The History of Commando, the Cleveland Police Museum’s horse

In 1983, Schneider’s Saddlery and Western Wear donated a black horse mannequin to the Cleveland Police Museum for a Mounted Unit exhibit titled “Working Partners”. The mannequin, a hollow fiberglass sculpture of an American Saddlebred horse, was mounted on a wooden base with small dolly-wheels under it. The horse was painted a deep brown or black with lighter colored hooves and a black synthetic hair tail. It is 15-hands (five feet) high. A hand unit is equal to 4 inches and a horse is measured up to the wither, the highest point on it’s shoulder.

The horse is painted and equipped to resemble one of many similar horses used by the Mounted Unit during its nearly 100-year history. Schneider’s Saddlery & Western Wear and the Cleveland Police Mounted Unit donated the saddle and tack. The McClellan military saddle is made of brown leather and steel, the bridle of brown leather and the standard curb bit are similar to the same items still in use by the unit.

Mounted Officer Jerry Lash #1886 coordinated the efforts of the members of the unit in making available objects to outfit the horse as well as research materials used in the new exhibit at the museum. The exhibit included the fully equipped horse, a mannequin dressed in a Mounted Unit uniform, and photographs and objects depicting some of the colorful history of the Cleveland Police Mounted Unit. Case Western Reserve University practicum student Karen Kelly developed the basic format for the display case and many other volunteers assisted in making this presentation possible.

Museum visitors made favorable comments about this focus exhibit and some “young-at-heart” guests have expressed both surprise and delight at discovering a life size horse in the museum.

Original museum display, 1983

In 2000, Sergeant Donald Strother, who had previously been assigned to the Mounted Unit, noticed that the horse was missing his tail. It must have been stolen (or taken as a souvenir) by a building visitor. He told his wife, Reggie, about the misfortune and “…she took it upon herself to visit a “Korean Hair Store” and purchase a few pieces of “Yakki” hair, weaved it together and BOOM! A NEW HORSE TAIL!!!”

The museum’s horse, missing it’s tail
Sgt. Donald Strother with the new tail, 2000
New tail installed, 2000

Sergeant Strother was reassigned to the Mounted Unit in 2001 and shortly after his transfer a political decision was made to disband the unit. In an effort to keep the unit in operation, he worked with the Friends of the Cleveland Mounted Police on his own time to make the public aware of the future demise of the unit. On one occasion he set up a “Save the Cleveland Mounted Police” booth at an event held to Promote Downtown Cleveland, inside the Cleveland Convention Center.

“Well, I knew I wouldn’t get permission to attend with a real horse (I didn’t even ask). But, the U.S. Marine Corps. taught me to be “Creative!” So…Yep – I borrowed the Museum’s Mounted Mannequin Horse, (with Reggie’s newly hand woven tail) – loaded him up in a CMP horse trailer, and off we went to attend the show/expo! Ya should have seen the folk that drove in traffic alongside me – as they looked up and saw the ‘FAKE’ horse being trailered – believe me a LOT of laughs!!! Me, I called that Community Policing!”

“Hey, I was just helping to “SAVE” Cleveland’s Finest UNIT!!! I guess it worked…I retired (16yrs) ago, and the “Unit” is STILL in operation!”

The horse headed to the Cleveland Convention Center, 2001
View that greeted passersby, 2001

In 2014, with numerous areas in need of extensive repairs, Commando (so named by then Historical Society President Tony Colon) looked as if he should be put out to pasture. Two local artists, Laurence Sisson* and John Buekemann* agreed to take on the project of restoring the horse to a state suitable for display within a museum environment.

Officer Tony Colón #2599 directed this project and arranged for Commando to be transported in style to and from his makeover by the Mounted Unit. Officer Mike Herrin #1133 of the Mounted Unit handled transportation and coordinated the efforts of the unit in making upgraded tack available that befits our mighty stead.

PO Antonio Colon and PO Mike Herrin inspecting the wear and tear on Commando in 2014

Moving Commando for restoration

To this end, his ears were repaired and the synthetic fiber tail was removed and replaced with real horsehair. The areas of damaged paint were removed and deep scratches and cracks were repaired. The horse was repainted a russet brown with hand painted details to better represent a horse in police service. For support, a new base was constructed and painted black with a white stripe to reflect the urban environment the mounted police work in. In addition, the bolting plates were cut from the horse’s hooves and the hollow inside was filled with wooden inserts and resin putty allowing the horse to be secured invisibly from the underside of the base.

Commando was now ready to go back on duty at the Museum and greet visitors at the front door.

Commando on display outside the Cleveland Police Museum
Commando on display outside the Cleveland Police Museum

When Cuyahoga County purchased the Police Headquarters building, the Museum was moved to another portion of the first floor of the Justice Center. Commando and his partner, now dressed in the uniform worn by a member of the Cleveland Police Mounted Unit that marched in the 1989 Presidential Inaugural Parade, greet visitors from their new space inside the museum.

Commando currently on display inside the Cleveland Police Museum
Commando currently on display inside the Cleveland Police Museum

*Laurence Sisson is the founder of Sisson Fine Art Services LLC, located in Cleveland Heights, which has been operating since 2008. He has worked around the world as a conservator, consultant and installation specialist with many museums and private collectors. He came to Cleveland in 1999 to join the staff of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

*Cleveland based artist John Beukemann is an illustrator, painter, printmaker and art consultant. Well-known as a landscape painter, John’s wide-ranging experience includes illustrating children’s books, murals, outdoor large-scale graphics, magazine covers, and internationally published cartoons. John was the color consultant on the restoration of The Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument in Public Square and did graphics and illustrations for the Euclid Beach Carousel installed in the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in University Circle.

Information for this article was gathered from pieces written by Marge Cermak, Former Trustee for the Cleveland Police Historical Society, Florence E. Schwein, Former Director of the Cleveland Police Museum, Donald Strother, Cleveland Police Sergeant, Ret. and was edited by Robert Cermak, Commander, Ret.

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