As Athens Halloween celebrations begin in 2017, you’ll notice an increased police presence. That also means you’ll be seeing more of their four-legged companions. 

The weekend before 2016’s HallOUween Block Party, an American Paint Horse named Toby munched happily on some chocolate wafer bars. They’re his favorite. Two stalls over were his co-workers: Dixie High, or DH for short, and Betty. DH will gladly accept any treat, though he prefers chocolate and peanut butter candy. Betty has simple tastes and prefers peppermints. Athens Police Officer Neil Dicken owns all three of the trained police horses and was getting ready to ride DH in last year’s HallOUween block party.

A familiar sight during events like the block party and street fests, the Mounted Patrol provide three things: viewpoint, crowd control and public relations. Athens Chief of Police Tom Pyle says the station uses them in the fall, usually for homecoming and HallOUween, and then from March to the end of April for fests. The Athens Police Department’s Mounted Unit work hours around HallOUween seep into overtime. Last HallOUween night, the department left for downtown around 2:45 p.m. and stayed out until around 4:30 a.m. Although most departments use city-owned horses and a per mileage pay scale, each Athens mounted officer has primary ownership of his or her horses. The city then rents the animals for $12.50 an hour. That’s their pay plus overtime, according to Pyle.  

Partygoers take a selfie with an officer of the Mounted Patrol. Adriana Navarro.
Partygoers take a selfie with an officer of the Mounted Patrol. Adriana Navarro.

In 2016, temperatures on the night of the block party reached a high of 77 degrees, making it the warmest HallOUween the officers could remember. They predicted the warm weather would increase both the number of house parties and the timing of the festivities. While their numbers are augmented with officers from other departments, the Columbus Police were not among them that year, as they were busy providing security for an Ohio State University football game.

Volunteer officers from other departments began to roll in a little after noon on the Friday before HallOUween, coming from Cleveland, Medina County, Belmont County and others. Their trailers and campers sat on the Athens Fairgrounds by the barn, and even the city officers camped on the grounds to take care of their horses. Years of experience have taught them which spots to avoid, particularly those that are the first to flood when it rains.

Their job started Friday night, the day before the block party. There was a show-like environment as the officers washed down the horses, taking extra care to groom and clean each one. They didn’t want students who stopped to pet the horses to pull their hand away with dirt or dust on it. The weather was just warm enough to allow them to wash their horses, but there was still the occasional cool breeze and the colorful leaves to remind everyone that it was autumn. Dicken sprayed detangler in his horses’ manes and tails, trying to loosen burs, the grooming bane of nearly every horse owner’s existence (besides a dirty white horse). Luckily for Dicken, he owns a white and chestnut Paint.

“I’m never owning a white horse again,” he said under his breath as he cleaned the dust from Toby’s white patches.

Dicken headed to his camper to start getting ready for the ride. He picked up a utility belt, which added 27 pounds to his weight without the protective vest. Four pairs of boots sat in the corner, a pair of spurs lying on the ground nearby. Sections of a blue pool noodle sat tucked into the boots to protect his ankles, a nifty trick he had learned from the internet. The boots themselves were gifts, courtesy of the Canadian Mounties.

Friday, 8:30 p.m.

Night had fallen by the time everyone had mounted their horses. Officer Tracy Mingus was on Betty, Police Lt. Ernie Antle on Toby. Dicken sat on DH, the thoroughbred nipping once in awhile at any horse who got too close before his rider pulled him back.

“Six…Seven,” Dicken counted under his breath, scanning the riders and their horses to make sure they had

everyone. There are 20 in total. There were to be five groups of four, each one with a city officer to make the arrests so that the volunteer officers wouldn’t have to travel back for trials.

“Let’s rock and roll,” he said, having finished counting. It was show time. The horses marched through the street two by two with an occasional line of three, their hooves clopping against the asphalt. The group stopped at the traffic lights on the way up the road. At the end of the line, a white convertible tailed DH and Dicken up the hill toward Bromley. But neither the headlights nor the closeness of the car bothered the thoroughbred, his ears flopping slightly as he walked.

The progression made its way to Mill Street after parading down Court. One by one, the teams broke off. Dicken and his team stopped across from Hocking Street. A few minutes later, they pulled aside a drunk freshman who was having trouble standing, let alone walking.

