Hyde Park Barracks is the home of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. Evelyn Webb-Carter extols The Queen's horses essential to Her Majesty's 90th birthday celebrations
The Queen’s horses form the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, maintaining a world-famous tradition that dates back to 1660. But aside from the pomp and display, Her Majesty has a long and close relationship with her Household Cavalry as an ardent admirer of the horse. Evelyn Webb-Carter extols the “Cavalry Blacks” as we approach Her Majesty’s 90th birthday celebrations, to which The Queen’s horses will be so key.
Her Majesty’s natural affection for animals has been long and well known, and it is not limited to her blacks. Read The Queen’s gundog: royal retrievers to find out about Sandringham’s retrievers, which are respected throughout the shooting world.
THE QUEEN’S HORSES
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” Shakespeare would have us believe an imperilled sovereign cried at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. I can imagine the sentiment being expressed by our current sovereign for happier reasons because she is known to be an ardent admirer of the horse in all its forms.
Her Majesty has a long and a particularly close relationship with her Household Cavalry and in this year of all years she will be depending upon the horses of that illustrious corps, so it is perhaps worth finding out how the “Cavalry Blacks” get to the state occasion in the fine and sparkling order they will surely display on the 11th of June as they escort her from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace.
It is worth remembering straightaway that the Household Cavalry is an operational part of the British Army. It has taken its share of casualties in Afghanistan. Better known is the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, which, with 350 men and 280 horses, provides ceremonial troops for state occasions. The Mounted Regiment also fulfils the duties of the Queen’s Life Guard virtually every day.
THE QUEEN’S HORSES: THE IDEAL MOUNT
The horse on which the Cavalry depends as The Queen’s horses is a middle- to heavyweight hunter-type with good bone (c91⁄2in) and standing 16.3hh to 18hh. He needs good feet, described by one young soldier as “as big as a pizza”. The Queen’s horses must be capable of carrying for long periods a man weighing about 18st, of which 5st is the uniform. This is by no means a modern sport horse but a more old-fashioned type.
The Household Cavalry looks for a robust horse with “a leg in each corner”. Temperament is as important as strength in The Queen’s horses and this usually rules out the more sporty types such as European warmbloods. An added requirement, and there can be no compromise here, is the colour, although white socks are acceptable. They are not called blacks for nothing and this, in a way, is the trademark of the Household Cavalry. The only exceptions are the trumpeters’ mounts and the drum horses.
The vast majority of the blacks come from Ireland, that land of quality horses and a great deal of blarney. Once or twice each year a “purchasing commission” goes to Ireland to fill gaps made by horses reaching retirement age, normally 17 to 20 years. The commission is made up of the Commanding Officer of the Defence Animal Centre, a Veterinary Officer and a Riding Master. Their task is to purchase about 25 horses of the type I have described.
Ireland, by and large, has a greater number of the old-fashioned type and the commission goes to well-known dealers in Limerick and Kilkenny who assemble likely candidates for The Queen’s horses, usually four or five year olds, from surrounding farms. This is where the fun starts.
Irish dealers are up to every trick there is to sell a horse. One Riding Master told me the issue of colour frequently revealed a wheeze or two, so it is important to put one’s hand over the horse to detect the black-polish trick. Of course, all the candidates for The Queen’s horses “have hunted”. Some may have done, but the request to jump a horse over a couple of fences causes a lot of added blarney from the dealer. Recently, buying commissions have visited sales at Goresbridge, where a better-quality horse can be found. Top price is £4,300 but this presumes discounts for quantity. In years past there were stories of lavish alcoholic entertainment leading to the purchase of horses in the dark, when height and colour, let alone temperament, could not be detected. Since then, purchasing commissions are dry. Results vary but, on average, out of the 25 or so there will be two or three unknown stars; conversely, there will also be a couple of “dogs”. Several years ago one of the stars was placed at an international three-day event in Pau.
THE QUEEN’S HORSES: TRAINING THE RE-MOUNTS
Once bought, the horses are chipped, which puts paid to the shenanigans that used to occur when a horse similar but inferior to the purchased one was transported. The re-mounts, as they are known, are taken to Melton Mowbray for six weeks’ isolation to ensure no viruses are lurking, and from there to Windsor where training begins under the 10-strong riding staff, all of whom have attended the long riding course at Melton. The riding staff assume that the horses have not previously been saddled, and take them back to basics: being walked in-hand and growing accustomed to the voice, lunged and then saddled. The horses are young and some completely unbalanced and seem to be “running to stay upright”. A horse called Sultan threw his rider five times in as many minutes.
