SOUTH SHORE — When Chicago police “mounties” patrol the city atop sleek thoroughbreds and powerful quarter horses — writing parking tickets, chasing down bad guys and controlling wild crowds from well-worn saddles — they regularly get hit with the same question: What’s your horse’s name?
If you, like me, figured the cute-but-powerful police equines who can clear Blackhawks fans from Clark Street in minutes would have lovable names like “Sgt. Buttercup” or “Pretty Boy,” well, you’d be wrong.
As far as anyone can tell, the only “Pretty Boy” on the force is still a plainclothes officer in the Englewood District.
Since 2000, the names of horses in the mounted unit have doubled as tributes to officers killed in the line of duty.
It all started when assistant trainer officer Joe Cistaro pitched naming a police horse after slain Chicago officer John Knight, who was shot and killed on duty in 1999.
“Knight was one of my mounts,” Lt. Paul Mack, the unit’s commanding officer said.
“I can tell you that for the riders, the name means something. It’s sad, but a nice little honor we can bestow, and there’s not a day that these riders don’t think of who their horses are named after.”
Mack said he relished the chance to tell folks about Officer Knight.
“It really illustrates to people just how dangerous this job can be, and they better appreciate what we do,” Mack said.
And the tradition stuck.
Since the recent retirement of veteran policy horse “Baldy” only two of the department’s 29 geldings — “Skip” and “Rudy” — have cutesy horse names.
All the others carry the last names of officers who gave their lives on the job.
Officer Mike Clisham, head trainer at the police horse barn, said the horse names have been particularly touching for the families of slain officers.
“A lot of families come visit. Donny Marquez’s family has come to visit more than once. When I told his father about the horse named in Donny’s honor, how it seems to have Donny’s personality, his dad was in tears as he watched the horse run around,” Clisham said.
“It’s a touching, fitting tribute and it’s the minimum we can do for the families who have given so much to the city.”
Chicago Police mountie Renee Gonzalez rides "Marquez," named after late Officer Donny Marquez who was killed on duty in 2002. [DNAinfo/Mark Konkol]
The mounted patrol unit stable is tucked away in a corner of the South Shore Cultural Center where the Chicago Police Department’s horses — a collection of geldings of a uniform brown or reddish color so none stands out and becomes a target for bottle-throwing protesters (or Blackhawks fans) — ironically live behind bars in stalls marked with short stories about the officers they’re named after.
On a recent visit I got a glimpse of what life is like for officers who get to spend their shifts horseback riding along the lake.
Sounds romantic, but veteran mounties will tell you writing tickets on horseback isn’t always a gallop in the park.
Lt. Mack said the detail — which requires officers to stay on their horse for up to seven hours a day — is the “hardest physical training” the Police Department has to offer.
“We’ve had guys from SWAT … even military guys who say it’s the worse than boot camp. You use a lot of core muscles that people don’t use unless you're on a horse. It’s hard work,” he said. “We’ve had [mounted officers] break bones, break backs and have serious soft tissue injuries.”
Mack said one of the most painful and common injuries happens during, er, “unexpected deceleration,” if you know what I’m saying.
For that, about 50 percent of officers who think they want to patrol Chicago from horseback either quit or flunk out of the training program.
“It’s pretty tough. We take people who grew up in the city who don’t have any horse experience at all. They see Buttercup out in the park with an officer on it and think, ‘That’s cool, I can do that,’ ” said Clisham, who grew up on a farm in Downstate Newton and drove a Downtown carriage before joining the department in 1991.
“Then they get here and have to muck stalls … and get on a horse’s back. These [horses] have a mind of their own — and notice it’s a lot farther a fall than it looks. Some people have it, some people don’t.”
So, when you see a Chicago police mountie patrolling North Avenue Beach or strolling along the Mag Mile, know they’re a pretty special breed.
And ask him how his horse got its name — it’s a story he’s proud to tell.
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