Monday, June 29, 2009

Weekend Adventure

When Army horses retire I try to find good homes for them. I don't believe in auctioning them off as I think that after an animal has served the Army he deserves a better fate than ending up on a plate in Paris or Tokyo. Of course, that means I often end up with four-legged "military retirees" on my property. In addition to providing a retirement home for Army horses I also often have injured or rehabilitating "active duty" horses at my place. This past weekend I had two horses in rehab that needed some exercise. One, an old thoroughbred named Hightower who recently injured himself when he cast himself against the side of his stall and, another, a quarter horse mix named Cody, who was recovering from both a splint bone fracture and an eye injury. Some folks take their work home in a briefcase, I take mine home in a horse trailer. In any case, I decided to take them out for some exercise this weekend by riding Cody and ponying Hightower. It sounds simple enough--you just ride one of them and tow the other behind like a dinghy behind a boat. Ha! There is nothing simple where horses are concerned. The two started out well enough but about 45 minutes into the trip they both started acting like a couple of five-year-olds in a station wagon on a cross country vacation. First starts the "I gotta be first" phenomenon. Hightower, who despite his 27 years, thinks he is still a foal and insists that he be at least one nose-length ahead of Cody. Cody responded by picking up his pace to a trot which is immediately matched by Hightower, only a little faster. If left unchecked, we'd have been moving across the high chaparral at supersonic speeds. I respond by reining back Cody and pulling hard on the lead rope on Hightower. Like a well oiled machine, Cody would slow and Hightower would cross in front causing both horses to come to a complete stop. This happened, oh, maybe 600 times in the 90 minutes we were out. Naturally, I had forgotten to wear my gloves which soon became a problem as the strain that Hightower was putting on the lead rope was causing friction burns on my right hand which would, on occasion, actually burst into open flames. The other fun characteristic of the ride was that Cody would suddenly just stop and decide he wasn't going any further. I'd look around thinking that he was pooping but it was just a case of "I'm bored with this and I'm stopping here". Hightower would immediately circle around the front getting the lead rope tangled in Cody's neck, tack, me, etc. Since, I had also forgotten my spurs I was reduced to using regular heal power to get the big lump moving again while trying to untangle the lead rope from around my neck. This continuous nonsense made a 90 minute ride seem like an epic journey into the Twighlight Zone. I was repeatedly tempted to yell at them "Don't force me to stop this ride!" The two horses would just look at me when this feeling came over me as if saying, "You poor, poor man, we don't do this because we want to, we just feel we owe it to you". My difficulties with the horses did not go unnoticed. The cattle we encountered on the ride openly smirked at me. "Can't hold your horses", they would seemingly say, and then moo to each other under the breath in derision. After much humiliation and a massive effort to suppress the desire to sell both horses to the nearest taco shop, I managed to get them home safely. Maybe I should take up chickens.

Friday, June 26, 2009

MI HoF Week

The third week in June is the busiest of the year for B Troop. It is the week that Fort Huachuca inducts new members into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. It involves an entire week of activities and B Troop is on the hook for much of it. Yesterday we had to provide a lady and trooper to be door candy for the commanding general's home tour. Miss Debbie and I handled that chore this year. Basically we just stood there and helped people up the steps and posed for photos. Debbie looked stunning in her black Victorian dress. I spent most the morning trying to figure out how to help people up the steps without tripping them with my saber scabbard. Later on, Trooper Jay and I acted as escorts for a trail ride put on by the Buffalo Corral. We had to give a couple of historical presentations and rode along with the people without getting close enough to them to get kicked by their horses. The people seemed to enjoy the experience but Jay and I had to leave them on Slaughterhouse Ridge with the trail boss and trot back to the stables to get ready for the riding demonstration that afternoon. I was the narrator for the demonstration and Jay was pressed into service as a rider because one of the other troopers got injured at the last moment. The demonstration went pretty well and the guys managed to put together a really good saber charge (see photo). Jay had to ride my wild little pony named Cochise who can really make your life miserable when he wants to. Between Cochise's antics and wardrobe malfunctions with his suspenders, Jay was having a great time. The only problem with the demo was that the water truck didn't show up to wet down the arena and as a result the spectators ended up eating a lot of dust. After the riding demonstration we cleaned weapons and relived the glory of the event as is our custom but had to prep for the following days event also. This morning we had to be at the stables at 0500 to get ready for the Garrison Commander's change of command ceremony. The weather was perfect and the ceremony very nice. Our pistol charge went off well although I think our cannoneers pulled the lanyard a little early. I had not quite gotten up to the skirmish line with Cochise before they damn near blew my hat off. That put Cochise into a gallop that nearly broke the sound barrier. The honor guard got into it too with their howitzers as well. It was regular boom fest with cannons going off, horses pounding the turf, and our Army Colts belching out fire, smoke, and noise. It was a good show and the crowd loved it. Even Major General Custer came out and expressed his appreciation. You have to love this business.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

