Chico has become a familiar face in Waco’s Cameron Park during the past 12 years, hoofing it up and down the wooded hills. Now the city of Waco is saying happy trails to the hardworking horse and sending him home with his longtime park ranger companion.
Waco City Council on Tuesday turned the 15-year-old gelding over to Lanny French, who trained him and rode him for thousands of hours.
“Twelve years is a good, long time,” said French, 58, who has been a mounted park ranger in Waco since 1994. “That horse has just worked. He has a really good work ethic. He knows his job, and he doesn’t mind going out to do it. Chico’s got a good personality. He’s a horse, but he has the heart of a lion.”
The city parks department has maintained the horse patrols since 1985 in an effort to bring order and a feeling of safety to the sprawling park. Park ranger supervisor Kim Jennings said the program has been successful, and the parks department is in the process of buying a replacement horse.
“It provides fantastic visibility to see a mounted ranger in the park,” Jennings said. “It’s also a walking billboard for the park. It gives it an air of nostalgia.”
French will train the new horse and alternate riding him with Pete, the other horse in the park stable.
“There’s not anyone in the city that knows horses better than Lanny,” Jennings said.
French grew up around horses in Bellmead and became a full-time farrier, or horseshoer. That led naturally to working as a ranger for the parks department whose horses he shod.
French said he takes a gentle, gradual approach to training horses. The end goal is to teach the horse to stay calm regardless of strange sights and noises, from firetrucks to crowds to drones.
“He can’t freak out,” French said. “You don’t want my horse to freak out when your kid is down there with you. He has to get used to the sights and sounds of the city. . . . I don’t ever ask him not to be scared. But he has to be scared in a small way. He has to get rid of that fear quick.”
French said being on horseback allows him to get into places where vehicles can’t go, and it gives him a rapport with park visitors. He said Chico is the first horse many children in Waco get to meet.
French doesn’t carry a gun, but he said he hasn’t encountered many dangerous situations.
“The horse makes a pretty big statement,” French said. “You’re taking on a 1,200-pound animal. If you want to get aggressive, you’re probably not going to come out on the winning end of that.”