Chicago Police Mounted Unit demonstrates the benefits of the human-equine bond
Born on the Far South Side of Chicago, the son of a Chicago police officer, Mike Clisham may seem like
an unlikely horseman. Yet he works with horses, he works on horses, and he trains people who will make their livelihood on horseback. And he does all this in the city of Chicago.
Officer Clisham is a patrolman on the Chicago Police Mounted Unit, and its trainer as well.
His love of horses began when the family moved to a farm in Downstate Illinois when Clisham was a kid. For four years, they lived there with his grandparents, while his dad commuted to Chicago, as he remained an officer on the police force there.
“He hoped to find a job down there and get away from the city,” recalls Clisham, but the plan didn’t work, and the family eventually moved back to Chicago. But not before Clisham got hooked on horses.
“On Saturday mornings, instead of watching cartoons, I’d tack up a horse and go riding by the river,” he says. “It made you feel like a cowboy.
“I hated moving back to Chicago.”
After high school, Clisham gravitated in the equine direction again, driving carriages for tourists in Lincoln Park and Michigan Avenue in the city.
In 1991, he joined the force, working in Chicago’s Englewood District on the South Side. “I was working a beat, enjoying that; I really didn’t think about the Mounted Unit. It wasn’t on my radar.”
But one day in 1994, as he was leafing through a stack of notices while running a name, Clisham saw that applicants were being accepted for the Mounted Unit. “Had I been there an hour later, I might not have seen it,” he says. He applied for the job and was accepted.
Covering more ground
The Chicago Police Department disbanded its original mounted unit in 1948, as motorcycles became the transport of choice. Then in 1974, following a series of assaults in Grant Park by the lake, the unit was brought back. “They figured police could cover more ground in the park on horses,” says Clisham.
Just days after completing a 14-week training course, Clisham found himself on a four-year-old Thoroughbred in a pedestrian crossing in the middle of Lake Shore Drive, directing traffic during the World Cup.
“Working that intersection, with cars and buses coming within inches of my knees, it was an awesome feeling,” he recalls. “And that horse was rock solid.”
“I’ve always gotten along with horses pretty well,” says Clisham. “I’ve been blessed.”
It was his familiarity with handling and riding that led the Unit’s former trainer to ask Clisham to break in some new horses, and then to assist with teaching. Today, he is the unit’s trainer, drawing on the training regimen of the United States Park Police.
The Chicago Police Mounted Unit is budgeted for 24 patrolmen, four sergeants and a lieutenant. When Veterinary Advantage spoke with Clisham, 31 horses were in the barn at the South Shore Cultural Center by the lake on the city’s South Side.
“Our pass/fail rate is generally around 50 percent,” says Clisham, referring to the classes. Few officers applying for a position with the unit have had prior equine experience. Some are attracted to what looks like a comfortable job…until they experience the strength and willpower of a 1,200-pound gelding. “We lose some people because of that, but we lose others to injuries, or people just aren’t getting it quickly enough.”
The patrolmen’s day begins at 8, when he or she grooms and tacks their horse, then gets dressed in uniform for roll call. By 9, they’re loading up the trailer and leaving for the day. (Since 2000, horses are named after Chicago police officers killed in the line of duty.)
In the summer, patrols are assigned to parks on the lakefront; that’s when people spend a lot of time on the beaches. During the winter, people move off the lakefront and into the shopping areas, so the patrols tend to ride more on Michigan Ave. and the Loop (Chicago’s Downtown business and shopping district).
The Mounted Unit works rain or shine, hot or cold. “It’s the commanding officer’s call if we go out in subzero temperatures,” says Clisham. But in the (unlikely) event that the Bears should win the Super Bowl in 2017, the Mounted Unit would be out regardless of the temperature. And when the temperature in Chicago reaches a humid 95 degrees, an officer can always find a shady spot or someplace to catch a breeze. Going down to Lower Wacker Drive or Monroe Street is an option.
Diet and exercise
For 16 years, Ronald Camden, DVM, has been the department’s veterinarian, and he is an excellent one, says Clisham. “I hope he doesn’t retire before me.”
The police horses are on a regular vaccination schedule, and are wormed on a regular basis. The fact that only the department’s horses are housed in the Cultural Center means there is minimal risk from communicable disease.
Diet and exercise are the real keys to making a good police horse, says Clisham. “You’re not only keeping him healthy, but you’re keeping your partnership strong, so you can go out and do your job.” An indoor arena provides running space for the horses.
In years past, the department primarily accepted donated horses, but recently, it has taken to purchasing the majority of horses – all geldings. But most often, the unit is looking for horses between the ages of five and 12, though there have been exceptions.
Clisham likes to retire the police horses in their early 20s. “We don’t want this to be their retirement,” he says, speaking of duty on the police force. Nor does he want them to end up working in a stable that offers riding lessons. His preferred choice is a hippotherapy program, that is, a therapeutic and rehabilitative program for people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities. “If they can move on from here and do more good in the world, that’s our first choice,” he says.
That’s what happened to Baldy. Taken in by the force at age 16, Baldy retired last year. Now close to 30, he works in a hippotherapy program. “He has competed in the Special Olympics, and has won nine gold medals,” says Clisham, proudly.
Baldy carries the name of Officer Leonard F. Baldy, Star Number 1451, who died in May 1960 in a crash of his traffic helicopter.