Frank Keller & "The Largest Peace Time Cavalry in this Nation’s History"
Frank Keller is the founder and CEO of Alpha and Omega, the mounted patrol company that will be on duty at Bonnaroo. A & O has provided security for a number of music festivals from Woodstock 94 (NOT Woodstock 99) to the Phish events. At Bonnaroo his team of red-shirted officers will comprise what is believed to be the largest peace time cavalry in the country’s history. Frank took a few moments to talk about Bonnaroo and his company’s approach to music festivals.
A number of our readers likely remember A & O from the Phish festivals. How did that relationship come about?
The configuration backstage at Woodstock 94 was weird and the way the different artists had to go from the backstage to the media was through some of the crowd. After the Red Hot Chili Peppers got done with their set, they wanted to go off stage and head to the media area for some interviews but they couldn’t get to it. So the lead singer got back on stage and called for the horses. He said, “Can the mounted unit come over and give us a hand?” Well we happened to have a squad of about 10 right in that area and we surrounded them in a tactical formation and took them through the crowd to the media area. They thought that was the coolest thing, we ended up doing it for Aerosmith and it became the thing to do, to get the horses to take you through the crowd to your areas.
That caught the attention of either the tour manager or the road manager for Pink Floyd. Then in 95 Jon Langenstein the head of security for Phish called this guy when they knew they were going to do the big festival that was called the Clifford Ball. So Jon Langenstein called his friend at Pink Floyd and said, “Have you ever heard of a private mounted unit that I can use for this huge festival we’re doing in Plattsburg?” And he said, “As a matter of fact I have.” Out of coincidence the one time in my life I ever advertised was in this little crowd management magazine. So this guy went back, dug up the magazine, gave Jon Langstein our number and the rest is history
Your company works in many contexts other than music. What sort of special preparation and approach will you employ for an event like Bonnaroo?
The focus is on crowd management and a tremendous amount of desensitizing the horse. Horses are herd animals and by nature they’re flighty. The different sights and smells, especially the smells, are foreign to the horses. So we go through this long process of desensitizing the animal. It’s done in a positive and humane manner. We’re not bombarding the horses with all of this stuff. We do it very slowly, methodically, one step at a time. It takes months and months to gets the horses ready for the these events and it has to be done slowly and one step at a time because it has to be positive for the horse. There’s plenty of positive reinforcement, pats and talking to them in a calm voice. Then we bring in helicopters and we’ll train with them because a lot of what we do is secure helicopter landing sites for the acts to get in and out. So the horses have to understand that this the huge flying bug isn’t going to eat them and the backdraft from the propellers with all the debris can be frightening.
So we spend a lot of time very slowly getting them acclimated to those type of things. Then we bring the horses together to work in formations. I developed a lot of our training from old World War I cavalry field manuals, exactly what they did in those days when they’d go into battle and use formations. Except unlike soldiers marching to battle we use those formations to help us separate crowds or move crowds or insert people like a paramedic team, into crowds.
It’s an amazing phenomenon, in many cases while people won’t respond to somebody on foot, when it’s a 1500 pound horse they move. I think some of that is the country was kind of built on the horse, pioneers and cowboys and John Wayne. I think that’s why we can go into crowds of what have been up to 200,000 people without any adverse reactions.
I’m sure that respect for the horses is a big part of it.
I think that’s true. You always have one dummy in a crowd, we’ve had someone throw a bottle at a horse. But the thing is when one of the horses gets disrespected in that manner the crowd will turn on that guy.
With regard to concertgoers appreciation and affection for the horses, do you allow people to pet them?
In certain cases we’ll let the kids pet the horses. If we’re in the middle of something we’ll simply tell them the horse is working right now please don’t pet them. But we’re friendly with them, we talk to the concertgoers, it’s a whole different mindset. We treat the kids with respect, we expect to be treated with respect and they do respect us. We’re been getting emails from the web site, concertgoers wishing us luck, saying, “A & O you’re a peaceful security company,” and “We wish other security companies would take direction from your model of not having to be” one girl even used the word “bastards.” We’ll give somebody several chances. But having said that if we have to respond and be firm we will. Our uniform is very unique, we wear the red shirt and everybody knows us.
It’s wild, we’ll go to festivals around the country and there will always be some kids who will come up and say, “I saw you at the Lemonwheel” or “I saw you at Woodstock." In part we knew we keep the peace because of our presence. We don’t screw with them so they don’t want to screw with us. We weren’t there at Woodstock 99 and the thing burned down. We’re a critical part in terms of keeping the peace.
Can you describe some of your favorite memories from the Phish events?
There are different memories from each and every one of them. Some of them are just the kids coming up and knowing your name or knowing a horse’s name. Trey used to come into our camp where we stabled the horses and say, “Hey Frank can I jump onto a horse?” And I’d say, “Yeah,” and take him out into the crowd. Usually it’s at night after the show’s over and for the first minutes nobody realizes who it is, and then somebody spots that it’s Trey Anastasio and the kids kind of surround him because they want to get a look at Trey Anastasio on a horse. His wife jumped on one time and we took them around the campground because it’s a different perspective for him. He thinks it’s cool to go into the campground on a horse because he can see everybody and he likes to talk to them.
I have great memories of how well we’ve been treated by the various bands. I’ve also worked with the Jimmy Buffetts of the world, Metallica, Dave Matthews Band and I have great memories of all of them but none more than Phish because it truly is a family kind of scene with that band. They treat everyone like family and they really enjoy the horses.
This is going to be a fun festival too because all the guys that are involved have done the big Phish shows, so it’s like old-timers week for us. We’re going to have a good time out there.
You’ll be working with Russ Bennett [Head of Visual Design at Bonnaroo] again. He mentioned that you offered to participate in some of his activities.
We’re talking. He has some pretty cool ideas. He’s the vibe king and we’ve been kicking some ideas around but if I have to do business we may not get to them. So I told Russ, make sure whatever you put us into you can cover for us if we can’t do it because we may have to be somewhere else. Yeah, he’s great, I’ve been working with him since Plattsburgh.
Final question, any advice for people who will be attending Bonnaroo?
The obvious thing is for the kids to keep hydrated and pay attention to each other. One thing that will make our job easier is if they take care of each other and have this whole support amongst themselves.
Respect the facility, respect people doing security, we’re there to do a job we’re not there to bust anybody’s back. We just want to keep everybody safe and everybody to have a great show.
They also need to take a look at the Bonnaroo site in terms of what they need to bring and when they need to come. And definitely don’t come if you don’t have a ticket because there’s not going to be any tickets and they’re going to be turned away. The biggest suggestion is keep a cool head and a cool mind, body and spirit.