When it comes to horsing around, Modesto police are champions. Two Modesto police officers were part of a team that took home first-place honors this month at the California Mounted Officers Association annual competition in Indio.
Modesto police Sgt. Tim Helton, riding Skido, and officer Steve Silva, on Lucky, teamed up with Chico officers Rich Hartman, on Bubba, and Abby Madden, riding Magic. The squad beat teams from across the state to win, Helton said.
The competition tests horses at 13 stations meant to mimic real-life law enforcement. At one station, the rider pushes his horse against a 4-foot high soccer ball. That goes against a horse's natural instinct, said Helton. Horses who can perform the drill are showing they'll do well in crowds, where dozens of hands might push against them, Helton said.
Other stations test a horse's ability to stay calm when faced with sights and sounds that would send most horses galloping. Popping balloons and simulated gunfire are among the tests. If the horse shows signs that he's upset, he scores poorly. Skido displayed his usual calm and confidence during the competition, said Helton.
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"He's a very funny horse," said Helton. "He thinks he's supposed to be surrounded by 5,000 people drinking beer and listening to loud music."
Mounted officers buy and care for their own horses. The city pays for shots and shoeing. Modesto's department has 10 mounted officers and two in training.
Helton bought Skido when he was 3 years old and moving out of his career as a racehorse. Helton trained Skido for three months, then put him to work on the streets of Modesto. Skido is now a 19-year-old seasoned veteran. When he's on duty, he's focused, Helton said. Off duty, Skido likes to goof around. He recently stuck his tongue out at someone taking his picture, Helton said.
That good-natured personality is part of why Skido and other horses are so skilled at crowd control, Helton said.
People like to approach officers on horseback. In a big crowd at events such as X-fest, that helps officers build trust. If there's a problem later, people in the crowd will be more likely to go to officers for help.
Helton said men he's sent to prison have come up to him and said, "Helton, I didn't know you rode the horse. Can my son pet your horse?" The answer is always "yes, of course."
Helton and Skido have had their share of adventures. Once they chased down a carjacking suspect who tried to bicycle away from police. They've cornered an out-of-control man outside a downtown club, and lassoed a shopping cart and hauled it out of a river.
Helton said the first-place win in Indio is a reminder of the value horses bring to the Police Department.
"Show me a car that's been around for 16 years," Helton said. "We don't have any. (The horses) are proven over and over again, and sometimes we forget that."
The Modesto-Chico team will keep the winner's trophy until next year's competition.
As for Skido, Helton said, he'll get some extra grain in his feed for a job well done.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2378.