The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Horse Unit (MHU) traditionally patrols parades and community events like the Reno Rodeo, but, with large gatherings banned and events getting canceled to curb the spread of COVID-19, the MHU has turned their attention to something else.
Two out of the six deputies with the MHU had their first shift of 2020 on Saturday, May 9. They patrolled trailheads at Golden Eagle Regional Park, Mayberry Park, Michael D. Thompson Trailhead, trails at the Galena Creek Visitor Center and recreational shooting areas in the region.
Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Clark oversees MHU. He said with businesses being closed, the office is seeing a huge increase of people venturing outside and engaging in outdoor activities compared to last spring. He said horses allow the deputies to monitor trailheads and also watch over people’s property.
“They were really there for a police presence,” Clark said, “Ultimately, we have seen an uptick in vehicle burglaries. Same thing that we do at Reno Rodeo and some of these bigger events to keep people’s property safe. But then we can do additional duties as far as going out on the trails and ensuring that people are getting along fine, and there’s no criminal activity within the trails.
“This past weekend we used them for even gun calls because with the warmer weather, obviously people want to get out and shoot firearms, and things like that. When there’s congested area shooting, obviously brush fires and things like that are a concern for us, and coupled with the fact that we have extra hikers out,” Clark added.
Clark said the MHU deputies didn’t write any citations on May 9. He did say several warnings were given to people shooting firearms.
Additionally, Clark made sure to clarify that the MHU is not policing social distancing.
“Those types of issues are certainly up in the air and being contested as far as constitutionality, and things like that,” he said. “The direction with the Sheriff’s Office is that we are obviously recommending people wear masks and the Sheriff has strongly recommended all of our staff wear the mask, but he’s not mandating it per se. We do follow this. We are trying to follow the CDC guidelines for COVID-19, certainly within our facility and outside the facility. But because it’s just kind of a gray area … we are not policing if people are wearing masks and properly social distancing.”
The horse unit was revived in 2016, and the deputies provide their own horses. The horses go through training to try to make them as “bomb-proof” as possible, given that they are still animals at the end of the day. The horses are introduced to fireworks, crowds, sirens and canines, and must go through obstacle courses with flares and smoke bombs on the ground to desensitize them. There was a training session scheduled at the end of April, but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clark said deploying the MHU actually costs less than vehicle maintenance for other deputies. He plans on having the MHU patrol different trailheads next weekend.
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.