Photo Gallery | Berkshire County Sheriff's Mounted Unit

PITTSFIELD -- After more than a year of preparation and training, the Berkshire County Sheriff's mounted officer unit had its maiden public deployment Thursday at Burbank Park at Onota Lake.

"The response of the public was fabulous," said Mary Hamilton, of Riders Elite Academy of Minneapolis, who travels the nation to conduct training sessions with mounted law enforcement units. "And the horses were perfect."

The sheriff's three-person mounted unit, including Sgt. Keith Dickinson, officers Stacy Soldato and Steven Stojda and their horses trained with Hamilton for 40 hours this week. The four-hour appearance at the lakeside park was "kind of the test at the end to take them out to a public park to see if they can do their job," the trainer said.

Now, the unit is certified and is available for deployment at the request of law enforcement agencies in the Berkshires, said Sheriff Thomas Bowler. He said horses traditionally are used for crowd control, search and rescue operations and to forge stronger relationships between law enforcement personnel and the public.

"My understanding is they will improve community relations by 60 to 65 percent," Bowler said, not only by acting as a magnet for admiring children and adults, but because "people feel safer at events when they are there."

The officers and Bowler said they began planning the unit in March 2013, and a few months later were able to purchase three older quarter horses through an auction process.

Soldato, who has "trained horses my whole life" and has worked with them in Texas, Wyoming and Colorado, came to the department as an officer two years ago. She said the unit was able to acquire the animals -- aged from 10 to 12 years -- inexpensively because they had behavioral problems that rendered them ineffective for some other use.

Working with horses to correct such issues has been one of her jobs for many years, Soldato said, adding, "We bought horses that needed some work, but that had the right attitude," such as an eagerness to please. "We put in the time to train them."

The unit trains with the horses about five days per week and helps groom and otherwise care for them, along with Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction inmates selected for a training program in equine management. Bowler said he is developing that program and hopes to expand it.

The mounted unit also has joined a collaborative training initiative network involving agencies from around New England.

The mounts, along with a fourth horse purchased this year, which is recovering from injuries, are stabled in a sectioned-off area of an existing large storage building on the jail facility's grounds off Cheshire Road.

Bowler said the stable area, including four horse stalls and an attached pen, were constructed by inmates and staff members at little cost. Almost the entire program, he said, has been funded through inmate-generated income from an on-site store where they can purchase items.

The three mounted-unit members all work at the facility as officers, the sheriff said, but will be available for assignments with their horses.

In addition, an agreement with nearby Petricca Industries and a landowner on Partridge Road has provided the horses with room to graze, Bowler said, and with space for a fenced-in training ring.

The on-site stable area is a major cost-savings that other police agencies she has worked with can't realize, Hamilton said, adding, "Boarding costs are huge."

She said about 10 percent of law enforcement agencies in the country have mounted units. Bowler said that in Massachusetts those include the state police, the Plymouth County Sheriff's Department, the University of Massachusetts security department and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Bowler said the rural Berkshires is an ideal region for a mounted unit, as it includes some "900 square miles of mountain ranges," where search and rescue efforts are common.

Hamilton said that horses have distinct advantages over all-terrain vehicles in many search situations, including on narrow trails or steep areas and on environmentally sensitive lands where vehicles might cause damage.

In addition, she said, horses are quiet so that searchers can listen for the lost person and they place the rider on an elevated platform where he or she can look out over vegetation.

In a crowd situation, Hamilton said, "one horse equals 10 foot officers in terms of the intimidation factor."

Bowler said, "I can attest to that. When you see a 1,000- or 1,200-pound animal walking toward you, it is very intimidating."

Training for the horses and the riders includes remaining calm and under control in a crowd and exposure to sounds such as gunfire or vehicles and all types of situations and weather, Hamilton said.

The other major benefit of the program, Dickinson said, is that inmates are able to learn new skills and gain confidence from learning to work with horses. He said he is on the classification board that decides which inmates will be allowed to groom the horses, clean the stalls and feed them.

"They have to take a test before they can do anything with the horses," he said. But working with large animals "is a great experience for them," he said. "They really buy into it."

All of the team members expressed enthusiasm for putting in the training and stable time to make the program a success. And for the feedback they are receiving from the public, especially youngsters.

"This awoke a passion in me I didn't know I had," said Stojda. "And a big part of that is being out in the community and public; I thought it was a great idea."

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien