There may not be the usual Trooping the Colour this year, but a new crop of horses is keeping the Household Cavalry as busy as ever, says Eleanor Doughty
This year’s Queen’s Birthday Parade (12 June 2021) may not be the usual scale of pomp and ceremony, but on a visit to the Household Cavalry‘s Knightsbridge barracks Eleanor Doughty finds there is still the usual buzz of activity.
Read The Queen’s horses: black beauties of Knightsbridge to learn more about the special relationship Her Majesty has with her Household Cavalry.
THE HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY
It’s 6am, and former point-to-pointer Trooper Lois O’Hara is down in The Life Guards stables at Hyde Park Barracks mucking out. With 250 horses to feed, groom and exercise, there’s a lot to do. By lunchtime, she’ll have ridden three times – first on one of the Household Cavalry’s fully-trained horses, before exercising two of the regiment’s young horses, the ‘remounts’, those that are waiting to show the world just how magnificently they can behave on parade. After 12 years working in racing, she joined the Army in 2019, as the second female soldier in the regiment’s 361-year history. “I can’t seem to get away from horses,” she laughs.
The past year has been a strange one for the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR). Usually, the soldiers and horses work towards a succession of parades, including HM The Queen’s Birthday Parade, more commonly known as Trooping the Colour, in June, alongside the five regiments of foot guards, and The King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. But when the national lockdown was imposed in March 2020, the cavalry was locked down, too. The state events were cancelled, the majority of the horses were sent to grass in Melton Mowbray, and the soldiers engaged in Operation Rescript, building hospitals, testing the public and providing humanitarian support to the government’s COVID-19 efforts. All the while, Queen’s Life Guard, the daily duty at Horse Guards on Whitehall, was still taking place, albeit in a socially distanced manner, with the few horses left.
In an ordinary year, the cavalry’s riding staff, a small but devoted team nicknamed the ‘Blue Mafia’, owing to their dark blue uniforms, will train 26 young horses for ceremonial duties. These horses – Irish draught/thoroughbred crosses – are bought from dealers in Ireland at about the age of four. After approximately six months of training, they ‘pass out’ on one of the cavalry’s official parades. As a result of the pandemic, this spring, the regiment has double the number of remounts to pass out than normal. “We can’t afford not to have any parades this year,” says Warrant Officer Class 2 Karl Scholes, the regiment’s equitation warrant officer and a member of the riding staff. “Without getting new horses in, we can’t move any on.”
Although the horses that began their training in September 2019 – with a view to passing out at the parades that would have happened in 2020 – are well rehearsed, they are still untested, says WO2 Scholes. “What they’ve not seen is a guardsman in a bearskin, or a 109-person band. We can play music down the yard, bang a drum and march behind them, but unless they’ve actually done a parade they’re unproven.”
In March, Buckingham Palace announced that The Queen’s Birthday Parade would “not go ahead in its traditional form in Central London” and there’s further uncertainty over the autumn parades. HCMR’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Tom Armitage is hopeful that the season will go ahead as far as possible. After all, he says, “we need to be doing parades, we need to be riding horses to develop riders and horses – at the moment, we have a lot of new soldiers who haven’t really had the chance to do anything yet”.
Despite there being 40 horses awaiting their graduation, the carousel must keep turning. In mid-March, while I am writing this piece, some of the next generation of remounts have been acquired. Because of the pandemic, explains Captain Sean ‘Skip’ Nicholls, riding master of HCMR, the Irish dealers have come to them this year. Indeed, the day before we spoke, Captain Nicholls had been up at the Defence Animal Training Regiment in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, alongside Lt Col Armitage, selecting horses. “Out of the 21 we saw, we bought 13,” he says. Before September, the regiment will buy another 20 to fill the ranks.
But what makes the ultimate ‘cav black’? First of all, they are actually black, rather than dark bay – apart from the 14 greys. Horses are selected for different roles: officers’ chargers should be “17hh plus, and ideally fully black with no white on the face”, says Captain Nicholls. Troopers, those ridden by other ranks, are “16.2hh plus, mainly black, and can have white on their lower legs and face”. The greys, the trumpet horses, must also be 16.2hh or higher. The ideal cav black also has ‘good bone’ and the right length back, says WO2 Scholes. “They can’t be too short in the back because Army saddles are longer than GP saddles, but equally they can’t be too long, as this can cause back issues. It’s a balance.”
