David "Chopper" Leifheit joined the City of St. Louis Park Rangers in June 2009. As a rookie, he was elated to be assigned a veteran partner: Esmerelda. At that point, she already had more than four years of service under her saddle.
Yes. Esmerelda, or "Ezzy," is a horse.
Chopper and Esmerelda represent the core of the Mounted Patrol Unit for the City of St. Louis Park Rangers. Together they patrol many of the 105 parks operated by the city. Much of their time is spent working in Forest Park where Esmerelda is stabled.
Recently Chopper and Esmerelda sat down with St. Louis Sprout & About to discuss their work. While we were hoping to get answers straight from the horse's mouth, Chopper ended up doing most of the talking. Esmerelda was feeling a little, ahem, hoarse.
"Our main goal is visibility," Chopper says. It's an objective that is made easier by Esmerelda's imposing figure. The Percheron/Morgan mix stands a whopping 16-and-a-half hands high or about 66 inches at her withers (the bony spot at the lowest end of the mane). Chopper admits that he and Esmerelda have startled more than a few park visitors, but he says that surprise quickly turns to delight when people meet Esmerelda. "She has a natural curiosity and loves meeting new people," Chopper says. "Esmerelda is a great ambassador for the ranger service."
And like any great ambassador, Esmerelda has a burgeoning social media presence. In mid-2010, Chopper set up a Facebook page for Esmerelda, and he frequently uploads pictures and videos to the page, most of which are shot from atop Esmerelda's back so that her twitching ears frame the view.
Chopper and Esmerelda often patrol major events at Forest Park and at other spots in the city, including Carondelet, Willmore, DeSoto and Dwight Davis parks, and even Kiener Plaza in Downtown St. Louis. But Chopper admits that he and Esmerelda often prefer to go off the beaten path. "Esmerelda loves to be challenged. She likes to head off into the woods and leave the trails. She gets bored on concrete," Chopper says.
The ranger describes their patrols as equal parts public safety and public relations. The duo is responsible for many of the same duties that the other 37 park rangers in St. Louis fulfill. "We write parking tickets, check the parks for graffiti and round up the occasional loose dog," he says. "Fortunately we don't spend much time chasing bad guys."
Mostly, though, Chopper and Esmerelda focus their energy on letting visitors to local parks know that the rangers are there to help. "Esmerelda and I try to raise awareness about the parks and about the ranger service," he says. "We're able to do that because so many people are drawn to Esmerelda. A lot of kids in urban settings have never spent much time around horses, so they're excited to see us."
Schools and scout groups often make arrangements to visit to Esmerelda and Chopper at the stables in Forest Park. There they also meet Red, the semi-retired Appaloosa who was Esmerelda's predecessor in the Mounted Patrol Unit.
"We love to have kids come out to visit us," Chopper says. "We work hard to give them a better understanding of horses and of the ranger service."
To learn more about the adventures of Chopper and Esmerelda, "like" them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/EsmereldaFP.