'Ten Foot Cops': A Glimpse Inside New York City's Mounted Police Unit

'Ten Foot Cops': A Glimpse Inside New York City's Mounted Police Unit

This piece was originally shot and written for NOELLE FLOYD Magazine last year, before COVID-19 resulted in much quieter streets in New York City. However, the story of these brave horses and officers still rings true and these photos serve as a lovely reminder of the times we have ahead of us, when the streets of NYC are bustling once again. Stay strong, everyone.

Cozily tucked away from the honking yellow cabs and throngs of tourists that pulse through the heart of the Big Apple is a quaint neighborhood that houses New York’s most iconic branch of the New York Police Department (NYPD) — the Mounted Unit. For those who have never experienced the vibrancy of New York City, it’s hard to imagine an area absent of selfie sticks and flashing billboards but one thing is certain: a horse’s typical habitat is far from the heart of the concrete jungle. For the horses and officers in the Mounted Unit, however, it’s their duty. 

If it weren’t for Detective Brian Magoolaghan, NYPD’s Public Information Officer, patiently waiting for us outside in the blistering cold winds, the NF team would have had no inkling of what lies beyond the garage doors of this nondescript New York City building. As we stopped for a brief moment, we caught a glimpse through the tinted glass panels; there was something amiss about the building that stood adjacent to a Mercedes dealership.

Welcome to the home of the New York City Mounted Unit Troop B. 

Joined by Sergeant Rafael Laskowski, we pushed through the double doors to a small indoor ring used for training and turnout and an immaculately organized tack room to our left, the walls lined with custom-made tack from a cobbler in Brooklyn. An assigned four-digit number, based on what year and order the horse entered into service, is represented on the pristine leather bridles, breastplates, and saddles designated for each horse. 

It was 7 a.m. and the horses patiently awaited their upcoming shift on the streets while officers and civilian hostlers bustled around the 27-stall stable — grooming, tacking up, and taking a few moments to bond with their mounts. Immediately, my mind was flooded with questions. How were horses chosen for this dignified role? How do police officers get promoted from driving the streets in a patrol car to roaming the streets on horseback? What’s it really like to ride through the streets of NYC on horseback?

Blank Slates

As riders, there are a million intricacies that we learn from the time we spend around horses. Sometimes, we learn good habits - other times, not so much. A lack of riding experience is not a mark against a potential Mounted Officer; in fact, it’s preferred. “We actually like when people don’t have a horse background because we want them to learn the NYPD style of riding,” says Sergeant Laskowski, who had little experience with horses before applying to the unit in 2012.

Sergeant Laskowski. 

An officer must serve at least three years in patrol before they’re able to put their name in the ring and apply for a position within the prestigious department. Before Officer Andi Gjeci swung his leg atop his horse William, he patrolled seven years in the Bronx. For Officer Pamela Bond, she patrolled over five years in Chinatown before she met her mount, Torch.

“When I first saw a Mounted cop, I was just a civilian. I was like I gotta do that. So I became a cop and went through the steps,” explains Officer Bond on her reason to join the Mounted Unit. “After a few years on patrol, I put in an application to come to the Mounted Unit. It took a couple of years, they have a stack a foot high to get in. So I waited for my turn and finally got an interview.”

Officer Bond tacks up Torch for a day of work. 

Once the officer passes their interview and physical test, they’re assigned to a three-month intensive training at the Remount School of Horsemanship located by Pelham Bay Park, a few miles north of New York City. “Every day you exercise and ride for five to six hours, so that’s how you get your basic training,” Sergeant Laskowski says. “Then you come here (Troop B), and go out on the street and dive right in. Every day is a learning experience.”

Following graduation from Remount, an officer is matched to a horse. “Most of the guys have assigned horses, but especially new people, they ride a bunch — you want them to learn every different horse and different style of riding,” Sergeant Laskowski explains. “Then after a while, if we find a match for the officer and the horse, then we put them together to see if it works out and we’ll put them on the street. If it works out, that person keeps their horse, and if it doesn’t we try to assign that horse to someone else.”

There’s no one type of horse that the NYPD looks for when searching for new mounts. However, they must be reliable, confident, and brave. From private donations to auction horses, the NYPD looks for geldings from 15.3-16.2 hands, between five and 10 years old. 

“The color of the horse and the breed of the horse are irrelevant — it’s the temperament that makes a police horse,” explains Deputy Inspector Barry Gelbman (Commanding Officer of the Mounted Unit). “It’s the individual temperament of that horse that allows them to be a police horse. Can they leave the barn and go past buses, trucks, fire engines, city buses, air brakes that are released, and still walk to the post, walk around the city and deal with people petting you, touching you, taking pictures with you? It’s a completely alien environment for a horse to be in.”

