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Montezuma County sheriff’s mounted patrol celebrates a year on the job

County receives titles for horses, plans more training

A year after the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office started a mounted patrol program, the county has received official ownership of its three horses.

The patrol horses now named Cody, Charley and Rebel officially joined the force on May 22, 2017, after being donated by the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. Since then, they’ve been on regular patrols, made arrests, helped with search and rescue missions and provided security at events around the county. In April, they passed a series of health inspections that will allow them to travel outside the county if needed, and the BLM signed over its titles to the county, making the Sheriff’s Office their permanent owner.

Sheriff Steve Nowlin began pushing for a mounted patrol in 2015, when he proposed adopting wild mustangs through the Wild Horse and Burro Program and training them to become patrol horses. That year, the Sheriff’s Office secured funding from the Laura Jane Musser Fund and Colorado Justice Assistance Grant to house and train the horses, but the three mustangs didn’t arrive in Montezuma County until May 2017.

Nowlin’s main goal in starting a mounted patrol was to create personal interactions between deputies and the public, and he said the horses have “far exceeded (his) expectations” in that respect.

“It has achieved the goal of bringing community policing back to Montezuma County,” he said.

The horses patrol Dolores – where they have a temporary stable – the area around the Sheriff’s Office and the Carpenter and Geer Natural Areas at least once a week. They have attended events such as the Four States Ag Expo, the Cortez Gun Show and the Dolores Escalante Days. Nowlin said that everywhere they go, people greet them.

“Everybody just flocks to them,” he said.

They also help the officers be more aware of their surroundings, he said. Deputies can see more from horseback than from the ground or the inside of a patrol car, and the animals often alert them to danger before they can see it. Detective Yvonne McClellan said her horse’s instincts have helped her catch criminals she might not have found otherwise.

Horses donated through the BLM program typically spend a year with a law enforcement agency under supervision. If they are healthy, the agency receives their titles and is granted permission to take them across county and state borders. Nowlin said he’s proud to have reached that point.

The program has stayed within its $8,000 annual budget, he said, and he doesn’t expect to exceed it unless a horse has a medical emergency.

The mustangs were broken and trained through a 90-day inmate program at the Centennial Correctional Facility in Cañon City. After arriving in Montezuma County, they spent 120 days training with reserve deputy Ted Holland in his certified training program. They were then matched with McClellan, Don Brown and Ed Oxley and completed another two-week Colorado Peace Officer Standard and Training course. Deputies learned to work with the horses in everything from daily grooming to crowd control.

McClellan, who has been involved in the mounted patrol since the beginning, said horses and riders are well-matched. All three deputies can ride any of the horses, but they are assigned one to care for and take on patrol every week.

“They really bond with one person, and so that is our horse, and we are their people,” she said.

McClellan’s horse, Cody, is an almost 7-year-old gelding originally from Sweetwater County, Wyoming. She said he shares her energy and intensity, just as Charley and Rebel complement Oxley’s and Brown’s personalities.

When the horses arrived in Cortez, Nowlin said he wasn’t sure how they would act – especially around dogs, drones and other unpredictable stimuli. The horses were exposed to many of those stimuli and tested on their responses, which was initially challenging for animals and humans. But McClellan, who has raised horses, said the bond it created was stronger than any she’s had with a horse.

That bond was tested on Halloween, when she was patrolling Dolores. McClellan got a call about an approaching reckless driver, and she guided Cody into the road, getting in front of the driver at a safe distance. She said she wasn’t sure how the horse would handle the loud, speeding vehicle, but he followed her direction and ended up helping with the mounted patrol’s first DUI citation.

In the past year, the mounted patrol has conducted 10 traffic stops and seven pedestrian contacts while on mounted patrol. Deputies issued summonses for DUI, a dog at large, vandalism and keeping a dog in a closed vehicle. They’ve also helped with several search and rescues, although most of the missing people were found without their help.

Nowlin said he plans to continue training the horses, especially on emergency response techniques. He plans to add more deputies to the mounted patrol “in the near future” and eventually wants to add a fourth horse to the team, if the budget allows it. His ultimate goal is to make the mounted patrol a full-time law enforcement unit.

McClellan said she’s also looking forward to training more with Cody. She hopes to be ready if the horses are ever needed for a major search and rescue operation.

Although she said the horses have come a long way since their wild mustang days, she believes they still have a lot of potential. She expects to spend many more years developing her relationship with Cody.

“We’re still learning to trust each other and to know each other,” she said.

The mounted patrol will be at the Dolores River Festival on June 2. Members of the public can schedule visits to the sheriff’s stables by calling 970-565-8452.

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