Huntington Beach police officer Gabe Ricci was a dog handler for the Police Department for years. But he's decided to trade his canine companion for another four-legged partner — one that's bigger, faster and more intimidating.
Ricci and three of his colleagues were chosen to form the city's new mounted enforcement unit, which will patrol the downtown area, beaches, parks and large gatherings on horseback.
"Like being a K-9 handler, you have to be the alpha of the animal and work together as a team and learn about each other," Ricci said of training with his horse, Kelly Blue.
The mounted unit has been undergoing rigorous training for four months at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center and at a facility in Norco with the Orange County Sheriff's Department Regional Mounted Enforcement Unit.
It will take a few more months for the officers to hone their riding skills and prepare their horses. The group expects its first assignment to be patrolling downtown during Halloween.
The idea for the equine unit was conceived by Police Chief Robert Handy after the disturbance at the end of the 2013 U.S. Open of Surfing.
"We started it around January or February after looking at some of the challenges we've had with the last U.S. Open and at night with some of the bar crowds downtown," Handy said. "We started looking at [the horses] as an option, but I wanted to make sure that we would be using them enough and how the program would look."
The county's mounted unit helped patrol during this summer's U.S. Open, riding in the downtown area during the weekends and helping to break up large crowds along Main Street and on the beach, Handy said.
"The presence is much different when people see two officers walking on horseback through downtown versus two officers walking a beat on a sidewalk downtown," the chief said. "They stand out more; more people see them and more people take note of them."
After several months of study and acquiring horses to train, the department chose Sgt. Michael Metoyer, officers Ricci, William Brownlee and Victor Ojeda and two alternates to form the mounted enforcement unit.
There currently are three horses, acquired through purchase or donation. The department is looking for a fourth.
Handy said the unit will not be used every day, so when the officers are not on horseback, they will perform other patrol duties.
It cost the HBPD about $75,000 to pay for the horses, training and lodging. The department will be looking to spend about $24,000 annually to care for the animals and house them at the Central Park Equestrian Center, Handy said.
On a hot and gusty Thursday afternoon at the equestrian center, the mounted enforcement unit was busy getting dusty during one of its training days.
Trainer Melanie Rigdon yelled tips to the officers as they practiced with their horses in one of the arenas.
"I really like their structure of how they approach training, which gets a lot done at once," Rigdon said of the group. "There's a lot of humor in between the sessions, which makes it nice and relaxed and go by quickly."
No sooner had she said that than Metoyer's horse, Drifter, passed gas.
"That's some of the glamour of the horses," Rigdon said with a laugh.
Rigdon has 13 years of horse training experience and usually works for Horse Play Rentals at the equestrian center, teaching the public how to ride. This is her first time training officers and horses.
"We work on horse care as well as the under-saddle work," she said. "They're learning as a whole how to be an owner, a partner to them and a rider."
Except for Ojeda, each officer has been assigned to a horse. Metoyer is paired with Drifter, an 8-year-old red roan quarter horse. Brownlee is with Rowdy, a 9-year-old sorrel quarter horse, and Ricci is partnered with Kelly Blue, an 8-year-old palomino quarter horse.
Kelly Blue is named after Kelly Morehouse, a Huntington Beach resident who died last year in a traffic collision a block from the equestrian center.
Ricci, one of the first officers to respond to the crash scene that night, was surprised to find out his horse was named after someone he tried to save.
"Anything we get to do in law enforcement to give back to people, I enjoy it," Ricci said. "Being able to give back to the family and to give something back to the community is pretty awesome."
Most of the group has experience riding a horse. Ojeda started riding when he was 18 and stationed at what was then the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Brownlee grew up in Oklahoma and has ridden since he was a child.
Metoyer has more than 40 years of experience riding, including several years in rodeo circuits.
"I rode in the National Police Rodeo Association and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and was a bull rider doing that," he said. "Talk about an adrenaline rush. That took it to a whole new level."
Ricci had no experience riding a horse but has learned most of the fundamentals in the past several months.
"It's hard to describe, but it's an amazing opportunity that we have, and it's great to be a part of something new and something that's going to benefit our city and department," he said. "Every day, I never take it for granted."
[For the record, 11:45 a.m. Aug. 13: An earlier version of this story called the unit the 42nd Cavalry. It is not called by that nickname.]