Historically, The Life Guards’ horses have tended to be bigger and flightier, explains WO2 Scholes, with Blues and Royals horses “stockier and smaller – though it’s not written down anywhere”. Over the past 30 years, the national demand for heavier horses has decreased and interest in sports horses has increased. As a result, there are now more thoroughbreds in the ranks and “a little bit too much thoroughbred in all the animals we buy”, according to WO2 Scholes.
Thoroughbred or not, says Major Caroline Bullard, HCMR’s vet for the past two years, what you’re looking for is “a kind eye and a nice head. You look as you would do for an old classical hunter, which has a lovely eye that you know will look after you.” Her own ‘pet’, delightfully named Revenge, a Blues and Royals horse, is just that, she says – the ideal horse; she competes on him for the regiment, a perk of what she describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime job”.
SLOW, STEADY TRAINING
Once the horses are bought and settled in Melton Mowbray, their training can commence. This, explains Captain Nicholls, is a “slow, steady game”. In Windsor, at the Household Cavalry Training Wing, where trainee soldiers learn to ride, the horses are backed, taught to walk, trot and canter in the school, and begin to work on the roads. This stage is about “teaching a horse to be a horse”. Once the riding staff are happy with the horses, they progress to riding them off one hand and in a PMR bit, the standard training bit for state ceremonial riding. Soon after, “we put scabbards on the side, too”, says Lance Corporal Josh Bayliss, a member of the remount team working in Windsor. “That way, they can learn that the scabbard, flopping all over the place, isn’t a threat. The earlier we do that the better.” Then, they transfer to Knightsbridge to complete their ceremonial state-kit training and meet the double-decker buses – and the locals of Hyde Park.
The cav blacks are not the only cavalry horses that require training. Alongside the troopers, chargers and trumpeters on parade, are two rather special animals: the drum horses. These shires or Clydesdales – sometimes a combination – carry, as their name suggests, the vast silver drums belonging to the regiment and hold the rank of major. There is one set of drums each for The Blues and Royals and for The Life Guards, given in 1805 to the Royal Horse Guards by George III, and in 1831 to The Life Guards by William IV. These are irreplaceable and only come out when The Queen is on parade. The rest of the time, the riding staff use a set of copper drums. Getting these giant animals – which can be as big as 18.2hh – used to the unique challenge of carrying a pair of 25kg drums, plus a rider banging said drums on top, is no mean feat. “We do a lot of desensitisation training and wherever we can we get them in front of a band, or traffic, or marching troops,” says WO2 Scholes, who produced Perseus, named by The Queen in 2017. The drum horses are only ridden in walk. “You’ve got to convince them that trot and canter doesn’t exist when they’re under saddle,” says WO2 Scholes. “I’ve been on a bucking drum horse with the drums on, and it’s not fun.”
Some horses take to training like a dream, says Corporal Bayliss. One of his remounts, ‘00’ – as yet unnamed – “is bombproof in every sense, except when you turn a set of clippers on next to him”. There is no trend for what the remounts find most difficult, but some just don’t get on with London. “It’s not for everybody, people-wise, let alone animal-wise,” says Captain Nicholls. “About 10% of what we get might not make it and it’s not because they are bad horses, it’s just not for them.”
The horses that do pass out are not perfect – and there’s no expectation that they should be. “We’re not looking for the next Valegro,” laughs Corporal Bayliss – but there’s no doubt that they are beautifully schooled. Working with the remounts is a dream job, adds Trooper O’Hara. “It’s really nice to have an input into their education, and they’re good fun.”
Cav blacks only receive their official name on passing out, and each year of graduating horses receives a name starting with a different letter. In 2020, that letter would have been ‘U’, but the remounts currently in training will, if they pass out this year, receive a name beginning with ‘V’, “a mark of respect for what the country has gone through and a mark in the sand that that was 2020”, says Captain Nicholls.
Names vary from military operations, battle honours and weapons (Telic, Kajaki, Revolver) to fictional characters and places (Isengard, Hagrid) and notable people (Rommel, Gladstone). Every time ‘S’ comes round, a Blues and Royals horse is named Sefton, after the horse that survived the 1982 attack on the regiment by the IRA.
Retirement does come to all cavalry horses, eventually – ideally, at about the age of 20, but it is literally horses for courses. One former Life Guards mare has recently found a forever home in Buckinghamshire, and Elizabeth, HRH Princess Anne’s former charger, moved in 2019 to The Horse Trust, after 16 years of ceremonial duties, to live out her retirement. WO2 Scholes remembers a horse called Montrose. “He was still doing Queen’s Life Guard at 23 – he was fit as a butcher’s dog.” It’s a pretty happy life, they lead. “We always joked that he’d been in the yard so long, that you could put him on afternoon stables.”