Scout, a handsome 6-year-old Percheron/Thoroughbred horse, stepped onto the beach, a state police trooper on his back, and everyone on the sparsely populated beach Friday afternoon stopped what they were doing to look.
A few children ran up and patted Scout on his shoulder while Trooper David McCann joked with them and answered questions.
In the state park campground next to the beach a short time later, McCann said hello to a younger man on a path. Once out of earshot, the trooper said, “He was drinking, so we’ll be chatting with him a little later. I know it and he knows it.”
It’s a day in the life of the state police mounted unit assigned to Salisbury Beach State Park for the summer.
“It’s as much PR as it is patrol,” McCann said in an interview.
The state police mounted unit is headquartered at the Acton barracks and has 13 horses and six year-round troopers assigned to it, said Sgt. Jack Linquata, the officer who oversees the unit. Three additional troopers were assigned for the summer.
Three horses — Scout, Zach and Captain — are stabled for the summer at Salisbury Beach State Park, where they patrol the campground and state beach. McCann, a Fall River native who lives in Haverhill, has been with the mounted unit for 14 of his 18 years with the state police.
Much of Friday’s patrol was introducing Scout to young children, some of whom walked right up and started patting while others hung back, unsure. A few young men and women posed for pictures on the beach.
But the horses and troopers do more than entertain campers and beach goers, McCann said. They respond to medical calls on the beach, enforce state park regulations — especially the ban on alcohol — search for missing children and act as a uniquely effective form of crowd control.
Salisbury Beach, which was rather empty Friday after nearly a week of rain, can draw crowds of up to 10,000, McCann said.
On a hot Saturday several weeks ago, mounted troopers assisted on a medical call for a case of heat exhaustion and chest pain, and helped rescue a 9-year-old girl from the water after she suffered a seizure. Spotting people in the water or down the beach is a part of the job where being on horseback is a definite advantage.
“It’s a lot easier to see when you’re on the back of a horse,” McCann said. “You’re on a platform and you can see down the beach 100 yards, better than if you’re on foot. And people can see us a lot better than a guy on an ATV or on foot.”
Though they’re based in Acton, the horses are used around eastern Massachusetts often. They patrol festivals in Boston. They provide crowd control at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston and during Patriots games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
During the winter, all the horses are stabled at Acton, where the six year-round troopers, including McCann, work to keep up the stable, paddock and gear. The troopers are responsible for the care and upkeep of the animals.
McCann did not have any real experience with horses when he first volunteered for the mounted unit. In fact, he said, he had only ridden a horse maybe twice before. He volunteered because the unit was close to where he lived at the time on the South Coast.
But over those 14 years, he realized he wouldn’t be anywhere else. He said the troopers form bonds with the horses, similar to police K-9 units. But it’s a different relationship that often runs one-way because unlike the K-9 units, the horses don’t feel a dog-like sense of dedication or adoration toward people. “The horse couldn’t care whether you’re gone 12 minutes or 12 days,” McCann said.
The mounted unit is a holdover from the days when horses were the only mode of transportation, Linquata said. As cars and motorcycles became more popular, the state police felt the horses were still useful because of several advantages, like crowd control or searches for missing people in wooded areas outside the cities or in Western Massachusetts.
And practically speaking, the horses travel better in the sand at beaches including Lynn, Nahant and Carson Beach in South Boston. And at Salisbury state park, they can easily cover all the terrains from the dunes to the campground to the parking lot and the streets.
The unit had been maintained with donated horses, typically from people who could not afford or could not keep them any more. A few were retired race horses. Several of the current younger horses, including Scout, were purchased as yearlings in Canada.
Emma Nett, 8, of West Boylston, patted Scout at the Salisbury Beach campground as her straw-blonde hair blew in the wind. Scout put his snout on her head like he wanted to chew on her hair, and then turned away, almost teasing.
“He likes blonde hair,” McCann said to her. “It’s his favorite flavor. He thinks it’s hay.”