AF’s only active horse patrol helps protect Vandenberg’s humans and wildlife

AF’s only active horse patrol helps protect Vandenberg’s humans and wildlife

The buckskin quarter horse’s brown coat glistened in the California sunshine as Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels brushed it outside his stall.

“You’re such a good boy, Duke,” the 30th Security Forces Squadron conservation law enforcement patrolman told the horse before she heard a loud snort behind her. 

“You’re coming, too, Patton,” Daniels then reassured the white palomino who was named after one of the most famous generals in American history. “We’re not leaving without you.”

Daniels and her fellow patrolman, Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis, then saddled the two horses and loaded them on a trailer for their patrol of the Vandenberg Air Force Base beaches.

The mounted horse patrolmen’s job requires considerable patience and work to care for the horses and prepare them for patrolling the base’s challenging terrain that ranges from rough hills to sandy beaches. Each of the four horses, including two other quarter horses named Buck and Trooper, has his own individual personality, strengths and quirks, Daniels said.

“A horse is kind of like if you mixed a dog and a toddler together and then made it 1,500 pounds,” she said. “Like a dog, you have to learn how to work with each one, or they will just shut down. You have to be patient and take the time to get to know them, like you would any co-worker, so you will have a good working relationship.”

During this Saturday shift, the patrolmen were specifically on the lookout for violators of the beach areas that were closed to protect the Western snowy plover’s nesting season. They issued three tickets for the violation.

About 20 percent of California’s Western Snowy Plovers are at Vandenberg AFB. The small shorebird, which ranges between 1.3 and 2 ounces, is federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. The birds nest in dunes, and their pebble-sized eggs on the base’s three beaches are vulnerable from March 1 through Sept. 30.

The Western Snowy Plovers, along with ensuring no people are in the unauthorized areas for the base’s space launches, are the primary reasons for the horse patrol at Vandenberg, although they have also had an impact in other ways, such as rescuing hunters and crowd control during protests of the missile launches.

“The need for a mounted horse unit was twofold,” said Wayne Moses, 30th SFS lead conservation law enforcement officer. “The initial justification was for the backcountry sweeps inside the impact limit line during our launches. The second reason is we aren’t allowed to ride mechanized vehicles such as (all-terrain vehicles) on the beaches during snowy plover nesting season. During nesting season, it’s wiser to use the horses to patrol because they have less impact on the environment.

“There’s nothing like the mounted horse patrol in the Air Force, nothing like it in the armed forces. We are the sole law enforcement patrol that uses horses.”

Each morning, the unit’s NCOIC, Staff Sgt. Veronica Beyer, and other conservation law enforcement patrolmen arrive at the stables to feed the horses and check them for any cuts they may have sustained during the night, and clean the pens. Previously, the patrolmen would put hay in the feed bins, but the horses would scatter it with their snouts while trying to get to oats and molasses, Beyer said. 

This led to the horses ingesting a lot of sand, which could lead to the potentially fatal colic. Beyer’s research led to inexpensive hay nets, which are placed about eye-level with the horse. The nets not only help the horses’ digestion and decrease the risk of diseases and stomach ailments, but also forced them to eat slower. Beyer also trains the patrolmen to learn techniques like grooming and tacking and how to pick up clues on the horse’s behavior. She also provides desensitization training for the horses to get them accustomed to objects that frighten them, such as plastic bags.

“Plastic bags are the biggest thing,” she said. “We take things that are scary to horses and just get them gradually used to it. They’ve all gotten used to plastic bags except Buck. He’s still terrified of them, like he thinks the bag is going to eat him.”

Vandenberg’s mounted horse patrol, the Air Force’s only remaining horse unit used for law enforcement, helps the squadron cover the base’s almost 100,000 acres and 40 miles of coastline and protect the space launch mission. They ensure there are no unauthorized people from the coastline to the main roads, where normal patrols can’t go, and take the horses on the mountain side of the base for south side launches, Daniels said.

“They also play an intimidation factor,” she said. “People don’t really want to mess with any cop on a horse.”

While on mounted patrol on the beach or on one of the base’s rugged hills, the conservation security forces members survey their surroundings and constantly talk to their horses.

“Calm, active and alert would describe some of the feelings that constantly go through my mind when on patrol,” said Staff Sgt. Michael J. Vera, another conservation law enforcement patrolman. “I must remain calm in all situations that arise that might spook the military working horse and work him through it. I must actively sustain positive control over the MWH. Lastly, staying alert. Being aware of our surroundings helps me foresee any obstacle that we might come across while patrolling.”

