It’s been nearly two decades since Whisper last stood in the winner’s circle at Canterbury Park and more than five years since the tall, chestnut-colored gelding stood out among a pack of mounted horses as protesters swarmed the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
“Beautiful horse,” said Officer Marianne Scheel of the University of Minnesota Police Department, Whisper’s handler during much of his 14 years of police service. “Greatest horse ever.”
“A fabulous horse, a special horse,” said Jeanette LaMotte, who owned Whisper for more than three years before selling him last September.
They still shout Whisper’s praises, but the tales associated with him have changed dramatically, now that he’s 22. Or maybe 23.
What happens to race horses when they retire?
Whisper is now ridden by children at his new home in rural Princeton.
What happens to police horses when they’re no long forming living barriers to protesters?
Whisper did have an altercation a few months ago, said his new owner, Page Heig. He was introduced to a mare in heat. Another male horse objected and gave Whisper a swift kick, leaving a considerable gash on his rear, Heig said.
Horse of many hats
Whisper has survived the races at Canterbury, police work and a severely fractured front knee joint. And he’s adapting nicely to his new home. He walks faster than Heig’s other horses and is steadier, too. The chickens on the ranch weren’t sure what to make of him when he first noticed them, Heig said. The chickens apparently weren’t familiar with Whisper’s résumé.
The Republic Convention surely stands out. When protesters approached downtown St. Paul, Whisper, one of 19 mounted horses, stood firm.
“The other officers fed off him and moved up,” Jessica McDonough, an officer with the University of Minnesota police, recalled a few years ago.
Scheel remembers it well.
“He was a winning racehorse, really fast,” donated after four years of racing to the Minneapolis Park Police’s mounted unit in 1999, Scheel said recently. Whisper served the city’s police department before moving to the university in 2005.
McDonough and Scheel were the first of the department’s officers trained to ride horses. Scheel trained on Whisper.
“He was my primary mount,” she said. “He was my baby.”
Whisper could lead the herd and stand up to protesters. But he could be incredibly gentle, once nuzzling his nose against a baby stroller, Scheel said.
“He could ride right into smoke bombs and a riot situation and wouldn’t flinch,” she said. “He was that solid of a horse.”
The retired life
Whisper’s career as a police mount ended in late 2008, when he was kicked by another horse in the knee. Fortunately, the incident occurred across the parking lot from at the university’s equine center. It took nine screws and a steel plate to repair the joint and plenty of rehab work at the equine center and a farm owned by McDonough’s parents, Scheel said.
“Had I had the space for him, I would have taken him,” Scheel said. “He’s my baby.”
He became the first horse to retire from the then-five-year-old mounted unit.
It was at a conference for the Minnesota Alcohol Traffic Safety Association — a nonprofit that educates law enforcement, corrections professionals and election officials on keeping the roads safe from drug and alcohol abusers — that LaMotte, a counselor, learned of Whisper.
She had two other horses, five cats and two dogs. Whisper would fit right in.
“He had difficulty walking because of the break in his elbow, but at my place, I had a hill that was really good for him,” she said. “In the three-plus years I had him, we rehabilitated him completely.”
LaMotte says she used to ride every day, but her work as a counselor kept cutting into her recreation time with all her horses. In September, she sold Whisper and her other horses to Heig, a grandmother who often has children visiting her home near Princeton.
“I’d just moved to this new farm and it’s set up beautifully for horses,” Heig said.
“Whisper’s doing well,” she said. “There were the antics with the mare in heat, but he’s fine. When the other horses get spooked by things. Whisper’s the one that’s steady.”
Retirement seems to agree with the racehorse-turned-police horse.
“I’ve got some really nice horses,” Heig said. “But Whisper’s the gem.”