The Horse Rider's Journal

O Captain, My Captain

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They ride stunning steeds, wear dashing uniforms, escort heads of state, and are always present at royal weddings. Representatives from five European mounted cavalry regiments talk about their exciting jobs and unique horses.

Text maria graae & anna rex wittig Photography camilla stephan / The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 14

Captain George Ashby & Trooper Jeremy Lafferty, The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, United Kingdom.
Horse Mercury, 12, Shire.

After the Second World War, during which all British horse regiments had been mechanised, a composite regiment known as the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment was formed in London. Based at Hyde Park Barracks in Knightsbridge, London, it consists of two sabre squadrons, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, and has about 300 horses.

How do you get accepted into the cavalry?
Captain Ashby: The soldiers have a tour of two years in Knightsbridge, then go to Windsor, the armed site, for six years, and then back to Knightsbridge again. The officers go to Sandhurst. For the soldiers it’s normal recruitment: Most can’t ride and suddenly they are given a horse. They have a 14-week intensive riding course and then a five-week kit riding course, where they learn to ride in our kit. We change the horses round quite a lot, so they need to become quite confident as riders and be able to ride almost anything.
What do you look for in a drum horse?
Captain Ashby: They have to be quite calm and love the public attention. Mercury here is probably one of our strongest drum horses. The State Drums are solid silver and weigh 100 kg, which means that on special occasions the horses are expected to carry a quarter of a ton, including rider and kit, for up to nine hours.
What kind of personality is Mercury?
Captain Ashby: He’s a gentle giant, but when we visit the beach in Norfolk he swims like mad – he loves it. Like all the drum horses, he’s named after a god of classical mythology, and can only have his feathers and forelock pulled or cut if Her Majesty says so, so they are never cut. When he has his state kit and all his finery on, he is ranked as a major and everyone should salute him, except the commanding officer.
What’s the best part of your job?
Trooper Lafferty: Seeing the horses on parade, with the drummer and kit, knowing you’ve turned that horse out. The Queen keeps quite a keen eye on them, and what she thinks goes back through the chain of command. She’s got quite an eye for detail.
What’s been the highlight of serving so far?
Trooper Lafferty: I must say it was my very first escort in Windsor, where we were at the railway station to pick up the royal family. I was just in front of the Queen herself. It was wonderful to see her so close.

 

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Captain Lars Hjelm, The Life Guards, Sweden.
Horse Turbin, 9, Swedish Halfblood

The Life Guards are one of the Swedish Armed Forces’ largest units, with a special link to the Swedish Royal Court. They are also one of the world’s oldest regiments still in existence, founded in 1521. The modern-day Life Guards were formed in 2000 from the merging of the Svea Life Guards and the Life Guards Dragoons. The regiment has 70 horses in central Stockholm, including two Shires and six Kladrubers.

What do you look for in a cavalry horse?
We look for calm horses to do the royal escorts. We use chestnut Swedish Halfbloods and buy them at the age of four. At five, they start to take part in the changing of the guard. At 18, the horses go into semi-retirement and work just a couple of months each year, before fully retiring at 20.
What kind of personality is Turbin?
When ridden he can get a bit tense, but I work around it. He’s a sucker for a good grooming and loves when I take my time with him.
How do you get accepted into the cavalry?
You have basic military training for three months. We then teach them how to march and give them a seven-week riding course. Some are already excellent riders while others have never ridden before, but by the time they’ve finished training they can ride with one hand with a double bridle.
What’s the best part of your job?
Working with people and seeing tem grow and thrive. Being around horses is no hardship either. It’s a wonderful job.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Trying to make everyone good soldiers as well as good riders in the time we’re given, while at the same time taking good care of the horses. What’s been the highlight of serving so far? The wedding of Crown Princess Victoria in 2010. It was something special to be a part of up close. I’ve never seen so many people in Stockholm before, and in spite of the massive crowds the horses did really well.

 

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Inspector Patrick Vranken Belgian Royal Mounted Escort, Federal Police, Belgium.
Horse Dadara, 11, Belgian Warmblood

The Royal Escort was created within the former gendarmerie in 1938. As well as doing royal escorts, the Federal Police enlists the horsemen and their mounts to maintain public order during demonstrations or to escort football supporters. They also do mounted patrols in cities, in wooded areas and at the seaside, on a preventative basis. For the time being, the Federal Police have 140 horses.

What do you look for in a cavalry horse?
It must be sound, of good health, and able to work in a group. Height has been 172 cm or smaller in recent years as we’ve had an increase in women, who typically require smaller horses.
What’s the horses’ training schedule at home?
A normal city patrol is five hours; when doing royal escorts, we sometimes work seven hours straight. But there’s also time to play, letting the horses jump and so on.
What’s the best part of your job?
I’ve been in this job for 24 years and I have a 100 km drive from home to where I work. It’s a lifestyle and I love it. Mostly, I like the show part and the escorts. Some of my colleagues enjoy the excitement of working the football matches. That’s not for me, though –I’m a lover, not a fighter.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of your job?
Having to learn to play the trumpet in just six months! And of course having to play at funerals – it’s beautiful, but also sad. We once played at our former boss’s funeral; that was truly difficult.
What’s been the highlight of serving so far?
Travelling with the horses. We’ve been to Vienna and CHIO Aachen. And now we’re here in Denmark meeting colleagues from other nations; that’s a good experience.

