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Training Horses for Law Enforcement

FELL TOWNSHIP — You may have seen them at the St. Patrick’s Parade in Scranton or at a concert on Montage Mountain. The Lackawanna County Mounted Un...

FELL TOWNSHIP -- You may have seen them at the St. Patrick's Parade in Scranton or at a concert on Montage Mountain. The Lackawanna County Mounted Unit gives deputies a powerful tool to deal with crowds.

Officials say one horse has the same impact as 10 officers.

Recently, the unit was on hand for Vice President Joe Biden's visit on St. Patrick's Day.

Phineas is the alpha horse. Charlie's the looker. Big blonde Alex is the easy going veteran.

Early April is a quiet time for the horses of the Lackawanna County Sheriff's Office Mounted Unit, but at a stable near Carbondale deputies are preparing them for a busy summer that could include assignments ranging from parades to protests.

Formation riding and rolling a push cart are just two of the skills used to train horses for law enforcement.

Deputy Jesse Van Deusen says since horses are not naturally aggressive they must be taught to do things like ride into an unruly crowd.

"We never want to walk into people. We never want a situation like that. But if the situation does come up where that has to happen, we want our horses to not turn around and run like a normal horse would," Van Deusen said.

Deputies train the animals to deal with the unexpected and things that might spook the horses.

The trio easily navigates around a flare, but a plastic bag on a stick is another story and you might be surprised why it's so important.

"That’s what kids bring to parades these days: shopping bags to pick up candy," Van Deusen said. “And we just want them to get used to that sound.

On top of all their jobs this summer, the horses are the focus of a riding camp for kids involved with Lackawanna Family Court.

"It does help prevent them from possible crimes in the future, but what it does also is it helps them get acclimated to police officers," Mounted Unit Deputy Joe Gillott said.

But just months ago, everyone at the stable feared that the camp might have to go on without Phineas. Late last August he broke his leg, most likely after being kicked by another horse in the paddock.

Program co-ordinator Dawn Davis discovered the injury.

"He is just a special horse. He is a good horse. He is good with the kids," said Davis.

A broken leg can mean a horse must be put down if the injury doesn't heal properly.

For 6 weeks the staff waited to hear if Phineas would make it. But even when a vet gave them the good news that the horse who loves to lead would recover, there was another challenge: keeping Phineas still in his stall for months.

"Reassuring him, loving on him, spoiling him, and just being patient," said Davis.

The vet predicted Phineas might not be back on the job until 2016.

“When he first got out of his stall, it was just slowly bringing him out here for just 10 minutes a day, slowly just walking him around,” said Mounted Unit Deputy Mike Martin.

But the alpha horse recovered faster than anyone expected. Martin says the ordeal actually had a silver lining.

"It was an unfortunate incident, but standing in that stall for six months, I think that helped him a great deal. Where he has the patience now that he knows it's time to stand. This is my post. I am not going to move from here.”

“You are prepared for the worst and then seeing him come back, just as strong if not stronger than before,” Davis said. “Just as sweet and as gentle and as eager to be around people is great.”

So as the long winter finally turns to spring in the hills of Lackawanna County, the alpha horse is cantering along the trails once again, ready to get back in the saddle.