The Farrier: Virginia Beach police officer with unusual specialty reaches the end of his service in uniform

Master Police Officer Chuck Lauchner, horseshoe in hand, walks into a barn at the Virginia Beach Police Mounted Patrol facility in Pungo on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Lauchner is likely the last officer to also serve as the unit’s farrier. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

PUNGO — Before he retired as a master police officer with a unique specialty, Chuck Lauchner spoke about his boyhood back when you didn’t have to look all that hard to find a farm in Virginia Beach. There were crops nearby and cattle. There were horses, too, and Lauchner hopped on a few of them.

“Sometimes you stayed on,” he said. “Sometimes you didn’t.”

His was a Navy family — mom, dad and two boys who learned hard work. His father, Charles R. Lauchner, eventually retired as a chief. Before then, there were stops in San Diego, Pennsylvania and, twice, Guam, but the family came back to make this their home.

Lauchner graduated from Kempsville High School in 1984. He liked football, had good friends, got a 1977 Chevy Vega, the last year they made the much-maligned model. Lauchner had no complaints here. “It actually ran really good,” he recalled.

Sometimes Lauchner went to Maryland, where a cousin worked on a ranch. He looked forward to those visits. There’s something about horses, he explained.

“The nature,” Lauchner said, speaking at the Virginia Beach Mounted Patrol Unit’s complex in Pungo, where he was about to work on some horses in his role as the unit’s farrier. “You just get up and ride them. The strength.”

He’d spent some time in college, worked as a brick mason and on storm drains, sometimes talking about following his father’s footsteps into the Navy. They were very close, according to his mother, Cookie Lauchner. Best friends. Charles R. Lauchner died in 2009.

In the late 1980s, Chuck Lauchner had a friend in the police department. Joining the police seemed like a better opportunity.  His folks were proud – though Cookie Lauchner was nervous, too.

In his early days with the department, Chuck Lauchner worked uniform patrol at the Oceanfront. He was there for the Greekfest riots when, among other things, a police horse took a brick to its nose.

As an officer assigned to the Second Precinct, he’d see members of the mounted patrol unit working at the Oceanfront, where much of their work still occurs, and he’d talk about the job they did. And then he went for it.

He got into the mounted patrol unit’s academy, a rigorous training process that he eventually would come to lead. “I knew enough to barely stay on a horse,” he said.

That was 1994, years before Lauchner developed an uncommon specialty for a uniformed officer. Until late April, he was both an officer and the unit’s farrier, a job that is an art and a science.

Farriers care for the hooves and feet that carry both beast and people over varied terrains. For the mounted patrol, working animals carry officers into situations that can change — sometimes perilously — on a dime.

Sgt. M.J. Crooke was Lauchner’s classmate in the academy for the mounted patrol unit she now supervises. Lauchner has worked privately as a farrier over the years. Potentially, he could return as such.

Speaking well before Lauchner retired, Crooke said his service for the unit as a farrier was a good deal for Virginia Beach.

“He’s not getting paid for it,” she said.

The facility off Indian River Road near “downtown” Pungo is 39 acres with several structures, a dozen or so horses, nine people, two animal caretakers. When Lauchner retired, filling that role would cost the city. It’s not something another officer can just pick up.

Sometimes good things end.

“There will not be another officer who is a farrier,” Crooke predicted.

Lauchner holds a hammer. He said he’s spent good money on some of them, but one of the best only cost a couple of dollars. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

A few months ago, Lauchner worked in the barn to ready some horses for training the following day. One was a white thoroughbred-Dutch warmblood that Master Police Officer Julie Hilton rode.

“This is Patrick,” Hilton said. “I’ll miss him when I go.”

“He’ll be coming home,” Lauchner noted, meaning eventually to their home in the Blackwater area of Chesapeake.

“I know,” Hilton said. “Another mouth to feed.”

Hilton and Lauchner, who started as friends and partners in the unit, are married.

They met here. They trusted each other, worked well together and, until the very end of April, they also rode together.

