Most aren’t permitted to take up full-time residence in Golden Gate Park, but there are a few exceptions: Bubba, John, Nate, Rusty, Sheldon and Sonny, to name a few.
The horses live behind the Polo Fields as part of the Mounted Police Unit, which has been in continuous operation in San Francisco since 1864—only New York City’s unit is older.
Some San Franciscans may wonder why we have police on horseback at all. The biggest advantage of mounted police, according to unit leader Sgt. Theresa SanGiacomo, is the commanding perspective from a saddle.
“It’s like being on top of a bridge,” SanGiacomo said. “Or being 10 feet tall.”
The mounted unit also serves as a metaphorical bridge—helping to spark conversations with residents, a benefit that may seem perfunctory but has become all the more important in recent years.
“My occupation isn’t the most popular on the planet right now,” SanGiacomo said. “But a conversation with a cop is a step in the right direction.”
Horses attract fans—and there’s plenty of evidence at the horse barn in Golden Gate Park that makes this case. Black-and-white photos cram the walls of a room where saddles and ropes are stored, many of the images including children. Kids crowd around a horse stepping into the old Steinhart Aquarium and pet the heads of stallions in parks and parades.
“Everyone loves animals,” SanGiacomo said. “I’ve never been approached more as an officer.”
SanGiacomo was inspired to pursue her line of work all the way back when she was 8 years old. A San Francisco native, she saw two cops on horses at Pier 39 and leaned over to tell her mom, "I want to do that when I grow up."
Her dream came true, and now she oversees a unit with a long and storied history.
The barn’s expansive gallery of photographs documents the mounted unit in detail and includes images of horses with mayors, horses at Outside Lands, horses all the way back to 1870.
But officers on horseback haven’t always been seen as cheerful public ambassadors.
Mounted officers tower over crowds. Police on horseback have often been deployed to break up protests and strike fear into the hearts of dissidents. The animals are far larger, stronger and faster than any human could ever be. They could easily crush a person, and they aren’t easily deterred.
“They could have an M-80 go off next to them, and they wouldn’t move,” SanGiacomo said.
It’s the not-so-sunny side of the mounted police unit, one that's documented in photographs that line the walls next to the bathrooms, across from the main space of the barn. The placement feels like an intentional choice. The officers in those images press protesters with long batons, rather than pose and smile in Saint Patrick’s Day parades.
The images only go up to the Iraq War demonstrations of 2003—after public outcry, San Francisco stopped using mounted police in strikes and protests, according to SanGiacomo.
Despite this checkered past, the horses remain wildly popular in the city. When a ballot initiative in the 1980s tried to shut down the mounted unit—and convert the horse barn into a spot for recycling used motor oil—supporters made their voices heard. SanGiacomo notes that the unit now is protected in San Francisco’s City Charter.
“You have to love engaging with the public [to serve in the mounted unit], since it’s part public relations, part being a police person,” SanGiacomo said.
The mounted unit is not just for show, and they respond to actual crimes—with advantages in doing so. Horses can get to places motorcycles and cars can’t (as service animals, they can go anywhere in the city), all while avoiding traffic, which means they can often get there faster.
And the job might look fun, but it’s hard. There’s a waiting list to apply, and many don’t make it through the training once they realize what it comprises.
“It’s a very different job,” SanGiacomo said. “Riding a horse with Muni air brakes going off next to you. It’s the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had.”
It also requires learning a whole new skill set, since knowing how to ride a horse is not a requirement to put your name on the list of interest.
“It’s hard for adults to be told, 'You’re not doing it right,'” SanGiacomo said. “Especially officers who are older. You have to be open-minded to taking a critique.”
As for the horses, they’re also tricky to find. They have to fit all the right requirements—be male, the correct height, sound health, the right disposition.
“They’re like therapy animals,” SanGiacomo said. “They’re all so incredibly unique.”
Sheldon, he’s known as the “close talker,” a tawny-colored horse who can pick up baseball caps. Then there’s Gus, known for his bad hair that’s similar to that of Raiders owner Mark Davis. Or take Sonny, also known for his hair, but this time in a positive way—his is like the male supermodel Fabio’s. Bubba begs for treats; Duke’s a hambone. Then there’s the time Beau became a thief—going against the law he’s supposed to represent—when he stole a carrot out of a woman’s shopping bag at a farmers' market. But most impressive of all might be Rusty, who’s been taught how to paint.
It’s not hard to understand why the horses have captured the hearts of so many San Franciscans.
The horses might all be male, but there’s also a girl animal in residence. That would be Charlotte, a black-and-white cat rescued from the Camp Fire.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org