The Cavalryman and his Horse

By Lieut. S. C. ROBERTSON, · First Cavalry, U. S. A.

[ From the United Service ]

In a country like ours, with its more than eleven million horses, where soil and climate give us the best of breeds, and where there are some of the finest natural horsemen in the world, it is a matter for regret that horsemanship in its higher form should not be more thoroughly developed. With respect to our cavalry service, especially, is this to be deplored. Possessing a splendid personnel, good horses, and a perfect equipment, we need but the acquirement of this art to make ours the superior of almost every other service in the world. That the necessity for attaining it exists, few of our officers will deny; the history of our frontier service is replete with incidents which prove it. In how many Indian fights of even recent years have unfortunate troopers fallen victims to bad riding or unskillful management of their horses, and how many valuable animals have been lost to the Government in our campaigns by bad seats and the ignorance of men untrained to the saddle?

For all these things the peculiar nature of our past service has been to a certain extent an excuse, but in the near future, as isolated detachments are consolidated in permanent posts, and thorough drill is thereby rendered possible, our attention must unavoidably be directed to the more perfect training of the cavalry trooper. As long as cavalry exists, however it may be armed or maneuvered, the fundamental principle of such instruction will be horsemanship; that science which gives the soldier perfect control over the machine which transports him; which makes it safe for himself and effective against his enemy; which gives him confidence in his own prowess, and which inspires him with an esprit de corps, and a love for his horse and the saddle which every cavalryman who is really master of his steed must feel. There is nothing chimerical in these ideas. Scientific riding is an art more practiced by the civilian abroad to-day than ever before, and all of the great cavalry services-those of Germany, Austria, Russia, France, England, even poor, unhorsemanlike Italy-are devoting their every energy toward perfecting both officers and men in it. Shall we, their equals in nearly all else, their superior in many things, confess ourselves behind them in one of the most important departments of our profession ? No one can claim that our tactics do not contemplate instruction in equitation and the knowledge of the horse, for, brief as its requirements are, and skeleton-like as are its elementary rules upon the former subject, it does prescribe that officers shall “have a thorough knowledge of the structure and powers of endurance of horses,” and be “familiar with the rules for their management under all circumstances. to understand in detail the method of shoeing them, and to be able to treat all ordinary cases of injury and disease.” West Point gives a better education than any other school the world, but of these matters what does it teach? A graceful position, a fairly good seat, to use the saber and pistol (this excellently well, too) on horseback, to mount at a gallop, and one or two other accomplishments of a similar nature, and there our horsemanship and knowledge of the horse end, the latter never passing zero during the whole time. On the frontier this is supplemented by such information as individual ambition or research, or accident, may supply. The refinements of equitation, however, the principles of the haute ecole, as it is called abroad, we neglect almost entirely. With such exercises as the “piaffer,” “pirouette,” “circling on the forehand,” “changing of hand,” the “volte,” the different “passages,” and many other exercises in the “setting-up” of horse and rider, we never bother ourselves. Yet they are considered the A B C of his profession by even the youngest cavalry “sub” abroad, and certainly no horseman calls himself really accomplished without being able to perform them. In no other way can he reach the end supposed to be desirable with every cavalryman, of communicating to his charger his every impulse, of making him obedient and ready to act instantly and according to his will in every emergency., in short, of making his steed and himself, as nearly as possible, one. But, leaving out the question of accomplishment and the haute ecole, should not all of us in our arm understand thoroughly the breaking, bitting, and training of the horses drafted into the cavalry? We have to deal here with a question involving not only professional pride, but professional duty. Do we understand these things as we should or is not rather the following the actual case very often, and a reply to the question at the same time?

A horse is assigned to a troop. Nothing is known of him except that he has been ridden, and appeared sound to the purchase board when bought. He is assigned to a trooper-possibly a recruit. To this man has been issued a bridle. It may have a No .1, or a No. 2, or, for all that he generally knows, a No.10 bit. It don’t matter; in it goes, without reference to the size of the animal’s mouth perhaps without even adjusting the check-piece, so as to place it at the proper height in the mouth (few men know this height anyhow) he leads the poor brute, with its cheeks pinched, or possibly its tongue nearly cut in two by a narrow port, out to drill.  Is it any wonder that the horse becomes unmanageable, or that it is known in a week or so as the “champion bucker” of the troop. The man lingers on, dreading every “boots and saddles” as a call from the lower regions themselves, bound to a creature which he can neither ride nor manage, until, finally, the poor animal goes the way of nearly all such horseflesh and is condemned for his ill nature or some curb or spavin which the torture inflicted on him had produced. This result, of course, is brought on in many cases by some other species of ignorance than that displayed in bad bitting, but the illustration chosen represents many actual cases and shows the necessity of knowledge on such points. The non-commissioned officers who are the drill-masters of recruits have learned in the same school as the latter, and consequently know nothing more than they, except the few things that longer experience-not instruction-in the service has taught them. Were there skillful horsemen among the officers of their troops, officers who understood thoroughly this portion of their profession and who made it their business to see that the men under them were intelligently taught how to handle their horses and become good riders themselves, then indeed, and not till then, would we be, in the true sense of the word, cavalrymen.
Foreign nations consider the smallest details of all this instruction as necessary for the education of both officers and men.

