OPP Mounted Unit: Horses were stars in North American competition

Wellington County OPP Constable Sarah Van Norman and auxiliary officer Brad Hull were a bit intimidated when they were introduced at the North American Police Equestrian Championships held in Toronto Sept. 15 to 18.

The announcer explained the duo was representing the Ontario Provincial Police and that they were from Wellington County – in a dramatic voice.

It was a little pressure they didn’t really need, being the rookies in the championships, which were being held outside the United States for only the second or third time in 27 years.

The games are held for a number of reasons, but first and foremost they focus on horse and rider training. The website for the championship said there is no real excuse for not competing due to a shortage of training time because, “Time out on patrol is really time spent training your mount. It is the day-to-day contact of horse and rider that builds the trust between the two and produces the capable partnership.”

The event included training days for such things as crowd control and acclimating the horses to various conditions.

Van Norman said such training might have been tough on the horses because they were facing things they had never seen or done before. For example, they were suddenly faced with a different type of footing when they had to go through a course that forced them to walk on mattresses and over tarps that make lots of noise. Further, there were things tossed at them and sudden loud noises sent their way.

Those were not designed for cruelty, but to get the rider and the horse used to the idea those things could happen to them during a job. Van Norman said OPP horse Jasper was hit once – a deflection from another horse – but he behaved admirably.

There was also a uniform competition where the OPP officers faced teams from Kingston, Hamilton and the Region of Waterloo, plus dozens from the United States (Toronto Police acted as hosts, and the only other Canadian team came from Vancouver, and it used Toronto horses).

The competition was at the Canadian National Exhibition’s Horse Palace, and Van Norman said there was every shape, size, colour and breed in attendance, with over 85 riders from Los Angeles to Georgia and many from up and down the eastern seaboard.

She said she and Hull, along with Sergeant Kate Carberry, were in tough when it came to the uniform competition. Each service could enter one horse and one rider.

The website states, “The uniform class judges the officer’s uniform, horse tack and mount’s appearance. Typically officers will wear their dress uniform or Class A for this event. Horse and officer must be impeccable to win this class.”

Van Norman did the riding in that one, with Hull and Carberry helping to get everything perfect. Meanwhile, other teams of up to ten members were working on the competition’s horses. Van Norman said the entire competition is so keen many officers told her they begin training two or three weeks after the annual competition for the next one.

There were seminars for search and rescue work and fun competitions for fitness. There also were courses for new Mounted Unit members, including the ability to work in a barn, move bales and “skills you wouldn’t have on the street,” she said.

There was also a pairs obstacle course, but competitors did not work in their normal teams. Instead, they drew names for partners. The idea is each will have a familiarity with manoeuvres and tactics even when paired with strangers.

“It was a lot of fun,” Van Norman said.

She added one of the more thrilling parts of the four-day event was a ride through downtown Toronto. Over 100 horses and riders rode down Lake Shore Boulevard and stopped at city hall. Toronto Police provided an escort and Van Norman said its officers told her it was “the largest parade of horses they’ve ever had in the city.”

That ride included Yonge Street, Canada’s longest street, and she said Toronto Police took no chances. A lot of the mounted units from the United States are not from large urban areas, so there was a horse trailer following in case “country boys” – horses unfamiliar with large cities – had “a meltdown.”

Hull said the competition is very strong, but there is also a strong sense of camaraderie. He said officers from all over told him, “If you’re ever in Georgia” … or, “If you’re ever in Vancouver, look us up.”

There are two separate competitions. One is for regular officers, and the other is for auxiliary officers.

Hull finished in fourth place in the auxiliary police equitation competition, and Van Norman was ninth in the uniform class.

“We never expected to come home with anything. We sought skill and experience for the horses to do something different,” Van Norman said.

Added Hull, “I was absolutely overjoyed with what Bosco (the other county OPP horse) did. I am so proud of them. They represented the OPP so well.”

Van Norman said, “Nobody knew Wellington County. Without the support of the OPP and Wellington County … ”

She also praised Carberry for all her aid. “We needed a hand on the ground – and she really helped us.”

Hull said, “The guys [Jasper and Bosco] are the stars. We’re so proud of them.”

Van Norman said of the horses, “Our guys have never been near an obstacle course like that. They did awesome.”

Wellington County OPP Inspector Scott Smith said of the OPP Mounted Unit, “For Wellington County to have a mounted unit – it really brings a lot of publicity and positive relations not only to the police, but the community.”

Smith called the North American competition “a fantastic way to show the presence of Wellington County. To achieve the results we did was absolutely fantastic – but we’ve got great people and great riders. I’m pleased it was reflected in this event.”

He said of the team, “They learned a lot. It was a great opportunity for them.”

When asked if the mounted unit will continue to compete, he admitted, “It is a challenge – distance and travel. Our horses are here for the public.”

The next competition is in 2012 in Maryland.

Police Services Board chairman Lynda White announced at county council on Sept. 29 the OPP has purchased a third horse, Moose, a 7-year-old gelding, because Bosco is getting old and has had some health issues.

“We’re so proud of the unit,” she said of its results. She added the Wellington mounted unit is one of few in the province with an actual budget and that is requested by groups to attend events.

As for travelling to other competitions, she said. “If it’s brought to the board, it will certainly be discussed.”

Hull said of the competition, “It was a once in a lifetime experience – but I hope it’s not.”