Thursday, October 29, 2009

Frozen Horses

We had our first big cold snap of the year yesterday. Some horses have a hard time coping with the sudden change in temperatures so I issued stable blankets to everyone and asked them to put them on last night. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough with one of the horses. As I was sitting in my office in the early afternoon trying to stay out of the wind, I heard a loud whinnie from out back. This is Duke's way of telling me he's hungry. I went out to get him a flake of hay (and to get him to shut up) and noticed that every horse on the row of pens had eaten all of their hay. This is not uncommon when the weather turns cold because the horses rely on the food to warm themselves up. So I walked around and gave each horse an extra flake of hay. However, when I got to Kidd's pen I noticed that he had not eaten all his hay from the morning and that he was laying down. It is not normal for Kidd to not be hungry so I went an got a halter and got him to stand up. It seemed to me that he had a case of the ADRs (Ain't Doin' Right) so I commenced to walk him around. After a short while it was clear to me that he had colic so I put him back into his pen and called the vet. His vitals were normal accept his temperature was down to 94 degrees and he had no gut sounds. The vet also took his blood and ran an analysis of it. His blood counts came back indicating anemia which was disconcerting. The vet gave him a pain killer and asked me to take him home with me so I could observe him over night and them bring him into the clinic the next morning. By the time I got him home his temperature was back to normal and so was his appetite. We checked his temperature a couple more times but he seemed to be back to normal. When I took him in to the clinic the next morning, the vet told me the blood analysis machine had given a false reading and that his blood counts were normal. With a big sigh of relief, I took Kidd back to the stables and fed him. Apparently, he just got a chill. It doesn't happen very often that a horse gets colic due to a temperature change but it is the reason I put blankets on them at the first cold snap of the season.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Empire Ranch Roundup

It had been about six years since we last appeared at the Empire Ranch Open House. It is an historic ranch near Sonoita, Arizona that a group of people are trying to preserve for its historical significance. The annual open house has become quite a large affair and seems to be becoming more and more popular each year. We were well accommodated by our hosts who roped off a pretty big area for us to perform in. We started off with a modified cavalry riding demonstration similar to the one we perform on post. We had to tone it down a little as the ground was uneven and rocky in places but we were still able to put on a semi-decent show. After that we set up a combined weapons course so the troopers could show off individual riding skills. The course began with a series of pistol targets and jumps that had to be negotiated followed by an equal number of saber targets set at different levels and requiring different saber cuts. The saber target portion also included some jumps. The course was designed around a series of S-turns to keep the horse's speed down and to really make it challenging for the troopers. The guys had fun and the crowd really seemed to enjoy the show. The following photos give an indication of how fun it was. The photos are courtesy of Ty Holland.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stabbing Things

I've been working on making Wonder Horse less excited about the things we do. It is quite a contrast riding him as opposed to Duke. With Duke you have to constantly spur him to keep his energy up. With Apache, you have to do the opposite--find ways to keep him calm. Everything excites him. An object on the ground, an open field, a deer in the woods, a drawn saber. He is a horse with ADD. I constantly have to work on keeping him focused. Today we worked on ground saber targets. We had a problem with this at the NCC. I leaned over to stab a target and he decided to put me on the ground next to it. No problem. After warming him up on the dressage arena we worked on stabbing hay bales. We walked at first until we could ride past the targets without getting excited about it. Hay bales are fun to stab. The tip of the saber goes in easily and comes out clean. It's like checking a freshly baked coffee cake by sicking a toothpick in it to see if anything sticks. When we could walk by safely, we went to a trot. Then a canter. You can't take a saber course at anything faster than a canter or you will miss the targets. Head targets you can take faster but the action of leaning over your horse's shoulder to stick a target on the ground takes a slower speed. It went well and Wonder Horse was pleased with himself or he would have been if I hadn't made him go over the cavelettis.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Horse Hygiene Problems

