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Cops and their horses train for Mardi Gras madness

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[February 19, 2009]  NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Blaring bands and waving flags, stumbling drunks and splashing beer, glittery trinkets flying toward curb-to-curb crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands -- Mardi Gras could almost have been invented to spook horses.

Such a scenario would scare most police forces. In New Orleans, it's an annual deployment in which training, tolerance and an authoritative perch atop a horse almost always keep the revelry from turning ugly. Police forces from around the world study the department's techniques in crowd control.

Insurance"It's something the force prides itself on and constantly works on," said police spokesman Bob Young.

For two weeks before the first parade, mounted officers drill their horses to get ready.

"Horses naturally are very skittish animals," said Officer David Waguespack, who trains horses and riders for the police department. "To get a calm horse, you've got to go through a lot of exercises."

The horses must stay calm, available to move into the crowd if there's a problem. They give officers a wide view and let them move through tightly packed crowds.

"People make way for a horse a lot faster than for a car," Waguespack said, which is why mounted units lead the biggest parades, Endymion and Bachhus.

The department has 25 horses and a year-round mounted unit of 10 officers.

About two-thirds of the horses are warmbloods -- thorougbred-Percheron crosses -- bred for police work at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. The others include two bred for racing, descendants of the great Alydar and Secretariat.

Before the first parade rolled, Waguespack held Mardi Gras school for officers who ride only for Carnival season. There's formation riding, to get the horses used to being close together.

And there's extra grooming: Two officers shave the horses' dull, heavy winter coats to a glossy finish and check the inch-thick rubber shoes -- so-called "horsie Nikes" that act as shock absorbers on hard pavement and reduce the chances of slipping on beads or other carnival litter.

Then comes the scary stuff.

For flag lesson No. 1, Officer David Gaines unfurled about 18 inches of a big blue-and-yellow flag.

Some horses stayed quiet as officers slowly rode past. But others turned around or even backed into horses behind them upon coming face to face with the flapping horror. Soft words, leg pressure and an occasional slap on the shoulder brought them back into line.

The horses all had been out during previous Carnival seasons. They'd all seen flags before, and heard fireworks and noisemakers. But that was a year ago.

Then, the horses had to be coaxed across a blue tarp laid out across the loose dirt of the practice ring. Many balked, and a few even jumped over. As the exercise continued, more accepted it as safe.

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"To be able to walk a horse through a crowd, you have to be able to keep control of it," said Sgt. J.M. Dupre. "That's the purpose of the tarpaulin -- the horses won't do it unless you make them."

The horses also must walk past smoke bombs, silly string and inflatable toys like the ones vendors sell along parade routes.

For the final exercise, officers and their mounts took to a nearby street where the McDonogh 35 High School band played and performed just as it would in a Carnival parade.

The groups circled the block several times, with the four horses in the front row peeling out to the rear every so often, so each horse had flapping, twirling, waving flags almost in its face.

At the start, many shied or sidled. At the end, the horses were lined up on the sidewalk. Brasses blared, tuba bells and trombones flashing from side to side. The sweatsuit-clad dance team pranced by. Batons twirled, flags fluttered.

The horses stood fast.

With practice done, officers and their mounts embarked on the real thing as the parading season got into high gear earlier this week, leading up to Mardi Gras on Feb. 24.

Their final duty of the season is to clear Bourbon Street crowds at midnight, as Fat Tuesday turns to Ash Wednesday, so an army of street cleaners can move in to pick up tons of debris.

Two rows of horses will line up curb-to-curb behind a police car with a bullhorn.

"A lot of chiefs and the superintendent will walk along with us, putting an official end to the Mardi Gras season," Waguespack said.

[Associated Press; By JANET McCONNAUGHEY]

Associated Press writer Mary Foster in New Orleans contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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