instance, the Secret Service specifically asked that the Mounted Police help manage the crowds. Mounted Police are considered the best form of crowd control because they are intimidating, but not aggressive. Since they are so effective, the department can’t afford to do away with the unit. They are used at major sporting events, like the Lions’ opening game last month. They were also present at several demonstrations during the Detroit newspaper labor dispute. The next assignment is the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Lesperance and Randy will be ready.
Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. Editorial intern Peggy Geeseman contributed to this