Re-enactors on foot: working with Horses

When we first started using cavalry in ACW events the foot soldiers (from another association!) wanted the spectacle of horses on the field but showed no readiness to work with them. Fortunately, we have found that ACWS infantry and artillery show a refreshing enthusiasm for working with us and it is going very well. This article is written in recognition of this co-operation and mutual trust in an attempt to develop it further; it is aimed at re-enactors with no experience of horses.

The very first thing to understand about horses is that in their natural environment they are the prey, not the predator, and their only protection is to RUN (with the herd) and to KICK. I will deal with the bad news about kicking later, but the good news is that horses will not attack you; a horse is much more frightened of you than you are of it. I can imagine you thinking about that great mass of British cavalry thundering down on, and destroying D'Erlon's First Corps at Waterloo and saying that I don't know what I am talking about. Well, if there had been only one line (rank) of horses I am quite sure that the horses would have shied away from the infantry no matter how hard the riders pressed them forwards. What happened in a cavalry charge was that the horses (and men) in the first line would have been frightened witless but would have been pushed into the enemy by the sheer momentum of the stampede of horses behind them, which couldn't see anything to be frightened of. Sometimes, in the crush, man and horse were carried along with the horse's legs completely off the ground so that horse and man had no choice in the matter anyway. You'll be glad to know that we will always have too few horses to do that - but that is why we have difficulty pushing the horses those last couple of yards. This is where your co-operation would be useful: to the public it must look as if the horses are threatening you and you are trying to hold them off; in fact we need to train with you so that you are encouraging the horses in - we could even experiment with you rewarding the horses some food if they do get-in close (not in an actual show, of course).

More good news: horses don't like treading on squishy things - like you! They will avoid treading on you if they can. If you find yourself in the path of horses your best bet is to stay still so that both horse and rider know exactly where you are and you don't spook the horse into someone-else: if you move you may confuse both horse and rider with unpleasant results (squelch!). Make sure that the rider has seen you - the horse is extraordinarily sensitive to where the rider is looking. However, if you are behind a horse, which is backing towards you, then do move and attract the rider's attention. We are acutely aware of the danger to "casualties" lying on the ground and we ask for your help in keeping them safe: If you want us to attack you please keep your "casualties" together to two - or preferable one - sides of your unit as much as you can - this is so that we can attack the other sides without endangering those lying on the ground. Sometimes we can find no safe route to attack you: so we don't.

This brings me to the KICK: be aware that a full kick from a horse can cause serious injury and that horses kick when they are frightened: a frightened horse is a dangerous horse. Because of the danger from kicking and trampling we have strict safety rules and I think that you would be surprised if you realised how much of a cavalryman's attention is focused on your safety and not on his own! Most importantly we ask you not to endanger yourselves: please do not take hold of any part of a horse, horse's tack, or rider, unless you are specifically asked to do so by the rider. I can explain the dangers best with the following example:

We were attacking an infantry unit which had "casualties" lying on the ground to my left - of which I was a little nervous - and sure enough Sorrel sensed my unease and wanted to turn left. Suddenly a soldier stepped forward and grabbed the bridle, which hurt Sorrel and he panicked because he was held-back while the "herd" retreated. I had to fight hard to control Sorrel and stop him from rearing to trample the man with his front hooves; then from trying to turn to the left (where the "casualties" were) to get a kick at him from the rear. The soldier probably thought the I was the one in danger: In fact I was quite safe but I had my work cut-out not just to save him from injury, but also to avoid the situation in which he unwittingly put his mates - the "casualties" in danger of being trampled. No one was hurt (and all is forgiven!) but this is the sort of situation which we can prevent by understanding each other's problems.

We recognise that other units do us the honour of taking "casualties" for us but because of the obvious dangers of falling-off horses we don't usually return the compliment, not deliberately anyway! We are working on doing this safely and may need your help in capturing loose horses, which could otherwise be dangerous - not least to a rider lying on the ground. Perhaps it would be safer if riders could be dragged from their horses by specially trained foot-soldiers in strictly controlled circumstances. However, please beware: if you separate the wrong horse (especially Sorrel) from his "pal" or the "herd" you could be left holding half a ton of very angry "kicking machine". Please do so only by prior agreement with the rider and in consultation with the Horse-master.

Finally: a surprised horse is a frightened horse, which is a dangerous horse. Never approach a horse either suddenly, or from the rear where he can't see you; if the horse is having a quiet snooze you may wake him suddenly and he may mistake you for a tiger and lash-out (squelch again!). If you see anyone, especially children, approaching a horse wrongly please do warn or even restrain them - any rider will thank you for it and will certainly not take it as interference.

Working together is all about familiarity and training: so if you have the opportunity please come and talk with us and ask one of the riders to show you how to hold the head-collar/rope and not the bridle (which may hurt the horse) and how to approach a horse safely: why not sit on a horse and become more familiar with it? By the nature of things we tend to be camped away from the "foot-cavalry", which is a pity, but "horse-soldiers" are always happy to show-off their mounts and yarn about horses. Come and meet my Sorrel "The Wonder Horse" (the silly chestnut one): as 3/4ths American Quarter horse (1/4 thoroughbred) he is exceptionally agile and can turn so fast that, sooner-or-later, like a cartoon character, I am likely to be left sitting in mid-air! If any unit would like to train with us please would you approach Capt. Clive Greene (The Horse Master)?

Without you we can't do our job!

Brian "5" (Adjutant & Safety Officer) and Sorrel, 4th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April 1999