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Horseback Security

The Air Force's only active horse patrol helps protect Vandenberg's humans and wildlife. SSgt. Lauren Daniels tells us all about being a horse patrolmen at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (US Air Force, Airman magazine video produced by Jimmy D. Shea, shot by SrA Nicholas Alder)

The members of the Vandenberg Air Force Base's conservation law enforcement patrolmen team often show signs of affection toward the military horse to help create a relationship and comfort level among them. The team is made up of seven patrolmen and four horses. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

The members of the Vandenberg Air Force Base's conservation law enforcement patrolmen team often show signs of affection toward the military horse to help create a relationship and comfort level among them. The team is made up of seven patrolmen and four horses. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Along with doing the daily morning tasks like preparing the food and water for the horses, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels makes sure she's able to spend some time to bond with them. Often she and the other patrolmen create a relationship with the horses to the point where the horses become almost like family. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Along with doing the daily morning tasks like preparing the food and water for the horses, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels makes sure she's able to spend some time to bond with them. Often she and the other patrolmen create a relationship with the horses to the point where the horses become almost like family. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels receives an unexpected kiss from Trooper, one of four military horses in the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California mounted patrol. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels receives an unexpected kiss from Trooper, one of four military horses in the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California mounted patrol. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After completing the first stretch of a beach patrol, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis take a short break before returning back. Portions of the beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California are closed off annually to help protect the Western snowy plover, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat that burrows in the sand along the beach. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After completing the first stretch of a beach patrol, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis take a short break before returning back. Portions of the beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California are closed off annually to help protect the Western snowy plover, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat that burrows in the sand along the beach. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Local citizens line up on the curb waiting for a ticket to be issued to them by Staff Sgt. Salvador Aceves after violating beach rules and trespassing into closed portions of the beaches at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Aceves is a patrolman with the base's conservation law enforcement patrol team. With portions of the base's beach closed off to help protect a listed endangered species, the Western snowy plover and its nesting habitat, the patrolmen often patrol the areas on horseback to ensure there are no trespassers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Local citizens line up on the curb waiting for a ticket to be issued to them by Staff Sgt. Salvador Aceves after violating beach rules and trespassing into closed portions of the beaches at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Aceves is a patrolman with the base's conservation law enforcement patrol team. With portions of the base's beach closed off to help protect a listed endangered species, the Western snowy plover and its nesting habitat, the patrolmen often patrol the areas on horseback to ensure there are no trespassers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels gives a morning greet to Duke by petting and talking to him while checking for any cuts he may have sustained during the night. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels gives a morning greet to Duke by petting and talking to him while checking for any cuts he may have sustained during the night. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After completing their patrol on the beaches of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis head back to the stables to clean the horses and give them food and water. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After completing their patrol on the beaches of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis head back to the stables to clean the horses and give them food and water. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After finishing training for the day Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Trooper, a military horse, walk back to the stables at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After finishing training for the day Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Trooper, a military horse, walk back to the stables at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels puts Trooper, a military horse, through a lunging training technique at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Lunging requires a horse to work at the end of a long line within a real or imaginary circle and respond to the commands from a handler. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels puts Trooper, a military horse, through a lunging training technique at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Lunging requires a horse to work at the end of a long line within a real or imaginary circle and respond to the commands from a handler. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Airmen of the 30th Security Forces Squadron conservation law enforcement patrol take a break after finishing the morning tasks at the stables at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. There are seven mounted patrolmen at Vandenberg AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Airmen of the 30th Security Forces Squadron conservation law enforcement patrol take a break after finishing the morning tasks at the stables at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. There are seven mounted patrolmen at Vandenberg AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels catches trespassing violators while on a beach patrol on the closed sections of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Portions of the beach are closed off to help protect the Western snowy plover, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat that burrows in the sand along the beach. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels catches trespassing violators while on a beach patrol on the closed sections of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Portions of the beach are closed off to help protect the Western snowy plover, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat that burrows in the sand along the beach. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels brushes off the loose hairs on Patton, creating waffle-like patterns of hair landing on the ground. Brushing the horses is a daily chore to maintain a healthy coat as well as a task to prepare them before going on a patrol on the installation at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels brushes off the loose hairs on Patton, creating waffle-like patterns of hair landing on the ground. Brushing the horses is a daily chore to maintain a healthy coat as well as a task to prepare them before going on a patrol on the installation at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

