image of Tyrrell with a brown horse
Stable Attendant Maria Tyrrell greets Taz, one of the horses on the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol Unit. | Photo by Pete Mayes

 

Growing up in Pasadena, Maria Tyrrell was the self-described, “nerdy little kid who read every single book in the library she could find about horses.” She rode her first horse at Girl Scout camp when she was 13 years old. 

A lovely pair webShe’s always loved horses. Tyrrell loved them so much that she gave up her job as a substitute teacher to become a stable attendant at the Houston Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit. 

“I feel honored and privileged to work here. When people ask what I do, I say, ‘I scoop poop for a living,’” Tyrrell said. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s caring for these horses and helping them be healthy. If they’re not up to speed, then they can’t be used properly on patrol. And that means officers can’t do their jobs. It all starts with them being healthy and well taken care of. And that’s what I do.” 

It all started in 2016, when Tyrrell accompanied the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto on a visit to the HPD stables. She saw an advertisement looking for help to maintain the facilities. Tyrell, who also volunteers teaching horseback riding and leadership skills at the Girl Scout Camp Misty Meadows Ranch in Conroe, saw an opportunity. 

“I asked them if the gig was paid and did it provide insurance and they said yes,” Tyrrell said. “I saw a possibility to help.” 

Tyrrell also said she saw the stable equipment room and never forgot that first impression. 

“It was a hot mess,” she laughed. “Everything was really disorganized. With the Girl Scouts, we have a 40-stall barn that’s not nearly as big as this one. Everything is organized, labeled and has a place. I love that — I love structure and routine.” 

Although she knew HPD had a mounted patrol unit, Tyrrell said she thought the officers owned their own horses. 

“We are the only mounted patrol unit in the Houston area that is owned by the department. And we are the second largest in the United States,” she said. 

The mounted patrol unit is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Currently they have 35 horses housed in a 46-horse barn. Houston brought back its unit in 1984 and built the current barn near Little York Road in 2009. Tyrrell reports there four days a week to work a 10-hour shift. 

Maria with another horse web“My shift is from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday. From 1-3 p.m., I’m cleaning up around the barn, putting things back, wiping things down, sweeping … just tidying things up,” she said. 

Starting at 3 p.m., Tyrrell does her “scoop run,” where she’s scooping poop and wet bedding, cleaning and sweeping out the horse stalls. 

Around 5 p.m., she feeds the horses oats and barley, then puts out hay until about 6 p.m. when her dinner break begins. “I’ve made sure the horses are fed first and then I take my dinner break,” she said. 

After dinner, Tyrrell begins doing medical checks on the horses starting around 7 p.m., which takes about three hours, where she checks to see if the horses have any ailments or need water or medication. Her medical training came from what she’s learned at the stables and at the Girl Scout camp, she said. 

“I could never do an intravenous shot before I came here, and now I can,” Tyrrell said.  

She said she can also take a horse’s temperature, measure their heartbeat, and listen for “gut sounds.” 

“If you can’t hear sounds in a horse’s guts, that’s bad. That’s possibly a sign the horse has colic and cannot poop,” Tyrrell explained. “If you can hear gurgling and the stomach rumbling from hunger, that’s what you want to hear. If not, it might mean a stoppage and you might have to give medicine intravenously.” 

From 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., she’s back to scooping poop again. When her replacement arrives at 10 p.m., Tyrrell spends the last hour checking her email messages, finishing up her tasks and changing out of her work clothes before heading home. 

“And it gets hot here. Last summer it was 120 degrees west of the barn. And I’m out there haying horses four days a week,” she said. “It takes a lot of energy to do this job. I started here when I was 52, and I’ll be 60 this year. When the weather is great and the horses are out, it’s not difficult at all. But when the weather’s bad and the horses are in the barn, it’s a lot just to keep up and maintain.” 

Still, Tyrrell wouldn’t change this job for anything. It’s dirty work, but she gets to be around her favorite animals. 

Maria on the grounds web“Horses are so empathetic. They’re beautiful, they’re individuals, they want to give love. They’re very generous with their time, their energy and their attention. They can hear a human heartbeat from four feet away, so they know how you’re feeling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sad, and these horses have comforted me,” she said. 

The horses assigned to the Mounted Patrol Unit are a uncommonly suited for the work, Tyrrell said, saying the harassment training they undergo is a huge reason why. “We’ll throw tennis balls at them, wave pool noodles in their faces, etc.,” she said. 

“We’ve made a ring of fire in the arena, putting gasoline in a circle, lighting it, and had the horses walk through it. And they do. Other things, like firecrackers, smoke bombs, etc. The horses don’t care,” she said. 

And that is a good thing, Tyrrell explained. “It’s abnormal for most horses, but because these horses are so well-trained and desensitized to it, they’re able to do it. When officers test the horses to see if they can be mounted patrol horses, they harass them to see how much they can take. If the horse is freaking out, then that won’t be a good, mounted unit patrol horse.” 

“But if they stand there and act like, ‘What else you got?’ that’s something we can work with. We want a horse with a very chilled disposition,” Tyrrell said. 

It’s things like the abovementioned why Tyrrell loves her job so much. 

“I love my job and I love these horses. It doesn’t feel like work. And I owe it to the Girl Scouts program. If my daughter had not gone through that program, I would not be here today,” she said.