“It’s only nine o’clock!” Dicken said to her.

After going down the streets, the team marched up to the BP gas station. It’s an ironic sight, seeing horses at the gas station.

“Here to fill up, officer?” a passing student asked.

Mostly, their presence is to discourage smoking around the fuel pumps.

Saturday, 12 p.m.

The morning of the HallOUween celebration is calm at the fairgrounds. The chemical smell of fly spray hung in the air alongside the normal horse smells of hay and muck. The plan was to head out at 2 p.m., but around 1 p.m. the officers received the notice that they weren’t needed yet. So they rested. They pulled out their lawn chairs from their campers, some taking to the shade while others sat out in the sun. A few dozed off.

2:45 p.m.

Dicken took a team up to Mill Street after receiving a call saying that the officers were needed after all. Characters filled the neighborhoods. The officers sat still on their horses for the most part, watching the parties and letting people pet their horses and take pictures. A few of the officers asked to take pictures of the students’ costumes, as well.

At 6 p.m., the riders retired with their horses to get some dinner, setting out once more around 8 p.m.. They cut through an alley to Court Street, but not before making a quick visit. Dicken called for the team to stop when they came to a group of people. A small, elderly lady stepped out, walking right over to DH. She gave a small kiss to the horse’s nose.

They patrolled Mill Street once more, the horses walking right up against the crowds to keep them on the sidewalks. The horses knew their jobs, not shying away from the chaos after their training. The five Athens mounted police had gone through training together at the fairgrounds in Athens, which consists of “crowd-control techniques, formations and obstacles,” according to Mingus.

9:45 p.m.

Dicken’s team returned to BP. They stood to the side, close to the food vendors, and let passing students pet the horses.

Officer Dicken speaks with people at the former BP gas station in uptown. Like the students, they too are drawn to socialize with the officers and their horses. Adriana Navarro.
Officer Dicken speaks with people at the former BP gas station in uptown. Like the students, they too are drawn to socialize with the officers and their horses. Adriana Navarro.

A fight broke out under the awning of the gas station. The horses charged in, breaking up the fight. Rather than staying on the outskirts of the parking lot, the officers then parked under the gas station canopy. They stayed here longer than they had on Friday, suspecting gang activity. According to Pyle, there are no gangs in Athens, Ohio, but he suspected that they had come down from Columbus or even Cleveland.

Sunday, 12 a.m.

The officers hear things that the students can’t, following orders and moving to the areas that they’re told about through radios and earpieces. In one of these instances, they turned their horses toward West State Street a little after midnight. The horses’ hooves clinked against pieces of glass bottles as they trotted over to find a student passed out in front of Souvlaki’s Mediterranean and the Vape Lab. The student’s friends tried to turn him on his side. Dicken slid down off of DH, going over to help. Police Lt. Randy Gray and Patrol Officer Destry Flick dismounted as well. The student’s friends called his name, and he began to stir.

“Lie down,” Dicken said, and the student complied. The police had the student’s friends step back. The horses waited at the curb for the squad car, or the ambulance, to arrive. It didn’t take long before another student came up, phone in hand, as he tried to take a picture of the passed out student on the ground.

He protested when the officers tried to stop him, saying it was his “right as an American.” Gray and a few of the passed out student’s friends stood in front of him to prevent the photo. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Dicken has gone as far as moving the horses in certain situations: once, when a student was filming up the skirt of a passed out girl as she was loaded onto an ambulance, and another time when a student was knocked out on the sidewalk, bleeding.

1:23 a.m.

The ambulance came, an hour and a half after the police had made the 911 call. Dicken had called them twice, once when they had first gotten to the student, followed by a second time when there was still no squad. When the paramedics came, they told him that the second call was the first time they had heard of the incident.

By 1:50 a.m., drunken stumbling was prevalent on Court Street. A few foot police arrested a girl who couldn’t walk on her own. The team was back together at BP by 2 a.m., the party on Court still raging. There were a few teams at the gas station before a few horses wheeled off along with several foot police when there was a radio call of a fight down the street. They didn’t find anything on arrival. Dicken speculated that it was a distraction to draw some of the police away from the station. Gray took out his chewing tobacco as he sat on his horse, Sparky.

2:30 a.m.

