Sargeant James (J.D.) Harber had no idea he’d one day be able to combine his love for horses and his police uniform.
“I was in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Harber, founder of the Nashville Horse Mounted Patrol Unit. “I lived in Wisconsin for a while and trained horses, and at the same time, studied law enforcement. When I finished, the Nashville Metro Police hired me. That was 1981. In 1996, my life came full circle.”
Horses’ Gaits are City’s Gain
After being hired, he wrote a proposal for establishing a Mounted Patrol, but it sat in a drawer until 1998. Then everything came together – a new mayor familiar with a Mounted Patrol, and the Titans football franchise coming to Nashville where police on horseback could be helpful in crowd control.
“Someone remembered my proposal and asked me if I was still interested,” Harber says. “I went to D.C. to talk to the Capitol police who used horses, then spent time in Lexington learning about their Mounted Patrol, and I came back and put it together. I had a lot of help.”
He chose Tennessee Walking Horses for their gait – they are more sure-footed and faster on the asphalt streets.
“We started with six horses, donated by the Tennessee Walking Horse Association – some of those horses are still with us,” Harber says. “I like a gaited horse. There’s so much you can do with it. They have an even temperament, and you can take a rider without experience and get him confident in his seat. He doesn’t have to learn to post. A Walking Horse slides along the pavement, while a typical trotting horse breaks contact with the ground.”
Each year, the Mounted Patrol puts on a school for other police departments. “A bigger draft horse will be sweating to keep up with our Walkers,” Harber says proudly. “The advantage of any Mounted Patrol is that people can find us easily in a crowd, and we can see what’s going on in a crowd. The Mounted Patrol is part of our homeland security.”
His No. 1 horse is a Walker named Joey.
“He’s a big sorrel, and we’ve been together for 13 years,” Harber says. “We have a relationship – and that’s what it takes to deal with crowds and fireworks. You have to know your horse, and your horse knows you.”
Not Just Horsing Around
Named for the state, the Walking Horse has been one of the most popular horses in the abundant equine industry. Tennessee has more than 200,000 horses, and 3.2 million acres of the state’s 10 billion farm acres are devoted to the horse industry, according to Bridgett McIntosh, a horse specialist with the University of Tennessee Extension.
“That’s 30 percent of our land for horses – a huge tax base, but it’s also a great number of people involved in the horse industry,” McIntosh says.
The last U.S. Department of Agriculture National Ag Statistics Survey ranked Tennessee sixth in the nation for numbers of horses, behind Texas, California, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri. The state ranks second in the nation for numbers of donkeys and mules (behind Texas), and second in the country for numbers of quarter horses. Mules raised by the Reese Brothers in Maury County in Tennessee are in demand as Grand Canyon guides and for downtown buggies in Charleston, S.C.
“Back in the 2004 survey, there were over 60,000 head of Tennessee Walking Horses and about 45,000 quarter horses,” McIntosh says. “Those numbers have shifted now. The Tennessee Walking Horse is our most well-known breed, but quarter horses are equal to or exceeding their numbers because they are so popular to show and use on trails.”
The state has more than 50 equine trails, which have become huge tourism draws, and has one of the best rodeo programs at the University of Tennessee at Martin, and one of the largest high school rodeo associations. Horses are also used for harness racing in Lincoln County, and a Steeplechase in Nashville. But the biggest demand is for pleasure horses and trail riding.
“We’re unique – we can grow warm-season grasses and cold-season grasses,” McIntosh says. “That provides an extended grazing season for our horses.
“I can’t imagine Tennessee without horses,” she says. “Back in 2004, we had 41,000 horse operations, most with less than five horses. A lot of my work now is in sustainable horse management. As the state is increasingly urban, we have more and more horse farmettes – 5 acres with a couple of horses. People want to know how to provide the nutrition for those horses and still protect the environment.”