By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Keeping New York City’s natural jewels, verdant parklands like Van Cortlandt Park, Central Park and Prospect Park, safe are the equestrian detail of Parks Enforcement Patrol Officers.
The Parks Mounted Unit consists of eight Local 983 Urban Parks Rangers and their supervisors, who ride and groom six horses that are used to patrol acres of meadows, wooded trails, ravines and sandy beaches.
“We select UPRs with at least two years’ experience for training,” said lead trainer Jessica
Cowan, a 20-year veteran Associate Parks Enforcement Patrol Officer in DC 37 Local 983.
Parks trains its horses at HOOPH, a new heated stable on Staten Island that houses horses used to help people with special needs. The nonprofit organization lends two stalls to the city Parks Dept. to board horses. The grounds have an indoor rink and five miles of riding trails that allow the UPRs and horses to learn each other.
“Horses by nature are gentle, timid creatures. They have two defenses: fight or flight,” Cowan explained. Parks chooses horses are obedient, even-tempered and tractable, animals that don’t frighten easily. “They come from farms and tranquil environments,” she said, “so we gradually acclimate them using balloons and cones to familiarize them with objects and touch so they do not panic.”
Cowan and the UPRs also introduce the horses to the cacophony of city life.
Loud car horns, revved engines, the wheeze, sigh and rumble of buses and trucks as they accelerate or brake and the din of thousands of people talking at once are common to city life. These sounds fade into the background for people, but can startle horses.
Experienced Parks Enforcement Patrol Officers in the Mounted Unit Urban Park Rangers are taught how to use these large animals to control crowds and promote a stable and calm environment at festivals, parades and demonstrations. Cowan said, “We look for confidence–that quality is more important than whether one was raised around horses.”
“We patrol areas too difficult for vehicles to pass and too expansive for Urban Park Rangers to reach on foot like hiking trails and the marshes of Howard Beach,” said Marlena Giga, a rep and PEP Officer. President Joe Puleo said he hopes the city will expand this program.
Through the Parks Dept.’s Horse of Course program, UPRs educate school children, as most have only seen horses on television and are excited to interact with these large and gentle creatures.
Each year the Parks Mounted Unit participates in an inter-agency training in Rockland County where horses and their riders–UPRs, sheriffs, and state troopers–earn state certification for crowd control and other aspects of equestrian safety and enforcement.
“The health and happiness of these horses are our priority,” Cowan said. “We have the best job in the world and could not do it without them.”
This article previously appeared in the May 2017 issue of Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 125,000 municipal employees in New York City.