“We got married four years ago,” Hilton said. “July 2.”

“Richard Petty’s birthday,” Lauchner offered.

Lauchner said he wanted to help the unit as much as he could before his retirement. Hilton meant to stay with the department, though she, too, would leave the unit.

A big issue is hours. Mounted patrol often works weekends, nights and holidays.

“My priorities have changed,” Lauchner said. “Instead of working at night all summer and holidays, I want to be there.”

And the work is hard. As demanding as patrolling can be, the farrier’s work is taxing, too.

“I’m tired,” Lauchner said. “My body is tired. I just need to move on to the next chapter.”

With Hilton and his daughter from a previous marriage and their family.

“I’m very lucky,” Lauchner said.

Reagan Lauchner, 14, has grown up around the mounted patrol.

“She loves the horses,” her father said. “She’s an animal person. She loves being outside.”

There’s a photo he keeps at home. It shows a young Reagan and a horse named Cruiser.

“It’s me and her and my favorite horse.”

A horse, seemingly smiling, leans against Lauchner while the farrier sands a hoof with a rasp. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

About 15 years ago, Lauchner started working with a civilian farrier who served the mounted patrol, picking up the skills and science of the work as a side job. When that farrier retired, Lauchner picked up the work for the unit.

Late last year, Lauchner spoke a bit in the office and then again while he worked on a horse’s hooves and shoes.

He spoke about the time in 1998 when he nearly died while patrolling on horseback at the Oceanfront. He was on 19th Street, and a driver came up from behind and struck the horse and Lauchner. They flipped backwards. They went through the windshield.

It wasn’t his regular horse. He rode a friend’s mount that day.

“We thought the horse was going to make it.”

It didn’t, though. The horse, Breaker, died after a few days, according to a report from the time in The Virginian-Pilot. Breaker’s name appears on a wall of mounts who have retired. There’s a star next to Breaker’s name.

Lauchner learned the details of the collision later. He had been knocked out cold, his head busted open then stitched back up.

Years ago, he had another close call. A man wouldn’t take his hand off a gun. That was the closest Lauchner ever got to having to shoot someone. He was with Cruiser, though, and Cruiser was some horse.

“He just stood perfectly still,” Lauchner said. “He didn’t even budge.”

The man took his hand off the weapon.

After telling that story, Lauchner worked on a horse. He replaced shoes and trimmed hooves with nippers and a rasp, checked the feet, handled the strong legs while shoulder-to-shoulder with a very large animal. During another visit, a horse, seemingly serene, rested its head against Lauchner’s shoulder while the farrier, hunched over in exertion, sanded a hoof.

Shoes are made or bought and fitted. Metals are heated in a mobile forge on the back of Lauchner’s truck. It carries his anvil, hammers, drills and more. He makes an abrasive surface on the bottom of the shoe so the horses don’t slip on the street.

Learning the work takes years. Farriers study anatomy closely, looking at dissected feet and lower legs so they will not harm living horses.

“You can’t just file the horse’s feet down. … It opens your eyes when you can actually see inside and move a tendon and see the foot move.”

During one visit, Master Police Officer Joel Gough worked with Lauchner, learning aspects of the farrier craft, which Gough said he hopes to keep learning.

Lauchner learned from other farriers. In his early days, he would sometimes work for free on horses for people in the area. It was a year or two before he felt he could charge folks for the work.

Master Police Officer Joel Gough, seen with Lauchner, was learning about farrier work, though he is not taking over as the unit’s farrier. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Lauchner prepares a shoe for one of the mounted patrol horses. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

During one visit to the barn, Lauchner spoke in the office while cleaning the leather of a halter for his last mount, Mick, who served as a police horse in Delaware before the Friends of the Virginia Beach Police Mounted Patrol purchased him for the unit.

“My first horse was Vinnie,” Lauchner said. “He was a good thoroughbred. He was a little crazy, though I liked him.”

Lauchner even liked that the horse was crazy. “Back then. Now I don’t know I’d like that so much.”

