January 2018 | Pennsylvania Native Protects U.S. Border—on Horseback
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Pennsylvania Native Protects U.S. Border - on Horseback

Alicia Stephens-Martin - January 2018

Katie Griffith Clare

At age fifty-five, I’ve finally developed the confidence to reach for my dreams. So when I meet a young woman who already stands out in her career, with self-assurance combined with a love for horses, I am instantly curious.

I had the privilege to interview Katie Griffith Clare, who lost her mother while too young, with whom she shared a love of horses, and knew she wanted to make a difference. Today Katie connects all three, patrolling the U.S. border. Katie and her steadfast steed are the living wall—the one President Trump would find almost impossible to build of brick and mortar because of terrain.

In some border areas a wall would be impractical, but horses can easily journey. According to Katie, horses even help by detecting sounds and smells, keen only to the animal.

We met at a September horse show in Lancaster County, far from where Katie, a native of southern Pennsylvania, works on the southwest border in San Diego, California. She graduated from Eastern High School and attended Alvernia College in Reading, PA.  Nothing about her demeanor revealed her ability to handle a gun, withstand days on the range, or capture illegals. She simply smiled from her borrowed mount, happy to see all her missed friends.

Katie serves as a United States Border Patrol Agent—a federal position. In her words, her job is to detect and prevent illegal aliens, terrorists, and terrorist weapons from entering the U.S., and prevent illegal trafficking of people and contraband. She and her fellow agents are the uniformed law enforcement arm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. With over 21,000 agents, the U.S. Border Patrol is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the U.S.  Not until after this interview when I researched the Border Patrol did I realize the daunting task horse and rider face every day.

Are there many women on horseback border patrol?

Currently on the San Diego Sector Horse Patrol Unit, there are four female riders, including myself.  Texas, Arizona, and Washington state also have horse patrol units. There are probably a few female riders, but not many.

What led you to this career and location?

Solving crimes and putting the "bad guys" away has always interested me. I knew a degree in criminal justice would offer a wide variety of options, and I had my heart set on becoming a federal agent. I applied to several different agencies. The Border Patrol offered me a position along the southwest border, contingent on passing a physical and health test and background examination. After I accepted San Diego, it was off to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for five months in Artesia, New Mexico.

At the academy each trainee must learn and excel in immigration law, operational law, Spanish, physical fitness, firearms, and evasive driving.

Horses were the first mode of conveyance for the Border Patrol back in 1924 when the agency started. Horses climb mountains and rocky terrain where agents on foot, trucks, or on ATVs cannot. They are also quiet and stealthy at night, which is helpful when sneaking up on illegal aliens trying to evade capture. Horses’ eyesight and hearing are much keener than humans’. The horses will oftentimes alert their riders to people hiding before we even know they are there. 

We are each assigned a partner we ride every day. That assignment is based on our riding ability. Our herd consists of 23 mustangs, 9 quarter horses, and one thoroughbred. 

Did you always love horses? Criminal Justice? How did these two passions come together? Was this your original goal?

My mom was a true horsewoman and had me riding independently at age four. Horses are an absolute passion. She bought me a little foundation quarter horse when I was nine. The versatility of that mare took me through western pleasure, reining, jumping, and, most successfully, rodeo events. When I went to college, I had to stop, so I wanted to make sure horses were a part of my life after graduation.

I didn't always want a career in criminal justice. In elementary school I wanted to be a comedian. When I was a pre-teen I wanted to be a large animal vet. Finally, I wanted a career in law enforcement. I kept my nose clean throughout school and college by involving myself in as many activities as I could handle. I also had to get the absolute best grades. I consider myself very lucky to ride every day, protect this country, and get paid to do so. 

What does a normal day on your job look like?

A normal day consists of the agents gathering in the office and determining who will ride that day. Every time we take the horses out, one of us must follow in a marked Border Patrol vehicle in case an incident happens. We need that support vehicle. This agent is also free to work and respond to activity in their vehicle.

The rest of us will prepare our horses. We ride in Circle Y trail saddles. Our horses wear splint and bell boots for protection from rocks and cactuses “in the field," which is what all agents call the area they work. After our horses are tacked up, we'll get our uniforms, put our gun belts on, and load the horses up. Depending on how many units we have that day, we will take either one or two of our five-horse slant load trailers.

The horse patrol unit is mobile. We can take the horses all over the border in San Diego County. San Diego County is very diverse and has a multitude of climates. My sector is split up into eight adjacent stations from the beach to nearly Arizona, with two stations located in northern San Diego. The horse patrol travels wherever stations request them to work—sometimes the beach and the next month the mountains, depending on "alien traffic." It is not unusual to travel over an hour to get to an assigned area. Other times it will only take ten minutes.

After site arrival, we ride onto trails and dirt roads to look for footprints (which we call “foot sign” or "sign" for short). The areas we patrol are not typically accessible to the public, therefore a “sign” is usually a sure indication of illegals. Sometimes the aliens will use long branches with leaves on them (like a broom) to cover their footprints to avoid detection. 

Our shift totals around ten hours. Some agents in the field have night vision devices that can see human heat signature. Agents on ATVs and in vehicles will also work with the horse patrol in the apprehension of illegal aliens. 

The rule of horse patrol is that we always ride in pairs for safety. For example, if there are only three agents working on a particular day, one agent must drive the support vehicle while the other two ride.

Do you have a relationship with each horse or just one?

When I first became a horse patrol agent in 2009, my first partner was a quarter horse gelding named Calvin. I rode and took care of Calvin every day and often took him in parades with the Border Patrol. We were together every day for years. Calvin is now 19, but still rideable, and I will adopt him this year. 

My second assigned horse, who is my current partner, is a thoroughbred gelding named Montana. Montana is a handsome dark bay with a faint star on his forehead. He was trained to race but never made it to the track. He's a feisty thoroughbred who nobody on the unit wanted to ride. I love a challenge and I learned to ride on my mom's off-track thoroughbred, so this horse seemed right up my alley. Over the years we've created an unbreakable bond. He truly makes me happy when skies are grey. Although he's spirited, he's always in my pocket, letting me hang all over him, and protecting me from danger when we head out to do our job. He's my heart horse, my friend, my shoulder to cry on, and my work partner.

Katie inspired me to do more research. On a typical day the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screens over a million international visitors, processes 74,000 truck, rail, and sea containers, seizes nearly 5 tons of illicit drugs, and apprehends more than 1000 individuals for possible criminal activity. The CBP is responsible for patrolling 6,000 miles of Mexican and Canadian borders and 2,000 miles of coastline according to their website. Agents like Katie and her four-legged partner work diligently, without recognition in all types of conditions.

To further appreciate what this team does for us every day, visit www.cbp.gov. You will even find buried deep in the career choices page a brown-haired girl. In Katie’s smile you can almost see her love of horse, career, and country.