My old war horse Hightower has a personal hygiene problem. In his defense, he is 27 years old and is way past the point of caring for such trivial matters. Still, I’ve never known a horse with such a penchant for filth. I don’t ride him very often, which is a shame. I ride horses at work three or four times a week and coming home on the weekends and riding some more just doesn’t seem to be a priority. However, as I had the day off and hadn’t ridden since Thursday, I decided to take Hightower out on a short ride this morning. He is a good horse. He stands quietly during grooming and tacking and accepts the bit easily. He seems to like these little excursions. It may be because it gives him something different to look at or maybe it is just because he likes being given something to do. It exercises his body and gives his mind something to focus on. Standing around in a pasture day after day is fine but perhaps a little boring. We didn’t go out for long as he is not in good shape. Riding him is a chore. Although ancient by horse standards, he doesn’t seem to know that. He prances and pulls at the bit like he is late for a meeting or something. I put up with it because I don’t have the time and inclination to change his behavior and, well, what’s the point? I’d hate to think that someone would try and change my irritating behavior when I’m a crotchety old man. Anyway, we rode for about an hour and scouted out the neighborhood in the process. We had fun. He was pretty sweaty when we got home so I commenced to groom him. It took about 15 minutes to comb out his coat and remove all the sweat. He enjoyed being brushed and combed and placed his nose against my chest to show his appreciation. When he was all cleaned up, I turned him loose into the pasture. Hightower walked straight to the manure pile and knelt down and rolled in the muck like a pig in a sty. As he rolled he groaning like a wounded water buffalo and then stood up and shook himself like a giant dog. Dirt and manure flew off him in all directions. Now, completely covered in dirt again, his morning was complete.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


On Saturday B Troop made its annual trek to Tombstone from Fort Huachuca.  It is a 25 mile ride across the San Pedro Valley and takes approximately 10 hours including a 90 minute lunch stop.  I don't participate in the ride but provide the support to the column as it snakes its way across the valley.  The troopers usually set off between 0500 and 0600 while it is still cool and dark outside. 

The first leg of the journey is about 15 miles and crosses the east range of Fort Huachuca and ends at the San Pedro River for lunch.  I transport spare horses to the river in case we have any casualties and with the help of several others set up a lunch stop camp.  I also usually arrange to "ambush" the troopers as they pass through a long, deep wash called Graveyard Gulch.  This year one of the former troopers and I were equipped as bandits and were going to waylay the "unsuspecting" troopers.  Unfortunately, while we were on our way to the river with the spare horses I received a call that one of the horses (Wyatt) in the column had gone lame.  Thus the ambush was cancelled and I ended up running a rescue operation instead. 

I sent the lunch camp setup crew on to the river and I drove the horse trailer with the two spare horses in it to the east range to a point near where I expected the trooper to be.  Unfortunately, he was not there.  I phoned him and he told me he was still about a half mile from where I was but could not proceed closer because Wyatt refused to go any further.  The problem was that the road beyond the point I was at was not entirely suitable for vehicular traffic let alone a truck pulling a horse trailer.  It was very narrow, overgrown with brush, and bordered on one side with a deep ditch.  I confirmed with the trooper via cell phone that if I drove down the road I would have a turn around point and began the perilous journey down, not a road, but a path. 

It was not long before I realized the path was about to cross a sandy wash.  With a horse trailer loaded down with two 1,200 lb horses it was a no-go even with 4-wheel drive.  Fortunately, Wyatt upon seeing the trailer off in the distance was inspired to close the gap despite his injury.  I asked my co-pilot to dismount the vehicle and help me back up the trailer and reverse directions as the trooper and injured horse walked toward us.  Somehow we managed to get the truck and trailer turned around out in the middle of the wilderness and prepared to load the injured horse.  Wyatt needed no motivation to get in the trailer.  He was all too happy to get inside with his buddies.  

Threading our way back up the dirt path we finally emerged from the east range and made it back to the stables.  There I unloaded Wyatt and tended his injuries.  I could see no swelling and felt no heat but clearly he was lame.  I wrapped the leg and gave him two grams of bute and put him into his pen to rest.  Then we loaded up and headed to the river. 

Journey and Rod at the river.  Photo by Ty Holland
By the time we got to the river, the Troop was already there and dismounted.  The lunch crew had done a great job of setting up the lunch camp and Debbie was already checking the horses for injuries.   One of the horses, Sabre, was overheated and dehydrated and had to be pulled.  With Wyatt already down, we had to use both spare horses to remount the column.  We brought the two horses down the steep slope to the lunch camp so that the troopers could tack them up there.  Once the horses were all saddled I prepared to lead Sabre back up the slope.  I knew he wouldn't leave the herd behind so I planned to lead him up as part of the column.  Sabre, upon realizing what the other horses were doing decided to run up the river bank with me clinging to his lead rope.  He literally pulled me up the embankment.  It was like water skiing uphill with no skis on my feet. 

After getting Sabre loaded, we headed back to the fort to prepare for the next phase of operations.  Normally, we bed down at the Lucky Hills ranch on the west side of town and attend the parade the next morning.  However, this year the Lucky Hills was closed so we had to make alternate arrangements.  We arranged to set up a temporary staging area at the residence of a nice couple we know on the east side of town where we would have a barbecue and then return to the fort.  The next day we would just load up the horses again and take them back to Tombstone for the parade.  It is actually much easier, logistically speaking, to transport the horses back and forth rather than keeping them in Tombstone.  Arriving at our staging area, we quickly set up the barbecue.  Realizing it would be another hour before the column arrived we decided that the only logical thing to do at this point was to wait in a saloon we saw across the street.   There we stayed until the column rode by the front window and then we spilled out to great them.  Finally, the horses were all watered and fed and we could settle down to dinner ourselves. Our cook, Hop Sing, prepared a delicious meal of fried chicken, chili, beans, and corn bread.  

