Saturday, July 30, 2016

Charge Practice

We had our first open-field charge practice with the new riding school class today.  Last Saturday, we had practiced in Wren arena to give them the feel of a charge in an enclosed area.  Today, they graduated to the open field charge.  

We had four of our most experienced riders assisting with the training as it can get a little intense on the parade ground. I was riding Charlie, a big quarter horse who used to race in his previous life.  He is actually assigned to one of the students, but because he injured a student from the last class and has been acting a little crazy of late, we decided to put the student on Cochise, and I rode Charlie instead.

Pete, our most experienced trooper, led the class.  He had us practicing parade maneuvers for a while and then had the class work on controlling their horses on the parade ground at different gates.  The horses were agitated as is usual for them when they are on the parade ground.  They all love the charge and get excited whenever we line up in a skirmish line.  Pete had us practice maintaining the skirmish line at a walk in both directions up and down the field.  Then we tried a trot and then, finally, the gallop.  Of course, the horses were getting more and more exited as we did this.

As soon as we went to a gallop, the student on Cochise departed the line at an extended gallop and was rapidly moving up the field.  Charlie saw this and immediately bolted to catch up.  I leaned back and grabbed the reins with both hands to no avail.  I may as well have been trying to stop a runaway locomotive.  Realizing that Charlie was not going to slow down until he caught up with Cochise, I let him go.  He rapidly closed the distance and soon passed Cochise.  I reached down with my left hand and pulled his left rein to bring his head off line slightly.  This technique, which is taught to all new students, will cause the bolting horse to slow down slightly so the rider can regain control.

Charlie came out of his bolt, but was still in a pretty strong gallop.  I began vigorously halt-halting him to get inside of his head and prepare him to stop as we were reaching the end of the parade ground and about to cross a paved road.  Charlie saw the road and decided it was in his best interests to slow down before we hid the slick asphalt.  I teach the students to not try to stop on the road, as it is slick, but let the horse cross over the road to the grass on the other side.  However, Charlie had slowed down considerably and I was able to bring him to a gently stop.  Cochise was right behind us with his student. 

We debriefed the experience several times afterwords as it was a good lesson on what to do with a bolting horse.  A mysterious bystander filmed the charge as we sped by, which can be seen below. Cochise is in front and Charlie and I are closing in on him on his left.  It is not a good quality image, but you can see the speed of the various horses as they go by.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Battle of Picacho Pass

Setting sun at the camp.

I"m a little late in posting this. We made our annual trip to Picacho Peak State Park, north of Tucson, Arizona last March.  It's always a brutal weekend from a physical labor perspective, but always very rewarding, especially for those experiencing it for the first time.    
The mess tent.

As always, we left Fort Huachuca on Friday at 1 PM and made the two-hour drive to Picacho Peak.  We took six riders and eight horses, along with a cannon crew to man our mountain howitzer.  We set up camp upon arrival and then pitched in to some cowboy stew. After dinner, we relaxed around the campfire while the horses rolled in the fine dust, turning themselves into dun-colored horses.  

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, we rode up to the first battle re-enactment of the day--the Battle of Valverde. The first battle is always a little easier, as the temperature hasn't gotten hot yet.  The second battle, the Battle of Glorietta Pass, is after lunch when the temps get a little higher.  Of biggest concern is making sure the horses don't get overheated. They still had their winter coats and Tucson weather is about ten degrees warmer than Fort Huachuca.  I had to pull one horse out after the first battle as his hear rate and respiration rate were too high. I had to do this several times during the weekend.
Morning coffee around the fire pit.

The last battle of the day is the Battle of Picacho Pass, which is mostly just about us. No cannons or large infantry formations, just a few Confederate pickets and the Union cavalry. It requires a little play-acting and our lieutenant embraced it wholeheartedly.  He even uttered our traditional line during the interrogation of the Confederate prisoners, "Well, that's a tall tale."  Supposedly, I had said this a couple of years ago and now it has become part of our annual performance.  

On the battlefield.
Cannon crew in action.
Saturday night is steak night, and all tired warriors, cavalrymen and cannoneers, gather in the mess tent for a well-deserved dinner. Afterwards, we convene around the campfire and tell lies and relive the battles of the day. This year, the First Sergeant treated us to readings from Mark Twain. After that, we had our traditional naming ceremony, where troopers get their B Troop nickname. It is a good time and the desert night reveals a sky full of stars not normally visible from the city.  
Saber charge.

The next day, we do it all gain, and then load up and head back to Fort Huachuca.  Everyone is exhausted, but a dinner of pulled-pork sandwiches on the front porch at the stable office, perks everyone up enough to get home.  

