When New York Police Officer Wayne Rhatigan and his horse Miggs helped foil the Times Square car bombing Saturday night, it marked the latest exploit in the 139-year history of the department's Mounted Unit.
The 90-officer, 62-horse unit dates to 1871, when it was formed to deal with the "the reckless galloping of saddle and carriage horses" in city streets, according to the NYPD's website.
Before the automobile took hold in the early 1900s, the department employed more than 400 horses. Now it has 62, said Det. Joseph Cavitolo, a department spokesman.
They are donated to the department, which looks for horses with presence and calm temperments. The animals go through intensive training to deal with loud noises and crowd control.
The Mounted Unit is typically deployed to deal with situations likely to draw large crowds. Baseball fans will recall horses lining Yankee and Shea Stadiums as the Mets and Yankees clinched world championships. They also patrol Times Square, Coney Island and other city parks and beaches.
"People see you and you can see a lot more going on from up there," Cavitolo said. "You can see over the crowds and over vehicles. You can cover more ground."
John Timoney, a former NYPD first deputy police commissioner, said there is a reassuring public relations value in seeing officers on horseback.
"They're great for crowds," Timoney said. "Whether it's an angry crowd or a good crowd, you can see over them. They're way above the crowd and they have the ability, the service of security."