In the French school of cavalry at Saumur, where the writer had the privilege of spending nearly a year, he has seen a class of officers kept for days in recitation upon the single subject just referred to – bitting; and he has seen the same class ” stand to horse” for nearly three-quarters of an hour in the riding hall until every bit, curb, and strap about their horses’ heads was placed to the instructor’s satisfaction. Any bit that did not fit, whose mouth-piece was too narrow, or too thick, or the reverse, or whose bars were too powerful for a particularly tender mouth, or which had some other defect discernible only to his practiced eye, was either exchanged for another or turned over to the armorer for alteration. The idea of fitting bits, saddles, or other gear indiscriminately to their animals would be to them preposterous. They may appear at first glance overscrupulous in their attention to these things, but the result justifies them, for their horses are magnificently “dressed,” and their mouths, in most cases, simply perfect. The animals thus trained were no more docile than our own usually are on entering the service, yet their education for the ranks by the employment of these careful and judicious methods was, in most cases, fully completed in two or three months.

To understand more finely the importance attached to everything connected with horsemanship and the horse in the mounted services abroad , let us examine briefly the training of the French cavalry officer in these respects, and then let us confess how culpable and unworthy, by comparison, is our own indifference in regard to them. He enters St. Cyr with usually about the same proficiency in riding as the average West Pointer; for coming, as he nearly always does, in the case of a cavalry cadet. from an aristocratic family, he has probably seen and ridden good horses from earliest boyhood. During his first year’s course his studies are in common with those of the infantry cadet, and he rides, like the latter, only three times a week. At the end of the first year he expresses his preference for the cavalry arm. He is then immediately separated from his infantry colleagues, and his education as a trooper commences in real earnest, everything else being subordinate to this training. He studies an extensive course in hippology, is taught practically all the elementary principles regarding the treatment of sick horses and their handling, and is kept in the riding-hall or at mounted drill on the cavalry plain during an average of three hours a day. A slight calculation will show how much more he rides in his two years’ course than the cadet in our academy during his four. After graduating at St. Cyr and spending another year in the cavalry school at Saumur he enters a service, not where his acquirements thus gained are valueless and left to rust and decay, but where his enthusiasm is fostered and his esprit de corps continually encouraged by the nature of both his duties and amusements. As a second lieutenant he is required personally to drill recruits both in the riding-hall and on the drill-ground, and to teach them in theory and practice all the elementary details concerning the management of their horses, the adjustment of their harness, &C He himself is either required, or from voluntary pride seeks, to perfect himself in skillful feats of horsemanship, iii the riding-school or on the steeple-course. He is constantly drilled, and goes over frequently in the regimental schools the theory of hippology and equitation, which he has studied as a cadet and at Saumur. He is surrounded by officers, old and young, who encourage his interest in these things by that which they display in them themselves. Much of their spare time is spent in the handling of the difficult horses of their squadrons, or in the training and exercising of their own chargers. The writer has often seen an officer after several hours’ hard drill dismount and immediately leap to the back of some horse of his own held in waiting by his orderly, and then spend the same length of time perhaps in putting his animal through the manege drill, or in teaching him some little trick of taking a hurdle upon the steeple-course. He does this for his own amusement and from a spirit of emulation excited in him by the zeal which the officers about him display in the same occupations. Even the gray headed colonels do not disdain to countenance this enthusiasm by their own example, and they are often seen on the training- ground or following the hounds with as much enthusiasm as their subalterns. in another service that we know of, is not the young officer who shows a fondness for the horse and for being constantly in the saddle looked upon with a sort of pity as a “green youngster” who will “get over such nonsense when he is older,” and do not many of the older officers-those, too, whose age in nowise unfits them for the saddle-seem to consider it more consistent with their rank and dignity to drive about in their ambulances and buggies than to be seen on horseback? Why should such false ideas exist?