The Perfect Match

After six months to a year of training on the streets of the Bronx and test rides through Times Square and Central Park, the next step is to find a match for the horse. When it comes to matchmaking, Deputy Inspector Gelbman looks at the whole picture. It’s not simply giving a horse to the newest officer, but a curated match based on personality, size, and experience.

“We look at the equestrian skills of the rider, the horse’s demeanor and temperament. Could this horse care less or is this horse like ‘Hey, I need a strong rider to keep me safe when I’m on patrol.’ It’s not an exact science because you have to know your rider and the horse’s personality, and you try to make a match. Sometimes it doesn’t work,” Deputy Inspector Gelbman says. “There’s no, ‘Okay, you get this horse, you get this horse.’” 

Once a match is made between horse and officer, they’re generally partners for the rest of the horse’s career. This allows for a deep bond to form; trust that is crucial for the demands that are placed on the pair and the unpredictable nature of the job. “You get attached to your horse. You know what they do, you know exactly what they feel. You know the streets that they like, the streets that they don’t like. You get that feeling and attachment towards them,” Sergeant Laskowski explains. 

Police Officer Jonathan Azzaro had only ridden Western a handful of times before applying to the Mounted Unit in 2017. Following graduation, he was matched with Broadway — an appropriately named 15-year-old black quarter horse/draft cross who has been in the unit since 2009. 

“He’s a lot like me - very hyper. I’m an energetic guy and don’t like to sit down, so we’re like a match made in heaven,” Officer Azzaro says. “He’s just got a cool personality, very lovable, he’s a big mush when it comes to kids. He loves to be hugged.”

The unit moves in sync to their first posts of the day.

‘We do the same as (unmounted) cops, except we can’t go inside a building.’

Since 1858, the Mounted Unit has helped keep the streets of New York City’s boroughs (with the exception of Staten Island) safe. Contrary to the notion that Mounted Officers are no longer necessary due to the constant stream of new technologies improving the police force, the officer's main advantage over traditional patrol cars and other new automation is their height. 

“Seeing high up — 10-feet up — we can see down the block, three, four blocks down on what’s going on. We can go right into places, especially sitting on a horse. We’re very visible out there,” says Sergeant Laskowski

On a warm Saturday night in 2010, a car full of propane, gas, and fireworks was discovered in the heart of New York City’s Times Square. A tee-shirt vendor immediately noticed smoke billowing from the car and alerted the nearest Mounted Officer. In a matter of minutes, Times Square was evacuated and emergency service units flooded the area to dissipate the situation. If it weren’t for the mounted cop being alerted, thousands of lives could have been lost. 

“People, they see you first. They’ll ask directions, if they need help, they’ll ask you because they see you first before they see the cop on the ground,” Officer Bond explains. “They want to see the horse, we look very approachable. And most of the time, citizens and passersby, if they get into trouble they will run over and flag one of us down for things. We do the same as cops who ride around in a patrol car, except we can’t go inside a building.”

Building Trust Through Community

Reporting to work five days a week, there’s a sense of family amongst these officers. From preparing for the day ahead, to grooming and tacking up, the officers and their horses have developed an unbreakable bond. They share a unique responsibility in representing New York City and its law enforcement to the rest of the world. 

Besides their duty of protecting the citizens and visitors of New York City, Deputy Inspector Gelbman explains that the horse is an ambassador of connection. “There are thousands of people who come through the city of New York on a daily basis and that one interaction with a Mounted Officer might be the only interaction they have with a member of the New York City Police Department. That one interaction is going to be the takeaway for that one person of an entire agency of 50,000 to 60,000 people. So it's very important that the horse is enjoying what he’s doing, and he’s happy and content in his role.”

The fact that you meet people from different areas of the world every single day, and they all always, no matter if they can barely speak English or if they’re fluent, have a way of letting you know how special it is for them to come across a mounted cop on a horse in New York City,” Officer Azzaro says. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘It’s on my bucket list to see a New York City Mounted cop.’ It feels good.”

Photography by Dani Maczynski 

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Written by Lizzy Youngling

Lizzy Youngling is a former professional rower turned runner with her roots firmly planted in the horse world. When she's not roaming the halls at the Brearley School, you can find her hitting the pavement in Central Park or roaming the trails of North Salem, NY,