Rachel Clayton goes above and beyond the typical activities of a high school student. On top regular school work and friends, Rachel pours even more of her time into something a bit more unique.
Rachel chooses to volunteer her time working with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department Mounted Unit. Whenever you see a horse at a large outdoor event such as a parade, Artpize, or a typical night downtown, it is likely that Rachel had a part in training that horse.
Rachel works with the horses once a week for three to four hours each session.
Rachel has been riding at her barn for five years, but three years ago when a family friend and ex-police officer mentioned the Mounting Unit, Rachel was intrigued.
“He mentioned [training police horses] to one of the police officers that works at the barn, and they called me and said ‘Hey do you want to help out?’” Rachel said.
Rachel jumped right into the program and began the process of getting horses “road ready.” To get a horse road ready it needs all of its basic skills, like learning cues for moving and stopping, trotting, cantering, and galloping. Along with the general cues, Rachel also has to train horses to move large masses of people with their bodies. She also has to desensitize them to everything from loud noises to little kids running between their legs.
One of the most important parts of working with a horse is gaining his or her trust.
“With any horse that I’ve ever ridden you build a bond,” Rachel said, “but then [with police horses] you have to gain their trust.”
Gaining a horse’s trust is vital because that is the only way they will handle things that would typically spook them when out on the road. They learn to depend on the rider to keep them safe.
The next step is translating the bond Rachel has formed with the horse to the police officer that will be riding the horse during events. When desensitizing a horse, they are exposed to elements that would immediately spook a normal horse. Police horses need to trust the people they’re working with, otherwise no one will get anywhere.
“I know what they will react to and they trust me to get them through things that would normally scare them,” said Eric Rakow, police officer at Kent County Sheriff Department. “In the end, we become a team working together.”
In order to desensitize, Rachel and Eric have to take the horses through a series of drills. Some of the drills used with the horses include balls and other objects being thrown at them, walking through a room of barrels hanging from the ceiling with pool noodles sticking out of them, and walking with flags over their heads – something that most horses are extremely afraid of. All of these activities require a great deal of trust and a big part of Rachel’s job is getting the horses to trust the two or three officers that ride that particular horse as much as they trust Rachel.
A road ready horse needs to be calm and collective at all times. They need to be docile so they can handle themselves in large crowds when being brought places like downtown on big nights like concerts and the Fourth of July.
“If someone were to walk up and hit them, they can’t react to it; they just have to stand there and take it,” Rachel said.
Rachel’s involvement in the program has a large impact on not only the horses and people she works with, but also the speed of how quickly the horses become road ready, and how much retraining they have to do from year to year.
“Due to Rachel’s involvement, we are able to hit the ground running when event season starts without any warm up or re-training required,” Rakow said.
All of this is a big responsibility. Add her own personal riding, which Rachel does for three days of the week for two or three hours a day, and you have a pretty tight schedule. But Rachel keeps it all under control.
“I have a set schedule of days that I ride so I plan ahead for those days, making my homework load lighter on those nights,” Rachel said.
With all the time Rachel spends at the barn, a group of friends has blossomed along the way. She has friends from her barn and friends from showing horses together. This makes everything easier for her with all the time she spends at the barn; she sees her school friends but that is not the limit because she has barn friends too.
Rachel is sure to keep things organised because the barn is actually a big stress reliever for her. She finds that planning ahead lets her focus more on spending time with horses, “doing the thing she loves.”