After dinner we loaded up again and went back to the fort.  After bedding down the horses, securing the weapons, and cleaning the trailer the day was finally over.  For some the day had begun at 0430.  Fourteen hours later, many of them were understandably ready to call it quits.  The rest of us headed back to Tombstone to meet at Big Nose Kate's.  Sometimes traditions must be upheld despite the personal cost. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cool Photos From the Cavalry Competition

I received a link to some photos taken during the National Cavalry Competition by Dori Luzbetak for the US Cavalry Association.  The link belongs to accomplished military equestrian, Fred Klink I requested and was given permission to post some of the photos here.  The shots are fantastic and really show the concentration of both horse and rider as they engage the targets.  Enjoy. 

 That is me with the Wonder Horse believe it or not.

Ken on Cody after having blasted a balloon to oblivion. 

Jay and Regent showing perfect form on the saber course. 

Pete and Charlie on the pistol course.

B Troop on a ridge line during the Maj Howze competition.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wonder Horse Rides Again

I haven't ridden Wonder Horse since we left Nebraska. I've been a little under the weather lately so wasn't able to ride much last week. Plus I'm trying to get Mr. Foxy Trot conditioned and trained for cavalry work.

Apache was pretty good today at first. We went up to the training area and practiced the basics--transitions, bending, lead changes, etc. He was doing pretty well and hit most of the lead changes right. He wss moving well and having fun so I took him over to the jogging track to work on controlled galloping. Unfortunately, some other fella came over to practice his calf roping skills in the same area. He was blocking the jogging track and flinging his lariat and doing all kinds of things that was getting Apache worked up. I moved over to another area but Apache was hot and wasn't coming back down. So we called it a day. Still got in a good 45 minutes of quality riding.

I had some help in the morning with washing our trucks. One of our troopers has a foster daughter trying to work off some community service time. I, on occasion, take on youngsters trying to work off their community service or soldiers awaiting trial. I find it interesting that other people think what I do for a living every day is a form of punishment. The soldiers usually end up going AWOL.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Jumping Event

When I rode Apache last month during the NCC, it was our first jumping event together. We were magnificent. After entering the arena, we circled gently at a trot for a minute to help get loosened up for the course. When I felt that Apache was ready we rolled out toward the first jump and transitioned smoothly to a steady canter hitting the jump perfectly. Landing lightly, still in the two-point stance we accelerated slightly to close the distance to the next jump, cleared it and lined up for the in-and out. Apache bounced over the two obstacles with ease, slowed his gait slightly to help me S-turn into the next offset jump...blah...blah...blah.

Well, that is how it was supposed to go. The reality was far uglier. Apache the Wonder Horse began jumping in the entry chute before we even entered the arena. The gate keeper climbed over the gate and pulled it open from inside the arena to protect himself. Yeah we circled a couple of times and rolled out on the first jump but Wonder Horse applied the brakes and tried to get me to go over it by myself. Fortunately, my trousers snagged on the brass plate on the pommel shield or I would have plowed a deep furrow across the arena with my chin. After compelling him to go through the first jump and knocking down one of the cross bars we lined up on the second jump where the SOB ran out to the right hoping to duck out and return to the arena gate. Wrestling him around again we cleared the jump by about 300 vertical yards. I was so high up in the air I had to go on oxygen. I used my cell phone to call Houston Space Center to request re-entry instructions. Slamming back down to earth both stirrups shot out off my boots like missiles. Wonder Horse, now thoroughly into the game, sped to the next obstacle while I was looking down trying to fish the stirrups with my toes. I finally got one back as this mentally disturbed animal launched himself over the next jump. Only massive cheek-clenching action kept me attached to the saddle as we sailed over the horizontal bar and crashed down on the other side. Gaining traction now, Wonder Horse accelerated to Mach 1 as I started reciting the Lord's Prayer. My next jump required a 180 degree turn so I started hauling on the right rein to bring him around. It was like steering the USS Enterprise. I think we may have crossed the state line and entered Wyoming briefly before lining up on the next jump. We knocked down everything we could see. Poles, standards, fence rails, spectators, and stray dogs went flying. We knocked down a building. The judges wept. Finally, mercifully, it was over.

