TAMPA — For the past six months, they've lived large on the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Hits from the '80s and '90s blared. Country. Rock. Rap. The theme from Mighty Mouse.
Fireworks and gunfire exploded around them as they learned to work on teams. Undaunted, they kept at it, ignoring smoke and sounds of jeering mobs.
These months of work were practice. The real test begins soon.
These 48 horses will help control crowds during the Republican National Convention.
"When the crowds get out of control, we're the first line," said Cpl. Ellen Schantz of the Tampa Police Department.
The horses are outfitted with "riot gear" for facing off against protesters.
All Florida horses, they came from as far as Key West. Two are from the St. Petersburg Police Department. Ten work for the Tampa police and five for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
Schantz will lead the mounted patrol during the convention.
On Thursday, at a police exhibit of preparations for crowd patrol, she smacked her police baton against the shin of a horse.
He didn't budge. He wore padded leg gear, a chest shield and a face mask with a band covering his nose. His shoes made of a rubber and plastic composite will protect him against nails or glass. The gear runs about $1,000 per horse, Schantz said. Some was already in use. Equipping the horses for the convention, including saddles and bridles, cost about $38,000. The department says it spent $24,000 more for food and lodging. Funds for the mounted patrol came from a $50 million federal grant to pay for convention security, police said.
"They're invaluable for controlling crowds," said police Chief Jane Castor. Horses have a presence, she said, and allow an officer to see over a crowd.
Their sheer size can be intimidating, and when lined up this factor is multiplied.
They're quick in a foot chase.
Pepper spray and tear gas don't bother them.
"They just snort and sneeze and get over it," Schantz said.
One horse can do the work of eight ground officers, she said.
Schantz's horse, Tank, is a regular in Ybor City on Friday nights. Parade beads and merry crowds are not new to him. But the convention may bring a more violent crowd. So his training has been stepped up.
Mounted patrols will work 12-hour shifts with a break every two hours. Each team has 10 or 11 horses. They are a variety of breeds, mostly male.
"It takes a special horse to be a mounted patrol," said Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Marla Tierney. Her horse, Buster, doesn't shy easily and he knows her every move. She's had him since he was 3 months old.
She scratched his belly. His lip started to quiver. She calls him her equine partner.
"You're trusting your partner to take care of you," she said. From his back, she has an extra set of eyes, ones she says can see almost 360 degrees. And ears she keeps an eye on to use his sensitive hearing.
At night, when most of the horses retreat to a 250-acre farm in Thonotosassa, Buster sleeps in her back yard.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.