By Kristen Curry
Elephants, wildebeest, giraffes, bears and bison, dinosaurs, herons, and more – Roger Williams Park is home to many interesting creatures, wild and non-wild alike.
Some of the most popular residents at Roger Williams live on the eastern side of the park, across from the Botanical Center.
The grassy fields here are home to Providence’s Mounted Command. Charlie, Reilly, Salute, Prince and Thunder live here year-round with the park their home base as they patrol the capital city and make special appearances at events across the state.
Of course, horses are not a novel or new means of transportation for the Providence Police. Horses were the vehicle of choice in the city when the department was chartered in 1864 until the city fleet became mechanical and horses were considered an anachronism. Horses served the department through the 1940s when mounted commands in cities across the country began to retire one by one. Just a few remain today, in Worcester, Chicago, and New York, as well as the Massachusetts state police.
The horses returned to Providence in 1979 when then-mayor Buddy Cianci resurrected the herd; the first established stables were located in the DPW garage on Allens Ave. The unit found a home in Roger Williams Park two decades ago, thanks to an open space grant which gave them a central and welcoming home and added a safety presence in the park. Appropriately, the horses were installed on the site of the park’s former pony barn.
The Mounted Command’s officers and horses regularly patrol the city streets, provide crowd control for large-scale events and attend community happenings at local schools, elderly centers, parades and ceremonies.
While the unit and facility are funded through the City’s budget, the horses are acquired through the generous sponsorship of the members of the community and the citizens of Rhode Island. The purchase of horses and continuous training is funded through generous donations from the public.
Although he’s been around horses for decades, Sgt. Steven Courville, leader of the Mounted Command, still looks at the horses under his care with awe and respect. “I have seen some amazing things, in how horses connect to people,” he says. “They bring a special awareness and means of communicating with their environment.” Courville says that horses evoke memories, feelings, and curiosity in the public.
Courville is pleased to have a commitment from new Mayor of Providence Brett Smiley and his staff to bring the department back up to optimum size, and is looking forward to bringing new horses to the upgraded paddocks in the coming year.
The paddock improvements come as part of city-wide improvements to Providence’s public infrastructure, in the city’s comprehensive Capital Improvement Plan. Improvements to the command, worth $680,000, will provide the right care for the horses and their welfare and showcase the unit as a point of pride for the city.
Most of horses that live in the park come from St. Louis, surplus Clydesdales from the Anheuser-Busch stables. Courville calls the draft horses the golden retrievers of horses: people-loving, open, sweet, and trainable.
“Riding a 2,000-lb. animal is a hard job, and needs a certain level of dedication and physicality,” Courville says. “The animals have needs and a level of care on a daily basis.” Most importantly, a mounted officer must love animals and be willing to do the tasks involved in caring for them. Knowing how to ride a horse is not actually a requirement for joining the command.
Once trained and ready, command officers find that the best part of their day is talking to kids in the city and answering questions about their job.
“We help people every day,” Courville says. The command attends parades, funerals and VIP events. “We are there for people on their happy days and at times on their worst days. The horses bring meaning and are a way to connect with people across the city. These majestic creatures invite human interaction.”
Courville calls the work a labor of love and is glad to see his team’s equine partners get the facility upgrades they deserve and will enjoy.
The horses’ fences are being replaced with longer-lasting, more attractive vinyl fences. They’ll get new grass paddocks and a new walking surface of stone dust that is more gentle on their feet. The pasture is being re-seeded with a special hay blend of timothy, broom and rye grass, with seeding taking place this summer.
“It was a pleasure to work with Sgt. Courville and his team to reimagine, design, and manage the construction of the Providence Police Department Mounted Command project,” says Wendy Nilsson, Parks & Recreation Superintendent. “Our aim was to integrate Mounted Command into the fabric of the park, beyond its utilitarian purpose, and make it a beautiful and unique community resource, and visitor destination. We are thrilled that the new facility is such a healthy home for the horses we all love and are excited about the innovative public programs and events will happen there.”
The Mounted Command
Mounted officers, ambassadors for the department and the city, can be found riding their horses in Kennedy Plaza downtown, at the Gaspee Days parade, Bristol 4th of July Parade, PVD Fest and more.
“Some come on the Command and love it, really find a home here,” Courville says. Last year the park and department celebrated an officer, Dan Famiglietti, who retired after spending 32 years of his 35-year career with the command.
Officer Erick Fernandez is now following in his footsteps, as one of the newest members of the Mounted Command. Courville recruited him, saying his communication and people skills would suit him for the job. A member of the PPD’s hostage negotiation team, Fernandez found that learning to ride a horse called on a different skill set, but he has appreciated the opportunity. “I had to be patient with the horses and with myself,” he says. Now that he’s comfortable in the saddle, he welcomes seeing Charlie every day, getting to cover more of the city, and finds the new role a stress reliever, too. “It’s like an oasis to come here,” he smiles.
Courville welcomes visits from the public to see the horses and stable. The Command facility is open to group tours Monday through Friday by appointment and regularly welcomes classrooms from greater Providence and Rhode Island, as well as senior groups, Scout troops and 4-H clubs. The unit will also have an open house in the fall. To learn more, visit https://www.providenceri.gov/police/meet-the-horses/ or contact [email protected] / 401-243-6042.
To follow the horses, visit their Facebook page at Providence Police Department Mounted Command.