Ever wondered what it would be like to work for the Wichita Police Department’s Mounted Unit? Curious about how the unit got started? Saddle up and read on! We met up with one of the instructors, Wichita Police Officer Todd Clark and some of his fellow officers at the Eagle View Stables to learn more about what they do and how they serve the community.
You’ll mainly find the WPD Mounted Unit working special events. They make appearances at presentations, school functions, neighborhood block parties and large events like the Wichita River Festival. They also happen to be regulars in Old Town on Friday and Saturday evenings. Their main duties? Crowd control and connecting with people.
“Horses are such a great tool to get the community to come interact with police officers,” Officer Clark said. “Kids, adults, it doesn’t matter. They want to see the horses, pet the horses. Even people who may never want to talk to a police officer might come talk so it breaks the ice and builds trust.”
“No one ever wants to pet my police car,” joked Mounted Unit Supervisor, Sergeant Vanessa Rusco.
All kidding aside, the horses offer a variety of advantages. One of them is horse power. Literally. Rusco told us one police horse is the equivalent of having 10 officers on the ground. The horses are able to quickly maneuver through crowds, divide up people in a dispute and provide mounted officers with a better view so they can be the eyes for officers on the ground.
The Wichita Police Department’s Mounted Unit consists of a special team of eight horses: Diesel, Felicity, Scout, Ranger, Mac, Pilgrim, Storm and Jax. It also includes 14 police officers. The officers have other jobs within the police department and work part time for the Mounted Unit. They usually train two days per month unless they’re getting ready for big events like the Wichita River Festival which requires a couple of weeks of prep work.
“We worked with SWAT team to prepare,” Clark said. “We also usually go to the bomb range and they set off charges so horses are used to loud noises like fireworks at the River Fest.”
But not every horse is cut out for the team. Before a horse can join, Clark and his officers expose them to variety of environments to see if they can handle the demands of the job.
“Some horses are meant to be farm or ranch horses and if that’s the case, we move on and find another one,” Clark said.
Clark knows horses. He’s worked with them since he was a kid. He credits his father, Ralph Clark, for teaching him and sharing his love of horses. His father also helped shape his career. Ralph Clark is a retired Wichita Police Lieutenant who, by the way, founded the WPD Mounted Unit in 1990.
The elder Clark remembers when then-Wichita Police Chief Rick Stone asked him to start the unit. He contacted several other police departments across the United States to learn more about their mounted units. He used that research to start building a team.
There was a lot of interest… at first. But there was one problem. They had no money. In fact, officers were asked to contribute their own horses.
“When they found out they had to bring their own horse, their own trailer and use their own trucks to get where they wanted to go things dwindled down,” retired Lieutenant Clark said. “But I had a core of officers who were interested and some were willing to buy horses.”
There were three officers who provided their own horses which was enough to launch the Mounted Unit. Their first big gig was working the River Festival.
“We had three weeks in April of 1990 to get the horses ready for River Fest,” retired Lieutenant Clark said. “I think we started with eight horses and eight or nine officers. I had a trainer come down from Denver and spend the weekend with us to verify the training we had been doing. That was the beginning.”
Their efforts paid off and the horses quickly proved their worth. Community support was strong and the unit progressed under Ralph Clark’s leadership over the next 10 years.
Fast forward to 2008 and Officer Todd Clark joined the team. By that time, his father had left the unit but they were still able to work together within the police department.
“It’s cool to be doing police work with your dad,” Todd Clark said. “Doing a job we both love.”
The bond they share over police work and horses continues to have an impact today. Todd Clark said he uses a lot of what his father taught him when he trains the members of the Mounted Unit.
“He’s awesome,” said Mounted Unit member Detective Crystal Schell. “Really good. Really patient and full of knowledge.”
Lt. Clark said he couldn’t be more proud of his son and the role he has played in continuing his legacy.
“When you start something and it’s still around this long it’s cool, especially to have your kid involved in it,” Lt. Clark said. “When your son is doing training, and he’s training like you trained and he has expectations like you had expectations, it’s pretty cool.”
These days, the Mounted Unit operates differently than its humble beginnings. There are no expectations that officers provide their own horses. The Wichita Police Department takes care of those costs and related expenses like boarding and transportation. But when it comes to new horses and equipment, they do still rely on donations.
The Mounted Unit will celebrate 30 years in 2020. The Clark family has undoubtedly played a significant role in its success.
Officer Clark said he hopes to be a part of the unit for years to come. “For me it’s the best job in the world.”