I quickly looked down to see if maybe I had accidentally mounted a rabid rhinoceros. My now, perfectly calm, Wonder Horse looked back at me with love and amusement in his eyes. Due to the requirement to apply 1,000 pounds of pressure to the reins, my arms had been significantly lengthened and were dragging in the dirt. A broken jump pole was wresting in my lap. A picket fence was attached to Wonder Horse's left rear hoof. Smoke rose from my clothing. We did not win the event. We did set a new record for faults in a single jump course. Every object in the arena and several outside, including an ambulance, had been knocked over. The town mayor had been bitten. And apparently you can't yell, "mayday!" as you go over each jump. We finished in eighth place and would have finished lower in the standings but several of the other riders fled the area without competing.

And all I can think about is...when can I do it again?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fox Trotting

I began working with Duke our new Missouri fox trotter today. Fox trotters are a "gaited" horse which is a fancy way of saying they trot funny. Instead of a two-beat trot they have a four-beat trot. This results in a smoother ride when trotting, a highly desirable trait in a horse that is ridden for long distances. This horse is the easiest riding horse I've ever encountered--not because of his gait but rather his disposition. You could put a child on him. You can ride this horse without any fear that he will do something dangerous. His gait...well, it's odd. Instead of the up and down motion of a regular horse, Duke has a side to side motion. It is very comfortable to sit but a very different feel and takes some getting used to. I don't know much about gaited horses so this is going to be a real learning experience. Right now we are just working on ground manners, basic cues, and conditioning. He's a fairly smart horse and learns new concepts quickly and easily. He desires to please and wants to cooperate. Not at all like my Wonder Horse who understands exactly what you want but is going to make you work for it each and every time. A cavalryman would want to have both these horses in his stable. Duke is the kind of horse you'd ride to the battle. Apache is the kind of horse you'd ride in the battle.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Last Day of Competition

By the last day it was obvious that I had caught some sort of virus. I had no events to ride in so I opted to be a photographer for the last day. The cavalrymen were all assembled for a last ceremony on the parade ground before the final events. They rode up from the horse barns in a column of fours and looked magnificent. I managed to get a few decent photos although the camera I had was not all that good. No one had a horse wreck this time and the whole ceremony came off well.

As I was taking photos I remembered an incident that had occurred during the opening ceremony two days earlier. As we were waiting for the ceremony to start the Wonder Horse decided to rub his head on his buddy Charlie to our right. Before I could snatch his head away he managed to get his bridle snagged on the link strap on Charlie's halter. The link strap has a little snap on the end of it so you can link horses together during dismounted fighting. Apache's head was now firmly attached to Charlie's head. Charlie's rider, Pete, saw what happened and calmly handed his saber to the rider to his right (we were at carry sabers at the time). As Pete tried to untangle the bridles, I spurred Apache forward to keep his head close to Charlie's. If Apache had pulled away both horses would have panicked. Pete managed to unhook the straps but then I noticed that Apache's bridle had pulled forward over his ears. Now it was my turn to pass my saber to Pete while I reached forward and hauled the bridle back onto Apache's head. I retrieved my saber from Pete just as we were ordered to move forward. It is amazing how much trouble you can get into while you're just sitting on a horse.

After the ceremony the troopers rode over to the arena and helped set up for the Bolte Cup competition. This competition is for the top riders in Level 3. They design a course that includes all three cavalry weapons--pistol, carbine, and saber. It involves an elaborate series of obstacles with targets scattered throughout. The first portion is composed of saber targets including one portion where the rider must attack a circle of targets with a burlap bag in the middle. The bag represents a wounded friendly trooper and you must not step on him with your horse while you're attacking the surrounding targets. After this the rider must ride his horse into a box marked out on the ground and dismount. He then picks up a carbine and shoots a target and remounts his horse without either of them stepping outside of the box. Next, the rider weaves through some poles, draws his pistol, and engages a series of balloon targets. It is very entertaining to watch and requires some decent riding skills. We managed to get one of our Level 3 riders into this competition but due to a pistol malfunction during his second run wound up in 8th Place. He otherwise would have placed much higher.

That evening we held the awards banquet where everyone is presented with their ribbons and we all find out who won the competition. We were also requested to be the color guard during this event and the guys looked magnificent as they posted the colors. We ended up with the following ribbons:

1st Place - Major Howze competition

1st Place - Indian Wars Period Authenticity

2nd Place - Level 2 Military Horsemanship

3rd Place - Level 2 Military Horsemanship

3rd place - Level 2 Mounted Pistol

3rd Place - Level 1 Field Jumping

It was not a bad showing given the level of competition this year. The overall winner was a re-enactor named Dick Ross who has been riding in these competitions for the past six years and won it all previously in 2005.

