If you went to the Reno Rodeo, Incline Village’s Red, White and Tahoe Blue parade, Hot August Nights or the Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, you may have seen the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Horse Unit. These four-legged friends have made their debut in North Lake Tahoe this year with help from Incline Village Substation’s Lt. Jeff Clark.
Lt. Jeff Clark & Suja
“Being on horseback allows you to be above the crowd so you can see what’s going on. Horses can also help in search and rescue events and suspect apprehension. In a fight, you can counter-rotate the horses to separate the crowd. They are great for escorting and protecting officers,” Lt. Clark says of the horses that help deputies with crowd control at large events.
What makes the Mounted Horse Unit unique is its use of wild mustangs that are trained by prisoners for police work. A lot of deputies were in favor of the Mounted Horse Unit, but didn’t have their own horses, so they reached out to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“In working with animals, you create such a bond with them.
They become part of the family and community.
They make people feel safe.”
“The prisons were already training horses for other programs. We started talking to the prison trainer about the possibility of having mounted horses,” Clark says.
The correctional center in Carson City, Nev., soon provided prisoner-trained mustangs, Suja and Slim, that live with Clark.
“The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t pay for any of it, we use our own horses,” he says.
Suja, a 6-year-old mustang, born in the wild of the Black Rock Range, was captured when he was young and trained. When Clark adopted the mustang, he changed its name to Suja because it fit his personality.
“Suja means ‘beautiful life.’ He’s a mild-mannered, calm boy.”
The Mounted Horse Unit with Lt. Jeff Clark, center, riding Suja from the 2016 Reno Rodeo. | Courtesy Lt. Jeff Clark
Since the Mounted Horse Unit launched, six deputies have been certified to perform their duties on horseback. Although the horses receive 120 days of training by the inmates, when the Sheriff’s Office adopts them, they are put through another weeklong, rigorous training program to further desensitize them. The horses are exposed to environments filled with fireworks, gunshots, police dogs, sirens, smoke, fire bells and obstacle courses to simulate a riot situation.
“The more you work with them, the more comfortable you get,” Clark says, adding that it’s important to start the horses out slow and practice with them as often as possible. “We have to ensure the safety of the public, riders and horses.”
Mustangs are strong and fast, which is why Clark likes working with that particular breed.
“They are surefooted animals and it all comes back to how much training they’ve had,” Clark says.
The Mounted Horse Unit’s main focus is to move and maintain crowds. The officers are in the process of buying riot gear for their hairy deputies. They take the team to many events, but it’s also nice to use them on public trails.
“Vehicle burglaries tend to happen near trailheads,” says Clark. “Horses can go where you can’t get to on foot. They are a traditional, versatile tool, great for the Sheriff’s Office.”
One thing noticeable about Clark is that his face lights up when he talks about Suja. According to him, the Mounted Horse Unit has been well received in North Lake Tahoe, especially the mustangs.
“They are great horses. We are a Nevada county agency and what better way to get involved in a program like this than with mustangs,” says Clark. “In working with animals, you create such a bond with them. They become part of the family and community. They make people feel safe.”