After giving time for the horses to eat, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels takes Patton out of his stable to prepare him for a patrol on the beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Some of the steps of preparation for the patrolmen is to brush the horses to remove loose hair, clean the hooves and assemble the fitted saddle. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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After giving time for the horses to eat, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels takes Patton out of his stable to prepare him for a patrol on the beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Some of the steps of preparation for the patrolmen is to brush the horses to remove loose hair, clean the hooves and assemble the fitted saddle. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels wraps her arm around Patton's neck to embrace him before taking him out on a patrol on the installation's beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Patton, a white palomino, is one of four military horses in Vandenberg AFB's mounted patrol. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels wraps her arm around Patton's neck to embrace him before taking him out on a patrol on the installation's beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Patton, a white palomino, is one of four military horses in Vandenberg AFB's mounted patrol. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

During the mornings, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels mucks out the horse stables as part of checklist to maintain the proper upkeep of the military equines for the mounted horse patrol and their stables. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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During the mornings, Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels mucks out the horse stables as part of checklist to maintain the proper upkeep of the military equines for the mounted horse patrol and their stables. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis patrol alongside the Pacific Ocean on the closed sections of beach on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to ensure there are no trespassers. Portions of the beach are closed-off to help protect the Western snowy plover, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat that burrows in the sand along the beach. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels and Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis patrol alongside the Pacific Ocean on the closed sections of beach on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to ensure there are no trespassers. Portions of the beach are closed-off to help protect the Western snowy plover, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat that burrows in the sand along the beach. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Chris Hume, an independent farrier on the central coast of California, re-shods a horse's hoof with a horseshoe that was heated until it was red-hot. The military horses get re-shodded every six weeks. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Chris Hume, an independent farrier on the central coast of California, re-shods a horse's hoof with a horseshoe that was heated until it was red-hot. The military horses get re-shodded every six weeks. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Chris Hume, an independent farrier on the central coast of California, heats a horseshoe until it's red-hot to start the process of re-shodding a horse. The military horses get re-shodded every six weeks. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Chris Hume, an independent farrier on the central coast of California, heats a horseshoe until it's red-hot to start the process of re-shodding a horse. The military horses get re-shodded every six weeks. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Vandenberg Air Force Base, California has the only remaining mounted horse patrol in the Air Force, which helps them patrol the beaches and other austere environments where vehicles can't go. The patrol team is comprised of seven Airmen from the 30th Security Forces Squadron who are the base's conservation law enforcement patrolmen. The patrolmen are accompanied by four military horses -  Patton, Duke, Trooper and Buck. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Vandenberg Air Force Base, California has the only remaining mounted horse patrol in the Air Force, which helps them patrol the beaches and other austere environments where vehicles can't go. The patrol team is comprised of seven Airmen from the 30th Security Forces Squadron who are the base's conservation law enforcement patrolmen. The patrolmen are accompanied by four military horses - Patton, Duke, Trooper and Buck. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels ties up a hay net for Buck, a military horse for Vandenberg Air Force Base's mounted horse patrol. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels ties up a hay net for Buck, a military horse for Vandenberg Air Force Base's mounted horse patrol. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels carries nets of hay to place in the stables for the mounted patrol horses to eat in the morning. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels carries nets of hay to place in the stables for the mounted patrol horses to eat in the morning. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Military horses bathe in the sunlight while in their stables at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The 30th Security Forces Squadron has a team of Airmen who are Vandenberg AFB conservation law enforcement patrolmen.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
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Military horses bathe in the sunlight while in their stables at the Vandenberg Saddle Club near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The 30th Security Forces Squadron has a team of Airmen who are Vandenberg AFB conservation law enforcement patrolmen. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Fort Meade, MD --

The buckskin quarter horse’s brown coat glistened in the California sunshine as Reserve Staff Sgt. Lauren Daniels brushed it outside his stall.

“You’re such a good boy, Duke,” the 30th Security Forces Squadron conservation law enforcement patrolman told the horse before she heard a loud snort behind her. “You’re coming, too, Patton,” Daniels then reassured the white palomino who was named after one of the most famous generals in American history. “We’re not leaving without you.”

