U.S. Park Police Officer Robert Marcoux can’t finish a story without being interrupted by his partner, a towering 17-year-old Irish sport horse named Tonto.
"I know, I’ll get you something, don’t you worry," Marcoux coos as Tonto’s white blazed head nuzzles his shoulder. The bay roan, who is more than 17 hands tall, or close to 6 feet measured at his saddle, snorts impatiently in hopes his human minder will slip him his favorite snack, a juicy apple.
When newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came calling a few weeks ago — in search of a horse to ride through the streets of downtown Washington to his first full day of work — Marcoux knew exactly which steed in the training barn would be a perfect fit for the former representative from Montana.
"We were in roll call one day, and the commander asked who can [the secretary ride], and I was like, obviously Tonto — he’s awesome," Marcoux said.
A Queens, N.Y., native who still has the accent to prove it, Marcoux is nearing 14 years with the force. He’s a relatively recent addition to the horse mounted unit, though, and has been assigned to Tonto for just over a year. The two have spent hours together on the National Mall patrolling and pausing for pictures, about which Tonto is an exceedingly good sport, Marcoux said.
Tonto, who spent his first 14 years in Ireland competing in fox hunts, is known around the barn as "Steady Eddie." With a friendly disposition and relatively good manners, Tonto is often tapped to escort new geldings around Rock Creek Park and into Washington proper, lending his calming influence to nervous police ponies.
"He’s a real valuable part [of the team] and real important to all of us, right, buddy?" Marcoux asks the horse.
It doesn’t hurt that Tonto is above average in size, a good match for Zinke, who served for 23 years with the Navy SEALs.
"He obviously had ridden before, though," Sgt. Anna Rose, public information officer for the U.S. Park Police, said of Zinke. "When he mounted up for his ride to work, he was so gentle, and I remember thinking, ‘OK, he’s done this before.’"
Both Rose and Marcoux followed Tonto and Zinke as they made the short trip from the unit’s barn near the Lincoln Memorial to Interior headquarters. They said Tonto seemed relaxed, his head down.
The U.S. Park Police is one of the oldest equestrian police units in the country and under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. While Zinke isn’t the first high-ranking official to borrow one of their horses, he is the first to ride one to his first day on the job. Obama-era Interior Secretary Ken Salazar liked to ride, for example. The unit has also trained a number of Secret Service members how to mount up, especially when President Reagan was in office, as both he and first lady Nancy liked to spend time in the saddle.
Zinke’s ride kicked off his "man of action" persona on social media, which has been buoyed by other moves during his first weeks in office. He rode along in a U.S. Park Police cruiser during the snowstorm that blanketed Washington with a few inches of powder. Zinke shoveled snow on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and surprised visitors by escorting them to a typically off-limits part. The new secretary also jumped behind the wheel of a snow blower during a trip to Yellowstone National Park.
On Twitter, followers saw the fifth-generation Montanan shoveling snow off the roof of his family home in Whitefish, Mont., while wearing dress clothes. They’ve also met his 18-month-old dog, a Havanese named Ragnar, and seen the taxidermied elk named Ron, bison called Rosie and unnamed bear that now adorn Zinke’s office.
Now, with President Trump’s recent executive order jump-starting the administration’s energy policies, a centerpiece of which is expanding production on public lands, the new secretary’s persona will be tested on a policy level.
Back in the barn, not much has changed for Tonto on a day-to-day basis. He still eats his oats and hay, goes on patrols and trains with Marcoux.
However, the public’s interest in Tonto has skyrocketed since he carried Zinke to work, so much so that Rose is piloting a #TuesdaysWithTonto Twitter campaign. It doesn’t seem to have gone to his rather large head.
"Tonto got put on the map with the secretary. It was a great honor for him," Marcoux said. "But, I mean, he was always special to me."