The relationship with the military working horse is vital. The patrolmen spend a lot of time with the horses to create the bond that’s necessary for them to work as a team on patrol, Vera said.

“There’s a relationship that has to be built when going on a mounted patrol,” he said. “That’s why we spend the majority of our time with the horses. That time spent with them creates a bond between rider and horse. All four horses have different personalities and temperaments. I put all my trust in the horse when I’m patrolling the beach. Likewise, he puts trust in me that I’m leading him to all the right places.”

The importance of the working relationship between the patrolmen and horses to the base’s space mission was one factor that led retired Chief Master Sgt. David Ybarra to bring the mounted patrol to Vandenberg about two decades ago.

Today, retired Chief Master Sgt. David Ybarra owns a diner near the base with his wife, but in 1994, he was manager of what was then the 30th Security Police Squadron when his NCO in charge, Master Sgt. Jim Mercer, suggested the idea to him. Ybarra immediately saw the need for a horse patrol to support the space mission, provide crowd control during protests of the space mission and resolve concerns about the snowy plovers.

Ybarra called a friend at Howard Air Base, Panama, which was about to close and disband its own horse patrol, which would send the horses back into the logistics system. Instead, Ybarra’s squadron received the four horses and then bought two more from a northern California rancher for a price that also included patrolmen training.

Even with the protests about missile launches in the height of the space program, the base never had a security incident, and Ybarra gives some of the credit to the horse patrol.

“I think the biggest impact for me as security police manager was how it enhanced our ability to provide protection for our launches,” said Ybarra, who retired in 1999. “We have some areas out there that are pretty rugged, and it would be easy for a criminal element to hide and want to do damage to our resources, especially during a launch. Everybody sees the public relations portion of the space launches, but for me, as a cop and a military man, the biggest benefit was being able to increase the security for our mission here on Vandenberg.”

Judge, the last of the original four horses the patrol received from Panama, was retired in 2011, along with Willie, who was purchased from a rancher. The patrol came close to being phased out, but was saved by the 30th SFS commander, Lt. Col. Michelle Stringer. Not only did she keep the mounted horse unit, but she also authorized the purchase of six more horses, Moses said.

So two decades after the first horses arrived at Vandenberg AFB, horses and their patrolmen are still working together to protect both people and wildlife. As an indication of their relationship, Beyer constantly rubs her horse’s neck and talks to him as if he’s another patrolman.

“I like to take the time to be fully focused on the horse because even though they can’t talk to us, you can learn a lot from their body language, and they are speaking to you, in a sense,” Beyer said. “That’s why you need to have that connection with your horse. You know their mannerisms, when they’re upset, when they’re not, and they listen to you, even though they can’t understand us, they definitely understand our tone. They feed off of our energy completely. So if you’re nervous or upset, it’s going to make them nervous or upset.”

Beyer, who has been riding horses since the age of 9 and was also involved in equestrian jumping, joined the conservation section in November 2011 and became NCO in charge about a year ago.

“When you’re around a horse, everything that is going on in your life, all of the craziness, just kind of goes away,” she said. “It’s like my Zen place, if you will.”

Since most of the patrolmen have little or no experience with horses before joining, Beyer is in charge of training, both for them and the horses. As long as they don’t have a deathly fear of the animals, Beyer says she can teach them. She starts at the beginning with hand and leg placement and signs to look for that the horse is getting stressed or upset. One of the biggest lessons is teaching them that because horses are pack animals, they want someone to be their leader. So she emphasizes the patrolman learn to become the horse’s “alpha.”

“When these guys first came, they’d never been around horses,” she said. “To see them from then to now, it makes me very proud. At the end of the day, this is a 1,200-pound animal that can kill you. So I try to minimize that before they even go out there.”

Daniels was one of those patrolmen with little experience with horses when she joined the conservation section about two years after she arrived at Vandenberg AFB in late 2006. But now, as she returns to the stables at the end of the day to feed and groom the horses, Daniels greets the animals as she would if they were her personal pets.

“Coming from a place where I didn’t know anything about horses and never having been around them much to how it is now, it’s like going home and saying hi to my family,” she said. “You know everything about them, how they’re going to act and react, and as you get to know them, they get to know you, and it’s because of those interactions that we can still get the job done so well.”

Just to prove the point, Daniels and Beyer say goodnight to Buck, Duke, Patton and Trooper before they close the stables doors, only to return to begin another day on the horse patrol the following morning.

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