Out to Pasture 3

Two Las Vegas police horses find retirement in the Bitterroot Valley

There’s a special slice of land that hugs the feet of the Bitterroot Mountains in Hamilton. Its green gown leaves a train of knee-high grass made taller each day by the warm, seemingly endless sun as we drift into the dog days of summer. There are projects underway, a ditch carrying the steady sound of bubbling mountain water and paddocks that provide room to roam and a cool place to lie beneath a glowing, velvet night sky. The swish and shake of manes and tails are in rhythm it seems to the pulse of this scene.

Two horses, Mr. T and Nokona, call this place home after a combined 33 years of service to the Las Vegas Mounted Police Unit. It’s the place where they’ll live out their days as they climb further into their 20s, never once longing to be back on the Strip putting in long hours on the brightly lit, busy asphalt streets. The clip-clap of their booted hooves is silenced now by the moist, fruitful earth beneath them. Their perked ears and kind eyes tell their story far better than what we can guess of them. We call this retirement, but to them heaven might as well be a green field and saddles gathering dust.

They were each brought to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Mounted Unit shortly after its establishment in 1998. Mr. T, aka Mr. Terrible, was donated to the unit by the Terrible Herbst Corporation in Las Vegas, and Nokona was sold to the unit for $3,800 as a too-big rope horse and too-slow cow pusher. In other words, the unit had struck gold.

Their training, like most riding disciplines, railed against a horse’s natural instincts. As 5-year-olds, they would learn tactile procedures and commands that would ultimately save, intimidate, and befriend a community. They would be rewired to choose fight over flight.

“Ninety percent of the time, their best avenue of escape is to run away from something, so we [had to] start slow and build. You don’t just take a horse into real extensive stimuli and expect them to react happily. This is why both of these two horses are heroes because they were foundation horses,” said Fred Szymanski, a former Las Vegas Mounted Patrol Officer and owner of Mr. T and Nokona. “Imagine a tunnel: black tarps, loud banging, music, firecrackers—anything that a normal horse would run away from. We would work these horses through it.”

He rubs both his hands on either side of Mr. T’s muzzle and Karen, his wife and former animal care specialist for the unit, runs a gentle touch along the curve of his back. Their son Matthew offers Mr. T a handful of hay. Both he and Nokona are older—grayer—now than they were in the photos of their days of service. Each picture in a bulging album tells a different story of their bravery and duties.

We stopped and studied the photos of Mr. T and Nokona—large and proud—and imagined the boisterous hum of the crowds they kept their heads above.

“Did you ever see the movie War Horse?” Fred asked. “These guys are police examples of war horses. Las Vegas was the fastest-growing community in North America for 15 years. These horses were a part of that. I was part of that. I saw firsthand what they did. They were involved with everything from the Hells Angels shootout to the River Run Riot to breaking up riots at an MLK parade.”

Crowd control had been their stage, and New Year’s Eve was a grand opening to each new year. They’d gone to football games, tracked the vast desert in search and rescue operations, rode invisible paths through downtown Las Vegas, and—once—chased a man through a crowded casino and been hit by a moving vehicle.

Fred had always known he’d take Mr. T and Nokona when their retirement came around.

“The [police department] had no plan other than to find somebody who’d be willing to take care of them,” he said. “I worked 26 1/2 years as a law enforcement officer, [and] I have a great pension…but I’m their pension. I’m taking care of them. I’m not going to let anything happen to them.”

We laughed about the new stimuli Mr. T and Nokona have encountered throughout their first few months as Montanans: swaying grass and trees, pheasants shooting off into the cloudless sky. This new world has become a new life for them, cradled here in the mountains, in the good hands of love.

“The cost of feeding and shoes—that’s on me and that’s okay. They’re up here and they’re in paradise,” Fred said.

We couldn’t agree more.