The Richmond Police Mounted Unit, formed in 1894, is one of the oldest, continuous mounted units in the country. The equine squad has multiple functions which include a daily patrol throughout the entire city of Richmond, crowd control during major events, occasional search/rescue operations, and to build positive community relations.
Due to the mounted officer’s high visibility, they are considered Ambassadors for the City, capable of maneuvering through a variety of terrain. According to a 2014 study by Oxford University, a mounted officer is six times more likely to be approached by a citizen than an officer on foot. The mounted unit encourages the public to come speak with them and engage with their horses.
Since 1991, the equine unit has benefitted from a 501c3 non-profit group called The Friends of the Richmond Mounted Squad. They help provide awareness, opportunity and financial support to the Richmond Police Mounted Unit. Friends have generously purchased several horses and equipment for the unit, organized fundraisers and donated many hours of their time to assist.
The squad, which at one time was 20 strong, currently has four members. The longest serving member is 12-year-old Toby, a percheron-standardbred who has served since the age of five. Aslyn is a 7-year-old percheron-thoroughbred and Banjo, second newest member, is a percheron-standardbred who began duty last October. Marshall, the newest, is a percheron-appaloosa and not quite out on the streets yet — he started just three weeks ago.
“We like draft crosses now so can get some of the size which can handle male riders,” said Master Patrol Officer Holly Donovan. “They are a great combination of a heavier horse that adds that presence and a lighter horse that they’re not so big that they are hard to get on and transport. These guys are just super calm because they have the draft in them. They take to the city very well and to the kids. They are gentle and kind. We don’t necessarily have the gigantic full percherons or full clydesdales which would be a lot for us to handle on a day-to-day basis.”
“The squad is essentially a patrol unit,” continued Donovan. “We try to visit each of the four precincts in the city every week and help serve as a crime deterrent in high crime areas. Everyone knows when they’re there. The four horses are slow moving and walk around for several hours at a time in those neighborhoods. It gives the officers a chance to make connections and talk to people. There is a lot of public engagement,” she continued. “A patrol car is great but it passes through quickly versus horse patrols, which wander for longer periods of time. People find it comforting and love to come up to meet the horses and talk with us.”
The equine unit serves goodwill purposes too including regular visits to the Memory Unit at the Veteran Affairs Hospital.
“That is one of my favorite activities,” said Donovan. “They roll wheelchairs out and horses go right up to the wheelchairs. Veterans love to tell old war stories. You can just tell it means a lot to them to have horses there. It gives me goosebumps every time.”
Activities through the Police Athletic League (PAL) also serve as a way to reach younger community members.
“We can bring a group of ten kids out to the barn for a morning and they get to have hands on experiences with the horses. It’s a great way to engage the kids and make that connection with an officer. It keeps lines of communication open with police which is especially important in the city.”
The squad of four currently resides in their stable downtown at 1201 Brook Road right under the Chamberlayne Road overpass. They are in desperate need of a new facility and fundraising efforts to facilitate a move have been underway for several years now.
“The barn has cramped quarters,” said Donovan . “The building has been condemned. The turnout space is completely inadequate for any horse living under that bridge. The proximity to the roadway is a negative factor. We can’t train on site. Since there is no ring, we always have to ship somewhere else to train.”
Good news though may be on the horizon as plans to hopefully relocate the squad’s home base are underway. The city has 30 acres off Government and Crestview Road near Gillies Creek Park and a $3.1 million “Raise the Barn 2022” fundraising campaign is underway with hopes of building a new barn on that property.
The Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA), whose goal is to sustain, promote and expand horse breeding and horse racing opportunities in the Commonwealth, often extends its support to other equine-related organizations. On July 25, the VEA will make a special contribution to the “Friends of the Richmond Mounted Squad” in the Colonial Downs winner’s circle after the seventh race. The donation will help the unit toward its goal in the “Raise the Barn 2022” initiative and hopefully soon lead to a new home for the squad.