Summoned by the Sheriff

The Western posse is a symbol of Western justice, service, and bravery. While most relegate the ideas of posses the annals of yesterday, we found the tradition going strong—and just as valuable as ever.
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The Western posse is a symbol of Western justice, service, and bravery. While most relegate the ideas of posses the annals of yesterday, we found the tradition going strong—and just as valuable as ever.
photo by Jack Ellenberger

The president of the United States was coming into town, so the local law asked a neighboring sheriff to call out his posse to beef up security. Riding their horses in pairs, each with extra food, water, gloves, and knives tucked into their saddle horn bag, the posse kept an eye out for anyone trying to come too close to the man from the Oval Office.

Husband and wife Michael and Mary Ellenberger rode together behind the scenes, patrolling the perimeter all afternoon, the view from their horses’ backs providing them with a security advantage. At the end of the day, the Ellenbergers loaded their horses into their three-horse trailer, climbed into the cab of their Ford F-350 and drove home from the Loveland, Colo., Airport.

Obviously, it’s not your great-great grandparents’ mounted posse anymore—this style of Western protection happened just last summer.

“We got a call over the radio from the commander that the Secret Service snipers were having trouble getting a clear view of the building next to where we were patrolling,” Mary Ellenberger recalled. “So they wanted us to keep an extra watch.”

Needless to say, protecting the Commander-in-Chief is the highest honor a posse enjoys. Traditionally, a posse is gathered for less glamorous, yet more urgent needs. What Western movie hasn’t included a scene where a posse is called in the middle of the night, and by torchlight rallies by horseback to catch murderers or thieves?

And while the United States has outgrown that method of frontier justice, the mounted posse remains an enduring part of the Western landscape.

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“A hard-ridin’ group of men”

The word posse came from the Latin “Posse Comitatus,” which means, “power of the county,” and referred to the English common law that enabled a sheriff to conscript the help of any able-bodied male over the age of 15 for keeping the king’s peace. Similar to raising a “hue and cry” to pursue a criminal in an English village, it was shortened to simply “posse” by the mid seventeenth century, and that tradition, along with the office of sheriff, took hold in the New World.

Faced with trying to enforce the law in the sprawling West, the resource of raising a posse suited local sheriffs as a means of riding down outlaws throughout an isolated frontier. In some instances, bands of men bent on justice became something more, such as the group of 40 cattlemen who met in 1877 under an oak tree in Graham, Texas, to try to solve the problem of cattle rustling. Those ranchers became the founders of what would become the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raiser’s Association, which still exists today. The 30 special rangers of the TSCRA, all commissioned law enforcement officers, investigate agricultural crimes in Texas and Oklahoma.

“Our primary objective is still the same as it was in 1877,” said Larry Gray, 61, the executive director of law enforcement for the TSCRA, and that is to investigate “ag” or agricultural crimes, including the theft of horses, equipment, trailers, saddles, tractors and, of course, cattle.

“It’s still referred to as cattle rustling,” Gray, a 31-year-veteran of the TSCRA, said. “A lot of people can’t believe it’s still happening, but it’s alive and well, especially with the advent of the truck and trailer and the interstate system.”

But with specialized groups like the TSCRA more the exception than the rule, frontier lawmen relied on raising posses to help hunt down the lawless. Posse members provided their own horse and gun and were paid about $3 a day, notes historian Roy Young, editor of the Journal of the Wild West History Association, as well as given free meals and forage for their horse. It’s possible a woman could have been part of a posse back then, Young says, although typically a posse was “a hard-ridin’ group of men.” And while they were deputized, Young says, not all posses were “above board.”

After Frank Stillwell shot and killed Wyatt Earp’s brother Morgan, Earp and Doc Holliday killed Stillwell, with Earp claiming he was operating as a federal posse, Young said. “So then sheriff John Behan raised a posse of ‘Cowboys,’ sworn enemies of the Earps’” in a failed attempt to kill Earp and Holliday.

It’s a tale that the 66-year-old Young has heard since childhood, as he’s a direct descendant of one of the men in the story. His mother was a Stillwell.

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“They just showed up”

There are dozens of mounted posses in the U.S. today, many concentrated in the West. Oregon, for example, has 36 counties, and 19 of them have posses. The modern mounted posse consists mostly of citizen volunteers who do everything from provide security at events and crime scenes to taking part in searches for evidence or lost humans. Different posses around the country often have a different focus—some carry guns while others don’t, and some perform more charity fundraising than others—but what they all have in common is that the riding members provide their own horses, buy their own tack and equipment, and everyone trains, trains, trains to be ready when they’re needed.

And they are definitely needed. When dark, snake-infested floodwaters began swallowing roads and farmland in Greeley, Colo. in Sept. 2013, 69-year-old farm owner and widow Sue Israel was unable to get to her barn to rescue her goats or open the debris-laden pasture gate so that her herd of horses could get to higher ground. The water had rolled through sewer systems and farm fields, and was filled with sewage, manure, and chemicals. Propane tanks floated through it like toothpicks.

“The fire department made me leave,” Israel said, her voice breaking at the memory. “They escorted me out of the yard quite forcefully” as Israel, who stands 5 foot 2, was in water up to her neck.

Faced with the idea of losing her animals, including three horses that were descendants of her father’s first registered Quarter Horse that he’d bought in 1945, the feisty woman lost hope and began to cry. And then, she says, members of the Weld County Sheriff’s Posse arrived.

“They just showed up,” she recalled. “I don’t know why they chose my street to come down, but I’m sure glad they did.”