The local PBS station in Tucson, put together a little video about the battle, which you can see through this link.  It is pretty good.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cavalry Charge Test

As part of their training, new recruits are taught to control their horses during an open-field pistol charge.  It is crucial that they be able to safely handle both their weapons and their mounts.  Today, the surviving recruits (three of a class of six) were evaluated on their ability to conduct a pistol charge.  
Eager recruits before the ride to the parade field.

Upon arriving at Brown parade field in the middle of historic Fort Huachuca, the recruits are dismounted to check their tack and tighten their cinches.  You sure don't want your saddle to get loose during a charge.  The horses are galloping as fast as they can (30-35 mph) and a fall from a horse at that speed would definitely ruin your day.    

Checking their cinches.

Before setting up for the pistol charge, the recruits are taken through the sequence of a ceremony, including a pass-in-review.  During this portion of the test, the recruits need to demonstrate proper handling of the saber as well as correct formation riding. 

Saber salute

After the pass-in-review, the recruits are spread out into a skirmish line and ordered to charge at a gallop.  The idea is to try and hold the line so the horses aren't all strung out, increasing the chances of a pistol discharge into another rider.  Plus, it just looks better to have the horses moving in a single line.  

Setting up the skirmish line
After all the pistol rounds are discharged the recruits need to rein their horses back before they depart the parade ground.  The parade ground is surrounded by a paved road, so if the horse runs out onto the road, the rider is instructed to not try to stop the horse or turn him until he gets off the pavement.  Steel horse shoes on asphalt can slip and result in a bad fall.  In this case, two horses departed the field while one got off to a bad start and fell behind. 

"Forward at a gallop, Charge!"

Digging dirt

The second charge was picture-perfect and all recruits demonstrated skill and courage in successfully completing a charge. 

They have one more test to go before becoming full troopers.  I have to say I'm very proud of them so far.  

Proud survivors

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Learning Parade Maneuvers

Pete and Martina gave instruction to the students on how to perform parade maneuvers correctly.  We have a series of maneuvers we use during parades so we aren't just walking down the road.  The crowd seems to enjoy them and it keeps us from getting bored.  

The 1SG giving instruction to the students.

Pete set up some cones to help the students with precision riding.  Parade maneuvers only look good if everyone is lined up correctly and making crisp turns.  Some of the maneuvers we us are files left and right, forward cross, form wedge, form line, wheels left and right, counter-column, and reverse pivot.  

Working the cones

We also taught the students the pattern for what we call the "crosses" where two files of riders ride across each other's path during our riding demonstration.  Some call this "threading the needle."  It is important for each rider to be at the correct distance so that when they cross paths, they don't crash into each other.  We also teach them the emergency break procedure in case someone is out of position.  If executed correctly, people watching won't even know it happened.  

Learning the demo pattern.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Weekend At Picacho

Last weekend, B Troop participated in the annual Civil War in the Southwest at Picacho Peak State Park, just north of Tucson, Arizona.  This was the site of a skirmish between a Confederate picket and a Union cavalry patrol.  It is billed as, The Westernmost Battle of the Civil War.  It wasn't much of a battle, though.  However, there were a couple of large battles in New Mexico that are also re-enacted at Picacho Peak every year.
Sunrise from our camp. 

As usual, it was a mix of good fun and brutally hard work.  We left Fort Huachuca at 1 PM on Friday and drove the two hours to Picacho Peak to set up our camp.  The next day we participated in three battles at 11 AM, 1:30 PM, and 3 PM.  We had to keep a close eye on the horses as they get dehydrated an often suffer elevated heart rates.  I would check them after each battle to see if they were OK.  If they had excessively high respiration rates, I would swap them out for a fresh horse.  We got through the battles OK and then had a big steak dinner prepared by our Chinese cook, Hop Sing (he is really a Japanese-American, but likes to be called after the Bonanza character).  After dinner we relaxed around the campfire and relived our battle exploits of the day and had our "naming" ceremony, where each trooper gets their B Troop nickname.  The names selected this year were, Pistol Pete, Turbo Foot, Kick Stand, Mighty Mouse, and Elmer Fudd.  Each name comes with a story, of course.
The mess tent.

On Sunday, we did it all over again, but had to strike camp after the last battle and make the drive back to Fort Huachuca.  We got back at about 7 PM.  We unloaded and fed the horses, stored the weapons, and then left the rest of the stuff to be unloaded later. My wife left us pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw so we didn't have to drive home starving (and so she wouldn't have to make food for me when I got home). As always, everyone enjoyed the weekend and are looking forward to next year.

Waiting for breakfast and trying to shake off the morning chill at the fire pit.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Campaign Saddle Training

Well, four of our six students have survived the first phase of the Cavalry Riding School and are eager to get on with the next phase.  Today, we worked on how to build a campaign saddle and put it on a horse.  To give them hands-on training I disassembled my own saddle and then asked the students to put it back together.  I also went over how to clean each individual item on the saddle.  

