The King’s Troop has had a monumental influence on equestrian sport. Julian Seaman takes stock of some of its luminaries
THE past military influence in many of the competitive equestrian sports is sometimes forgotten. The most obvious is eventing, which came into being as an officers’ test at the start of the 20th century and for many years was referred to on the Continent as “The Military”. It became an Olympic discipline in 1912.
Showjumping, racing and polo all had a services’ following before the war, but a golden era was about to begin. It was therefore no big surprise that many of the administrators of these sports came from the armed services.
For more than 50 years, one unit has punched way above its weight in providing sport directors, stewards, team managers, performance directors and a host of other tasks and indeed in the competitive fields. That unit is The King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery.
After the war, King George VI suggested that following the mechanisation of the last batteries of horse-drawn artillery, a troop should be retained for state ceremonies. The Riding Troop was reformed in 1946. The King suggested that a more apt name should be The King’s Troop, and in 1947 he amended the page in the visitors’ book, crossing out the word “Riding” and writing “King’s”.
On her accession, The Queen declared the name would be a permanent honour to her father. It is a six-gun unit with around 160 soldiers, 130 horses and just six or seven officers, but as you will see, this small pool has produced a plethora of equestrian luminaries over the years. Here are some of them.
BEFORE the war, Frank Weldon’s first love was racing. He won a Military Cross (MC) but was captured as a prisoner of war. On return he had ambitions to ride in the Grand National, but was stymied by a rule change. He changed tack and introduced his horse Kilbarry to eventing.
Frank commanded the Troop between 1949 and 1954. In 1953, Frank and Kilbarry won team gold and individual silver at the European Championships held at Badminton. They repeated the result a year later at Basel. They were an unlucky second at Badminton in 1954, won the 1955 Windsor-hosted Badminton and the real thing in 1956. They won team gold and individual bronze at the 1956 Stockholm Olympics.
In 1965 the 11th Duke of Beaufort’s heir, David Somerset, asked Frank, with his great international experience, to design the Badminton course, and two years later he added to this the role of Badminton director.
As a technical advisor he travelled to many international events, converting many ideas to Gloucestershire. One of Frank’s fellow officers in the Troop, Derek Dyson, joined him as assistant director at Badminton.
IN 1958 the command was taken by Bill Lithgow. Having started as a horse gunner he was poached, post command, after an approach out hunting, to a cavalry regiment. Bill rode at Badminton in 1953, being one of the first in history to fall foul of the Lake. He then became a distinguished chef d’equipe of the British eventing team during the era of the Princess Royal’s greatest exploits.
With his twinkling eye he held total respect. This was nearly compromised during the World Championships at Burghley in 1974. Bill sportingly took part in a donkey Derby, bit the dust, broke several ribs and conducted managerial duties strapped up in his bed at the George Hotel. After his chef d’equipe duties, Bill became a successful head of the Pony Club.
James Templer, as a captain, became European champion at Burghley 1962 on M’Lord Connolly, won Badminton on the same horse in 1964 and rode at the Tokyo Olympics. He was also a successful amateur jockey.
An honourable mention must go to NCO Sergeant Reuben (Ben) Jones, who rode Martin Whiteley’s The Poacher to Olympic team gold at the Mexico Olympics and subsequently became a senior instructor at the Army School of Equitation, Melton.
SEVERAL commanders of Left Section have made their mark. At the outset of the Troop from 1946 to 1949, Eddie Boylan held the post. He won Badminton for Ireland in 1965 on Durlas Eile. Tim Eastwood (1961–64) became chief executive of the British Horse Society (BHS) two days after leaving the army in 1989 and held the post until 1998. He oversaw some seismic changes in the horse world, with the competitive disciplines ceding from the charitable BHS.
Mike Webster (1967–70) became clerk of the course at Kempton Park and Epsom, responsible for the King George and the Derby. Tadzic Kopanski followed Bill Lithgow as team manager of the three-day event team and then as head of the Pony Club.
Malcolm Wallace took command in 1982. He rode his King’s Troop charger Dr Sebastian to complete Badminton in 1974, led a King’s Troop team at the inaugural Hickstead cross-country race and was offered the ride on Brod Munro-Wilson’s Roman General in the 1984 Grand National. They cleared Bechers, the Canal Turn and Valentines, only to come down at the 13th, a more lenient obstacle. He was the last serving officer to ride in the race.
Malcolm has filled many roles in the horse world since leaving the army, from chairman of Burghley to executive director of the Jockey Club. His theory as to why so many Troop officers gained useful employment in the game was that unlike their grander counterparts in the cavalry regiments, they needed to get jobs!
As eventing chef, Malcolm presided over four Olympic Games and three World Championships, moving up to cover all three disciplines as chef de mission.
HUMPHREY MEWS took a slightly different route, commentating at many one-day events while serving as an attaché to Margaret Thatcher at Number 10. He then became assistant private secretary to the Prince of Wales with a brief to find the heir suitable hunters.
Charlie Moore (1991–93) completed Burghley on his own horse Royal Hadleigh in 1980 and the Aintree Foxhunters on the regiment’s horse Lexador in 1987. He has been a long-time commentator and cross-country controller at horse trials and has been clerk of the course at Market Rasen and Uttoxeter, then Nottingham, Doncaster and Towcester. He is currently senior clerk and in charge of all clerks at Arena Racing Company. He could be seen on TV during the void Grand National of 1993 bravely waving a red flag out in the country in a vain attempt to stop the field.
David Holmes is another former commanding officer to work in the sport. After leaving the army he has hardly been away from HQ, being chief executive of British Dressage, a stint abroad with the FEI, a return to Britain as chief executive of British Eventing and back to Italy. He was chef de mission for the 2019 World Equestrian Games.
Charlie Lane won many races as a military amateur. He also became a chef d’equipe of the British eventing team, a racecourse steward and was head of equine business management at the Royal Agricultural College. For several years has stood as an expert witness in court cases. Less well known is that he was once national one-day eventing champion at Goodwood. This was something of an act of God for him. One person could have beaten him, and coming through the finish thought he had. It was none other than Malcolm Wallace. Malcolm was shortly taken aside and told that a timing malfunction had taken place and that sadly he would have to be eliminated!
Last of our gallery is Will Connell (1998–2001). Aged 14, he was pointed towards the Troop by family friend Humphrey Mews. After “The Wood” – as the Troop’s barracks in St John’s Wood was known – he became head of running the World Class programme for all the Olympic disciplines in 2003. This culminated in a fantastic swansong at London 2012.
He is also assistant director at Olympia. While commanding he took a risk in giving the world-famous display a revamp. The riders wore World War I uniform with tin hats; the gun teams negotiated ramps at the gallop and the spectacle was completed with smoke and wiz-bangs. It was a brilliant departure.
All in all, this makes up an amazing roll call for a unit formed just at the right time to serve a burgeoning post-war competitive equestrian world.
You can also read this feature in the 13 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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