The next National Cavalry Competition will be held at Fort Concho near San Angelo, Texas in late September. Hopefully, we will be able to go again.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Second Day of Competition

The second day of competition involves two events, field jumping and mounted saber. The jumping competition starts with Level 3 and then they pull jumps out to get to Level 2 and 1. Every year they make this one harder by introducing jumps not previously seen. This year was no exception. The jumps themselves are not very high as we aren't Olympic equestrians and most ceremonial riders do not wear helmets. However, the patterns they set up are increasingly difficult and require a high degree of horse control. This year, for Level 3, they added a "bounce" which is two jumps placed close together so the horse must jump the second pole from the spot he lands in after clearing the first pole. They also added a hay bale at the end of the course. A hay bale is not very high but the horse has a natural tendency to run around the bale as it is not very wide. It takes good horse control to get the horse to jump it. Our horses had never seen these things. We had spent the year practicing "in-and-outs" and "oxers" and even tarps placed in front of the jumps but not a "bounce" or any hay bales. As a result, both of our Level 3 riders were eliminated. Fortunately, someone placed a hay bale out in the practice jump area outside the arena and I was able to compel the Wonder Horse to jump it a few times before the judges noticed it and had it taken away. When it came time to enter the arena for Level 2 jumping, Wonder Horse began his usual dance in the chute which did not improve my confidence. Riding Apache is like opening a bank money satchel, you never know when its going to blow up in your face. We entered the arena, saluted the judges and began our run. Apache's philosophy with these event courses was to get through them as quickly as possible and depart the arena. He is a strong horse so it was like trying to wrestle a 1,200 lb gorilla through a china shop without knocking anything over. I'm pretty sure it was not supposed to be this way and I don't remember our practice sessions being anything like this. We knocked down poles, had run outs, engaged in multiple S-turns, and I cleared at least one jump without both stirrups. We managed to achieve the highest number of faults at Level 2. We finished in 8th Place. We would have finished lower but everyone below us had been eliminated. I was physically exhausted at the end even though I couldn't have been in the arena for more than two minutes. I had hyper extended my left elbow from trying to rein in Apache and I was sure my thigh muscles were going to burst into flame at any moment.

The next event was the mounted saber competition. These courses are notoriously difficult. The course involves a series of jumps and obstacles with about 20 targets (stuffed burlap bags) scattered throughout. The targets may be on either side of the horse, some at waist level, some on the ground. Some of the targets must be hit while you are jumping or in the case of ground targets may be located just prior to or after a jump. The saber cuts had to be correct for the target. That is the blade had to be swung at the target in such a way that your saber was moving away from the horse. For the Level 3 competitors they added a small cardboard heart to the ground targets that had to be speared with the saber so that it remained on the blade. There were three of these hearts that had to be collected during the run. The last target was a ring suspended from a hanger. Someone noted that the hearts, if stuck on the blade, would not pass through the ring but the course designer said it was up to the competitor to get the hearts far enough up the blade so that they wouldn't interfere. One of our Level 3 riders speared all three hearts and then shoved them down to the hilt of his blade with his hand before spearing the ring. The crowd loved it but I don't think the course designer did.

Competing at Level 2, Apache and I did our usual chute dance before entering the arena. I saluted the judge and began the course. Apache cleared the first several jumps okay but sped past a ground target after one of the jumps so I had to circle back to get it. As I was leaning over the saddle to get this ground target, the Wonder Horse decided that if I wanted that target so bad I should get down there with it. Thus, I ended up on the ground next to the target. Fortunately, I was not injured in the fall and did not stick my saber through myself or my horse. Once you touch the ground you are eliminated so all I could do was just mount up again and ride out of the arena leaving my dignity on the ground next to the target.

When I got back to the trailer to tie up and remove Apache's bridle I noticed then what his problem was. He had a bit sore on the left side of his mouth which was no doubt causing him pain. I had been in his mouth for the Major Howze competition the night before and again during the jumping event. He was equating the obstacle courses with pain which is why he was dancing in the chute. To his credit, he did not rear up or do anything particular dangerous even though he was hurting. This is a training issue and something that I will have to work on over time--that is, get him to respond to the bit even when he is excited. This will take lots of practice but I'm sure we can get there. He is a good horse, if spirited, and he is getting better every year. We won two ribbons this year where in the previous year we couldn't even finish the events we were in. Riding him is a challenge but very rewarding when he performs well. He knows when he has done well in a practice session and is as pleased by it as I am. Training for next year's competition will be a lot of fun and I am looking forward to it.

Photos courtesy of Kerri Rempp, Chadron Record

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Major Howze Competition

The Major Howze competition is described by the U.S. Cavalry Association as a "relatively short platoon mobility test which culminates in a unit saber charge against stationary targets." The score is based on the time to complete the course and the number of targets successfully engaged. The team must consist of at least 8 riders and no more than 12 and you must be in full campaign tack.