McClellan Saddles

I have been doing some research on saddles for an article I'm writing for Western Shooting Horse Magazine and have learned some things about saddles in general. As many of you know, the McClellan saddle is designed for the welfare of the horse and not necessarily the rider. It is basically an endurance saddle with "hard points" on it for hanging equipment. The most annoying feature of the McClellan is the "center fire" rigging. That is, the rigging is placed at the center of the saddle so the girth goes around the middle of the horse's belly. This is a common feature of endurance saddles because it keeps the rigging out of the way of the horse's elbows when he's walking. However, if you're trying to do performance work on your horse you need to cinch your saddle down near the front of the saddle to keep it from moving forward and loosening the cinch. The military thoughtfully provided a surcingle (basically a large woolen belt) to help with that problem so you could have the best of both worlds. The surcingle can be placed near the front of the saddle so you can cinch it down as you would a normal working saddle but without interfering with the horse's movement. The center fire rig keeps the saddle from tipping forward (like a flank strap) while the surcingle keeps it from slipping and getting loose. The military saddle is designed to be used with a surcingle and is not safe to use without it. The rigging on western saddles comes in all kinds of different configurations. Each type of rigging is designed for specific uses. It is important when choosing a saddle that you get the right type of saddle for the job you plan to do and if you are using a McClellan, it is important that you use the surcingle and install it correctly.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One Legged Horse Hopping

I have been working on training Apache the Wonder Horse for the cavalry for the past year or so. I call him the Wonder Horse because it is a wonder he hasn't killed me yet. I figured I'd be done training him by now but it turns out this particular horse is a little more challenging than I planned on. In the year or so I've been training him for the cavalry I have learned that he likes to express his unhappiness with new situations by walking around on his hind legs with his front hooves on his hips--sort of like an angry housewife except much taller. A fellow trooper recently borrowed him and learned this lesson the hard way while on a trail ride. After getting unceremoniously dumped along the trail, the Wonder Horse turned and whinnied at him and then ran all the way back to the stables. The poor trooper had to endure a mile-long walk-of-shame to get back.

Well, I decided it was time to expose the Wonder Horse to the parade environment since that is part of what a cavalry horse is expected to do. I had planned on his first parade being on Fry Blvd in Sierra Vista because the street is wide and their is good separation from the crowd. Our cavalry unit performs mounted drill during parades and sometimes get's pretty close to the spectators. I didn't want the Wonder Horse getting exposed to the parade environment in Tombstone because Allen Street is very narrow but, of course, that is exactly what happened.

Since we were schedule to support a Salute to the Buffalo Soldiers event in Tombstone I decided to put the Wonder Horse into the lineup and give him a try. I hedged my bets however by volunteering to be the "male escort" for our lady sidesaddle rider. This position keeps me in the center of the road and away from the crowd. The Wonder Horse handled it like a pro and I did not get excited despite the flags waiving in his face, motorcycles reving up their engines under his nose, and kids and dogs running around him making strange noises. He did give the donkey with the dog on its back a worried look but then who didn't.

What I didn't plan on was the ceremony after the parade. We, unbeknownst to us, were supposed to participate in a little ceremony in front of Big Nose Kate's after the parade. We ended up lined up on the other side of the street facing Kate's with our horse's tails handing over the boardwalk behind us. It was a tight fit and their were people with kids and dogs pressed up all around us. My horse had been handling all this new stimuli pretty well up to now but he was beginning to show signs of stress. Fortunately, we dismounted so I could stand close to his nose and calm him down. After a calamitous period of answering questions and posing for photos we were ordered to mount up again.

For those who have never seen a cavalry unit mount up, it is interesting to watch. Since it is a military outfit, we have to do everything in unison. Upon the command to "prepare to mount" every second horse is pulled foward out of the line so each rider has room to get up. The trooper puts his left hand on the horse's neck with reins in hand, his right hand on the saddle, and his left foot in the stirrup. He then waits in this position until the commander yells, "mount!". He doesn't do that however until he sees everyone's boot in the left stirrup. Since one of the mounts (not mine) was acting squirrely we held the "mount" position for several minutes until his trooper could get his boot in the stirrup. Soon my horse began to move around also. With only one foot on the ground, I had to execute what I call the "one-legged horse hop" while trying to control the horse with the reins in my left hand. This is the most ridiculous looking dance you'll ever see on Allen Street in Tombstone not counting what you might see during Helldorado.