One of the posse members, a 50-year-old Weld County sheriff’s deputy named Dan Perusek, gave Israel a hug just before she was evacuated, and made her a promise.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get your horses out,” Perusek, a burly cowboy and lifelong team roper, told her. And then he waded into the water

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“The horses always win”

Modern-day mounted posses don’t pursue outlaws so much as deal with the occasional disruptive drunk in a crowd who needs to be persuaded to leave by the presence of a 1,000-pound animal.

“We use our horse as an extension of the rider,” says J.D. Pyatt, a Colorado Department of Corrections parole officer and the coordinator of the Weld County Sheriff’s Posse in Greeley, Colo. “When you want to engage someone, you don’t have to be stronger—your horse just has to be willing to step into them.”

What makes a good posse horse? “They have to be willing to stick their nose out there and trust you enough to do what you ask,” said Jeff Harbert, 55, a security contractor, court officer and Weld County Sheriff’s Posse member who helps coordinate their training and security at special events.

Harbert, a 22-year member who is on his fourth posse horse, a 9-year-old Foundation Quarter Horse named Cinco, says a steady, willing horse is essential when you’re riding into potentially dangerous situations, such as the unruly crowd who didn’t want to leave the Greeley Stampede a couple of years ago or the 1999 riot he rode into after the Broncos won the Super Bowl.

“There were bonfires in the middle of intersections,” he recalled, but still the horses pressed the crowds back. The training Harbert conducts now for the posse prepares for that same scenario.

Ten to twelve horses can push a crowd of hundreds more effectively than that same number of officers on foot, says Pyatt, and crowds are not likely to challenge a large, powerful animal that is trained to step into them. Since most horses are taught from birth to yield to humans, it can take time for them to realize that causing someone to move is their new job. “When we’re doing training, the horses always win,” Pyatt said.

At a posse practice in the large training arena in Greeley, Pyatt gave a training demonstration for American Cowboy. Boulder Police officer and posse member John Smith, 57, struck up a mock conversation with a standing Pyatt even as Smith asked his 6-year-old Appaloosa gelding Harley to repeatedly swing the horse’s muscled hindquarters into the man. Without hesitation, the gelding arced smoothly into Pyatt, who was soon literally pushed several yards across the arena. Voila, crowd control without ugly confrontation, courtesy of an equine partner who seemed to understand his job.

“The first time I asked him to do this, he gave me a look of ‘What?’ but once he realized yes, I am asking you to do that, he took to it pretty quickly,” Smith later said. “It’s a fine balance. You work with them in the pen to not be pushy and respect your space and then you open it up (when doing crowd control). Are you going to unleash something?”

So far, apparently not. During a morning of practice drills, as Harbert calls out commands that include “Troop front right!” and “From the right, to the right, by column of two’s, ho!” the horses agreeably move in a coordinated rhythm, and don’t seem to mind even when they’re lined up so close together that each rider’s knee is touching another’s.

Having total control of a posse horse is one reason many posses around the country do not allow mares, as they can prove distracting to geldings. “We do allow mares, but not stallions,” said Pyatt, who rides an 11-year-old Mustang named Doc, “and we don’t have a size requirement on our horses, but some do.”

Whatever the animal’s size, most everyone in a crowd loves to see a mounted posse.

“The horse is a great diplomat for any law enforcement agency,” Pyatt said. Plus, “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a horse.”

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“The next thing I knew, the water’s up to my chin”

By late morning of Friday the 13th this past September, Margie Martinez-Perusek started getting calls that folks in east Greeley, Colo., needed help moving their animals out of the rising flood waters. A commander when she retired in February 2013 from the Weld County Sheriff’s Office after 35 years, Martinez-Perusek, 59, had been with the posse for 15 years. She and other members knew the people in this community and understood how important their animals were to them.

One of the members she called was Jeff Harbert, who immediately abandoned the errand he’d been running to pick up a stock trailer and begin transporting animals to safety. There was no time to go home and change, so wearing muck boots, jeans, a sheriff’s office polo shirt and a ball cap, Harbert waded into water that was chest high. “It was nasty,” he recalled. “Muddy. There was a current that wasn’t horrible, but you had to work to get through it.”

Margie and her husband, Dan Perusek, worked their way to East 18th Street, and that’s when they arrived at Sue Israel’s place as emergency crews told her she had to get out.

“I was on pins and needles,” Israel said, worried about her horses and also the goats that were loved by her grandkids and remained trapped in the barn, including one that only had use of three legs.

After promising Israel he’d rescue her animals, Dan Perusek began doing just that. Wading into the barn, he saw the crippled goat sitting on a corner horse feeder with its head just above the water. One goat had already drowned, and two others were swimming. Perusek grabbed the goats by the horns and managed to lift them over a fence to safety.

By the time he started out for the pasture, the water was up to his armpits, a slow, steady current. Perusek managed to open the pasture gate and herd all of Israel’s horses into a corral, where he tied them together in groups and led them out.

The following day, Saturday, he and his wife returned to the area to help a rancher who was missing cattle when they heard about two young women who had begun swimming to a pasture to try to free some horses.

“I took off walking” in their direction, Dan Perusek recalled, “and some guy just handed me his horse. I got on him and we took off.”

Riding down the road, he said, “All of a sudden, my horse just disappears from underneath me. The next thing I know, the water’s up to my chin. I couldn’t see my horse. I thought, ‘This is getting ugly,’ and the next thing, here’s my horse again” swimming to the surface and heading for land, Perusek still on his back.

All in all, the posse members rescued dozens of animals that weekend, including horses, cows, goats, longhorn steers and bucking bulls.

Like the others in posses through history, Perusek faced real danger, something he says he never stopped to think about. Quite simply, he’s part of a posse for one main reason.

“I just like helping people.”