The competition is named for an officer who launched a night attack into Mexico on 4-5 May 1916 during the Punitive Expedition against Poncho Villa. Major Howze and his unit of 332 officers and men covered the last 20 miles to the objective area in 2hours and 45 minutes, in the dark, over a spur of the Sierra Madre Mountains, at the trot and then launched an immediate, surprise, dawn mounted pistol charge on the Mexicans.

We had only six riders for this event but we had arranged in advance for a couple of 11 ACR troopers from Fort Irwin to join our team. We have joined forces with these guys in the past as they are a smaller unit like us and we get along well with them. Ironically, Major Howze had been with the 11th Cavalry.

The course that had been laid out for us was 6.2 miles long. The course involved passing through gates, streams, forested areas, steep terrain (I mean really steep), and over logs. It was awesome.

We decided to put our two best trotting horses up front, Monte and Charlie. They set a good pace and were tireless. Our leader, Bill, would use hand signals to change our formation from a column of twos to single file depending on the terrain. Our guide, former NCC Champion Dan McClusky, led us through this unbelievable course telling us where to go and when to rest. Dan is a man of good humor and riding along with him was a treat in itself.

Apache the Wonder Horse and I were in the second file riding next to Rod and Journey. Both Rod and I had trouble keeping our mounts at a trot as both wanted to proceed at the gallop. I soon realized that I would have to run Wonder Horse up behind Monte or Charlie to slow him down to a trot. I also noticed that Rod had a picket pin attached to his saddle for the Authenticity Competition and that this thing was jabbing me in the leg when we were riding in a column of twos. As a result we switched sides.

At the mid point Dan had us stop and rest for five minutes. We used the time to check our mounts and adjust our tack. Apache was well lathered as was one of the Irwin horses. However, neither had excessively high respiration rates so the sweating had to to do more with excitement than fatigue. Once we were mounted again we took off at the same blistering pace.

Eventually, we came to our first stream crossing. Our horses are fairly used to seeing water but the Fort Irwin horses had never crossed a running stream in their lives. There isn't much water near Fort Irwin and these horses didn't know what they were seeing. These were the same horses that had the problem during the staff ride. Unfortunately, the Wonder Horse takes his cue from other horses. If he sees another horse reacting badly to something he assumes he must have a reason to react badly also. He went across the stream okay but decided to jump it instead of striding through. Unfortunately, there was a low hanging branch over the ford and as I leaned over the saddle to avoid the branch Apache jumped up driving the pommel shield into my rib cage. I may have used some unlady-like language at this point.

One of the two Irwin horses made it across but there was still one holdout that was costing us some serious time. I think once all the other horses had crossed, the trooper dismounted and just let the horse cross on his own. Herd instinct is strong and will compel a scared horse to brave just about anything I guess.

Mounting up again, on we rode, picking up the pace to make up the lost time. After entering a deep ravine that was more of a slide than a trail we came up the opposite side which was covered in fallen logs. We were moving so fast I hardly had time to be concerned about them. Somehow we negotiated this mess without losing a horse or a man. And then, another stream.

Fortunately, we got a reprieve. The team that had gone before us (the same group that had a rider get kicked during the trail ride and had a horse wreck during the opening ceremonies) lost a rider during the saber attack. We were held in place by Dan while they summoned an ambulance to take the trooper to the hospital. This gave us a chance to rest our horses and figure out how to get the Irwin horses across the stream. By now, our horses were becoming afraid of the water too because of the reaction of the Irwin horses. We eventually got them all across but one of the Irwin horses actually levitated itself off the ground to get across the stream. Its hooves never touched the water.

On we rode but now we could see Fort Robinson off in the distance and knew we were almost done. We saw the enemy targets lined up in nice little double rows. The targets were paper bags over cardboard and mounted on wooden posts. A little heart was drawn on the center of the bag. Our guide bid us farewell and we spread out for the attack, picking our lanes. Drawing sabers we started out at a walk, then a trot, then gallop...charge! As I guided the Wonder Horse to my set of targets I felt my stampede string snap and away went my hat. I hit the first target dead-on and lined up for the second. My saber passed through the heart and hit...solid wood! My blade shivered under the impact and felt the impact traveling up my arm to my shoulder. Dang near lost the saber. I also picked up a souvenir on the way. I had a nice big piece of cardboard stuck on my saber.

After passing through the targets we formed up and accounted for all men and horses. No casualties. Bill reported in to the judges and we were done.

