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It takes a brave horse to join Tampa police force

DOVER

In a large green field in Dover, police officers try to scare horses.

They set off fireworks, fire blanks and turn on loud sirens and lights. They jump out from behind trees and throw tennis balls.

The ones that pass the test don't flinch. They buck their instincts to flee, and they don't kick.

They can't. Because in Ybor City at closing time — or at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, parade or school event — they might hurt someone if they did. A frightened 1,200-pound animal in a crowd is a liability, police Cpl. Ellen Schantz said.

Schantz, a member of the Tampa Police Department's mounted unit for nearly 10 years, knows horses.

Most people don't. Drunken clubgoers on Seventh Avenue sometimes slap the horses.

"That happens a lot," she said.

They smack the horses to see if they get a reaction.

"But they get a reaction from us," Schantz said. "The handcuffs go on real quick."

It's a criminal offense to hit a law enforcement animal.

At parades, moms with children in strollers come running up from behind the horses. At Gasparilla, the horses get hit with beads.

But don't feel sorry for them, Schantz said.

When they're not working, the department's seven horses roam 250 acres owned by the city just north of Interstate 4 in Dover. They've got a grassy field, wooded area and a creek.

They're rarely in stalls, so they graze all day.

Schantz and the four other officers in the mounted unit take care of the horses themselves. On a recent afternoon, she visited the property and checked on each horse.

Elvis, a horse that was donated in February and is still in training, walks up to her, expecting a treat. When Schantz gets into the golf cart, he sticks his head inside.

"I've got nothing for you," she says.

He doesn't budge.

"I'll turn on the sirens," she warns.

No movement.

Woop-woop-woop!

Not a flinch.

This one's a winner. She expects he'll pass training with no trouble and be on the streets within a month.

She slowly drives the golf cart through the field, and a chestnut-colored horse trots up to the cart. He's Justice, the bravest of them all, Schantz said.

"Nothing scares him," she says.

Chad, the dark bay thoroughbred, sometimes gets nervous. That's when a long string of drool hangs from his mouth. The officers nicknamed him Big Nasty.

By now, several of the geldings surround the golf cart, expecting treats.

"Don't walk in front of us," Schantz gently scolds.

But they do. They're not scared.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvanervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

It takes a brave horse to join Tampa police force 05/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 4:32pm]
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