Sheriff’s Mounted Patrol volunteers, part of Ramona’s safety net
By Dixie Pettit
Volunteers with a unique skill set are charming shoppers in this equine community this holiday season.
Members of the sheriff’s mounted patrol leave the trails and, with their horses decked out in holiday hats and jingle bells, bring their unique brand of safety to town.
“It is really good for community relations,” said Sgt. Christina Bavencoff with the San Diego County Sheriff Department’s Ramona Substation. “You will notice them more during the holidays, patrolling the shopping areas. They are a great tool to get out there and meet the people, especially kids. People are drawn to the horses and want to ask questions.”
According to seven-year volunteer Ed Spaeth, the mounted patrol is out and active all year throughout the Ramona area, just not as noticeable.
“People usually see us around Christmas time because that is when we make it a point to be seen,” he said.
Horse teams patrol the parking lots and shopping areas more often during the holidays, calling out greetings to people while walking among the cars.
A cheerful “Good morning!” from senior volunteer John Degenfelder, 83, is returned by business owner Elmer
Vires of Traction Tire. A returned smile and enthusiastic greeting from Vires sparks a brief conversation between two strangers.
“That is what the volunteer patrol is all about,” said Bavencoff, “moments of community interaction and public awareness.”
The volunteers are an additional resource that has great value to the community, noted Bavencoff. Residents, visitors and business owners discover there are extra eyes and ears actively working to provide an additional layer of safety and resources to the community.
“They are a good conversation starter,” said Bavencoff.
The mounted patrol began about 10 years ago, said Degenfelder and Bavencoff.
“My wife Arvie went to a meeting where (sheriff’s) Lt. Karen Axle was also,” said Degenfelder. “At some point,
Axle turned to Arvie and made a comment about having a mounted patrol. She thought it was a wonderful idea and told me about it when she came home.”
“I went in to talk to Karen about some issue,” said Arvie Degenfelder, “and she looked over at me and said ‘it would be so neat if we had a mounted patrol – with them in their Stetsons, wouldn’t it?’ I thought it was a great idea. Karen wanted to know if John would be able to get anyone else interested. John had been doing the driving patrol for awhile and it bored him silly. So he approached a couple of the other volunteers with it.”
That was how the first mounted patrol of volunteers came to be.
“That’s how it was started. There were three men in the beginning, all in their 70s,” laughed Arvie, adding, “They were nick-named The Galloping Geezers!”
The three men became a unique connection between law enforcement and the public. The equine ambassadors started to patrol events like football games and the country fair, they took part in parades and they filled in where patrol cars couldn’t easily go.
“With the horses, it is kind of a friendly atmosphere,” said John Degenfelder. “If you see a horse walking by, you stop and watch them. The horse patrol creates a friendlier atmosphere than the cars or the uniforms. The kids love us.”
As the volunteers stop to speak with the curious, plastic badges are offered to the children.
“I’m glad that she had this idea and that we got going with it,” said Degenfelder. “Trails go behind and between houses, we can see burglars in back yards, broken windows … we (riding with Bob Langlever) found a motorcycle one time hidden in some bushes up toward Four Corners. No one would have seen it just walking by. We were up high enough to see it. Once we called it in and gave them the license plate number, we found it was stolen. We help where the cars can’t go…where the sheriff normally wouldn’t be in their cars, giving feedback on what’s going on. Eyes and ears.”
Spaeth rides with Degenfelder every week.
“We see people hanging out in parking lots,” he said. “Once they notice us, they leave.”
Spaeth, an experienced search and rescue volunteer, has saved lives on horseback.
“I patrol the trail down to the waterfall and pull people out of there all the time who couldn’t make it back out.” Spaeth makes multiple trips down the hill and will often ride people out on the horse while he leads them to safety and shade at the top.
Volunteer Coordinator DeAnne Erickson stresses that the mounted patrol is made up of citizen volunteers. This means anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to be part of the team of extra eyes and ears helping to keep visitors and residents safe.
“There is an application process and a commitment to a certain amount of hours is required from all the volunteers, but it really isn’t that difficult,” said Erickson, coordinator since 2004. “There is a two-week-long academy, learning the rules and so on, radio etiquette and what is expected. The horses are tested as well.
“We introduce the horses to various stimuli in a responsible way. The sensory test is really for basic horsemanship and to see if the horse is calm, well-trained, and to ensure the rider has complete control over the horse. A horse that’s real spooky that the rider can’t get control over would not be a good candidate.”
The riders are asked to don a poncho while mounted, carry a flag, and strollers and umbrellas are introduced to the horses. Riding in formation is a must.
“All the testing is done in an arena to ensure the horses are appropriate for the situations they will be exposed to,” explained Erickson.
If a horse cannot withstand sirens and flashing lights, it is probably not a good candidate.
“It is actually pretty amazing what the horses are OK with once they know what something is,” said Spaeth. “There are some horses that just can’t do it, though. That is why we all need to be qualified every year.”
When asked why she volunteers for the mounted patrol, Erickson refers to the Cedar wildfire in 2003.
“I know we make a difference,” she said. “People were actually trying to walk their horses to safety. I was there 12 hours, up all night, and then went to Poway because the fires just kept going. I just kept dropping them off and going out and getting more. They were walking their horses down the road and I would stop to load them up. They didn’t know where to go or what to do, so they were trying to walk their horses out … just out there trying to save their horse from burning. Bobby Neal opened up his place to anyone who needed it. It was incredibly rewarding to see everyone helping each other and come together to help not just the pets, but the livestock. It meant a lot to the victims of the wildfires.”
As riders head out in pairs, people pause to watch these ambassadors of goodwill ride past. Excited children, curious teens and even adults ask to touch the horses. Four hooves and friendly smiles help to close the gap that sometimes is found between police and public.
For more information about becoming a part of the mounted unit, contact Erickson at 760-749-3136. This and other volunteer opportunities with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department may be found online at www.sdsheriff.net.
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