TAMPA — His friends on the force call him “Big Nasty.”
His hair is thinning, he’s frequently grumpy and he never seems to notice when long strands of saliva drip from his protruding lower lip. Drool is a dead give-away the veteran Tampa Police Department officer is feeling nervous, his partners say. Or he could be excited. Or sleepy. Or chewing on a treat, preferably caramels, jelly donuts or peppermint candies.
But when the 14-year veteran performed his final act as a Tampa Police officer Wednesday morning, no one called him by his nickname.
Instead, the 21-year-old thoroughbred embodied the “riderless horse” in the department’s annual memorial ceremony for fallen officers. With Cpl. Ellen Schantz leading him by the reins, the very sight of “Officer Chad” rendered audible gasps and tears from the crowd outside One Police Center downtown. With his head lowered and brown doe eyes shining, Chad marched bearing an empty saddle, a saber and backwards black boots, as if his rider is turned around to take one final look at those left behind in death.
It’s a duty Chad has performed countless times both in Tampa and the state’s capitol, but Wednesday’s ceremony felt heavier, Schantz said. It was as if Chad knew it was he who would be taking his final look at the officers he dedicated his life to protecting.
“He’s honest,” Schantz said. “He’s not the prettiest horse we have and I’ve always liked that about him. He’s just real, and he’s all heart.”
His solid dark brown coat is what landed Chad the job of serving as the “riderless horse” in at least seven of the state’s fallen officer memorial services in Tallahassee, Schantz said. Throughout history black horses have filled the role for ceremonies honoring presidents or high-ranking officials, but trained police horses with a solid dark coat are hard to find, she said.
The department has yet to decide which of the 6 horses that make up the mounted patrol unit will take Chad’s place in next year’s memorial.
“He’s always had a great presence about him, and all the other horses kind of look to him to see what to do,” said officer Tim Pasley, one of Chad’s long-time partners in addition to Schantz and retired officer Will Wagner.
When he retires, Chad will join Wagner’s horses in his farm in Thonotosassa – not far from the field where retired Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy Don Hunt raised him for 7 years before donating him to the police department.
It was because of Pasley that Chad joined the squad. Tampa police weren’t looking to recruit another horse, but Pasley managed to sneak Chad into the department’s stables – shooing him away whenever Chad risked being seen by the patrol unit’s former corporal.
“One day he was out there and finally started to count the horses and went, ‘Hey, we’ve got one too many here,’ ” Pasley said. “But everybody loved Chad, so he just turned to me and said ‘You brought him, you’re going to ride him.”
Chad is retiring several years earlier than most police horses, but Pasley said he has more than earned it.
About two years ago, Chad developed a medical condition called anhidrosis that prevents his body from producing sweat to prevent overheating. He’s undergone countless acupuncture treatments and takes thyroid medications. Still, Chad’s condition has forced him to spend about 6 months of the year sitting under a large fan in his stall while the rest of the team patrols crowds in the Florida heat.
He spends nights patrolling rowdy crowds in Ybor City and is a fixture at large events like the College Football Playoffs, Republican National Convention, and even the Superbowl.
He took a punch to the nose from a drunken Gasparilla pirate several years ago and barely flinched, Schantz said. He’s won numerous awards in the Florida Police Olympics and earned the highest points overall with Schantz in 2010.
Chad isn’t one for horsing around with the other geldings in the stable, and his riders say a relaxing, quiet life in Wagner’s pasture is the best gift he could receive.
He’s always been a little high strung. He once had to undergo emergency surgery when a scrape on his front left leg became seriously infected. He got the injury by kicking himself while running into his stable during a training exercise, Schantz said. The empty saddle on his back started to slip and he got scared.
Even Wednesday morning the old pro seemed on edge. His muscles tensed when a shovel clattered against the pavement outside police headquarters, and he took a few seconds to anxiously trot in place during the memorial’s 21-gun salute, drool forming around his puffy lip.
But to the crowd and to his team, Chad is nothing short of a noble steed.
“I’ve been to so many of these ceremonies, but every time I see the riderless horse it brings a tear to my eye,” said Marlene Reese after Chad’s final tribute to fallen officers was completed. Reese attended the Tampa Police Department’s ceremony for each of the 57 years she was married to the son of Officer Bryan A. Reese, killed during a training exercise in 1935.
Even though her husband died November 2012, Marlene Reese keeps coming back every year. Sitting alone behind oversized sunglasses, the only tears that managed to fall down her cheeks came when Chad made his way slowly past her seat.
“He always loved the horses,” Reese said of her husband. “As long as they’re here, I’ll be here to thank them for honoring both of my boys.”
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.