If there are scars, they are well healed.
He is a 17.1 hand island of calm as a flotilla of motorcycles roar past the State Fair’s World of
Horses Tent – the Harley-Davidson delegation in the annual Labor Day parade hooting, belching smoke and revving engines. He is the morning’s featured horse, and he stands
quietly in a small corral as Moran talks to the crowd.
Several deep, they press up close, surrounding Gunner in a tidal wave of adoring hands – many of them sticky and belonging to small children – that pet him on the nose and the neck and the chest. His steady demeanor says who he is as unmistakably as the brass medallion on his breast collar: NYST. New York State Trooper.
The history of the State Police was written on the back of a horse. Before motorcycles and blue-and-yellow cruisers, there were the Gray Riders, the first law enforcement the rural areas of New York had seen. They were called to duty in April 1917, just days before the U.S. entered World War I.
And so, fittingly, in this, their centennial year, the Gray Riders have returned. They are, for now, a ceremonial mounted unit; but the 18 horses and riders have trained with an eye and a hope for the day when they will be called to full duty.
Each horse was certified to the same standard as the New York City police mounted unit. In two weeks of training, the horses – who up until then had been enjoying life as a personal equine – were desensitized. They were exposed to all the different stimuli that might be encountered on the street, from balloons and babies to loud bangs and the newest entry in the spook-the-horse arsenal – drones.
They learned formations, crowd control, and how to escort a vehicle through a crowd. A C130
transport jet flew steeple high over their heads. A chopper hovered 20 feet above. Some of the
riders were unnerved but the horses, says Sgt. Douglas Wildermuth, “didn’t flinch.”
Their value in modern law enforcement begins with their size and strength. Horses are “force multipliers,” Wildermuth explained, meaning one horse and rider can move 10-15 people. Horses allow an officer to look three levels out, to become what the NYPD calls “New York’s Tallest,” to see and be seen in a crowd or an emergency.
And then there is their
intangible worth: a furry,
kind-eyed and approachable
asset in the increasingly
burdened job of community
“There’s a lot of room for
them in law enforcement
today,” said Capt. Kris
Sisbower, noting that the
NYPD never halted their
mounted patrol. She would
like to keep the unit going
after the centennial and make
it more than ceremonial.
“A lot of agencies are ‘remounting’ their force. They see the importance, especially in these times.”
The New York State Police began as a mounted police force, four years after the murder of a construction foreman. Samuel Howell was shot seven times and robbed of his company’s payroll His attackers were never caught, even though Howell identified them, because local police refused pursuit, fearing for their own safety.
Outraged, Katherine Mayo and Moyca Newell, whose home Howell was building in Westchester County, campaigned for a state force to protect the rural areas of New York. Their answer came in the person of Major George Chandler, a surgeon and soldier. Appointed the first State Police Superintendent, Chandler took charge of everything from choosing the first troopers, conducting their physicals and designing their uniforms. He also bought 250 unbroken horses, at $150 each, and sent them to Camp Newayo in Manlius – named after Newell and Mayo – to be trained along with the first troopers.
Chandler, of course, had a secret weapon in those original recruits: Most came from the U.S. Cavalry and were excellent horsemen. In four weeks, the untrained horses would respond to every command.
Sgt. Wildermuth picks up the story: “At Camp Newayo, the first 232 troopers learned how to ride, how to shoot, and about the law. Their first detail was at the state fair and, from there, all 232 were dispatched, on horseback, to the four original barracks: A (Batavia), D (Oneida), G (Albany), and K (Kingston).”
They were the original road patrol, going out in pairs and averaging 20-25 miles a day. They picked up complaints at the nearest post office and, in a memoir about those early days, Trooper Paul Williams recalled that they “were required to pick up a postmark on their daily patrol sheet from the postmaster in each town (they) passed through.”
Cars and motorcycles began to be added in 1918, but for the majority of troopers “the first three to four years, horses were the only means of transportation,” Wildermuth said. The tack the horses wear in the ceremonial unit is a direct link to that past.
Each horse has a thick loop of rope knotted around their neck and clipped to their bridle. It looks like a handy noose for bad guys but its purpose is Functional Horsemanship 101: When troopers went out on one month patrols, at night they flipped the rope over their horse’s head and hitched them to a tree or a fence.
By 1948, with New York paved into its farthest reaches, the internal combustible engine had won the day. The horses were retired and, except for a brief ceremonial return in the 1980s, the State Police hasn’t had a mounted unit for 30 years. So when the centennial unit was announced, horse-loving hands went up across the state.
All 18 members of the mounted unit have regular road patrol jobs. They were canvassed and selected to be part of the mounted program, using their own horses and their own money. Wildermuth, who rides a palomino Quarter Horse named Sarge, estimates each trooper has spent about $2-$3,000 to be part of the mounted unit.
“We are proud to be back, to represent the State Police, and to celebrate the traditions of the mounted patrol,” he said. “I wanted to be part of something special.”
For Gunner, once a hand span from the slaughter house, there is this, too: A reminder of the worth of each good horse. It is the last day of the State Fair and he has greeted thousands with quiet patience. He is bombproof, crowdproof and I-want-to-pet-the-horsey proof. Part of something special: Home at last.
Graduation for the horses and riders of the Mounted Unit at the fairgrounds Coliseum
Story by Janis Barth
Photos by Trooper Michael Buchinger
Gunner was bound for slaughter.
The dark bay gelding with the eyes of
an old soul waited in the kill pen, a
yellow USDA export sticker on his
back. He’d come to this final crossroad
from a lackluster career on the
harness track and eight years as an
Amish buggy horse. At 15, he was
But there was something about this
horse that asked for another chance.
“He was afraid of people. He would
hide in the back of his stall and when
you reached out to him, he flinched,”
Trooper Mary Elena Moran remembers. It was she who got the call to rescue, and she who said yes. “I flooded him with kindness.”
HALLOWED HOOVES: The Return of the Gray Riders
Riders in the State Police Mounted Unit say they are "proud to be back."