NOPD's horses practice amid pistols, firecrackers and marching bands to get ready for clamor of the Carnival parade season
Friday, February 13, 2009
In a serene section of City Park, the horses of the New Orleans Police Department's Mounted Division trot around a ring of dirt, about half a football field in size, over and over, with various annoyances placed in their paths.
First a man unfurls a flag as the horses pass. A few buck and whine, but eventually fall in line. Next, a blue tarp is thrown across the ground. Horses don't gauge depth well, and some hesitate on the unsure footing, requiring a rider's coaxing.
For the finale, a man fires blanks, throws firecrackers and tosses canisters that send an orange smoke screen billowing across the ring. All of the horses pass the test.
Next, another curveball will be thrown their way: a live marching band.
This is spring training. It's an annual two-week tuneup before the main event -- a week and a half of Carnival parades -- during which the horses are put through a retinue of tests and practice. Each horse has its own tics: One is scared of the color blue, another is skittish about plastic bags.
Though the horses have undergone extensive training and are used routinely on patrols in the city, the officers who ride them see value in a refresher course, a last run-through before the annual bacchanal.
"We try and get them used to anything they could possibly encounter there," said officer Cedric Davillier Jr., 27, a veteran rider and unit instructor. "To us, this is a very big time of year."
For the officers of the New Orleans Police Department, Carnival season is a grueling marathon of big crowds, rowdy carnival-goers and long hours. This holds especially true for the 22 horses and riders of the Mounted Division, a small and isolated but highly visible unit that finds itself at the forefront of all the city's major events, including the big parades.
"It's elation," officer David Waguespack, 42, said of leading the parades.
The horses, a mixed breed of Percheron and thoroughbred, are one part crime deterrent, one part crowd control and one part public relations tool. They are intimidating, fast and can cut through tight situations or move crowds of people with ease. They are also a conversation starter and a point of contact between revelers and cops.
Unlike the horses in many other police departments across the country, the officers here allow and encourage citizens to pet the horse, chat up a cop and even pose for a photo.
"We are a forceful presence, but we are pretty friendly too," Davillier said.
Just don't slap the horse's rump, rub out your cigarette on the horse or offer the animal one of the many libations sold on Bourbon Street.
"Those are about the only things that will land you in jail," Davillier said.
Throughout the Carnival season, the horses are given "prima donna, spa-style treatment," as one officer put it. And when the crowds are gone, the beads all tossed, the horses get a four-day vacation -- no riders, only rest.
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