Next came Buddy. “He was another thoroughbred. He wasn’t as crazy as Vinnie. He was good. He had a little more sense than Vinnie did. By then, I had a little more sense, too.”

Then Bear. “He was buried right back here.” Meaning on the facility’s land. “Bear was a quarter horse. He was nice. He liked to buck. He was just playing around.”

The fourth was special.

“Cruiser was a thoroughbred I got down the road here. He was the best horse I ever had. Once in a lifetime. He did everything for me. He wasn’t bad with anything. It was like he was trying to be good for you.”

Lauchner and Cruiser worked inaugurations for a president, security for a visiting queen, excelled in competitions.

“He was perfect on the street. He didn’t spook. If I asked him to do something in a crowd of people, he’d always do it. I could always count on him.”

You trust a horse, he said, when they do something again and again and do it well.

“Horses are herd animals. He didn’t care. He could go anywhere, do anything.”

After nine years, the partnership ended. Cruiser retired to Lauchner’s farm.

“He was getting sore every night. He was tired. It was his time to relax.”

The relationship he had with Cruiser was an unusual one, though a later horse, Nimbus, came pretty close.

“If it happens to a person one time in your life, you’re lucky,” Lauchner said. “I basically felt like I was thinking and he was like another part of my body.”

And there was Mick, who would keep working after Lauchner had moved on.

“I like Mick. Mick’s good. A little stubborn, but that’s okay.”

He cleaned the leather and polished its brass for Mick’s halter.

Lauchner prepares a shoe for one of the mounted patrol horses using his hammer and an anvil, some of the tools he and other farriers must carry with them from farm to farm. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

For Crooke, there were practical concerns about Lauchner’s retirement that did not have much to do with farrier work. Lauchner would take 23 years of knowledge with him. She hoped they would be able to complete another academy before he was gone.

“He’s the trainer,” Crooke said. “He has the most knowledge of anybody here.”

Hilton, too, meant more lost experience.

“Julie’s also a wealth of knowledge, and she’s very good on the street,” Crooke said. “Julie takes care of a problem and goes back to doing what she was doing.”

Weeks later, Crooke got word another academy was a go. It would be the last one Lauchner taught with the help of colleagues such as Gough. One day in April, training involved riding across a paddock, dismounting and lighting a road flare while maintaining control of their horse.

One after another, the officers did so. Some horses reacted well when the flare was lit. Others not so much. One officer lit a flare, and his horse leapt away. He brought the animal under control. Lauchner and Gough were close by, but the officer got it done.

Lauchner’s last night of work was during College Beach Weekend – the same night four people were shot during an event that brought thousands of people to the Oceanfront. Mounted patrol officers were among the first to help those hurt in the shooting.

Later, a crowd of mostly young people walked, congregated and socialized. Some were just having fun. Some clearly were intoxicated. Others seemed intent upon provoking police. More than once, crowds suddenly broke into a run for no clear purpose. This was noted in one of the city reports written in the wake of the weekend.

At around 2 a.m., Lauchner and Hilton were along Atlantic Avenue, atop their horses, beneath a streetlight. A few people complimented the horses, even took cellphone pictures. Others pointed out horse dung in the street.

“Who is going to clean that up?” a young passerby said.

Lauchner looked at his watch.

“It’s going by real slow,” he said.

A nearby lieutenant joked that he was keeping Lauchner there as long as he could.

“I’ll miss the riding part of it,” Lauchner said later. “I won’t miss the hours and the nonsense sometimes.”

He was glad to be there with Hilton.

“Riding together on our last night,” he said. “Seventeen years.”

“They wouldn’t let me leave until after this big thing,” Hilton said.

She was headed to the First Precinct.

“Day shift,” Hilton said. “Weekends off.”

“Man, look at all that [excrement] in the middle of the street,” a young man called out while crossing the avenue moments later.

A bit later, Hilton engaged in a lesser-known aspect of police work. She removed a small broom and dustpan from a saddlebag, walked to the middle of Atlantic Avenue, and — with a garish haunted house as a strange backdrop — gathered up all the dung.

