Sheriff’s Mounted Division Essential for Polk County
by TERESA SCHIFER
photos provided by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office
From Central Park to Central Florida, mounted officers play a unique role in law enforcement. You may encounter a sheriff’s deputy on horseback at a community event or maybe at some school assembly activity. Horses are popular animals, making them great ambassadors to engender friendly feelings between citizens and law enforcement.
Since half of Polk County’s 1.3 million acres of land area is designated for agricultural use, it makes sense that the Sheriff’s Office has a Mounted Enforcement division, yet many residents are unaware of the division and the honorable deputies who comprise it.
Detective Maria Catello, a member of the Agricultural Unit, is one of three deputies in the Mounted Division of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Catello grew up with horses, and as a youngster wanted to become a veterinarian when she grew up. Eventually, her focus shifted toward law enforcement. When she learned there was a need for mounted deputies, she realized she could have the best of both worlds.
Catello recently sat down with Central Florida Ag News to talk more about the division and what makes it so essential. She’s been a mounted deputy with Polk County for almost seven years, and prior to that she served as a civilian volunteer in Pasco County for two years. She rides with Topeka, a 16-year-old quarter horse.
“We do a lot of community events,” Catello says. “Recently I was at Ridge Community High School for their Horses on the Ridge community event. We’ve done fundraisers. We do the Back to School Bash where we have the whole Sheriff’s Office out there for back to school, and we’ll bring the horses out there.”
Catello says the horses are great for community relations because people approach the team to talk about the horses.
“Everyone loves a horse,” she quips. “And they get to come talk to a cop, so it helps build that relationship with everybody.”
The mounted officers attend large events, especially those where there is a risk of rowdy behavior, such as high school football games between intense rivals. Their presence serves a dual purpose of promoting positive relations with members of the community and providing an enhanced degree of security. Sitting high atop a horse allows deputies to more effectively monitor a crowd to make sure everyone stays safe. If a problem does arise, the nimble horses enable the mounted officers to move quickly to neutralize any threat.
Crowd control isn’t the only manner in which the horses play a pivotal role in keeping Polk County safe. Catello describes the valuable contribution they make in some serious situations.
Search and Rescue
One of their most important uses involves search and rescue. Catello says the horses are particularly advantageous when deputies are looking for lost hikers or searches in similar scenarios, such as when individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia live near a wooded area and wander off.
“The horses are great for going out in the woods because they can go through a lot more terrain than a person can on foot and they can fit places where an ATV four-wheeler can’t get to,” she explains. “If the vegetation is so thick our air unit can’t see down through it, we can get our horses through.”
In an area like Polk County, which is one of the largest counties in the state, that’s a big win.
While the Mounted Division only consists of three sworn deputies, there are about 10 certified civilian volunteers who also pitch in to assist as needed with search and recovery efforts. Unlike other mounted units where the municipality owns and provides care for the horses, all of the horses in the Polk County Mounted Division are owned by their associated handlers.
Training & Competition
Before they can become official Sheriff’s Office horses, they must go through rigorous training. Depending on the animal’s age and capacity, they train for five to 10 years. Before they can be deployed in the field, the horses must prove they can remain calm under stress and when they encounter surprising or unpredictable events. The deputies themselves go through a 40-hour training course, as well, to show they are competent with their horses and will be effective mounted agents.
The horses and their deputy partners have the opportunity to prove their mettle every year at a national competition called the National Mounted Police Colloquium. During the weeklong event, mounted officers spend three days training with their horses, then the last two days they show off their skills in crowd control, desensitization, formation riding, and equitation. In addition, they participate in an obstacle course and uniform inspection.
Approximately 100 mounted officers from 30 law enforcement departments across the nation participated in the 2022 National Mounted Police Colloquium in Lexington, Ky., last September. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Enforcement Unit placed third in the uniform inspection.
“This was my first year attending the National Mounted Police Colloquium, and it was an amazing experience,” Catello says. “To be able to gain new skills learning different training techniques, along with being able to network with other mounted officers from around the nation, is amazing.”