The process is a painstaking one and some of The Queen’s horses need longer than others to train and eventually pass out in the full dress saddlery. From purchase to first parade normally takes eight months. During this time the re-mount has his hooves branded with an Army number on the hinds and squadron number and regimental initials on the fronts. At about the same time he acquires a name. The initial letter is different each year.
Once trained and passed out, the horse will go on parade for a Sovereign’s Escort, ridden by an experienced rider or a member of the Riding Staff. Having been deemed reliable he will find himself in the humdrum routine of the Queen’s Life Guard. So, at last, we have a black ready to do whatever is required as one of The Queen’s horses.
We must not forget that while this is going on, young soldiers, too, are being trained. They joined the Household Cavalry to fight The Queen’s enemies and 95% of them have not ridden before. This is a rather more predictable business but full of thrills and spills. The young soldiers are not trained on re-mounts but on more dependable, older horses.
THE QUEEN’S HORSES: THE UNPREDICTABLE
When the Sovereign’s Escort trots down the Mall on 11 June an enormous amount of preparation will have taken place. Early in the year, over a two-week period, there will have been squadron and regimental “drills” where the whole Regiment practised all the manoeuvres required for all the ceremonies for the year, from state visits to Trooping the Colour, the most demanding of state ceremonial. Before a specific ceremony there will be additional rehearsals, some in the early morning to avoid traffic. These occur when it is still dark and I always found them to be particularly atmospheric, with the jingling of the saddlery and harness in the pre-dawn quiet.
Everything is rehearsed, everything that is, except the crowd, which, on 11 June, may be a million strong. So by the time the blacks leave the Ceremonial Gate to meet their Sovereign, there is nothing more to be done. This does not mean, however, that everything will go like clockwork. Many a story is told of horses doing the unpredictable. In 1981 at the Prince of Wales’s wedding, a horse called Boomer (named after a well-known officer in the Regiment) careered up the Mall – overtaking the entire procession – made off into Trafalgar Square, turned right into Whitehall and came to rest in Horse Guards. There he took a draught of water and then careered back to join his mates in the Escort. Legend has it the rider remained atop but that is hard to believe. I certainly witnessed horse dramas on Trooping the Colour and , at the royal wedding, Jeremiah disgraced himself.
But there are very clever horses, too. Obelisk used to conceal a portion of oats in his mouth until he was on box duty at Horse Guards, when he would drop the odd grain to attract the pigeons. As soon as one pecked at the morsel he would stamp the bird to death, much to the horror of Japanese tourists. Obelisk was eventually taken off duty for psychological training.
THE QUEEN’S HORSES: HER MAJESTY AND HER BLACKS
HM The Queen takes very great interest in her blacks and is remarkably observant on ceremonial occasions. She will notice that a horse has not been clipped or there is a blemish from an injury. She doesn’t miss a thing, which concentrates the mind of Commanding Officers and Riding Masters. Every year she presents the Richmond Cup to the best-turned-out trooper and horse and this is something she clearly enjoys. But when things go wrong she asks with genuine concern how the rider and horse are. These are, after all, her Household Cavalry and part of the firm.
Trumpeters’ horses are grey and are purchased under the same system as the blacks but the drum horses are an altogether different story. These piebald (black and white) or skewbald (brown and white) heavy horses are extremely difficult to source. They have to have the temperament to tolerate the perpetual banging of a large drum either side and they must have a long back to accommodate both the drums and a rider. These horses are found from all over the country and they are usually named after figures in Greek mythology. Of the horses that have served recently, Mercury came from Wales and Achilles from Blackpool. Digger (stable name) is quite well-known already as he is 19.2hh high. The Queen has taken special interest in these horses and has bred one or two and it is fair to say she has not found it easy because of the special requirements.
There is no doubt that it is a wonderful experience to ride on these great national and state occasions and, when mounted on a known and reliable horse, there is nothing to beat it. But for those who lack confidence it can be a nightmare. Whatever the glamour, it is worth remembering that this is a hard life for the soldiers. Up at 0530 hours and duties not finishing till 1800 hours, the day is a very full one. For the horse and his upkeep there is no short cut, so you have 21st-century men, the iPad generation, doing exactly what was done in the 17th century when the Household Cavalry was formed. Nevertheless, you can be sure that every man will remember with pride the day he rode on The Queen’s 90th birthday procession.
King Richard III may have lacked a horse at the moment critique but Queen Elizabeth II can rely on the blacks of her Household Cavalry to do their duty on this and every other day of her reign.
Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter commanded the Household Division.