TAMPA — A dozen horses on a dirt field bunched together in a scrum, backpedaled and charged until one side-kicked a giant soccer ball through orange cones like a scene from a beer commercial.
Their riders screamed, "Get it, girl, get it," and horses, named Lucky and Sequence and Spot, galloped and shoved and snorted.
Thursday at the Florida State Fairgrounds, these horses from area mounted patrols practiced for the Super Bowl.
Not as some halftime stunt, but as crowd control for the Feb. 1 event, expected to draw thousands to Channelside and Ybor City for parties, rallies and drinks. The game was a warmup drill during a two-day training session for mounted units from Tampa and Pinellas Park police and Hillsborough, Manatee and Polk sheriff's offices.
It allowed Tampa police Cpl. Mike Morrow to evaluate riders and get the horses used to tight spaces. Other drills included trainers trying to grab and tackle mounted officers who maneuvered their horses into intimidating defensive spins.
The horses also clumped together and marched shoulder to shoulder through a mob of practice rioters, splitting the crowd while smoke bombs boomed and loudspeakers blared crowd noise.
Those weren't easy tasks for horses, who by nature identify with prey rather than predator, Morrow said. But the training sessions — including pushing a football-like blocking sled around — are meant to shape and bend their behaviors until they can break the will of mobs.
Their mere presence can settle unruly crowds because mounted officers say the animals are calm, stoic police ambassadors who don't look as menacing as riot police. But they are more than community relations tools, officers quickly pointed out.
Horses cut through traffic jams, push more people aside than 18 men, give officers high vantages and keep law officers safe, because people are less likely to attack a mounted officer than one on foot.
"Size, intimidation, strength," Tampa police Officer Scott Rehbein said of the animals' advantages.
The horses also provide a release from the grim realities of patrol and detective work for many mounted officers who also work in other roles.
Tampa police Detective Lisa Bishop, the city's lone domestic violence detective, investigates cruel beatings and family batteries. She has worked for the department for 19 years, including 12 on patrol. A criminal once put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. It didn't fire.
"Being able to do this takes me away temporarily," Bishop said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.