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Chicago Police Horse Trainer is Living His Dream

By Natalie Kaplan | January 1, 2013 9:47am

SOUTH SHORE — There aren't many people who enjoy coming to work everyday more than Michael Clisham. He's the head trainer of the Chicago Police Department's Mounted Patrol Unit and has considered his job heaven on Earth for the past 18 years.

“People would pay to do what I’m doing and I get paid to do it,” Clisham said.

Originally raised on a farm, Clisham had been working with horses his entire life before joining the Mounted Patrol Unit in 1994. He started as a patrolman and three years later turned to training horses and the officers who ride them. He was officially named head trainer in January. 

"I couldn't ask for anything more," he said, admitting to taking on extra shifts during his days off.  

Every few years, the Mounted Patrol Unit located in the South Shore Cultural Center in the 700 block of South Shore Drive, calls on new officers to join its team.

“The people that come here and work here are people that love horses, and they also love being a Chicago police officer,” said Lt. Paul Bauer.

But most of them don’t have any real experience around horses. 

Of the roughly 15 officers put through the 14-week training course, only about half of them complete it.

“Most of the people in the city of Chicago have never been around a horse.” Clisham said. “So when we start with officers, they know nothing about horses or riding or anything, so it’s a slow process but still has to be a fairly intense process to graduate them.”

Besides training the officers, Clisham spends a large amount of his time getting the horses ready for duty. Before a horse is accepted into the Mounted Patrol Unit it must meet a certain set of criteria, including color and size.

“When we’re in a line, or at a protest, or someplace where people start throwing stuff at us, if there’s one horse that stands out, that horse becomes a target,” Clisham said.

The department’s primary function is to patrol the streets, but it's also called up to conduct crowd management during sporting events, demonstrations and protest marches.

Horses begin basic training inside the South Shore Cultural Center arena to learn standard cues. They move to an outside arena where they are introduced to natural stimuli like crashing waves in a controlled environment. The next phase of training includes local park and neighborhood exercises.

“Everything we’re exposing that horse to is kind of unnatural for them,” Clisham said.

And, just like humans, they’ve all got their own vices. “They are a flight animal so their natural instinct is to get out of Dodge when they see something that just doesn’t register as right,” he said.

The final test for a horse is to patrol areas close to Chicago’s "L" trains. If they make it past the unpredictable sights and sounds, they’re usually good to go, Clisham said. At the end of training, Clisham pairs officers and horses.

“We have a pretty good idea of someone’s ability level, their personality, just their way of doing things,” Clisham said. “We can match them to a horse that’s going to fit them.”

Once an officer is assigned to a horse, they tend to stick together for their entire careers, which makes for a unique crime-fighting team.

“You build a bond with that horse, and a trust,” Clisham said.