Nothing says tradition like jolly old England. Of course, as horse lovers, what we really want to see between a trip to a real English pub and an afternoon of tea with scones is the changing the Queen’s Life Guards with their immaculate horses and riders. After WWII when all of the horse regiments had been mechanized, the Household Cavalry Regiment was formed and based at Hyde Park Barracks. The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment is made up of the Life Guards Squadron and The Blues and Royals Squadron.
The Queen’s Life Guard wear scarlet tunics and helmets with white plumes and the Blues and Royals wear blue tunics and red plumed helmets. What a site they make while on parade!
The present day Life Guards and the Blues and Royals are entrusted with guarding the Queen when on ceremonial parades and across England as well as being an important part of the Royal pageantry. The Life Guards are considered the most senior of the British Army regiments and have won countless battle honours since their first war in Maastricht in 1672. These days, the Life Guards also provide an escort during ceremonial duties including the Sovereign’s Escort for on State and Royal occasions.
The Blues and Royal are a new regiment and were formed in 1969 when the Royal Horse Guards (known as the Blues or Oxford Blues) joined the Royal Dragoons. They are the only regiment know by their nickname, “The Blues and Royals.”
The New Guard leaves the Hyde Park barracks each day at 10:28 five days a week and at 9:28 on Sundays. They ride to the Horse Guards Parade by way of Hyde Park Corner, Constitution Hill and The Mall on their way to the ceremony. The ceremony lasts 30 minutes and the mounted sentries change each hour or every half hour in cold weather. At four o’clock the Dismounting Ceremony takes place within the courtyard of the Horse Guards building. The men are inspected and the horses are taken to the stables for the night.
Traditions die hard in England, and what regiment wouldn’t want their own farrier to come along “for the ride?” The Household Cavalry includes a farrier who carries a ceremonial axe when on parade, but not for stopping to shoe a horse. Sadly, his task in the time of cavalry charges and war horses was to either remove the hoof of a dead horse on which the serial number was tattooed, or to kill a horse who was wounded and suffering.
Another interesting bit of trivia is that the riders always pat their horse’s necks just before dismounting as a signal to the horse that all the weight will be in one stirrup as they dismount!
However, despite all the pomp and ceremony, the soldiers in these regiments are all well trained modern soldiers who see active duty. In the British Armed Forces, women are not permitted to serve in combat roles – cavalry or infantry – although they can serve in combat support units. However, in April 2007, the first woman in British Army history served on detachments of the Queen’s Guard when the King’s Troop, Royal Horse artillery took over the guard at Windsor Castle.
The purchase of horses in the regiments is through the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and most horses are bought at 3 or 4 years of age with over 95% coming from Ireland of Irish draught stock. Those horses selected by the Squadron Leaders in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment in London are broken and trained under the Riding Master.
Over time – usually between 8 and 10 months – they will learn to deal with noise, crowds, bands and traffic, and to deal with the increasing weight of the riders’ ceremonial dress, equipment, or “furniture” as it is called. Since 1997, all the horses are fitted with microchips. Horses used in the Mounted Bands are often chosen from the older, quieter mounts and all the horse’s front hooves are tattooed with their Regimental initials and number while and on back hooves are their Army numbers.
The Drum Horse
The Household Cavalry Drum Horse has a specialized duty as set out in this quote: “Selected by the Riding Master, the Drum Horse must be of good temperament, well developed, at least 16.3 hands high, strong, and fit — as the combined weight of rider, ceremonial uniform, silver kettle drums, and horse furniture is quite considerable.” The drums weigh 68 pounds each and the horses don’t have cotton wool on their ears despite the loud boom of the drums.
A drum horse, always named after a Greek hero, is a Clydesdale cross and it takes 18 months to fully train one. In the past they have been black, iron grey, blue roan , piebald and skewbald in colour. The Drum horse has been a feature of the Life Guards since 1660 and plenty of feather, mane and tail are preferred as tradition decrees. They are impressive in size and colour and certainly stand out.
Freddy: A Real War Horse
During the Boer War, 550 men and their horses were shipped to South Africa in November 1899. Amongst the horses was D36, a horse named Freddy of the 2nd Life Guards, one of the 10,000 horses that the army was buying for the mounted soldiers. When the ships came back from the Boer War, Freddy was the only survivor: 3,275 horses from The Royal Dragoons died in just three years, and most of the 550 horses from the Household Cavalry died- mostly from disease or heat exhaustion.
During the war Freddy was ridden for 6 months, had just 48 days of “rest” and covered 1,780 miles. Freddy arrived home in 1900 and Queen Alexandra heard his story during a Musical ride where he served as lead horse. “Why didn’t this horse have a war medal?” she wanted to know. The War Office agreed, apparently reluctantly, and Freddy was awarded a medal with five clasps for his service at Wittenberg, Kimberley, Paardeberg, Driefontein and Transvaal. Freddy died in 1911 at the age of 18.
One drum horse who will be immortalized forever was Paddy II who was the star of Sir Alfred Munnings’ painting titled The Drum Horse.
My next blog is all about Sefton, the horse who survived the IRA bomb attack of 1982 and became a beloved symbol of strength and determination.