After the students successfully reassembled the saddle, we found a couple of volunteers out in the pasture so we could practice putting the campaign tack on a horse.  I went through the process of putting the halter and bridle on and showed how all the tack fits together and is correctly configured.

After that we went over horse illnesses and how to treat minor injuries and who to notify in the case of more serious injuries. We even went over how to put a pressure bandage on a horse's leg so that they could do that when necessary.  Since they are being assigned their own horse for the rest of training, they were excited about all this information.

Finally, to wrap up the day, we issued uniforms to the new recruits and showed them how to put everything on.

Looking forward to the next phase of training.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Posting the Colors

Yesterday and today, we were supposed to be the color guard for the opening ceremonies at the Cochise College Rodeo on Fort Huachuca.  It is one of the regional competitions for the colleges that have a rodeo team.  The Cochise College Rodeo is held every year at Fort Huachuca and is the only one held on a military installation.

I wasn't supposed to be in the color guard yesterday, but one of the riders became ill and I had to replace him.  We had a team of six riders carrying four flags; the American flag, the Arizona flag, the Army flag, and the Troop guidon.  We also had one of our Lady's Auxiliary members singing the national anthem.  I was riding Apache, the Wonder Beast, and carrying the national colors even though I knew it would be a challenging task.

As we were lining up to make our entrance, Apache began fidgeting and spinning around seeking an escape. There was a large tree next to the gate with branches hanging over the entrance.  I was holding an 8-foot staff with a spear point on it.  The spear point kept getting hung up in the trees every time Apache spun around, so I was trying to disentangle the pole from the tree while trying to keep him from fleeing the scene.

Finally, our entrance cue came and we walked into the arena.  I say walked, but Apache was already galloping before we even transitioned to the trot.  I think Pete, our First Sergeant, actually ordered a canter, but it turned out to be a good 15 mph gallop. I was to the left of Pete, who was leading the formation, and the rest of the team followed in a column of twos.

I had shortened my reins to the point where the back of my left hand was nearly touching the back of Apache's neck.  As we galloped into the arena, I held him back with all the strength I had.  We were supposed to circle the arena once (it is 200 x 400 feet), slow down to a trot, and then form into a line in front of the bleachers.  We learned from years of experience that you can not ride right next to the rail as the horses will spook at the banners, steers, broncs, rodeo cowboys, and other scary things on the other side.  Thus, Pete led us a good thirty feet off the fence as we rounded the arena.  Since we weren't following the rail, he had to tell me when he was going to turn, otherwise we would have become separated from each other.  However, Apache and I were able to stay right on his side with only a couple of feet between my stirrup and his.

Thankfully, we finally made it around before the strength in my left arm gave out.  Once we stopped, Apache calmed right down and I was able to concentrate on working the cramps out of my thighs as Anastasia sang the anthem.  Once the anthem was complete, we got the cue to exit the arena, which we did at the trot.  Or, at least everyone else was trotting.  The second we exited the arena they released the first bronc from the bucking chute.  The other riders remarked that I should keep Apache from watching so he wouldn't get any new ideas.  Apache was so fascinated by what was going on in the arena that we trotted sideways down the road that passed behind it so he could watch the event.
I never knew that Apache was a rodeo fan.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Horse Control

Last Saturday, the students progressed to riding a military horsemanship pattern in the practice arena. We try to teach three fundamental skills during the first phase of training; balance, control in a group, and control in a solo pattern.  The bareback portion helps them with balance, but control is more difficult to achieve.  Riding a horse solo involves different control problems then when riding as a group.

Riding as a group involves riding in a circle and maintaining the correct distance between each horse. Depending on the horse, the student may have trouble slowing the horse down or speeding him up. Changing the direction of travel (clockwise or counterclockwise) may change the dynamic depending on which horse is at the front of the line.  A higher ranking horse may object to having a lower ranking horse in front and may try to pass it in the line. Also, a slow horse up front will cause the line to scrunch up while a fast horse will string the line out.  All these dynamics require the student to control his horse in both speed and direction.

Riding a solo pattern is a different exercise, but still requires the student to master both speed and direction. Without the distraction of moving in concert with other horses, the rider must now compel his horse  to perform based solely on his cues and can't rely on his horse just following the other horses. The biggest challenge in this case is maintaining the required gait and riding a complete and round circle.