In the other army we speak of they would not be tolerated, and officers who thus shunned and renounced their steeds would bring themselves into great contempt for such lack of esprit de corps, for such it certainly is.

The conversation of their mess-table at Saumur (and the same thing may be said of all messes at which the writer has been in their cavalry garrisons) abounded in “horse talk,” most interesting to those who love and understand the horse, but incomprehensible to those who do not. At each breakfast, for instance, Lieutenant X would tell to interested listeners at his end of the table how Lieutenant Y, in the same division, had come off in the morning steeple-chase with certain officers in another division, or how Lieutenant Z had lost the brush from a fall, or bad riding, in the previous day’s hunt or perhaps another party would be discussing with an animation worthy of the most serious subject the points and action of Lieutenant So-and-So’s new purchase in the horse line. Conversation was always ready among these officers. and numerous other topics existed, but on none was interest so constantly unflagging as upon this.

The above seem trivialities too small almost to be written, but the writer’s object is to portray the different lights in which these matters are viewed at home and abroad.

As has been previously intimated, the hunt is much in vogue in all French cavalry garrisons, even the smallest of them generally managing to have its meet at least once a week in the season. Of course this induces a love for good, blooded horses, and many of the officers-even those who can afford no other luxury, perhaps- contrive to have their thoroughbred hunters. Steeple-coursing is a sport equally popular, and serves, unlike the hunt, to amuse them throughout the whole year. It is customary at the school of cavalry to have two grand meets on the steeple-course a year, one in May and one in July, and it would be necessary only for one of our officers to witness them to conceive how much interest and amusement they can afford to the participators. The officers from neighboring garrisons and hundreds of their friends from even Paris-200 miles distant-encourage them by their presence. The horses which enter are usually thoroughbreds ridden by their owners among the officers of the school. Ordinary troop horses, however, sometimes contest, and occasionally with success. The costume worn is either the regular uniform of the different corps or that of the gentleman jockey, with its gaudy colors selected according to the fancy of the owner. The course is one as serious in its difficulties as those ridden over on the regular turf, and requires good riding and skillful jockeying. Indeed, their leisure time of each day for a month or six weeks beforehand is usually devoted by the contestants to training for these races.

The sight of a full field of twelve or fifteen officers stretching away at full speed over a three-mile course covered with ditch, wall and hedge, the gay dress of the riders, the waving handkerchiefs of fair spectators, and the applause of admiring comrades, all this would arouse enthusiasm in the breast of the most soulless spectator, and would cause any of our true cavalrymen regret that such manly and professional sport was not encouraged in our own service.

In the different garrisons it is a custom for the captains and subalterns of each squadron to stroll through the stables each morning while smoking their after-breakfast cigar. The horses are critically examined, the sick ones visited, and the features of each particular malady noted and discussed with interest. Besides this the “subs” attend both morning and evening stables, as in our service, though with them they last about twice as long in each case. After the young officer receives his promotion as first lieutenant he is, if he has shown him-self diligent and attentive to duty, sent a second time to Saumur, where he studies a more advanced course than the first. He is made to go back to the ranks and the riding-hall, however, as when a cadet, and his instruction in equitation he receives entirely fresh. He is, beside this, taught the art of shoeing, and takes a quite extensive course in veterinary surgery. He goes through the infirmary with the instructor each morning, and in his turn examines each horse and enters the result of his examination in his note book. He has to state first, what, in his opinion, is the animal’s malady, from what causes it probably proceeds and what treatment is advisable. He then estimates the horse’s age and gives an appreciation of his points. On all of these things he is strictly marked. He is also taught here how to competently purchase remount horses. The horses of the school-some nine hundred odd-are assembled for this purpose in requisite numbers, and are told off in squads corresponding to the different geographical departments.

Each officer is then supposed to represent the purchasing officer for a depot in that department, and is required to go through all the paper forms necessary for the purchase, as well as to note down all the qualifications which the horses before him possess for troop purposes; likewise any defects that exist among them, their age, amount of blood, &c. The writer followed the course of these latter officers (the first lieutenants), and it strikes him that it is the most admirable that can be conceived for the forming of a perfect cavalry officer, one who knows every detail of his duty, and who is imbued with a knightly love for his horse, his saber, and his corps.

