While I was in London my husband David and I went to see the Horse Guards. We walked down Whitehall and past the heavily guarded entrance of Number 10 Downing St, the residence of the British Prime Minister and also of Palmerston, the cat, who is officially employed by the Home Office to get rid of mice at Number 10! The news media have reported Palmerston is doing well so far.
At the entrance to the Horse Guards there are two sentry boxes, each with a horse and mounted trooper. There is also a sign advising of the dangers of horses.
There were at least 40 -50 tourists standing a respectful distance from the two horse guards taking photos and looking at the horses and the two mounted troopers. Some visitors came up and stood a few feet away from one of the horses for photos. One or two put a hand onto the horse’s shoulder but most kept a careful distance. Except for a little girl of 4 or 5 years of age. She darted up and stood right under the horse’s chin and then reached up and bopped him on the nose. The troopers do not speak to the onlookers but they do have a button on the wall of the guard box that they could press for assistance if something happened. But this time it did not. This patient and tolerant horse just stood there. I looked at the little girl’s mother and wondered what on earth she was thinking to allow this. Fortunately nothing happened and they moved on. Then it was my turn.
I walked up to this handsome black horse, a Cavalry Black, as they are called, and put my left hand on his shoulder. He was a good 16.2hh or more. All of the Cavalry Blacks are tall and can be up to 17.2hh. His coat was soft and shiny. I knew that the troopers and the horses have an inspection before leaving the barracks in Knightsbridge and setting out for the Changing of the Horse Guards. As I patted his shoulder he turned to look at me. So with my right hand I gently patted his nose. I quietly told him he was a very handsome boy (all the horses are geldings) and he was doing a very good job standing guard.
Then he turned right to me and put his nose on my camera bag that I had across my chest. I had to smile. I told him I did not have any treats for him. He seemed to understand this and removed his nose from my bag. I gave him a final pat on the shoulder and walked away.
Well it was a moment wasn’t it? I had met a Cavalry Black and although I did not know him personally I knew a lot about him. I didn’t know his name but I decided to give him one. I knew that all the Cavalry Blacks, Thoroughbred Irish draught crosses, are purchased in Wales or Ireland when they are four years old. Just like the Dutch Warmbloods the horses will all be given names starting with the same letter each year. I decided my friend would be a W year. The names are chosen from battles, places or a notable person. So for W there could be Waterloo, Wellington, Windsor or Winston. I chose Winston after Sir Winston Churchill the war time Prime Minister.
Winston would spend several months being worked on a lunge line and introduced to saddle and bridle and then would be backed. Gradually Winston would be introduced to the ‘horse furniture” (tack and ceremonial kit) he would have to wear. The Riding Master supervises the training of both horses and new troopers. The new troopers have to spend a lot of time on the lunge line trotting with no stirrups! They ride the more experienced horses. When Winston was able to trot on in full ceremonial tack without any nervousness he would be ready to come to the Knightsbridge Barracks and take up his role as a Household Cavalry horse, a Cavalry Black. He must be “steady on parade and accustomed to vast crowds, heavy traffic and flash photography.” There are a number of interesting stories about the Knightsbridge Barracks. One of them is that there is an annual HCMR (Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment) dinner where a horse has to be present and that involves getting a horse into an elevator and up to the top floor of the building. Truth or myth? Who knows? Sounds like a myth but…..you never know.
The troopers are up early and the horses are taken out between 7am and 10am for exercise in Hyde Park. This park has long tracts of softer footing so horses can be ridden all through the park. For this exercise Winston would be tacked up in the brown exercise “kit”. For public duties he would wear the “black kit”. All of this would be tailored to fit him by the saddlers. I have heard that the saddle is more comfortable for the horse than for the rider and so it is covered by a sheepskin blanket. Well…. during ceremonial duties they have to sit on it for long periods of time! The troopers must also see to it that the brasses (bit, buckles, crownpieces, and bits) are all highly polished. You can see in this photo that there is a chain attaching to the bridle. I was told this is not a martingale but is something left over from the days of cavalry battles and now is just ornamental.
Winston would have been shod by one of the 14 soldiers that specialize in farriery and hold a Diploma from the Worshipful Company of Farriers. Winston’s number would be stamped on his feet and also the letters to denote that he is in the Blues and Royals regiment. The Blues and Royals and the Life Guards make up the HCMR and are the most senior regiments in the British Army. The troopers alternate with the HCR ( Household Cavalry Regiment) that train in armoured fighting vehicles and are deployed to war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Once Winston was fully trained he was ready to be a “boxman” and take up the sentry duty at Horse Guards. He will be in the box for one hour at a time and when relieved by the next horse and trooper and he will go for some ‘down time’ in the stable area at Horse Guards. There are 12 to 15 horses serving in each 24 hour period but they are only out in the sentry boxes from 10am to 4pm.
And what is the purpose of having the Horse Guards guarding a building the Queen does not live in? Good question. It is now a symbolic function but there are still arcane rules about who may and who may not drive through the Horse Guards arch in a “wheeled” vehicle.
Today the horses are never sent off to battle but not so long ago some Cavalry Blacks lost their lives in a terrorist action. I will be writing about that and more about the life of Winston. I hope you will come back to find out more about him.