This is the first in a series of articles and videos delving into different aspects of fest season.
When asked the most common misconception about the Athens Police Department's Mounted Unit, Officer Neal Dicken said most people think they will be arrested if they pet the horses without permission.
All he requests is that people ask the officer riding the horse before petting it, as officers are sometimes involved in a situation or watching other police on foot.
“If we’ve got a bunch of people around the horse’s head, that’s going to slow us down from being able to do that,” Dicken said. “Sometimes we might actually tell somebody, ‘not right now,’ or ‘we’re busy.’ ”
Dicken was one of the first officers on the mounted unit, which started in 1996 in response to problems at “The Nickelodeon,” a popular bar on Union Street. When bargoers left for the night, they would often flood the street.
Lt. Ernie Antle, now retired but on paid reserve, started the mounted unit with Lt. Randy Gray after considering how to best address the problem of riots uptown.
"He was riding around with me one night, and he said, 'what can we do?' ” Antle said. “I said, 'As long as you pick up the liability. ... I've been in horses all my life. We can train the horses.’ "
Since its inception, the mounted unit has expanded to patrol fest weekends, the Halloween block party and some of the more popular weekends Uptown.
Dicken said outside units come in to help APD during fest weekends through a “mutual aid agreement.” Mill Fest’s mounted patrol included police (and horses) from Columbus, Medina County and Summit County, among others.
Festgoers on Mill Street commented that the horses were “cute” or “pretty,” and one said she missed her horse.
Jacob Fleck, a freshman studying marketing, said the mounted police can be helpful but that they were a little too heavy handed at times.
"They're just out here trying to make sure we have a safe, fun time, but they need to let up a little bit,” Fleck said. "I mean, it's Athens – this is what we do."
Mounted officers began their “big push” at about 3:30 p.m., when they started going from house to house on Mill Street shutting down parties.
“We got two teams that are going from house to house, one on each side of the street. The other two teams are keeping the street open, keeping everybody moving,” Dicken said. “It’s very laid back, very low key ... just to get everyone moving, to get the area quieted down.”
He said there were no major incidents.