BELFAST — Over the last several months, Police Chief Robert Cormier has made strides to increase the amount of community involvement from his department and on Aug. 30 he discovered yet another way the department can continue its outreach to residents.

On Aug. 30, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gerry Scott came to Belfast as part of his Horses Over America program, and adopted the city in an attempt to expand the program in Maine. Scott and Cormier had a discussion about the program and following that discussion, Cormier said he was very interested in possibly implementing the program in Belfast.

Horses Over America is the brainchild of Scott, who said he felt he needed to do something to help resolve issues he was seeing that relate to mental health.

During an interview with The Republican Journal in early September, Scott said the idea for the program emerged around the same time the COVID-19 pandemic was kicking into high gear in April 2020. He said he was looking at the climate in the country, with increases in drug overdose deaths and suicides, as well as the divisive political climate, as signs he needed to do something. From that he came up with the idea for Horses Over America.

“Horses live in a natural state of harmony,” Scott said. “We as people struggle to find that harmony. When people get close to a horse, they are again connected to that natural state of harmony.”

From those seeds a plan evolved that includes his horse Hercules and his dog Molly. The structure of the plan, as Scott explains it, is to partner with local police departments and have those departments, using his horse, be the face of the program while interacting with community residents.

“Horses can be unifying if used properly,” Scott said. “Anywhere I go with my horse, people walk up to me.”

Scott said there are some 30,000 horses in the state, with approximately 15,000 horse owners. While Scott temporarily adopts towns and cities like Belfast, he said the plan is to find local horse owners who will partner with a department to continue the program.

“No one has ever asked horse owners if they would be willing to adopt a town or a city and volunteer four to six days a year to participate in a program that can positively affect issues relating to loneliness, disconnection, depression and addiction,” he said.

The program in its execution is pretty simple. Scott said that when he comes to a town for a Horses Over America day, he works with local departments and takes his horse around to visit different community entities such as schools and nursing homes.

“Kids and the elderly are two of our main priorities,” he said.

For a city like Belfast, Scott said he would bring his horse to schools and nursing homes, with the Police Department at the forefront, and allow his horse, which is a large black Frisian, to interact with kids and the elderly in a positive and supportive way.

“The mission is two-fold. It is focused on mental health, but it is also focused on community policing,” he said. “When people see an officer with my horse, they will never view that officer in the same way again.”

Scott said he has already pitched the program to a number of police departments in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and the response from departments have been overwhelmingly positive. Many departments, including the department in Brunswick, have taken to the program and have implemented it themselves using horses at their disposal.

“The goal is to get departments to do the program themselves,” he said. “I want local horse owners to partner with departments. If I am taking my horse around to all these towns myself, then it isn’t a success.”

Scott said he is currently working with the National Governors Association to try to get them to help implement his program nationwide. He said he has spoken to the governors of both Maine and New Hampshire and has been in contact with officials in Massachusetts as well to implement the program.

Locally, Cormier, who was interviewed last week by The Republican Journal, said he immediately found himself interested in the program. He was so interested, in fact, that when Scott came to Belfast on Aug. 30, Cormier invited him to bring his horse down to the Belfast Summer Nights event that was happening that evening at Steamboat Park to have Scott and Hercules interact with residents.

“When we got down to the concert everyone was focused on the band,” Cormier said. “In a short period of time, though, half the crowd had shifted their attention to the horse and Scott’s dog.”

Cormier said one of the positives he sees in the program is that it would be another way to bring the department’s officers and the city’s youth together.

During the discussions between Scott and Cormier, they considered having him return with Hercules and take him around to the schools to have the horse, officers and students interact in a positive, fun environment. Tentatively, Cormier said the plan is to have Scott return around Sept. 28-29 and Oct. 25-26 to take his horse around the community.

“I think this is just another point of connection we can provide between members of the community and law enforcement,” Cormier said. “One of the things I noticed at the concert was there were a lot of smiles, a lot of happy kids and adults. It is great to see members of the community smiling and enjoying themselves while also learning respect for horses.”

Cormier said that one of the things that has become apparent over the last several years is the positive impact animals can have on people, especially in helping them cope with stress. He said a program like Scott’s is just another way to bring animals like horses to people who otherwise might not have an opportunity to connect with them.

Cormier said if the interactions with Scott and residents prove fruitful, he could see working with local horse owners to implement the program in Belfast on a long-term basis.