You would probably be a bit miffed too if you’d watched all those adverts on the television (ARMY: BE THE BEST), signed up expecting a tank, and ended up mucking out and cleaning kit for the best part of 20 hours a day, but this is exactly what happened for most of the soldiers turned out for inspection one muggy Tuesday morning at Knightsbridge barracks, in central London.
Or at least you might start off miffed, but the beautiful black 3/4 Irish draught horses, carefully selected for the job of guarding the Queen, are enough to win over any non-horsey person. Standing calmly in the sunlight, before they trot off down to Horseguards Parade they make for an impressive spectacle, horses and soldiers both.
Carrying a total of around 18 stone easily, these horses are some of the best behaved in the country, as they stand guard day in and day out on Whitehall. And the soldiers too learn a new form of discipline when they come to the Barracks.
“Most of these lads haven’t ridden at all before they get posted here,” explains Captain William McCarter. “And they’re like any 16 or 17 year-olds – sulky. But most of them quickly learn the skills involved in riding, and fall in love with it fast.” A horse is just as good as a tank, more fun, I’d think, but then I’m not in a position to be able to compare.
It is a gruelling day: up and mucking out from 6am, the soldiers then do a full day’s duties until 6.30pm, when they retire after their suppers to polish kit. This can take a new recruit until around half past three in the morning to finish – and I thought cleaning tack for an hour at pony club camp was depressing.
“It’s more of a mental task than a physical one” points out Lance Corporal of Horse Jamie Broom, riding instructor, and choreographer of this year’s musical ride. “But the more you do it, the less time it takes.” Although invariably it takes even the most experienced horsemen four to five hours to clean everything to the high standards which are taken for granted here at Knightsbridge Barracks.
The horses are brought over from Ireland aged four or five, and broken in the UK, after which they will work for the Cavalry until they are ready for retirement. Sometimes ex-members of the Barracks even come and offer to take a horse which they have particularly enjoyed riding, and which just needs to be hacked gently or put out to grass in its later life.
But the horses in front of me now are in their prime, and as I know from a friend although they look peaceful standing quietly doing their job, their size and bulk are quite used to quite a different end when they are let loose in Hyde Park for exercise each morning.
Practice makes perfect
When we go into the outdoor school to see the musical ride being practised, you get an idea of the amount of concentration, and precision which have to be a crucial part of this routine.
The soldiers taking part have all volunteered their time – being in the musical ride is a huge commitment in addition to the responsibilities they already have – but you can see how much they enjoy the experience. The team has already been practising for two months, and have not yet added in the musical element: both horses and soldiers must be foot perfect before they do the routine to music, but you can see that the intensive training is paying off.
And although about half the members are missing this morning, the team puts on an impressive performance, accompanied by much laughter, as journalists shuffle out of the way just in time to avoid being mowed down.
After the demonstration, back at the barracks we meet a true professional: Drum Horse Spartacus. Standing at well over 17hh, and a veteran of many a national occasion, from Trooping the Colour to the State Opening of Parliament, Spartacus will be present at HOYS, with at least 20kg of drums on his back, doing what he does best. “It takes at least three-quarters of an hour to get him completely ready,” says Captain Mcarthur, because there is so much of him to groom!
The Musical Ride is a well-established and much loved part of the Horse of the Year Show and this year, as ever, The Blues and Royals and the Life Guards are guaranteed to put on a wonderful show. You can go along and see them in action every day from Wednesday October 4 to Sunday October 8 at the NEC Birmingham. For further information, visit: www.hoys.co.uk