Two young women walked past. “Horses,” one said. The speaker seemed happy about it.

Officers responded to a fight, chased and caught a man who ran from it. A block or so away, a young woman approached Crooke, who was on horseback, as were so many of her unit. Three a.m. was not far off.

“My ride got arrested,” the young citizen told the sergeant, “and he had the keys.”

A recruit regains control of a horse startled by a road flare, part of training meant to familiarize the animals with such things. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

This past month, the mounted patrol graduated a class of four new members, and it said goodbye to Hilton and Lauchner. Before the ceremony, Reagan Lauchner and members of her family gathered near stalls for the horses.

“My dad’s retired now,” she said. “He has more time to do things. We’re going to go scuba diving and fishing. We really like to do those things, but we really haven’t had a lot of time to do it.”

They’ll have holidays.

“Usually on holidays I have to go to my mom’s family because my dad has to work.”

They’ll have Saturdays.

“Most of the time he had to work.”

She’ll have her dad.

“He’s really cool. He knows how to do a lot of stuff. He trained all the new guys. I think that’s really cool.”

And she’ll have time with Hilton, too.

“She’s really nice. She’ll have different hours. She’ll be home more. She’ll be able to do more things with me and my dad.”

There are things to do together.

“In the summer, we go out on the boat and go to the beach,” Reagan Lauchner said.

Cookie Lauchner said her son would stay busy with work as a farrier.

“He just won’t sit around,” she said.

And they’ll maintain a relationship with the mounted patrol through the friends group that supports the unit and its officers.

“I’ve known most of them a long time,” Reagan Lauchner said.

Hilton was in uniform, Lauchner in civilian clothes. They sat down with Reagan and other loved ones in the front row of bleachers that faced a podium and the well-groomed dirt upon which the new officers would soon ride.

There were remarks, goodbyes, shadowboxes for Hilton and Lauchner.

“It was a wonderful time,” Hilton said. “I look forward to the last few years I have in my career. It’s been a great ride.”

The unit presented Lauchner’s shadowbox.

“That’s beautiful, Sarge,” Lauchner said, addressing Crooke and thanking the unit.

He paused.

“It was difficult to leave, but it’s time. The unit’s heading in the right direction.”

New officers rode in a carefully choreographed display. They got their unit pins, silver crossed sabers. People they love affixed the pins to their uniforms.

There was one last presentation for Lauchner.

“None of us would be here where we are without Chuck,” said Master Police Officer Ric Sutton, a second-generation member of the mounted patrol.

Members of the unit presented an 1860-style cavalry saber. It was marked with Lauchner’s call sign — MP3 — and, on its blade, names of the mounts Virginia Beach’s last uniformed farrier once rode.

Among the horses whose names are engraved in the blade was Cruiser, the mount so skilled he seemed to be an extension of the person who rode him. Lauchner buried that horse at the farm. He always meant to mark the spot, but he knows the field where his favorite horse rests. It’s at home.

Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Julie Hilton smiles while being recognized for her service to the mounted patrol during an academy graduation ceremony at the unit’s facility in Pungo on Friday, May 12. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Lauchner, after his retirement, holds the saber presented to him by the mounted patrol during the ceremony. It shows his call sign on the scabbard, and the names of his mounts are engraved on its blade. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

A NOTE TO READERS: “The Farrier” was photographed and reported between November and May during visits to the Virginia Beach Police Mounted Patrol Unit facility in Pungo and other locations named in the story. Due to the technical nature of his work, The Independent News asked Chuck Lauchner to review some photographs before publication to ensure actions shown were accurately described. He did not have editorial control over the story, and any shortcomings in those descriptions are due to the reporter alone. In a passage about College Beach Weekend, interactions with some people who are not named were directly observed by the reporter. Gloria C. Lauchner, known as Cookie and quoted in the story, passed away the week the print version of this story went to press. She was 74. In an interview shortly before her death, she spoke with pride about both of her sons, Chuck and Michael, and her granddaughter, Reagan.

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© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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