Together, they are nine feet tall and create a commanding presence in St. Petersburg at all hours of the day and night. They defuse tense crowd situations in downtown, provide a physical barrier to aid with law enforcement arrests and are at the ready for when a kid wants to take their photo.
To relax, they paint.
Jacob the painting police horse has been the partner of St. Petersburg Police Officer Jason Hughes for seven years as part of the city’s mounted unit. They function as a team when working the streets, parks or a canvas.
“When we’re on patrol, we are more visible than a car,” Hughes said. “When people see us they either think ‘I’m safe’ or ‘I better behave.’”
When not on duty, both Hughes and Jacob decompress by picking up paintbrushes to create art.
Hughes prepares the “studio” on the grass under a shade tree next to Jacob’s sunny paddock that’s equipped with an open-air stall. The location of Jacob’s home and art studio is a secret for safety reasons.
A standard stretched canvas is mounted on a special vice that is attached to a customized heavy-duty outdoor speaker stand. Protecting the grass from paint drippings is a fabric cloth that bears kaleidoscope-like remnants of previous sessions.
A foldout commercial toolbox holds acrylic paint tubes, plastic palette tubs and specialty brushes that are, well, Jacob proof.
“My brother helped me with the equipment designs,” Hughes said.
After several iterations, the final result is a collection of standard wall-size paintbrushes with the wooden handles cut off. A new handle of each brush is then fashioned out of a length of red commercial-grade water hose with a wooden dowel capping the end. This combination adds the rigidity and flexibility the horse needs to be his exuberant creative self.
For nearly every swipe of the canvas, Hughes hands off a brush loaded with paint to Jacob who then firmly grips the handle between his teeth and lips.
Stand back and watch out because at this point, Jacob knows the canvas is all his.
With a quick sweeping motion of his head and neck, the bush bristles splash colors across the canvas and sometimes over the edge. Sometimes, even onto Hughes.
Jacob then drops the brush and Hughes reloads it with more paint for the next swipe.
Training Jacob to paint was part of the process the two went through to get to totally trust one another, which is essential for their police work. It started when Jacob and Hughes met department veteran Amos the Wonder Horse who is an official volunteer officer owned by Shelly Mizarhi of Gulfport. Amos is one quarter the size of Jacob, a miniature horse that specializes in a program called “Just Say Whoa to Bullying.” He also paints.
“I gave Jason some pointers,” said Mizarhi. Because Jacob is naturally curious and loves to hold things in his mouth, he quickly took to paintbrushes and painting.
Carrot rewards help. Hughes keeps a pocket of his painter’s pants stuffed full of the sweet treats.
“He’s no Renoir!” said Rick Shaw, the public information officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department. But Jacob’s paintings are in demand for charity fundraising events such as the sold-out 14th annual Pet Pal Animal Shelter Puppy Love Benefit at the Historic Coliseum in St. Petersburg on Saturday, May 14. From 5 to 6 p.m., Jacob and Hughes will be in the public-accessible parking lot for a free painting demonstration before the private benefit begins inside.