Finally, mercifully, I heard the order to mount and swiftly and gracefully threw my right leg up over the bedroll on the back of my saddle and.....firmly jammed it down in between the horse's right hip and the carbine slung on that side. Now my horse is feeling the carbine barrel hitting him in the right side which to him means go forward--and I mean right now! So after having completed the one-legged horse hop, I'm now doing the jerk-the-carbine-out-of-the-boot-while-reining-the-horse trick. DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME! Fortunately, having many years of experience in getting my leg stuck behind the carbine stock I swiftly executed this maneuver with only a few dozen people noticing and snickering at me. Good thing I'm a pro.

Well, the good new is that the Wonder Horse is cleared for parades now. Any horse that can get through a day like that is ready for anything.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Eye Trouble Part II

We took almost the entire herd to Tombstone today for a parade. Included in the horses we took along was our eye-injured horse, Charlie. The eye is pretty much healed now but there is still some scarring on the cornea which looks like a cloudy spot on his eyeball. The scar tends to obscure his vision a little in his left eye. I had forgotten about the vision problems as we had been using him for riding practice and hadn't noticed any problems. However, when we were riding down Allen Street today Charlie began jumping around and seemingly spooked by everything he saw (or didn't see). After a while it occurred to me that he was reacting to things because he could not see them clearly. So, I decided to place my horse next to him on the side with the bad eye to see what would happen. Once Charlie had a friendly horse on his left side it didn't matter that he couldn't see clearly on that side. He felt more secure with his left side protected and he calmed down immediately. Another lesson learned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pant Legs

I was reading on another web site a discussion about whether or not cowboys of the old west wore their pants inside their boots or outside. It was just the kind of inane discussion I like to get into. I remember being a teenager and buying "boot cut" jeans because they were so much cooler than the "stove pipe" kind. I still buy the 'boot cut" jeans (because I'm still cool) but I admit I still stick my trousers down inside my cavalry boots when I ride. If you don't the black dye on the girth straps gets all over your pants. The military trousers we wear are the "stove pipe" design so they don't lend themselves to being worn over the boots. I can't help but notice that in most historical photographs and illustrations that the cavalry wore their pants tucked into their boots. I have also noticed that guys who ride in the cavalry like to stick various items in the tops of the boots when they ride. Knives are the most common article but that is also the most common article to wind up in the arena sand. I've seen guys try and stick their pistols in their boot top when they are trying to switch from pistol to saber and can't get the pistol back into the holster on a moving horse (it takes practice, practice, practice). These guys usually end up paying a beverage fine because the pistol usually falls out. I've also read that in the old days that troopers would store chewing tobacco in the tops of their boots. I shudder to think about other items that might have been stored that way. Hopefully no one tried to put a banana or a pop sickle in there. Anyway, the military practice of wearing their trousers inside their boots may have spilled over into the civilian world as kind of a fashion statement or maybe it was just more practical to do that with high top boots.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


I was asked to write an article for Western Shooting Horse magazine about McClellan saddles but was allowed only 300 words for the article. For those who write you know that the fewer words you're given the harder it is to write something. I decided to focus the article on how to put a surcingle on a McClellan saddle as that is probably the most important aspect of using one and I figured I could keep that topic down to 300 words. The girth of the McClellan is rigged around the middle of the horse instead of up around the heart girth like most saddles. The military saddle was thus ridden with an extra belt that wrapped around the saddle to hold it in place. The question is, where do you put it? The Randy Steffen book about horse soldiers indicates that it goes over the girth. Well, back when I was trying to figure out how to use the surcingle I decided that didn't make sense. If the center-fire rigging on a McClellan saddle tends to slip because of where it is, it didn't make sense to put it over the girth. That would just be duplicating the problem. Modern day saddles put the rigging up toward the front where the horse's body narrows thus preventing the girth from rolling off the horse's belly. To me it made more sense to put the surcingle in the same location. So that's what I did. I also rotated the surcingle so that the webbing portion went under the horse instead of over the saddle. I buckled it on the near side with the leather going over the saddle instead of underneath the horse where it would rub. Although this technique made sense to me it was contrary to what I'd seen in the Steffen book. However, another trooper decided to try it according to the illustration in Horse Soldiers. He wrapped it around the girth and mounted up. About half way to the arena his horse started bucking. I looked down at his tack and realized the surcingle had slipped off the girth and was around the horse's loins and had become a bucking strap. The rider managed to dismount and very carefully unbuckled the surcingle before the horse exploded. Since then everyone decided to use the surcingle up front. It may not be period correct but it definitely works. I can't remember the last time we had a saddle come loose.