The call for backup came during Christmas week, from an officer patrolling a busy shopping center. He needed help catching two thieves.
Squad cars en route were trapped in holiday traffic.
"We can get there," Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Marla Tierney responded, scanning the Westfield Brandon parking lot from atop a horse named Buster.
Never mind the honking horns, packed lots and crowded intersections. Tierney led an unaffected Buster across two streets. More deputies on horseback followed. Within minutes, they reached the scene and helped detain the suspects.
"The officer was so happy to see us," Tierney said of last year's incident. "And we were glad to help."
Every holiday season, six full-time sheriff's deputies saddle up to patrol Tampa's malls. The mounted enforcement team, formed in the late 1980s, does more than attract the attention of children out shopping with their parents. The deputies make frequent arrests and help deter crime, just as they do at other annual events like Gasparilla and the Florida State Fair.
"A lot of people ask us, come on, what can you really do on a horse," said Deputy Sissy Shepherd. "But one mounted patrol officer is equal to 10 deputies on the ground. (The horses) are strong, trained to handle most any situation and it doesn't hurt that they stand 10 feet tall."
Shepherd and her horse, a 7-year-old named Romeo, recently caught two shoplifters fleeing a store at University Mall.
"We got the call and then we saw them coming around the corner," Shepherd said. "We grabbed them and arrested them. We do all our arrests from on top the horse. We don't ever get off our horses, unless it's to use them for cover."
To prepare for intense situations, deputies and their horses undergo high-sensory training, which includes simulated gunfire. The animals learn to withstand intense physical exertion. They negotiate obstacle courses and practice defensive tactics.
Members of the mounted enforcement team own their personal horses but the sheriff rents them for an annual fee of $1, which means if the animals get hurt on duty, the cost falls on the county. Injuries on the job are rare but do occur.
"Our team now has been lucky because we haven't had too many bad injuries, just minor scrapes and bruises," Shepherd said.
Tierney doesn't consider the holiday mall gig a high-risk situation. "Working the malls is not nearly as stressful for (the horses) as events like Gasparilla or Guavaween," she said. "They spend most of the day standing in the parking lots or walking around while we're writing parking tickets."
Deputy Crystal McLelland admits she doesn't always need her handcuffs at the mall. Most days, she writes tickets to drivers parked illegally in handicapped spaces. She does stop to chat with shoppers and lets them pet her horse, Dosier.
"The first day we were at the Brandon mall this year we helped the sweetest older lady find her car," McLelland said. "I like being out there, just interacting with people."
McLelland joined the mounted patrol in 2002 because, like Tierney and Shepherd, she wanted to put her horseback-riding skills to good use. All three women began riding as children and treat their animals like family.
Shepherd buys horse treats and a stocking for Romeo each Christmas. McLelland takes Dosier for long rides on off days, when it's just the two of them against the wind.
McLelland's four-legged partner helped her catch a group of young males terrorizing University Mall after Thanksgiving. The teens didn't know what to say when a horse foiled their plan. "They were running through the mall knocking things over," she said. "I rode around the mall until I stopped them coming out by Macy's."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]