Patti Fiedler of Pinellas Park leads a group of law enforcement officers training Republican National Convention in Tampa, which ended Aug. 30.
PINELLAS PARK – For the last several months, Patti Fiedler has helped train 47 horses and riders from eight different Florida agencies to prepare for anything the crowds at the Republican National Convention could throw at them – especially in the literal sense.
Fiedler, a former Pinellas Park police officer and now full-time trainer for police mounted patrols, worked with four other instructors to get the team ready. The convention is the latest in several large events for which she’s helped prep a team of police horses and riders, including eight Gasparilla festivals, a Super Bowl, football games and disaster search and rescue efforts.
But for the convention this week, the horses also sported new armored suits that Fiedler provided as the U.S. supplier for a Finland-based company called Combative Protective Equipment.
“I wanted to get (the equipment) here to protect the horses for the RNC, because I knew they would need it,” she said. “You can’t get the gear anywhere else. And it’s that good.”
The equipment is designed to protect horses in a riot, with a blanket and chest guard that is impervious to knives and disperses the impact of a physical blow to the horse’s torso as well as a nose guard, a clear face shield and protective coverings for the horse’s legs.
Fiedler learned about the gear while working with a police Israeli mounted officer, who came to Tampa Bay to learn from Fiedler last November. Fiedler, a level three instructor certified by the American Riding Instructors Association, was impressed by the photos the Israeli officer showed her of Israeli mounted patrols dealing with riots and street conflicts.
“The pictures are incredible of what they go into,” Fiedler said. “I kept noticing the gear.”
So she contacted the company, which provides horse combative equipment to NATO, and arranged to be the first supplier to the United States. Already, she’s filled several orders for other agencies across the nation and expects that to expand.
Training for the RNC began as early as February, during the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office mounted patrol trainings at the Florida State Fair. Fiedler explained that she usually helps at those annual trainings, which are open for the public to watch and draw officers, not only from all over the state, but the country.
The team of mounted officers designated to work during the week of the convention, which started Aug. 27, began meeting together in April.
“You train everybody all together, because then you see how the horses work the crowds together, which horses work the best together,” Fiedler explained. “When the officers are on the horses, they have to be able to work with the other officers on the horse. It puts a whole new dynamic to the police work.”
Fiedler said she helped train the patrol for normal situations, like crowd surveillance, moving dignitaries and clearing a way through the crowd for fire trucks. But she also pushes the officers to think about unexpected situations. While the convention in Tampa wasn’t expected to reach the level of violence Israeli police deal with, Fiedler has used anecdotes from her overseas contact to help prepare the local mounted patrols.
“I learned a lot from the Israeli officer. They’ve experienced everything, from oil being thrown down on the street to marbles,” she said. “In every day mounted police work, you never think of those things. You never think that someone is going to take a Roman candle and shoot it at the horse.”
While the likelihood of Tampa crowds resorting to such tactics wasn’t high, Fiedler said the police officers were trained to think outside of the box.
“We prepared for all of the stuff that’s not normal,” she said. “Something’s going to happen, so they have to know how to react, how to recover and maintain. And that’s where I come in.”
The new gear also helps the mounted patrol guard against the unexpected. Even a minor weapon like a box cutter or safety pins can easily upset a horse.
“Then the rider has to deal with the horse and not with the crowd,” Fiedler said.
The protective suit is cut proof and can’t be poked through, she said.
“The horses are very prepared. They’re very protected, and they’re trained,” she said. “And the officers too. It’s a great group of guys out there.”
Fiedler joined the Pinellas Park Police Department as a volunteer in 2003, becoming a full-time officer the following year. An injury to her right arm, which required surgery, forced her to leave the department and recover for more than a year. She returned as a reserve officer only recently.
Her now full-time business training other mounted patrols and consulting for agencies across the country, as well as the new venture of selling horse protective gear, is run out of the family store, Amber Glen Feed Depot.
Many of the local police trainings she offers are done right in Pinellas Park, either at the Amber Glen Equestrian Center or in Helen Howarth Community Park. Fiedler also is the western coach for the University of South Florida equestrian team, which also trains at Helen Howarth park.
Fiedler said she specializes in retraining horses that won’t take commands to trust their riders.
“My main thing is teaching a rider confidence and teaching the horse confidence. Once they have that, then the rider never lets the horse get scared,” she said.
The bond of trust between horse and rider is vital in getting the horse to comply with orders.
“A horse doesn’t know that that’s going to hurt them until it does. As long as the rider picks the path the way it’s supposed to and teaches the horse that it’s OK, the horse will ride all day long,” Fiedler said. “But when the rider gets ahead of themselves and gets ahead of the horse, then the horse gets into trouble, and the horse doesn’t trust that rider anymore.”
Often, agencies give her 60 hours of training to get an officer, without any experience, riding a horse as part of a mounted unit.
“It’s actually easier when they don’t have experience than it is when they do have experience,” she admitted.
Fiedler said she’s worked with a variety of horses and is convinced that any horse can become part of a successful mounted patrol team.
“Mounted police get donated horses that nobody else wants because it’s a tax write-off. So we retrain everybody else’s mistakes,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a little longer on some (horses) that have a little more damage than others. But if they take the time, then they all can train to do it.”