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January 4, 2019

When Officer Amanda Acuff began looking for a new addition to the Richmond (Va.) Mounted Police Unit, she knew finding a good horse would be a challenge. It’s difficult to trace the history of horses from private dealers, and without knowing their background, there’s no telling how horses will react to sirens, crowds, small children, parades or a variety of emergency situations.

After she discovered Asbury University’s Service Mounts Program, however, Acuff knew she was on the right track. Through Asbury’s one-of-a-kind program, Percheron/Thoroughbred crosses are bought as colts and meticulously trained for service in mounted units. When they graduate, Asbury horses are safe, reliable and ready for active duty. The program is truly unique — Asbury University is the only university in America with a student police horse training program.

As she learned more about Asbury’s Service Mounts Program, Acuff decided it was time for a visit. She called Harold Rainwater, director of Asbury’s Equine Program, and scheduled a time to see the program first-hand.

When Acuff arrived at Asbury’s indoor arena, along with Officer Jason Holt, Asbury students were hard at work training two horses — Ion and Ivan. Ashley Whitehead ’19, Tori Branard ’19 and Matt Sagan ’19 worked together in a space filled with various props used for desensitization training — blue barrels, recorded sirens, crackly neon-colored tarps, green smoke, foam pool noodles, hula hoops and a bullwhip used to simulate the sound of gunfire. Immediately, Acuff was impressed.

“It was beyond what I thought I’d find,” Acuff said. “The demonstrations they did were a lot bigger and better than I expected. The colored smoke bomb, the bullwhip, one of the students ran and the horses chased him — these are things we do train them to do, so it’s good to see them already doing that. And the horses were so well behaved!”

Only one out of every 10 horses Acuff tests ends up becoming a police horse. This December, though, Ion became one of those “happy few,” traveling to Richmond to begin his service career. It’s one more way Asbury students impact the world, having trained horses for service in more than 20 units in the Unites States and Canada. 

“Getting to work with these animals is, for [the students], a gift,” Acuff said. “They get to put themselves into the horse, and the horse goes to the police department. And that’s a big accomplishment.”

During her visit to Asbury’s Equine Center, Acuff appreciated being able to talk with the student trainers to learn more of the details that would be crucial in a working relationship with the horse.

“They’re the ones who are around them the most and can give us the most information,” Acuff said. “Ion’s trainer, Tori, told us how he likes rice crispy treats. You could tell she had a partnership with him, which is really important to us, because that’s what we do with our horses. We want to keep them happy. We trust them; they trust us.”

The high level of quality in the horses’ training was evident. At three-and-a-half years old, the horses are young — still in the “teenager stage,” Acuff says, and will continue to grow both mentally and physically. But their poise, calm demeanor and eager cooperation gave evidence that their trainers had invested significant time and patience.

“I would give the program a five out of five from what I’ve seen so far,” Acuff said. “Mr. Rainwater really puts his heart into this program and believes in it, and that’s a key to it all — someone who actually believes in their work. It will make an impact. I would say other police departments should go visit, take a few horses for a ride and check it themselves. A lot of people will be impressed with the program.”

Police departments across the country are rediscovering the value of mounted units, Acuff says. In addition to day-to-day policing, mounted officers and their horses can act as a unique community bridge. People who ordinarily will not approach police officers readily make friends with horses — and in the process, they build relationships and trust with the officers.

“People hear the clip-clop of hooves, come out of their houses and want to take pictures, look at the horses and touch the horses,” Acuff said. “It’s a positive interaction. We want people to know we’re here to help.”

As demand for reliable police mounts grows, Acuff says Asbury is uniquely positioned to meet that need.

“I’m pretty sure this program will pick up a lot more speed, because it is so unique,” Acuff said. “There’s nothing like this in the country as far as I’ve seen, and it’s much needed. Asbury offers a 30-day trial or horse-for-a-horse or money back if we’re not satisfied. And that’s something many don’t do. It shows Asbury is standing by its horses, and that’s pretty impressive.”