Daniels and her fellow patrolman, Staff Sgt. Kevin Danis, then saddled the two horses and loaded them on a trailer for their patrol of the Vandenberg Air Force Base beaches.

The mounted horse patrolmen’s job requires considerable patience and work to care for the horses and prepare them for patrolling the base’s challenging terrain that ranges from rough hills to sandy beaches. Each of the four horses, including two other quarter horses named Buck and Trooper, has his own individual personality, strengths and quirks, Daniels said.

“A horse is kind of like if you mixed a dog and a toddler together and then made it 1,500 pounds,” she said. “Like a dog, you have to learn how to work with each one, or they will just shut down. You have to be patient and take the time to get to know them, like you would any co-worker, so you will have a good working relationship.”

During this Saturday shift, the patrolmen were specifically on the lookout for violators of the beach areas that were closed to protect the Western snowy plover’s nesting season. They issued three tickets for the violation.

About 20 percent of California’s Western Snowy Plovers are at Vandenberg AFB. The small shorebird, which ranges between 1.3 and 2 ounces, is federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. The birds nest in dunes, and their pebble-sized eggs on the base’s three beaches are vulnerable from March 1 through Sept. 30.

The Western Snowy Plovers, along with ensuring no people are in the unauthorized areas for the base’s space launches, are the primary reasons for the horse patrol at Vandenberg, although they have also had an impact in other ways, such as rescuing hunters and crowd control during protests of the missile launches.

“The need for a mounted horse unit was twofold,” said Wayne Moses, 30th SFS lead conservation law enforcement officer. “The initial justification was for the backcountry sweeps inside the impact limit line during our launches. The second reason is we aren’t allowed to ride mechanized vehicles such as (all-terrain vehicles) on the beaches during snowy plover nesting season. During nesting season, it’s wiser to use the horses to patrol because they have less impact on the environment.

“There’s nothing like the mounted horse patrol in the Air Force, nothing like it in the armed forces. We are the sole law enforcement patrol that uses horses.”

Each morning, the unit’s NCOIC, Staff Sgt. Veronica Beyer, and other conservation law enforcement patrolmen arrive at the stables to feed the horses and check them for any cuts they may have sustained during the night, and clean the pens. Previously, the patrolmen would put hay in the feed bins, but the horses would scatter it with their snouts while trying to get to oats and molasses, Beyer said. This led to the horses ingesting a lot of sand, which could lead to the potentially fatal colic. Beyer’s research led to inexpensive hay nets, which are placed about eye-level with the horse. The nets not only help the horses’ digestion and decrease the risk of diseases and stomach ailments, but also forced them to eat slower. Beyer also trains the patrolmen to learn techniques like grooming and tacking and how to pick up clues on the horse’s behavior. She also provides desensitization training for the horses to get them accustomed to objects that frighten them, such as plastic bags.

“Plastic bags are the biggest thing,” she said. “We take things that are scary to horses and just get them gradually used to it. They’ve all gotten used to plastic bags except Buck. He’s still terrified of them, like he thinks the bag is going to eat him.”

Vandenberg’s mounted horse patrol, the Air Force’s only remaining horse unit used for law enforcement, helps the squadron cover the base’s almost 100,000 acres and 40 miles of coastline and protect the space launch mission. They ensure there are no unauthorized people from the coastline to the main roads, where normal patrols can’t go, and take the horses on the mountain side of the base for south side launches, Daniels said.

“They also play an intimidation factor,” she said. “People don’t really want to mess with any cop on a horse.”

While on mounted patrol on the beach or on one of the base’s rugged hills, the conservation security forces members survey their surroundings and constantly talk to their horses.

“Calm, active and alert would describe some of the feelings that constantly go through my mind when on patrol,” said Staff Sgt. Michael J. Vera, another conservation law enforcement patrolman. “I must remain calm in all situations that arise that might spook the military working horse and work him through it. I must actively sustain positive control over the MWH. Lastly, staying alert. Being aware of our surroundings helps me foresee any obstacle that we might come across while patrolling.”

The relationship with the military working horse is vital. The patrolmen spend a lot of time with the horses to create the bond that’s necessary for them to work as a team on patrol, Vera said.