Both exercises in horse control require a great deal of concentration from the rider and often frustrates them as the horse seemingly does everything, but what they want them to do.  However, they usually get to a point where the "light comes on," and they suddenly understand how to control their mount.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

New Riding School

B Troop typically holds two riding schools each year.  One in the winter and one in the summer.  We just began a new class on 6 February.  We usually have trouble finding enough recruits to fill out the class, but this year we actually had to turn some people away.  We are really only able to handle four students at a time, but we went ahead and took six (although one of them had to quit already due to a job schedule change).

The students with instructors Pete (left end of line) and Jay (right end of line) .
 We are in the first phase of training where we teach riding basics.  Most recruits have little or no riding experience, so we give them a crash course in basic riding.  Of course, they aren't riding your typical school horse, but an Army war horse, which makes it all much more challenging.

We have school three times per week on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  I always like the Saturday classes because there is plenty of daylight and it is warm.  At night, I have to rig up some work lights to illuminate the arena.

Today, we worked on riding bareback in column and in a circle.  The students are asked to control their horse at a walk, trot, and gallop.  I have to keep an eye on all of them simultaneously to look for someone losing control or losing balance and adjust the gait before someone comes off.  I had a student take a spill on Thursday night and sprain her wrist.  Thus, she had to watch the lesson from the ground today.

Riding in a column of twos while bareback.

Today, everyone managed to stay on their horses, although a few got close to coming off.  They did a pretty good job considering that two weeks ago they didn't know anything about riding and now they are galloping bareback.

After the lesson, a few of the experienced riders rode over to Wren arena to practice for the opening ceremonies of the Cochise College rodeo.  We gallop around the arena with the colors while one of our Ladies Auxiliary members sings the anthem.  Our First Sergeant, Pete, thought he'd try Ruger, one of our young and wild horses. There were people working on the arena fence, so it was a good chance to expose the horses to the distractions of things going on around the arena.  I tried to keep my horse parallel to Ruger as we galloped around the arena, but Ruger was doing all kinds of strange things with his head and legs, so I kept a little bit of a distance.  We eventually decided that Ruger wasn't quite ready for the rodeo and needed more training in galloping in formation. It was a fun practice, though, and it has been ages since we rode in the arena.

Ruger--1,300 pounds of love and joy.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fort Lowell Again

It has been a long time since I posted on this blog and it is time to start again.  There are too many interesting things going on in the cavalry world.

Yesterday, B Troop participated in Fort Lowell Days as we do every year.  It is an event held at Fort Lowell Park in Tucson, Arizona as part of an effort to promote the history of the old Army post and the surrounding neighborhood.  Fort Lowell has an interesting history both before and after it was shut down in 1891.  It was from this fort that Captain Samuel Marmaduke Whitside rode out and established Fort Huachuca in 1877.

Anastasia putting a sidesaddle on Journey.

B Troop brought six riders and three cannoneers to put on a historic presentation at Fort Lowell.  Our stable call was at 0600 and we departed Fort Huachuca at 0700.  Arriving at Fort Lowell at about 0830, we unloaded the horses and began setting up our arena.  Four of the troopers headed over to the San Pedro chapel to provide a saber arch for a procession into the chapel, but they were back at about 1030.  Meanwhile, the artillery crew and I set up the portable arena for the riding demonstration.

Upon returning, Ruger spooked for some reason and broke free from the trailer and ran around the field for a couple minutes with all his campaign tack still on.  He circled the trailer two or three times and then came to a stop next to the rest of the horses as if nothing had ever happened.  He broke the strap on his leather halter, but otherwise nothing else was damaged.

One of our lady riders rode around the park in sidesaddle, wearing a period authentic dress and let people know that we were about to start our demonstrations.  She looked fantastic and soon a sizable group came to watch us.

After lunch, the cannon crew gave a great presentation on the procedures for firing our 1840 mountain howitzer.  The rest of us untied the horses from the trailer and held them while the cannon went off.  None of the horses spooked, but it is better to have a man hold the horse, so it is less likely to panic then if tied to something.

The cannon crew getting ready for their demonstration.

After the cannon demo, we put on a mounted drill demonstration in our arena.  The crowd enjoyed it and then we set up some jumps and targets and gave a saber and pistol demonstration.  All the horses did pretty well.  Blade was fired off of for the first time in years, but did well.  Blade had developed a dislike of gunfire at the Picacho Peak re-enactment a couple years ago and we have been slowly getting him accustomed to the sound ever since.  He protested a little at first, but eventually became OK with it.  We had fitted him with earplugs to make it easier for him.

We finally finished around 1500 and headed back to Fort Huachuca.  The horses were all drenched in sweat as they still have their winter coats and it is much warmer in Tucson than at Fort Huachuca.  We got all the horses taken care of and unloaded all the equipment and cleaned weapons.  We signed off the arms room at 1840 and sat on the porch and discussed the day for a piece before heading home.  A long, but successful day.