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Boston’s finest

Five former police horses move on to greener pastures

Out in a field with his Boston Police Department pals at the Plymouth County Farm, Shorty peers over a fence rail. Out in a field with his Boston Police Department pals at the Plymouth County Farm, Shorty peers over a fence rail. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2009

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PLYMOUTH - Five powerful draft horses, accustomed to pounding city streets for 40 hours a week as members of Boston’s historic Mounted Patrol, are now enjoying an indefinite stay at the Plymouth County Farm. And so far, all of these magnificent animals are adjusting nicely to their significant change in lifestyle.

Captain Dan Callahan, who heads up the Plymouth County sheriff’s mounted unit and manages the stables at the county farm, brought Camden, Clancy, Pelli, and Shorty from their longtime Jamaica Plain home to Plymouth shortly after Boston’s Mounted Patrol took its final ride at the turn of the fiscal year, snapping a 140-year-old tradition. The fifth, Chopper, arrived just last week.

Boston Police Officer James Naughton, who works in the Mounted Patrol and K-9 units, said the five horses, along with the other seven members of the Mounted Patrol, were stalwarts of crowd control in the city. “They’ve all been part of the Democratic National Convention, and victory parades for the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics,’’ he said.

When he helped Callahan load the four mounts into trailers bound for Plymouth, he said, “it was a sad parting.’’

The other seven horses are being sent to various places around the East Coast.

In Plymouth County, Camden, Clancy, Pelli, Shorty, and Chopper will see lighter duty in their new assignments: local parades and ceremonies, the occasional visit to a school or youth camp, and the weekly training session with volunteer deputies in the county’s mounted unit.

“They’ll mostly be chillin’,’’ Callahan said. “We don’t have anything scheduled for them right now. But the next event we have, we’ll use at least three.’’

He has spent these first weeks helping the new arrivals adapt to their suburban surroundings. The geldings were introduced to grazing slowly and cautiously, since their digestive tracts were more accustomed to a diet of oats. Callahan began by feeding them fistfuls of grass while they stayed in a dirt paddock.

“They would graze out in the field about an hour a day,’’ he said. After a few weeks, all were able to graze unrestricted without risk of gastrointestinal upset.

He also gave the horses an opportunity to establish a “pecking order’’ among themselves, but they haven’t seemed interested in doing so. “Normally, there’s a hierarchy among horses, but these guys are pretty good,’’ he said. “There’s a little bit of bickering when you try to feed one of them grass, since they all want it.’’

The horses have yet to mingle with the three smaller mounts that make up the sheriff’s unit, but the two groups have been allowed to “meet’’ over the fence without skirmishes breaking out.

The ancestry of the enormous horses from Boston traces back to the mighty battle mounts called Percherons, bred by the French in the Middle Ages; to 300-year-old Scottish Clydesdales; and to the heavily muscled English Shire draft horses. All three breeds were known for tremendous strength and agility, and docile temperaments.

In recent weeks, special deputies in the Plymouth County sheriff’s mounted unit were busy washing, brushing, and saddling up the newest members of the unit, in preparation for their first formal training session. The workout was mostly an opportunity for horses and riders to get used to each other, since the Boston horses are already “superbly trained,’’ said Callahan.

Part-time Sheriff’s Deputy Noelle Rand had already picked out her favorite, slipping him a few extra carrots while getting him cleaned up last week. “I fell in love with Pelli,’’ she said. “He has a great personality, and we just seemed to bond.’’

A black roan with white stockings, Pelli is a full Shire, a breed that stands about 18 hands tall at the withers (upper back), or 72 inches, and weighs 1,800 pounds. While Pelli, 15 years old, has poor vision in one eye caused by a cataract, he has adapted well to the condition and is a seasoned mount. These horses generally live for about 25 years.

Deputy Susan Survillo, also a member of the sheriff’s mounted unit, has had a long history with Pelli, having worked with him when she was a member of the park rangers overseen by Boston’s Parks Department.

“This is his third mounted unit,’’ she said. Survillo selected Pelli when the horse was just 2 1/2 years old. “I trained him and watched him grow up,’’ she said. Pelli joined the Boston Police Department’s unit in 2005.

Shorty, an 11-year-old brown and white Clydesdale who is easily identified by the large brown spot between his eyes, is expected to be a favorite. He was one of Boston’s most capable mounts, according to Naughton, who has ridden all of the city’s horses.

“Shorty is bomb-proof,’’ Naughton said. “We would always send him in first because nothing bothered him, and the other horses would follow. He’s one of the best horses we had.’’

Deb Spellman, a trainer who worked with Boston’s mounted patrol unit in Jamaica Plain for 30 years, recently talked about her first impression of Camden, a 13-year-old black Shire cross, when he first arrived as a Boston police mount. “He was like the kid that tested everybody,’’ she said. “But by the time he left, he was seasoned.’’

Spellman also remembers Clancy, a Clydesdale cross who is now 9 years old. “When he first came to Boston, he was young and afraid of things and didn’t adapt,’’ she said. “But by the end, he did it all.’’ Clancy, along with Shorty, is a born leader, she said.

Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald said the horses, though taking it easy for now, may periodically take on more challenging work. “People who question their value have never seen a unit in action,’’ he said. “There is nothing more effective for crowd control.’’

The Plymouth County mounted unit recently helped keep order among Provincetown’s Fourth of July crowd. The Boston horses had just arrived a few before, so they stayed behind for that run. But they are expected to be pressed into service for future crowd situations, as well as for search and rescue operations in locations, such as the Myles Standish State Forest, that are difficult to access by other means.

McDonald is keeping in mind that the geldings will return to the city if the Boston Mounted Patrol gets its funding restored.

“As happy as I am to see them here, I’ll be even happier to see Boston reinstate the unit.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.