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September 2, 2014

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In the saddle with UNLV’s Mounted Police Unit

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Christopher DeVargas

The UNLV Mounted Police Unit is one of the only units in the country protecting and serving a university campus. As much as they are valued for their work on patrol and policing big events, they are loved for the way they build community. Officers Stephani Preston (pictured) and Laura Silva say it’s the magic of their four-legged partners, Rebel and Pride.

Weaving drunkenly through UNLV’s inner campus, the driver had no idea he was about to get busted by 1,500 pounds of galloping muscle. It’s not something you expect to see in the rear-view mirror, even if you’ve had way too many cocktails.

Officer Stephani Preston was at the reins, and she credits her equine partner Pride for enabling the DUI arrest and preventing potential tragedy. They are half of the UNLV Mounted Police Unit, joined in the duty of keeping campus safe and peaceful by rookie Laura Silva and her veteran horse Rebel. From crowd control to thwarting thefts, they do a lot more than trot around and enjoy the scenery.

In addition to patrolling and working events, the mounted unit does a monthly presentation on campus, and they make as much time as they can for appearances at local schools. The most recent campus demo highlighted the horses' "special moves" and the training that enables them to work in situations that terrify most other animals on four legs. As one observer commented, it comes down to "control and trust, like any good relationship." Here's a taste of the view from above.

Officer Stephani Preston

Your experience on horseback spans 30-plus years, from show jumping to racing. What got you in the saddle?

My sister, who’s about two years older than me, was into horses. I wasn’t a horse freak, but she kept saying, “Come on to the barn with me; go riding with me.” … I ended up being a natural.

Your new partner, Laura Silva, is a seasoned officer and something of a natural, but she’s only been on horseback for a month.

It’s so different from being in a car or on a bicycle. She now has to think about controlling this 1,500-pound animal, who has a mind of his own, and then doing her police work, keeping her balance and her hands—trying to work all these things at the same time. … I’ve been riding so long, and I’ve actually been a mounted officer for over 15 years, so it’s natural to me. I don’t even have to think about it anymore.

UNLV Mounted Police Unit

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Seeing a rider who’s that solid, you can see the ease in the horse. It’s one machine.

We call it a partnership. You have to have respect. And horses, they will show respect, and they will show disrespect.

They're often compared to dogs, but that's classic cat behavior.

Every single day we have to gain their respect. So when we start in the morning, we show them, I’m the boss, but let’s like each other. Part of our routine is, we take them out and let them play, and they love it.

Given their powerful flight instincts, how do you train horses to chase cars and bust up riots?

When we teach horses about crowds we get as many volunteers as we can. The horse will be, let’s say, 50 feet away or farther, and all the people will be there screaming, waving flags, waving plastic bags. Everything is scary to a horse. … We teach them to walk toward the noise, and then we reward them, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.

I used to ride. I had a horse who was terrified of the trailer, and that’s a lot of nervous meat in a small space.

You’re not a real horseman until you get crushed a few times.

When you became a mounted officer in Ohio, you found a few four-legged partners on the track, where you had been a professional Standardbred racer. In fact, your greatest victory happened on one of those horses, Pursuit.

In 2003 we won everything. We won all the way up to the International Mounted Police Championship. And I’m so proud because we won against Toronto, and Toronto, in my opinion, is one of the best mounted police units in the world.

Those Canadians love their Mounties. I could only find three U.S. universities with mounted police units. Does the job have some rare perks?

Patrolling at UNLV is like a dream job. We work for probably the best community in Nevada. I work for students and teachers and staff that are on that property for a reason. ... And the community does come up to us on the horses to say thank you. ... I don’t think people are walking up to a cruiser saying, “Hey, what’s your cruiser’s name?” or “Can I pet your bicycle?”

But there are bad days.

Several years ago, we were at the Reno-UNLV football game here at Sam Boyd Stadium. In 30 minutes, we probably made six arrests on horseback of people fighting, and then for the rest of the three hours, all we did was break up fights.

What happens when the perpetrators run?

A lot of times when they turn around and see a horse is chasing them, they stop and give up. … Some say, “Oh, I’m going to run up these stairs; you can’t follow me.” Well guess what—we can.

Despite the unit’s value and popularity, it’s in danger when the budget gets tight. How can people support it, besides participating in fund-raising events like last year’s 5K and the pet-friendly obstacle course you're considering for this fall?

Our account is called Friends of the UNLV Mounted, so we can have private donations through that account, and it’s as easy as calling up the UNLV Foundation and saying, “I want to give money to the horses.” … One year, the president of the university, Neal Smatresk, single-handedly saved our unit, because he sees the community service. He sees the letters that people send to him.

I’m sure they appreciate the officers, but people are in love with the horses.

They are two opposites. Rebel has grown into his name. Actually he’s kind of like a Cadillac to ride. He’s very smooth and he’s slow. … Pride, we literally run circles around Rebel. He likes attention.

Officer Silva said she still has a lot to learn. What’s one thing she’s working on?

She envies me that I can ride my horse and text at the same time. (Laughs)

Those of us chained to desks fantasize about a job like yours. Is it as great as it seems?

My reward truly is when people come up and say, “That’s the first time I ever touched a horse.” And here’s a better one: When we go to elementary schools … they’ll say, “Is it okay if we bring out kids in wheelchairs and kids in walkers?” And these kids are touching this horse for the first time, and they are so amazed. Those are the most awesome moments in my life. It is just too cool to describe.

Officer Laura Silva

You worked for Metro before joining UNLV’s Department of Police Services in 2006. But this is the first time you’ve done the job on horseback. What has it been like?

It has been so eye opening. I had never really been around horses. There’s a lot going on when you’re up here. I’m responsible for everything the horse does; if he steps on somebody, that’s my fault. But every day I’m getting better. We’re learning each other.

Does Rebel have any special quirks?

Rebel loves to eat, but they’re not allowed to eat when they’re working. The first day on campus, all of a sudden he was in every bush and grass area he could be in. And I thought, okay, I gotta watch your head. He likes carrots and apples and these special treats called Knicker Makers. ... He doesn’t like loud music.

His hair is amazing.

Some people call it a mullet, some call it a mohawk. I call it the castle cut, because it looks like the wall of a castle.

How do the horses make you really effective at policing a university campus?

We use them for patrol, just like a car or a bike. They’re super great in crowd situations. In parking lots, we have a lot of view. ... We caught a DUI. We’ve stopped trespassers. ... Obviously we don’t take people to jail on the back of the horse.

Officer Preston has been in UNLV's mounted unit for five years, which is longer than most because of how hard the work is. How long are you planning to stay?

I’m going to try it for two years and hopefully stay forever.

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