I think every part of my body was in pain from that ride but it was so fun that it didn't matter. We found out later that we had taken first place in the event. We had the best time and the highest target kill ratio. We also learned that night that we had earned some ribbons in the earlier events. To my astonishment, the Wonder Horse and I had taken 2nd Place in the Level 2 horsemanship event and 5th in mounted pistol. One of my fellow troopers, Ken, had taken 3rd in Level 2 horsemanship. Bill, our commander, had taken 3rd in Level 2 mounted pistol. It had been a good day.

First Day of Competition

If the NCC has a flaw it is that they try to cram too much into a single day. The first day of competition starts with an opening ceremony. The ceremony was held on the old fort parade ground and was attended by maybe a couple dozen people. There were more people in the ceremony than watching it. Nevertheless, we mounted up and rode from the stables in a column of fours for the brief opening remarks.

After the remarks and as the column began to move out one of the horses in the color guard spooked at something and went over backwards in front of the audience. Luckily the rider was not crushed in the wreck. I could not help noticing it was one of the same guys who had been riding up and down the staff ride column the previous day.

After we returned to the stables we changed out our campaign saddles for the stripped down competition saddles and got ready to ride over to the arena for the mandatory competitors meeting. The events held on the first day of competition are the military horsemanship events and mounted pistol. At the end of the day they hold the Major Howze competition followed by a "water call and buffet dinner." It makes for a long day and you really have to plan out the logistics of swapping saddles out for different events when the barn and the competition arena are located a mile apart.

The military horsemanship event is in reality a dressage event. Dressage was invented by the Europeans to train their horses for war but the meaning has changed over the years so that it is no longer associated with martial riding. Although our troopers initially resisted getting involved in this "pansy" riding they have come to appreciate how important it is to preparing their horses for other types of competitive riding. We have historically not done well in this event. The previous year my Wonder Horse accidentally aimed a kick at the judges during one of his transitions and then briefly departed the dressage area. We were eliminated before we could even complete the pattern. Thus, I was not expecting much this time around and was not surprised when Wonder Horse refused to maintain a walk during the short diagonal and dropped out of the trot on our last turn. However, his transitions had been perfect and his circles nearly so. Altogether I was pleased with Wonder Horse since he hadn't tried to kill a judge this time.

The afternoon event was the mounted shooting competition. The military units typically do well at this but, again, I wasn't expecting much from Wonder Horse. He doesn't like guns that much and the previous year I wouldn't even enter him into the event. This year, with lots of training, I felt he could at least enter the arena, if not stay on the course. The Level 2 pistol course included a series of low jumps and other obstacles that had to be negotiated. There were six balloons as targets and some of them were double targets--that is the targets are attached to both sides of a gate that you had to ride through. Shooting two targets that close together at a gallop with a single action pistol is no easy task.

Waiting in the entry chute to the arena got exciting as the Wonder Horse started to get happy feet. He started dancing and spinning around while we were waiting for the other competitor to clear the arena. Finally, the course was reset and the gate swung open and in we rode to an uncertain fate. Wonder Horse hesitated a little at the first jump but did not flinch when I shot the first target. Once we got past the first obstacle Wonder Horse settled down enough so that we could get down to business. We continued on, clearing our jumps, and taking out the next three targets in rapid succession. The last stretch involved a jump, 180 degree turn, pole bending course, and a jump gate with double targets. We were doing really well up to this point until Wonder Horse decided to jerk the reins out of my hands. Suddenly I'm entering the pole bending course (a series of poles that you have to weave through at a gallop) on a horse with no steering wheel. While thrashing around trying to find the reins again I accidentally discharged my pistol into the air (good thing I was observing proper gun safety by holding my pistol with the muzzle up). After finding the reins again I shot one of the last two targets with my remaining bullet and raced to the finish line. Dang. Five out of six is pretty good but doesn't land you in the money at this level of competition.