“There’s a relationship that has to be built when going on a mounted patrol,” he said. “That’s why we spend the majority of our time with the horses. That time spent with them creates a bond between rider and horse. All four horses have different personalities and temperaments. I put all my trust in the horse when I’m patrolling the beach. Likewise, he puts trust in me that I’m leading him to all the right places.”

The importance of the working relationship between the patrolmen and horses to the base’s space mission was one factor that led retired Chief Master Sgt. David Ybarra to bring the mounted patrol to Vandenberg about two decades ago.

Today, retired Chief Master Sgt. David Ybarra owns a diner near the base with his wife, but in 1994, he was manager of what was then the 30th Security Police Squadron when his NCO in charge, Master Sgt. Jim Mercer, suggested the idea to him. Ybarra immediately saw the need for a horse patrol to support the space mission, provide crowd control during protests of the space mission and resolve concerns about the snowy plovers.

Ybarra called a friend at Howard Air Base, Panama, which was about to close and disband its own horse patrol, which would send the horses back into the logistics system. Instead, Ybarra’s squadron received the four horses and then bought two more from a northern California rancher for a price that also included patrolmen training.

Even with the protests about missile launches in the height of the space program, the base never had a security incident, and Ybarra gives some of the credit to the horse patrol.

“I think the biggest impact for me as security police manager was how it enhanced our ability to provide protection for our launches,” said Ybarra, who retired in 1999. “We have some areas out there that are pretty rugged, and it would be easy for a criminal element to hide and want to do damage to our resources, especially during a launch. Everybody sees the public relations portion of the space launches, but for me, as a cop and a military man, the biggest benefit was being able to increase the security for our mission here on Vandenberg.”

Judge, the last of the original four horses the patrol received from Panama, was retired in 2011, along with Willie, who was purchased from a rancher. The patrol came close to being phased out, but was saved by the 30th SFS commander, Lt. Col. Michelle Stringer. Not only did she keep the mounted horse unit, but she also authorized the purchase of six more horses, Moses said.

So two decades after the first horses arrived at Vandenberg AFB, horses and their patrolmen are still working together to protect both people and wildlife safe. As an indication of their relationship, Beyer constantly rubs her horse’s neck and talks to him as if he’s another patrolman.

“I like to take the time to be fully focused on the horse because even though they can’t talk to us, you can learn a lot from their body language, and they are speaking to you, in a sense,” Beyer said. “That’s why you need to have that connection with your horse. You know their mannerisms, when they’re upset, when they’re not, and they listen to you, even though they can’t understand us, they definitely understand our tone. They feed off of our energy completely. So if you’re nervous or upset, it’s going to make them nervous or upset.”

Beyer, who has been riding horses since the age of 9 and was also involved in equestrian jumping, joined the conservation section in November 2011 and became NCO in charge about a year ago.

“When you’re around a horse, everything that is going on in your life, all of the craziness, just kind of goes away,” she said. “It’s like my Zen place, if you will.”

Since most of the patrolmen have little or no experience with horses before joining, Beyer is in charge of training, both for them and the horses. As long as they don’t have a deathly fear of the animals, Beyer says she can teach them. She starts at the beginning with hand and leg placement and signs to look for that the horse is getting stressed or upset. One of the biggest lessons is teaching them that because horses are pack animals, they want someone to be their leader. So she emphasizes the patrolman learn to become the horse’s “alpha.”

“When these guys first came, they’d never been around horses,” she said. “To see them from then to now, it makes me very proud. At the end of the day, this is a 1,200-pound animal that can kill you. So I try to minimize that before they even go out there.”

Daniels was one of those patrolmen with little experience with horses when she joined the conservation section about two years after she arrived at Vandenberg AFB in late 2006. But now, as she returns to the stables at the end of the day to feed and groom the horses, Daniels greets the animals as she would if they were her personal pets.

“Coming from a place where I didn’t know anything about horses and never having been around them much to how it is now, it’s like going home and saying hi to my family,” she said. “You know everything about them, how they’re going to act and react, and as you get to know them, they get to know you, and it’s because of those interactions that we can still get the job done so well.”

Just to prove the point, Daniels and Beyer say goodnight to Buck, Duke, Patton and Trooper before they close the stables doors, only to return to begin another day on the horse patrol the following morning.

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