A high-speed police car chase can go for miles, weaving in and out of traffic and causing all sorts of mayhem until the suspect’s vehicle is finally stopped.
Metro Nashville Police Department Sgt. Mike Eby and his partner, on the other hand, just trot after someone until the suspect gives up, which usually happens pretty quickly.
That’s because Eby’s partner, Edge, is a horse — and he can get up to 30 miles per hour when going full speed.
“His fast walk is faster than most people’s run,” Eby says.
“Somebody may take off, but they’ll hear his shoes hitting the pavement behind them and pretty soon we’re taking care of business. Edge always outlasts them.”
Eby and Edge are one of the pairs of police riders and horses that make up Metro’s Mounted Patrol Unit, which has seven officers and nine horses overall and was established in 1998.
Eby has been with the police department since 1991, and he’s done stints in everything from domestic violence to narcotics. He didn’t set out to become a mounted officer, although he did have a glancing relationship with four-legged mounts as he was growing up in Cheatham County.
“We owned a donkey for a little while, but other than that I wasn’t very familiar with horses,” he says.
“Sometimes that can be good, though, because I’ve learned that if you do, you can come in with some bad habits and have to relearn some things because this is a different kind of riding. You have to be able to stay on in all sorts of terrain, and maintain control of the horse on streets and other areas where it can be difficult.”
Furthermore, he says, most horseback officers come onto the force with that position in mind; his route was less direct.
“In my case, I was talking with a trainer and found out that the unit sergeant was going to be retiring,” he says. “I was interested, and so when the job was posted, I applied.”
That dovetails with how he got into policing in the first place.
“I was a music education major at Trevecca Nazarene University, and one winter during Christmas break I saw someone breaking into one of the married students’ apartments,” he recalls. “I chased him, caught him and thought, ‘This is something I could get into.’ So I changed my major to social sciences, and here I am.”
A life of service means a lifetime of care
In the two years since he took the position, he’s learned a lot about how horses operate, and how very few of them are cut out to be service animals in this particular arena.
“When we get them they are only saddle-broken, which means they can be ridden but are far from being able to do the work we have to out on the street,” Eby says.
“We train them ourselves, and we can quickly figure out if a horse is going to work out for us or not. Our training is very rigorous, and involves everything from obstacles to noise and people to dealing with lights, music, commotion and cars. It takes anywhere from six months to a year to complete. Of the 25 horses that we’ve gotten donated to us in the last two years, only two have made it into the program.”
While the unit accepts donated horses, there are some parameters. The horse must be registered, and usually between four and eight years old. The current team is all walking horses, and they all are stabled at the Ellington Agricultural Center. Here there’s not only a full training center, but also a paddock area for the horses to roam during their off hours, and plenty of land to grow their feed.
“Edge is our oldest horse; he’s almost 19 and he’s due to be retired,” Eby says. “It’s more about the horse than the age, how they handle things physically. Edge is one of the best horses we have; I can just basically push a button and take him out anywhere. He’s been at it so long he just knows exactly what to do, and how to do it.”
“That’s different from the 3-year-old I’m training now, who is so young. It’s going to take a while, but he’ll be my horse when Edge retires. As a rule, we try to retire them after 10 years of service, though, so they have plenty of time to enjoy their retirement.”
After retirement, the horses usually go and live with a current or retired member of the unit, Eby says, and they receive feed, vet and farrier service for life as long as they remain under the care of those individuals (per Metro ordinance).
Photo ops, crowd control
During their working years, however, the horses must be ready for just about anything from grabby toddlers to ornery crowds.
“I’d say 95 percent of what we do is community relations,” Eby explains.
“Once we hit the streets, we’re pretty much the most photographed tourist attraction in Nashville. Everybody wants a picture of us, and they want to come up and pet the horse. We allow that as long as we’re not involved in a law-enforcement activity — as long as they ask us first.”
These interactions allow the horse to serve as a bridge between the community and the officers, and when people are petting a horse and feeling comfortable, they’ll share information and ask questions that help Eby and other officers do their jobs more effectively.
The unit also gives tours of its home facility, and loads up a team of two horses and riders for many different events around the year.
“We put on a lot of demonstrations and appearances at events such as Nashville’s Night Out Against Crime, which is a very busy night for us,” Eby says.
“We’ll go to one spot for an hour, load up and head to another one. And we also do a lot of routine patrolling downtown, nights and weekends when all the nightclubs are up and kicking. We’ll stay out until everything shuts down and everybody goes home.”
It goes without saying that during Tennessee Titans games, the CMA Music Festival, July 4 festivities and other major downtown events, the unit is out in full force. From their vantage points, its riders are uniquely positioned to help their fellow officers on foot and in cars below. Plus they have a pretty good amount of muscle on the hoof to leverage.
“We’re monitoring the radios and listening, but we can also see a large crowd buildup or something else going on pretty quickly,” Eby says.
“Each horse is worth 10 officers in terms of moving a crowd. Regular officers have trouble getting people to back away, even if an ambulance is trying to get through. If I line up 1,200 pounds of horse and slowly head at you, you’re going to move out of the way.”
Appreciating our four-legged friends
Before the horses ever hit the streets, the team is hard at work.
“If we’re going out at night someone’s got to get the trailers ready and make sure the gear’s ready and the horses are groomed and clean,” Eby says. “They take a lot of cleaning, because I can assure you if there’s a mud hole out in the pasture, they are going to find it, and they are going to roll around in it. That job alone keeps us pretty busy.”
When talking about the horses and their propensity for mud, Eby’s voice softens and he laughs, just as a parent would when talking about an errant child. That’s because the horses are more than just service animals to him; they’re coworkers, just as they are for every other mounted officer.
“They really do have their own personalities, and you get to know them,” Eby says.
“When you get up on their backs and see how they go about their business, and how well they can do things, you get a whole different appreciation for them. We take care of them because they take care of us. They are police officers — and they do their job well.”