Friday, October 2, 2009

NCC Warm Up Day

It was clear when we woke up on Wednesday morning that the cold weather in Raton had followed us to Nebraska. Rain clouds skidded across the sandstone bluffs around the fort and a cold wind got the horses kinda snorty. Our first activity of the day was a staff ride through the surrounding hills. This is a tradition at the NCC and it allows horses and men to get acclimated to the local area and learn a little history in the process. The ride was beautiful if a little cold. We only had our thin red baseball jackets to keep the cold out so we pretty much relied on the horses to keep us warm.
We rode along a fence line and saw a buffalo on the other side watching us. He laid down and started to roll around in a dirt bed just like a horse would do. Our horses had never seen a buffalo and were mighty concerned about it. They kept both eyes on the buffalo until we had ridden a sufficient distance away from it. The buffalo didn't seem to be at all concerned about the horses. All the different Army horse detachments participated on the ride. One unit, for some reason, let their riders run up and down the line like they were trying to police the column or something. This activity continued until one of the horses in the line kicked one of them. The injured rider fell off and got kicked again by his own horse. To his credit he never cried out or made a noise...except "thud" when he hit the ground. We eventually made it back to the fort without further incident except for a small ruckus when one of the units tried to cross a creek and found out their horses were not used to water. I didn't know it at the time but this little incident would become a big factor later on. After returning to the fort we attended a "school of the soldier" clinic in which one of the historians discussed and demonstrated how equipment should be put on a horse and which drill maneuvers were correct. We practiced drill maneuvers for a while and then went to lunch. Our lunch consisted of PB&J's as we hadn't been there long enough to figure out where the food was. I did find the food source after lunch in the form of a "sandwich lady" by the USCA Headquarters who was selling sack lunches. After lunch we all went to our favorite training activity, the jumping clinic. The clinic began with the instructor telling us we were all stupid. He was referring to the fact that we weren't wearing helmets but the remark came across as a general indictment. Nevertheless, we all lined up and practiced jumping over various obstacles. My Wonder Horse was engaging in his usual jumping style which requires him to clear a two foot jump by about 20 feet. I have to request reentry procedures on the way back down. I am no longer shocked by this behaviour and have learned to ride it out but not necessarily keep the stirrups on my feet after touchdown.
To make things more interesting Wonder Horse was engaging in a wee bit of bucking after clearing the jump just to make sure I had my seat. I did not notice the other guys in my team experiencing this phenomenon. After we had enjoyed this abuse for a while we put the horses away for the evening and returned to our Victorian cabin to have a beef chub barbecue. We invited the Fort Irwin guys to join us as we would be joining forces during some of the team competitions later. It was then that we learned that we had purchased everything but lighter fluid to start the briquettes. Not a problem though as our resident smoker, Pete, began lighting small twigs and leaves in the barbecue to get things going. We eventually had a roaring fire big enough to cook the giant beef chub we had purchased the previous night. Cooking the chub was like roasting a pig except there were no legs (although there may have been a snout). We cooked up a giant pot of beans and were soon dining like kings...or like some other lower ranking public official such as a dog catcher. After eating as much chub and beans as we could we bid our guests goodnight and stumbled off to bed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

NCC Trip Day Two

.Jay and I got up early to feed the horses at 0500. We tossed a thin flake of alfalfa to each of the horses and checked their water buckets. After we were sure they were all okay and eating happily we went back to the hotel for the complimentary breakfast. I saw a tray of what looked like pancakes and bacon. I put a couple of these little dollar-sized pancakes on my plate and put syrup all over them. After I started eating them one of the other guys told me they weren't pancakes but egg patties. "Really?" I said. I honestly couldn't tell. With syrup on them they tasted like pancakes. After gulping down our pancake-egg patties we went back to the stables and prepped and loaded the horses. As we proceeded north up I-25 we drove through a mountain pass that was completely blanketed with snow. It was beautiful but all I could think of was the wind chill factor in the trailer where the horses were. I stopped the convoy after an hour to check the horses but when I put my hand on their coats they were plenty warm. We continued on until we were out of the snow then started looking for a lunch stop. At lunch time we let the horses out for a little while to graze and drink water. It is important to find a stopping point that has both diesel and grass. We ended up stopping in a place called Chugwater, Wyoming to lunch. It didn't look like much at first but we found that we could tie the horses to a guard rail next to the grass while we ate some delicious gas station food (free bowl of chili with a tank of diesel). The guard rail also functioned as a picnic bench. After lunch we continued up through Cheyenne and then east into the Nebraska panhandle. We made it to Fort Robinson in record time and stopped at the park office to get our keys. We put the horses up in the barn and proceeded on to our "cabin" which was in reality a three-story Victorian style house from the fort's early days. It was a palace and was full of fire places and creaky wooden floors. After the mad scramble for the rooms we jumped back into the trucks and headed into town for dinner and groceries. We went into the grocery store in Crawford about three miles outside the fort. Crawford was named after an officer killed during one of the Geronimo campaigns. Crawford's unit ran into a Mexican unit south of the border while chasing Geronimo and a firefight erupted. The Mexicans accidentally killed Crawford while he was trying to stop the fighting. Anyway, Crawford is a bustling town of about 1,000 people (counting the dogs). We walked into the grocery store and bought $150 worth of food which was probably more than they'd seen in a year. Among the items purchased was a giant two-foot long beef chub that we were going to make hamburgers out of. The chub sparked a great deal of conversation and a new nickname for one of the troopers who picked it out. After that excitement we went to the town's only restaurant for dinner. The town of Crawford will probably survive for another year with the money we spent that night