HANFORD — The Kings County Sheriff’s Office is just a few strides away from using a new mounted patrol unit, and could have the unit ready for patrol by fall.

In January, the Kings County Board of Supervisors held a study session to hear about plans for the new mounted patrol unit after going many years without having one. Sheriff Dave Robinson had told the board the unit would start with two deputies who would own the horses and rely largely on community donations for their care.

Since then, Robinson said the community has shown a lot of support for the new unit and has stepped-up to donate a horse, hay, food and other supplies along with cash. He thanked community members for their efforts.

Along with the donated horse, other horses have been acquired and three deputies are currently working with them, riding them and keeping them boarded at local private stables. Senior Deputy Josh Speer and deputies Josh Hunt and Eric Essman are scheduled for a 40-hour POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) certification course with the horses in September.

The horses are the personal property of the officers, who serve in the unit in addition to their regular duties. The horses are under the officers’ insurance when performing non-department duties, and under the sheriff’s office insurance when at a department function in an official capacity, Robinson said.

He said the department has it set up like this because it wants the officers to ride the horses as much as possible and get more time with them without the department having to always compensate the officers for their extra time. The officers are always compensated for their time in work-related activities with the horses.

Speer said the deputies put in a lot of their own time and effort because they believe in the program. He said they can see the “amazing difference” in people when they see the deputies on the horses.

A lot of the time, kids — or people in general — don’t know what to think when they see a patrol car pull up, Speer said. When a deputy rides up on a horse, it encourages people to want to engage in conversation, he said.

“In my 17 years doing this, I’ve noticed kids want to engage but don’t know how,” Speer said. “This creates an icebreaker and opens up avenues for communication.”

Robinson said it may seem like the unit is coming along slowly, but it’s only because he wants to make sure the department is doing everything 100 percent right by making sure all the training is completed. He said the third deputy was added to the unit because the mounted enforcement training only happens a couple times a year, and he didn’t want to wait even longer to add another deputy.

“In the future, our goal is to make it a four-person unit,” Robinson said, adding that fourth person could be added early next year and complete POST certification around April or May.

Robinson said the mounted patrol unit could be used in many different ways, including patrolling along the banks of the river where vehicles can’t travel, or at large community events like the Kings Fair. Plus, he said they can be used for search and rescue operations and article searches of large areas –like if someone threw a gun outside a car window along the highway.

Speer said training is going good so far, and right now is mainly sensory training to get the horses used to sounds that might otherwise frighten them. This allows for the horse to become familiar with stressful sounds or other obstructions and give them a “been-there, done-that” attitude.

After training, Speer said the horses are evaluated for temperament, behavior and capabilities to make sure they can perform their duties. Robinson said the unit will have some opportunities to learn more by participating in cross-training with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office mounted patrol unit.

According to its website, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office established its mounted patrol unit in 1997 with horses also privately owned by deputies. In 1999, the unit expanded with the purchase of four horses owned by the county. The unit currently uses a combination of horses both owned by riders and owned by the county.

Speer said the donations the unit has received have been extremely helpful, and he encourages the community to keep donating because there are always going to be food and equipment needs. He said he hopes the mounted patrol unit will be used as soon as possible.

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2423 or jzavala@hanfordsentinel.com

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