Seated in saddles atop sturdy horses, Const. Rob MacLeod and Const. Reto Aeschlimann have an unusual view of Calgary.
The officers are members of the Calgary Police Service's mounted unit — a specialty team of horses and officers, clad in cowboy hats and boots, working throughout our city's eight police districts.
The job requires versatility: officers might patrol expansive Nose Hill Park one day, help search for a missing Alzheimer's patient the next day, then appear at a public event, or be deployed to a crime scene in a residential area.
The mounted patrol is part of Calgary's civic charm, but beyond the PR, a cop on a horse changes the nature of policing in our city.
Calgary started with horses
Calgary's first law-and-order men were on horses. The North-West Mounted Police road onto this patch of prairie in 1875 and set up Fort Brisebois, later Fort Calgary.
The current mounted unit started in 1910 and operated until the Second World War when it was disbanded. It formed again in 1978 and today, the unit is made up of one sergeant, four constables and eight horses. Behind the scenes, there's an "extraordinary amount of logistics" that takes place to ensure the unit runs smoothly, says Sgt. Kelly Oberg, who has overseen the mounted unit since last November.
The officers have daily chores at the horses' stable and pasture, located at the police's Northeast Service Centre, near Deerfoot Mall. Training is also crucial. Horses have to get used to the city and it's loud hustle and bustle. For the officers, both Aeschlimann and MacLeod, came to the job with prior horsemanship experience. MacLeod started with the Calgary Police Service in 2000.
Before that he was in the army, deployed to Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan. He did two tours with Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians). Before Aeschlimann became a police officer, he was an executive chef for 21 years. Travelling from his home country Switzerland around the world.
His work brought him to Canada, and he stayed. Aeschlimann has been with the mounted unit for three years. He estimates he has spent 1,400 hours with his horse, Ranger.
Riding the urban range
On a recent brisk yet sunny December morning, MacLeod rode Stryder, a Quarter horse, and Aeschlimann rode Ranger, a Canadian — both geldings — throughout the parking lots at the Shawnessy shopping centre in south Calgary. The officers and horses work year-round.
Throughout the ride on the two dark horses, shoppers in the parking lots stopped the officers to chat. People wanted to know more: why are you here; can we pet the horses; can we take a picture; are the horses cold; are you cold; what are the horses' names?
And that's the key to how a horse changes policing. It may seem counterintuitive that a 1,400-pound (635 kg) animal actually makes a police officer more approachable. But that's exactly what the constables experience each day.
"The horse softens people and it allows them to open up and talk to us," MacLeod says. "It just brings a human aspect to the police. We're not just that black and white patrol car with flashing lights in your rear view mirror, we're citizens of this city too, and you can talk to us."
And those conversations change our sense of a safe community.
A little horse sense
Researchers at the University of Oxford found people were six times more likely to engage with an officer on a horse, than one on foot. They also found such interactions led to a shift in public opinion, and that mounted police patrolling neighbourhoods increased the public's trust and confidence in police. It's a "see and be seen" thing. Horses make officers more visible.
As MacLeod says, "When we're way up here, the bad guys see us as much as the good guys."
While people are drawn to horses, the animals can also be intimidating, and more effective at crowd control than other types of policing.
"Mounted units have a really unique and useful purpose in contemporary policing," says Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University.
He points to their role of keeping the peace and maintaining order during public protests or large gatherings, such as on the Red Mile during the 2004 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup playoff run.
But beyond big events, King says mounted officers often proactively patrol communities, whereas officers in cars tend to be more reactive, responding to calls as they come up. But King also says that being "up there" changes the way officers perceive our neighbourhoods.
MacLeod and Aeschlimann have come to see a different side of the city.
"I've rediscovered it's a city of friendly, amazing people," MacLeod says. "It's really easy as a police officer to get jaded a little, when you're constantly dealing with the criminal element all the time. You come and do a job like this and the horses, certainly, they do a lot of the work, and you just reconnect with the citizens and realize not everybody is out to get you."
During the Shawnessy shopping centre patrol, one woman offered a coffee gift card to the officers, (which they politely declined.) A few weeks earlier, the officers returned to their truck and found someone had hung a grocery bag on the horse trailer.
Inside there were six carrots and two apples for the horses, and a Starbucks gift card for the constables. For Sgt. Kelly Oberg, who has overseen the mounted unit since Nov. 1, the job has taught him just how deep the city's western roots run.
"Calgarians identify themselves with that western culture, and so there's a significant amount of pride and impact when citizens see their police officers, who work for them, on horseback," Oberg says.
With spurs on
Mounted units are becoming less common than they once were, says Doug King, largely because of issues around cost and training. While Winnipeg recently shuttered its mounted unit, Oberg sees the Calgary team as a viable policing option.
He says, officers are able to effectively and proactively patrol in many different environments, while also making "a very real impact" on Calgarians. That was the case for Claire Cho and her four-year-old son Daniel Kim.
The two approached as Aeschlimann and MacLeod finished their morning patrol at the Shawnessy shopping centre. Daniel was fascinated, staring at the officers and their horses in the Home Depot parking lot.
"I've seen the police horses before, at Spruce Meadows and the Stampede, but it's surprising to see them out here, in the middle of winter," Cho says. "It's quite exciting. It just made my day."
As one passerby put it, "Only in Alberta."
Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.