With names like Justice, Ontario, Citation and Ranger, they sound like rock stars. To the children they help protect, they are superstars.

They are the horses of the McKinney Police Department’s Mounted Unit, and their human partners – Officers Chad Brinlee, John Cooper, Lindsey Jenkins and Kevin Shelby – happily yield the spotlight to them.

All day long, people approach the officers and their mounts as they patrol McKinney’s downtown district. “The horses are the celebrities,” Brinlee says.

The unit started about seven years ago after a female McKinney Police Department reserve officer received permission to use her horse during special events. “That received a positive response from the community, so the department started a part-time unit,” Brinlee explains.

At first, the unit had three horses, and officers patrolled on their off days. After having a part-time mounted patrol for four years, the unit became a full-time operation about three years ago.

The officer-and-horse duos primarily work in Historic Downtown McKinney and the surrounding area, but they also patrol the city’s other business areas as well as its parks and neighborhoods. They’re also dispatched to the area’s shopping centers during holiday seasons and are sometimes deployed to patrol areas where break-ins have increased.

“We do everything other officers do,” Brinlee says. “We’ve stopped cars and written tickets. We do it all.”

 

MPD’s four-legged “officers” are popular with youngsters.

 

Patrolling on horseback offers several advantages. “Our presence helps deter crime because we’re slow-moving and  highly visible,” Shelby says. “And because we’re up high – about nine feet – we can see really well, which allows us to patrol the crowd at concerts and parades or spot potential criminal activities like attempted break-ins in a parking lot. It also makes it easy for people to see us and contact us when they need assistance.”

The mounted unit also provides the McKinney Police Department an ideal avenue for building relationships with those they protect and serve, an opportunity the unit’s officers don’t take lightly.

“When we’re in a squad car, nobody talks to us,” Shelby says. “Horses draw attention. Everyone wants to talk to us. Kids talk to us. It’s a great tool for building community relations.”

McKinney’s various holiday celebrations offer ample occasions for those interactions. The unit patrols McKinney’s “Red, White and Boom” in July, “Scare in the Square” at Halloween, “Dickens of a Christmas” on Thanksgiving weekend and the “Parade of Lights” in early December, all held downtown.

“Every single year, when we post up somewhere, there’s a line of at least 50 kids waiting to see our horses,” Brinlee says.

Some of the officers even have cards similar to those of professional athletes printed expressly for handing out to youngsters. The cards, provided by sponsors at no cost to the McKinney Police Department, bear photos of the officers mounted on their horses along with some facts about each.

For instance, Shelby’s horse – “Officer” Ranger – enjoys going for a trail ride and grazing in the pasture when not  on duty and his favorite treats include peppermints, carrots and wheat tortillas.

“It’s neat to pass these out to the kids,” Shelby says. “A while back, I was patrolling a side street and saw three kids. I gave my card to them. A couple of weeks later, I saw one of them and he said, ‘Hi, Kevin. Hi, Ranger.’ He had read the details on my card – that made me feel good.”

The officers work 12-hour shifts, and in addition to patrolling the streets of McKinney, are responsible for feeding and grooming their horses.

 

The MPD Mounted Unit patrols Adriatica.

 

They earned their place in the unit by first applying for duty and then being selected. Three of the four attended the Dallas Police Department’s rigorous 240-hour training program, a rare honor since the program is normally limited to Dallas officers only. All three McKinney mounted officers passed the training program, not an easy feat since 65 percent of those who attend the school don’t make it.

As for the horses, three were donated and one was purchased. The officers look for special qualities when choosing their partners for this special duty.

“We look for several requirements,” Brinlee says. “One is height. The horses need to be at least 16.2 hands – a hand is four inches and that’s measured from the ground to the top of their withers.”

Because they must work in close proximity to people and amidst the hustle and bustle associated with commercial areas and special events, the officers also look for horses that are calm and won’t “shy away.”

And perhaps most important, the horses must be warm bloods, a classification of horses derived by combining cold-blooded and hot-blooded breeds of horses. Hot-blooded breeds are highly athletic and include race horses like Thoroughbreds, while cold-blooded breeds with their heavier builds and milder temperaments are often used as draft horses. Cold-blooded breeds include Percherons and Clydesdales. Three of the unit’s horses are half-Thoroughbred and half-Percheron, and the fourth is a Thoroughbred and Holsteiner mix.

Once on board, the horses go through a training process. The end result is a tightly knit officer-and-horse duo that serves the city’s public well.

“We like having the unit and think they’re great for the area,” says Erin Elwood, co-owner of Churchill’s British Restaurant & Pub on north Tennessee Street. “It kind of takes the edge off and makes the police force more personal. It’s nice for the kids to be able to go up and talk to them. They’re always petting the horses and taking their  pictures. And we enjoy knowing the unit is on the Square if we need them.”

Dorie Helsley of Cotton Hearts on east Virginia Street thinks the unit contributes to both the image and safety of the downtown area. “We love the unit,” she says. “It makes us feel safer. People coming here from out of town like it, too. Kids love it. My grandson from Dallas likes to come here to see the officers and their horses.”

 

Officers frequently offer their mounts water, especially on the 100-plus temperature days commonly experienced in North Texas.

 

No one appreciates this unique police unit more than Sgt. Chad Barker, who oversees its operations.

Though he wasn’t with the unit when its officers were selected, he says he can tell from working with them what qualities are required.

“You have to select someone who is a self-starter, responsible and an overall fit for the unit. If you think about  this, we have patrolmen who ride in airconditioned cars. This group has no air-conditioning and sometimes works in 105-degree weather. For them to be out there on those types of days is a testament to how much they truly love what they do.”

When you head downtown for your next shopping excursion on the Square, bring a carrot or a few peppermints for McKinney’s four-legged finest. Justice, Ontario, Citation and Ranger would love to see you.

About the Author: Georgiann Gullett is a local freelance writer who enjoys telling the stories of the people – and  animals – who make North Texas special.