Such a system of minute instruction, as that just described is, and will, of course, be for many years impossible in our service; but cannot a system of education in the matter of equitation and the horse, upon a smaller scale, combined with the individual effort which corps pride should induce us to make, bring us somewhat nearer perfection in these matters than at present ~ Suppose, for instance, to deal with the first part of the question, a small school of officers and non-commissioned officers, selected, as might be convenient, from the different regiments of cavalry, be established at Leavenworth, either combined with or separated from the main school. Let it be in its general nature a school for the training of troop horses and for the teaching of both officers and men the art of scientific equitation and horse-breaking. Let it be devoted to instruction of this sort exclusively, so that the whole time of its members might be given to these subjects alone. In such a school officers would have not only an opportunity for perfecting themselves in the haute ecole of riding, but they would be able to go through all the necessary processes for creating out of a raw and untrained horse the perfectly-drilled and docile troop charger with cadenced gaits, graceful action, and stipple movement. They should learn practically and teach to the non-commissioned officers under them the proper manner of subduing by gentle, patient treatment refractory young horses, and they should thoroughly acquire all the details of scientific bitting and saddling. Such an institution would cost the Government absolutely nothing beyond the erection of a riding hall (which is almost indispensable) and the time of the officers and men detailed thereat. Who can doubt the advantage the carrying out of this idea would confer upon the service. The officers upon graduating need have no distinctive position as riding masters conferred upon them as in foreign armies; the service might simply be left to benefit from the knowledge they have acquired, and which would be gradually, but surely, disseminated throughout the different regiments as these officers rejoined them.

The object of this article, however, is not the really presumptuous one of making suggestions to the authorities in the army who control these matters, for they are certainly competent to deal with them for themselves it is rather an appeal to my younger brothers in “the service of horse” to let their professional interest be aroused in some of the subjects mentioned above, so as, by taking advantage of such opportunities as are offered them, to develop in our corps that love for equestrianism and mounted sport which alone can render it entirely worthy of outside admiration, or entitle us to be proud of it. It is the custom in our service to think that certain things are impossible or impracticable simply because they have never been done in the past. One often hears that such and such practices are “well enough for European armies, but in our own ‘different conditions,’ ‘frontier service,”‘ &c., to the end of the chapter. Let us see if we are not running in a groove in many of these matters. At all large posts, and especially Leavenworth, let officers aspire to have good horses; let their training be the pride and pastime of their owners. Let clubs for the promotion of steeple-coursing and the hunt, wherever the latter is practicable, be formed, and let skillful feats of horsemanship and a love for the saddle as a means of pleasure be encouraged. Jockeying should be scientifically learned and practiced in order to ride well over any course. All of the terms of sport of this sort should be familiar to those who wish to be thoroughly accomplished in it. The art of training horses according to their temperament and breed and the nature of the service for which intended, whether for the troop, hunt, or steeple-course, should be made a matter of study, so as to be understood in all its niceties. In fact, a thorough knowledge of the horse should be considered essential from motives dictated by both duty and pleasure. Few officers have any idea how much amusement can be derived from work of this kind, or how much the dullest garrison at which there are half a dozen devotees of such sport can be enlivened by it.

Though it may seem but a trifling detail, the etiquette of the horseman’s dress should be observed as strictly as possible. neat fitting riding trousers and close, stiff-legged top-boots, with the proper style of spur, should be worn whenever mounted; and it should be borne in mind that nothing adds so much to the eclat of a race and the appearance of a hunting field, or to the satisfaction of the riders themselves, as correctness of costume.

All of the above points-the construction of steeple-courses, rules for the hunt, dress, &c., may be easily learned from several good manuals existing upon the subject.

There is nothing visionary or impracticable in these suggestions. Many of the horses now used in the service for troop purposes may be converted into fair hunters or steeple coursers. “Riding rings” may take the place of regular halls where the latter do not exist, and steeple courses can be laid out in the neighbor-hood of any of our cavalry garrisons. We have both time and opportunity, and nothing is lacking but the enterprise and interest necessary to take up and develop those pursuits. Let them be once started, and their growth is certain. They will finally prove not only gratifying to the officers who engage in them, but they will inspire a horsemanlike spirit in our cavalry which will do more than any other thing to perfect the arm and make it in this, as it is in all else, a credit to the Army of the United States.

Second Lieutenant, First Cavalry.

FORT WALLA WALLA, W.T., January 24, 1883.

WASHINGTON, May 7, 1883.

Publication authorized by the SECRETARY OF WAR:
Chief of Ordnance.