To riders with and without badges, a retired member of Key West’s Police Mounted Unit teaches a unique blend of horse-riding safety and self-defense.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
With 20 years under his belt in law enforcement, Mark Newby saw a chance to chase a dream. He was up for retirement at the ripe young age of 42, so, he took life by the reins, bought 10 acres in one of Florida’s lesser-known pockets of piney woods and pasturelands, and set up shop as a horse trainer.
Three years later, that dream is reality. He now pursues his passion for training horses and their riders at Suncoast Equine, his teaching facility near Webster, Fla., about halfway between Tampa and Orlando.
Newby’s courses, however, go beyond basic riding skills, although that and trail-riding clinics are offered. Much of his focus at Suncoast involves self-defense and safety education for law-enforcement organizations as well as civilians. His curriculum also often involves what he calls “sensory training” for the horses.
“That’s just a fancy term for desensitizing horses to certain stimuli that would otherwise naturally be of concern to them,” says Newby, who exposes the four-legged creatures, as well as their two-legged riders, to such potential distractions as urban noises, wildlife, livestock and one of the most dangerous components of modern-day living, bad guys.
“Unfortunately, today, it’s just as likely you’ll be accosted riding on a trail as in a parking lot walking to your car. I just want my students to be safe and have a good time. A little awareness for all these stimuli makes that all the more possible.”
Keys to the Curriculum
Mark Newby knows a little about how to keep a horse calm in the midst of commotion and unforeseen distractions. For 10 years beginning in 1999, he was part of the Police Mounted Unit in Key West, where festivities can get more than a little animated. He’s ridden his horse into bars, corralled revelers and chased down perps, all while perched atop a horse.
That experience informs his Suncoast curriculum, which was culled from a program affiliated with the University of Louisville, where he received his initial training. Now, living and working in an area of Florida where ranches are still plentiful, Newby has further adapted the program for riders in rural, as well as urban areas.
No matter the client, stimuli or surroundings, this type of training involves one underlying principle, says Newby. “It’s trust. You have to reinforce the relationship between the horse and the rider.”
Obstacles and Bandits
To strengthen that bond, Newby puts them both through the paces at Suncoast. There, he uses an obstacle course he made himself that includes a darkened walk-through tunnel, tires, mini-bridge and a sort of blocking dummy. He blows whistles, fires his gun and honks horns.
He’s also cut trails on the property, where students ride and learn how to handle encounters with darting wildlife and even the occasional bandit lurking in the woods. Livestock can also be introduced in the clinics and classes.
“We talk to the people to learn about the environment they’re going to have their horse in the most,” Newby explains. “If a person says, ‘Well, nothing but trails,’ then we won’t spend the time or the money trying to desensitize them to gunfire, police sirens, smoke, flashing lights and things of that nature. Conversely, if the horse is going to be used for urban work alone and never out … in the country, we won’t spend much time with the horse desensitizing them to, let’s say, a wild boar or deer.”
Petting a Police Car?
In addition to the ability to see over tall obstacles and give chase in areas where cars, even bikes, can’t operate well, horse patrols also offer unique crowd-control benefits. “Crowds move aside for a 12-foot-tall, 1,200-pound horse,” says Newby. They also appeal to many people’s natural love of animals, whether on the farm or in the city.
That attraction is a huge plus in community policing, Newby says. “Police departments hold meetings all the time [with community members], and they’re very rarely well attended. However, when you ride through a neighborhood on a police horse, you don’t have to invite anybody to come to talk to you. If they see the horse … they want to pet it.
“I’ve never had anybody come up and ask to pet my police car before. But that petting of the horse starts a dialogue, and the mounted officer can learn what’s going on in the community,” he explains.
Doing What He Loves
Newby’s clientele is growing, and is currently about half civilian and half law enforcement. He’s trained numerous neighbors and others from across central Florida, as well as sworn and volunteer law officers from several area jurisdictions.
In addition to keeping riders and horses safer, Newby believes he’s helping keep mounted units viable. Budget constraints have cut public funding for many horse patrols, often leaving only private funds to keep them operating. Newby says that by working on his own, doing much of the work on his land himself, he’s able to charge departments a lower cost than many larger, university-affiliated schools.
Newby says, however, he’s doing what he enjoys with creatures he truly cares for. “I respect the fact that [horses] can be dangerous to people and property if not handled and trained properly, and without appropriate precautions taken,” he says. There are also those external dangers for which he helps prepare horse and rider.
Yet, he continues, “working with horses over the years, I have acquired a tremendous respect for them: their abilities, the psychology of horses, the way they learn, their behaviors, their vulnerabilities, and the pleasure they can bring to humans in so many ways.”
When asked if he has a passion for what he’s doing, Newby simply replies: “Without a doubt.”