After months of training, the first three horses in the new Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office mounted patrol program are adjusting to their new home.
On Wednesday, representatives from the Colorado Bureau of Land Management, which donated the horses to the sheriff in March, visited Cortez to see how the newest members of county law enforcement were doing. The mustang geldings, currently known as Kojak, Pope and Charlie, have spent several weeks training with their assigned deputies, but Sheriff Steve Nowlin said they still have more to learn before they can go out on patrol. By next year, he hopes to be ready to use them for everything from crowd control at outdoor festivals to search and rescue missions.
Originally Nowlin planned to get two horses from a Cañon City holding center through BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro program, but he ended up finding three that seemed perfect for the department. They have been training with the first members of the mounted patrol, Deputy Don Brown and Detective Yvonne McClellan. Nowlin said the third rider he was training had to leave the program, and he’s searching for a replacement.
BLM Field Manager Connie Clementson said this is the first time she’s helped secure horses for a law enforcement agency, although the U.S. Border Patrol often adopts horses through the program. If the mounted patrol succeeds here, she said, she expects to donate horses to more sheriffs and police departments in the future.
“I want to pass on to your deputies how important this is to the BLM,” she told Nowlin. “Your success is our success.”
After being captured from wild mustang ranges in Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, the horses were gentled with the help of inmates at a prison in Cañon City, along with hundreds of other horses in the program. When they arrived in Montezuma County, they spent about two months with Reserve Deputy Ted Holland, who is an experienced horse trainer, to make sure they were ready to ride. For the past two weeks, they’ve lived in the new stable next to the Montezuma County Sheriff’s office. McClellan and Brown have spent time with them almost every day, bonding with their horses and training them to remain calm around loud noises and commotion. Both officers said they’ve made speedy progress.
“They’re amazing, and they’re so gentle and so sweet,” McClellan said. “Donnie and I just love our guys to pieces. They’re part of our family already.”
The officers have attempted to condition their horses to the work they’ll be doing by riding them on trails next to busy roads, turning on their patrol sirens beside the stables and confronting them with other hazards like plastic bags and loud voices. McClellan said all three have shown an ability to keep calm in all kinds of stressful circumstances.
In July, Holland will put them through an even more intensive training program, testing their response to a helicopter landing, nearby gunshots and more. Nowlin said he wants them to practice around drones, after three people were injured in Silverton this February in a skijoring accident thought to be caused by a drone spooking a horse. He also plans to put the horses through scent training later this year, in the hope that they’ll be able to help track missing people through the backcountry.
If the horses succeed in the July training, Nowlin said they’ll probably be ready to go out on patrol, but he doesn’t want to rush things.
“It’s going to be up to the assigned deputies to decide where the program needs to go,” he said.
Besides, before the horses can become an official part of the sheriff’s office, they’ll need permanent names. Right now, deputies refer to them by their BLM-assigned names, but Nowlin has asked the students in Montezuma elementary schools to come up with new ideas. He said he’d received about 2,000 suggestions as of Wednesday. He hopes to have the list narrowed down to three within the next few weeks.
Nowlin said he has budgeted $8,000 to $10,000 per year for the horses’ food and care, with approval from the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners. The money will come out of the Law Enforcement Authority and Dolores funds.