All 20 of the mounted police formed a line across Court Street. Foot police flank them, letting people out, but not back onto the road. After a few minutes, the push began. The horses marched forward in sync. Dicken and Gray lingered behind the line to direct each side. Whistles sounded, and the voices of the officers rang above the crowd. They called for people to move back or press into the doorways, buildings and alleys. A few resisted, though most of them backed off when the officers showed they wouldn’t budge. The officers and their horses filled up the street and the sidewalk, something that they hadn’t done in a long time, according to Pyle. The intention was to get the attention of the crowd and to let everyone know it was time to go home, he said. The police swept across Court Street from the BP to Whit’s and College Bookstore.

But one man, a resident of Athens, didn’t want to move. He yelled at Dicken, claiming to have lived there his whole life. Dicken retorts that he, too, had lived in Athens his whole life. The man still resisted. Dicken grabs him.

“Foot police!” he called sharply. His backup swarmed in to arrest the man. The mounted line continued.

“Nobody got hurt, nobody got trampled on, we received no complaints,” Pyle said.

“But it did get a bit confrontational.”

3:00 a.m.

Three of the teams headed back to the fairgrounds. It surprised most of the group that they were done by a time that they considered to be early for HallOUween. Dicken remained downtown to fill out paperwork on the arrest. He had just finished when the call came.

Most of the officers were done with or halfway through untacking their horses when the radio bleeped, a notice of a potential riot situation following. The officers froze. The chief called for all mounted units on hand. The officers threw the saddles back on, one of the teams trotting out, not waiting for the others. Flick and Officer Steve Jones threw their horses into a trailer, jumping into the pickup and speeding off past the team to Stimson Avenue. Red and blue lights bathed the street.

3:30 a.m.

The truck and trailer swung into the new Marathon gas station at the corner of East Stimson Avenue and Elliot Street, the officers jumping out and unloading their horses and their protective armor. Flick began fitting the breastplate to his horse, the faceguard in his hands when Dicken trotted up on DH, Officer Karla Nevel with him. Their horses were unarmored. They didn’t need it yet.

Dicken patrolled up the rest of the street, directing the students still out on the sidewalks to go home. He followed some to sure they were going home and not back to Court Street.

“I think it’s going to be daylight before we get out of the saddle,” Dicken said to Nevel as they followed a student who was walking on his own. As they headed down the street, the last of the mounted teams arrived from the fairgrounds.

“Patrol the neighborhood. Keep them moving. Push them home,” Dicken ordered. He stopped following the student, making his way back down the street. Their route on Stimson Avenue brought them to a few young men by a car stationed in a parking lot.

“Go home,” Dicken said. Three of them moved for the doors of the car, but the fourth stayed where he was.

“I’m an American!”

Dicken spun his horse around at the student’s outburst. The student’s friends immediately begin to try and talk him into getting in the car, and after a loud exchange with Dicken, the student eventually does.

The two officers continued their patrol, but soon headed back to Marathon to regroup with some other officers. As they discussed a situation involving a stolen car, Nevel took out a Payday. She split it in half and offered it to DH, who happily took it. After her own horse refused to take the other half, DH accepted that half as well.

4:00 a.m.

The horses marched back up Mill Street, making their way up to Court. A large street sweeper slugged its way down the main street, sucking up whatever partiers had left behind. The closer to the intersection of Court and West Union Street the horses walked, the more condensed the trash seemed to become. The horses shuffled over discarded pizza boxes, beer cans and even clothes.

4:30 a.m.

Sgt. Roger Vaughan’s gaited horse, who usually approaches the barn with his head high in anticipation for food, had his head hung low. Horses and riders, they were all tired. Everyone dismounted and started to go through the nightly routine of taking care of their horses. Water sloshed around in buckets and grain cascaded into the small feeding bins. Dicken went over to Toby’s stall, stepping in as the Paint ate. He ran a hand down Toby’s back, checking for any saddle sores. While some of the officers stayed the night at the fairgrounds, others began loading their horses into trailers. HallOUween was over.

Officers bathe their horses. Adriana Navarro.
Officers bathe their horses. Adriana Navarro.

This year, Dicken will return with the rest of the mounted police to monitor the festivities. Their job is to keep everyone safe during the block party, but they can be seen taking photos with students in costume as well. So take the time to talk with them and ask them about their night. Just remember to ask before petting the horses.

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