 

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Troop leader quarter master Alain Cailliot, Le Régiment de cavalerie de la Garde Républicaine, France.
Horse Sarguois of Jamal, 8, Selle Francais

The French Cavalery Squadron known as Le Régiment de cavalerie de la Garde Républicaine was founded in July 1720, and played an important role as cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. Based in Paris just beside the Picasso Museum, the barracks houses 170 horses, working for the French state and the Parisian police. The squadron has a total of 450 horses.

What do you look for in a cavalry horse?
We buy them at the age of three, and we look for horses at about 175 cm. We select from colours chestnut, dark bay, and brown. The two drum horses are always grey. If a horse can’t be used in the army anymore, the private can have it nearly for free.
What’s the horses’ training schedule at home?
It depends on the temper of the horse and we expose them to different working environments. As we are working for the public police as well, we teach the horses to walk among trash in the streets, and take them to places with noise and firework.
What kind of personality is Jamal?
My horse is eight years old, a bit tense, but a fine horse. When he’s afraid he will go backwards and wants to run, but then I give him sugar cubes and tell him it’s all right. He is able to see a firework up close, but when he sees water on the ground, he wants to die. What’s been the highlight of serving so far?
We have different special moments including services in Versailles. Yesterday, we did our service here in Slagelse. We left the town, and we rode in the countryside all together having a calming walk. We could see all the cavalry with their different uniforms everywhere in the countryside. That was great.
What is the history behind your tack?
Our uniforms are generally from the second empire. The saddle is designed in 1874 and was made in 1914 for the war. It’s not in very good shape anymore, and takes a lot of work to polish.

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Captain Stawski Jaroslaw, The Cavalry Squadron of the Polish Army, Poland.
Horse Magister, 14, Trakehner.

The Cavalry Squadron of the Polish Army has a long history, dating back at least as far as the Battle of Grunwald, 1410. During the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it took part in most of the battles and on several occasions proved to be the elite of the Polish Army. Today, the squadron has 49 horses and is based in Warsaw.

What do you look for in a cavalry horse?
First of all, colour. We use mainly bays, and a few black and grey, all of them Polish breed, mostly Trakehners. Also we want horses at about 170 cm. And then of course we want them to be energetic, not too nervous or too dull. We normally buy them at the age of five, never younger, and no older than eight. We need horses that are fully matured, both physically and mentally.
What’s the horses’ training schedule at home?
We ride each horse for three hours every day. We do shows and dressage, and sometimes a bit of jumping – although that’s not essential as we’re all about dressage.
How do you get accepted into the cavalry?
When the soldiers come to the cavalry, they already have to be able to ride. Naturally, some are better than others, but they can definitely ride and know a lot about horses.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Being around horses all day, riding and grooming them.
What is the history behind your tack?
Our saddles are similar to the ones used before the Second World War. All our tack and equipment is original or replica from 1939 or earlier – for instance, the sables were made in 1934. The saddles look amazing, but to be honest they’re not the most comfortable. Luckily, they’re only used for ceremonies and shows.

 

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Sergeant First Class, Signe Dyrnesli, The Guard Hussar Regiment, Denmark.
Horse Golan, 13, Holsteiner

The history, traditions and uniforms of the Mounted Squadron of the Guard Hussar Regiment can be traced back in a direct line to the Hussar Regiment set up by King Frederik V on 10 February 1762. Today, the Mounted Squadron has about 75 horses at Antvorskov Base in Slagelse. It consists of two platoons, each with 40 conscript privates. The Mounted Squadron is the only unit in Denmark that offers a 12-month military service period for conscripts.

What do you look for in a cavalry horse?
A good temper. Our horses are of various breed associations, but must be bay and in general 168-173 cm so that the cavalry escort looks symmetrical. We buy them ridden from the age of four, but we don’t let them do escort until six or seven. Sometimes we buy them older – we just bought one 10 and one 11 year old; they both went to work straight away.
What kind of personality is Golan?
He’s such a sweet boy, although at times quite a handful. He’s been in the regiment since 2008 and is doing M-level dressage, jumping, and eventing as well. Like all the horses, he was given his hussar name, starting with the letter connected to the year of his birth. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Doing escorts, cheered on by happy children with balloons, is both the best and worst thing. It’s quite challenging riding one-handed with a double bridle, a sable in the other hand, still keeping the formation and doing turns.
What’s been the highlight of serving so far?
Our show last year at CHIO Aachen was really special; the atmosphere and the German crowd were just incredible. Otherwise, her Majesty’s 70th birthday in 2010 – riding through Copenhagen with the sun on my face surrounded by all those happy people wasn’t half bad.
What is the history behind your tack?
Our double bridles are quite unique. They’re decorated with small seashells called cowry shells, introduced to the regiment in 1787 and made by hand. •



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