"Committed to the future … Inspired by our past."

Marana's official town motto

"A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!"

Shakespeare, King Richard III

The Marana Police Department is just about set to saddle up its horse patrol: The officers have been selected, gleaming new tack hangs in the lieutenant's office and mounts and riders are scheduled to begin a rigorous training session in Scottsdale in October.

Now all the MPD needs are the horses.

"We've looked at a lot of horses, but we're being very, very picky to make sure we get just the right animals," said Lt. Paul Ashcraft, who is overseeing the department's plans for the new unit. "We've set very high standards as far as finding horses with just the right disposition."

So far, the department has looked at - and rejected - about 20 or 25 equine candidates, Ashcraft said.

Horses used in police mounted patrols face a lot of interaction with the public - encounters that can be good or bad - and finding a steed with the right balance of gentleness, fortitude and trainability can be a high hurdle to surmount.

After scouring Southern Arizona's stockyards and stables, MPD is broadening its search to include the general public in hope someone might have a horse they will sell or donate that possesses the "right stuff" to protect and serve.

"I kind of look at the selection process as being the same as what we use in choosing our police officer candidates," Ashcraft said. "If they have the proper attitude for the job, we'll provide the training they need to become superior officers. If someone thinks they may have a horse that fits the bill, we'll be more then happy to come out and take a look."

MPD initially plans to use the mounted unit to patrol and protect the huge 2,440-acre Tortolita Preserve desert park located in northeast Marana, and the more than 60 miles of recreational trails the town is developing.

The department is starting the program with two horses and riders, but hopes to expand those numbers as well as the scope of the unit's duties in the future, Ashcraft said.

"I don't think it's that far fetched that someday you could see the mounted officers in Continental Ranch," said Ashcraft, referring to the sprawling suburban subdivision in south Marana. "The public can certainly expect to see them at town celebrations like Founders' Day and the Fourth of July."

Being Marana, which still clings to its rural roots and cowboy culture despite miles of suburban homes sprouting in the cotton fields and pasturelands, there was little difficulty in finding officers with a working knowledge of horsemanship to volunteer for the unit.

Dan Sample, a motorcycle officer just coming off light duty after being injured in an accident while on patrol earlier this year, is a native Tucsonan and rodeo cowboy with six horses at home.

Debra Kesterson, a patrol officer and native of Alaska, is an avid rider who stables her own three horses.

"I'm really excited about the duty. I've had a passion for horses all my life and I think it will be a great addition to the department," Kesterson said.

The officers will be devoted to the horse patrol full time, and be responsible for the animal's grooming and up keep in addition to the time spent protecting the town's parks and enforcing its laws.

Kesterson and Sample say they agree with the department's ultra-rigorous selection process to find them the ideal partners.

"There's a term we use, that the horse needs to be bomb-proof, meaning you could practically set off a bomb next to it and not have it bolt," Sample said.

To help screen out the skittish, the MPD has enlisted the help of town councilmember Carol McGorray, a noted horsewoman, and Brad DeSpain, the town's water utility director, who has spent most of his life on ranches and has experience as a judge at livestock fairs.

Most of the animals looked at in the course of Marana's search have met the basic requirements, which are a quarter horse-type, between the ages of 4 and 10-years-old, and standing 15.2 to 16 hands tall.

But so far, the department has yet to find horses that possess the harder to quantify standard of the "ideal disposition" required of a police horse, and time is running short.

The officers and their prospective mounts are scheduled to begin a 50-hour training session Oct. 5 at the Scottsdale Police Department, which operates the largest and most respected mounted patrol school in the nation.

Scottsdale uses its five-horse unit to patrol desert parks in the same fashion as Marana intends to do, but also uses them to keep order in its entertainment district and around the city's many shopping malls, said Sgt. Tom Hill, supervisor of Scottsdale's mounted unit.

"Marana is being very wise in taking its time to obtain their horses. Finding the right horse with the right disposition is extremely important and no easy task. The horses and officers can easily end up in very unpredictable situations," Hill said. "You have kids that see the mounted units on patrol and run right up to them. You have to have a solid, calm horse."

As an example of what a mounted unit can do, Scottsdale sent Marana a videotape of its unit giving a demonstration at a recent equestrian event.

The tape shows a man running after a simulated purse snatcher. Two mounted officers quickly overtake the man and the sidestepping animals immobilize him between tons of horse flesh. One of the officers easily leans from his saddle and handcuffs the suspect as the horses stand rigidly still.

Demonstrating the "bomb-proof" nature needed of a police horse, the tape also shows the animals standing calmly as first a gun is fired near them, a plastic tarp is thrown over their heads, and then a woman wallops them repeatedly with an automobile tire's inflated inner tube.

Marana expects to spend about $160,000 over the next year to develop its mounted patrol, said Marana Finance Director Roy Cuaron. The cost includes the salaries of the two officers.

The department has already purchased the specialized Australian stock saddles, tack and a horse trailer for the animals. The officers have been selected and about all that's needed now is the horses to go under them.

"A few of the horses we've looked at have come real close, but not quite," said Ashcraft, who is on his way to Phoenix this week to look at some candidates. "We'll keep looking until we get just what we're looking for."

Looking for a few good horses

Marana Police Department is seeking horses for its new mounted patrol that are 4- to 10-year-old "quarter horse types," have a good disposition, are not skittish and stand between 15.2 to 16 hands tall.

The MPD will reserve a 30-day trial period after the date a horse is conditionally accepted for donation or sale to see if the animal meets the requirements of the program. During that period, the horse will go through a series of physical and mental evaluations and receive an extensive veterinary examination. The owner of the horse must accept its return if the animal does not meet the department's standards.

For more information contact Lt. Paul Ashcraft at 382-2519.

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