Mounted horse patrols — a tradition in Three Rivers parks in suburban Hennepin County since the 1970s — are about to become history. Park District commissioners gave preliminary approval last week to eliminate the popular program as one of several little-noticed trims to the system's $34.12 million proposed annual operating budget in 2014.

Park visitors have seen park police riding the massive horses along trails, beaches and parking lots from May through October. Officers watch for crimes, conduct searches, respond to health emergencies, make their presence felt at larger party gatherings, and chat with individuals and families eager to approach and marvel at the huge steeds with hoofs the size of dinner platters.

But Three Rivers Park Police Chief Hugo McPhee said the mounted patrol is not efficient enough to prevent and fight crime. His force of 21 officers — down from 28 a few years ago — is stretched to the limit, he said, especially during the summer months.

"When those officers are on mounted patrol, they are not patrolling in cars or on foot," McPhee said. "If a call comes in their area, it's ­usually very difficult to respond to an emergency or a crisis."

Lianna Giles, who works for the Park District and has cared for the horses for the past 10 years, wants to save the program, however.

"I believe in a slow, thorough, quiet patrol," she said. "I believe in the accessibility of police officers when they're on a police horse and not in a squad car. I understand that they can't get as far as fast, but that is balanced out by the tradition, the image and the culture of the park district."

Alisan Johnston, a seasonal employee who works in the horse barn, said the animals also make park visitors more comfortable.

"People are drawn to horses," she said. "People want to talk with these officers and aren't quite as frightened [of them]."

At its peak in the mid-1990s, the Park District stabled a dozen horses, said Park Police Sergeant Kevin Whitlock, who directs the program.

There are now four horses, he said: Ranger, Maggie, Rocky and Jimmy. Each is a different cross mix of the largest horse breeds including Percheron, Belgian Morgan and Baroque Belgian.

1,200 pounds of horse

Whitlock said he assigns the horses and officers to different parks, totaling about 500 hours per year. Sometimes they patrol remote areas, he said, but most often they're deployed in the heavily-used areas of Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, French Regional Park in Plymouth, and Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain, where the horses live year-round.

Whitlock said it's rewarding to serve on mounted patrols and positive for the one-on-one contact with the public. One officer on a horse is equivalent to several officers on the ground, he said, especially in crowd control.

"The horse will humble a crowd," Whitlock said. "There's nothing like 1,200 pounds of horse to show up if you've got some unruly people in a park."

The proposal to end the program would save about $80,000 in the public safety department's $4 million annual budget, McPhee said, mainly from the salaries of Giles and two part-time seasonal workers. The four horses would be sold, he said, preferably to another police department that could take advantage of their training.

The University of Minnesota Police Department ended its mounted patrol program last year and found homes for its three horses, said Chief Greg Hestness. The decision saved money, he said, but there were also other factors: too little need for the horses, officer injuries from falls onto hard surfaces, and the amount of time and labor to take care of the animals.

For "each hour they're on the street, there's quite a bit of management and care before and after," he said.

The Minneapolis Park Police also eliminated its mounted patrol a few years ago, but the city police departments of Minneapolis and St. Paul still have horses that are used regularly.

'Horsin' Around'

Advocates for saving the Three Rivers mounted patrol said that in addition to providing public safety, the horses are used to teach kids in a handful of summer camps and special events.

One program called "Horsin' Around" spends two to three hours letting kids meet the horses, tour the barn and learn how to be safe around animals.

McPhee said those programs served 63 people last year, and only at times when the horses were not being used for patrol. If there's a public demand for horse-related programming, he said, the District could consider bringing in privately-owned animals and offering classes through its education department.

That idea is something that several Three Rivers commissioners said they plan to discuss in the future. They will also hold a public hearing on all aspects of the proposed 2014 operating budget, including elimination of the horse patrol, on Dec. 5 at 9 a.m. at District headquarters, 3000 Xenium Lane North in Plymouth. The budget is about 0.3 percent higher than 2013.

McPhee said that selling the horses, if approved, will not mean that Three Rivers police are abandoning security on the many miles trails in their parks. Nearly two dozen trained volunteers already ride their own horses in parks, he said, and they work with his office to provide safety. Shifting more responsibilities to the volunteers will "backfill" and free up his officers to do more work, McPhee said.

"Sometimes there's popular programs that have to fall by the wayside," he said. "There are fewer officers to go around, there's 10.5 million visitors to the park system annually, and we have to put ourselves in places to do the most good."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388