HOUSTON -- Visitors to Texas expect to see cowboys and horses, but those landing at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport may be surprised to see them out their airplane windows.
Under a year-old program that's grown beyond expectations, the airport has more than 600 "Airport Rangers" who comprise a volunteer cavalry that looks for anything unusual on the airport's vast property.
"It is kind-of like low tech security, but it solves a problem when you are dealing with an 11,000-acre facility," Houston Airport System Director Richard Vacar said. "The horses can go where others can't go."
For decades, riders illegally took their horses to the wooded airport property, considered one of the few places in an urban area where they could ride in a natural environment for long distances.
Construction of new neighborhoods and businesses eliminated many trails and pushed riders closer to the airport, said Kay Bauer, an assistant Harris County attorney who rides at the airport about twice a week.
"They have just a huge amount of land out there," she said. "It is very scenic. It just gives equestrians the ability to ride for miles and miles and miles, just like the old West."
Darolyn Butler-Dial, who runs an equestrian center about a mile from the airport, began riding the airport's perimeter in the 1980s.
"I assumed they were so used to seeing me ride around that nobody cared any more," she said.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, things changed. Butler-Dial and others were told they no longer could ride at the airport.
Vacar said at first he was concerned about liability issues, but he later realized the security benefit riders could offer and found a way to make it work. Now, riders get to enjoy the property as volunteer rangers.
Rangers are required to sign a liability waiver, pass a background check and must carry a cell phone with them when they ride. They must check in when they arrive on airport property and report the direction they plan to ride. Before leaving, they must check out with security. If they see anything suspicious during a ride, they're required to report it.
"We just want them to be the eyes and ears," said Vacar, who also rides horses. "We don't rely on it 100 percent, but it is just another layer."
Rangers, who can ride whenever they please, keep an eye out for anyone on airport property who doesn't have a badge or people doing any kind of surveillance. They also check fences to make sure they're secure and keep an eye out for animals that could get to a runway and cause problems for aircraft.
So far, the rangers have found potentially dangerous materials dumped on airport property and stolen vehicles, said Greg Walker, the airport's security manager.
"It makes everybody's job easier, because if we didn't have these people out there, we would have to have somebody out there," Walker said. "And that means we would have to go invest in our own mounted patrol. It results in a savings for us in terms of expense and allows for us to more efficiently use the manpower we have."
Vacar said the airport has spent less than $50,000 on the program.
The FBI and Houston Police Department have helped train the rangers, some of whom are off-duty police officers. A series of trails have been cut into the wooded areas of the airport property, and the airport has provided water troughs and hitching posts for horses and portable restrooms for riders.
While the volunteer mounted patrol seems unique to Houston, the airport isn't the only one using the public to increase security.
Clammers working the shoreline surrounding Boston's Logan Airport _ who also were asked to leave after the 2001 terrorist attacks _ help provide security, if they pass a security check and agree to keep an eye out for suspicious activity, airport spokesman Phil Orlandella.
"So far, it has been a win-win situation," he said. "They continue their livelihood and we have a system that provides additional security."
For Bauer, being a volunteer ranger allows her to still enjoy her tranquil rides and give travelers a bit of traditional Texas.
When riding near the airport's runways, Bauer said she often sees airplane passengers looking out at her. She makes sure to wave.
"It's a great welcome to Texas," she said.