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The All-Around Horse and Rider
By Donna Snyder-Smith
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-4974-X
Chapter OneThe All-Around Horse, an American Heritage
The history of the horse seems to holds a tenacious influence on man's future. Doubters may want to consider the case of the solid rocket booster fuel tanks, a part of the propulsion system for NASA's Space Shuttle, which is arguably, the most advanced form of transportation of the age. Made by Thiokol in Utah, their size is influenced by horses who lived and served their owners in Imperial Rome! Deeply imbedded ruts made by the Roman war chariots dominated wheeled design specifications for centuries, influencing the prototype for the British railroad gauge (the width between the rails on railroad tracks is 4 feet, 8.5 inches, derived from the specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot), and Englishmen helped design and build the American rail system. The shuttle's booster tanks, which must be shipped by rail from their manufacturing site to their final destination at the launch pad, could not, therefore, exceed the width of a pair of horse's haunches-or so the story goes.
It seems no coincidence, then, that the history of our country is bound up with that of the horse; the very act of riding continuing the chronicle of horsemen and horsewomen who have left their marks on history from the saddle in years past. It is fair to say the country could not have grown the way it did if it were not for the service of horses.
Used in everyday affairs from the time they were brought to the shores of this continent in 1493 by Columbus, horses were the earliest tractors, serving the farmer in the nation's agricultural fields, pulling plows and clearing the land for building. They were the engines between the traces of a great variety of vehicles, from the earliest version of UPS (heavy delivery wagons) to the forerunner of our modern bus (the stagecoach) to the RV of its time (the covered wagon). They served as engine for the family station wagon (the buckboard), sedan (doctor's buggy) and sports car (the gig).
But it wasn't until the American Revolution, when a regiment of 400 men from Connecticut known as the Light Horse reported to General George Washington mounted on their own private bloodstock, that the horse made a significant appearance in American history as a war machine. This particular group of sporting gentlemen enlisted with the agreement that they would be excused from some of the normal soldierly duties in order to have the time to care for their animals, whom they considered as valuable as their other fighting weapons. General Washington, fearing his foot soldiers would be jealous of the time these men spent with their mounts, sent the regiment home. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a major defeat at the hands of the British, whose successful strategy relied heavily on mounted troops. Washington, himself a horseman and a foxhunter, soon changed his mind, and in 1777, Congress formally authorized the formation of four regiments of dragoons. They fought with sabers and flintlock pistols, and the fashion press of the day showed them dressed in buckskin breeches and top boots with helmets of brass-their actual attire was much meaner.
As the mounts for couriers and soldiers, horses earned their daily rations by their patience, endurance and bravery. When life and death hung on the point of a saber, the cavalry horse had to respond to a rider's slightest cue, rapidly and without question.
After the end of the Revolution, as men and families from the East pushed West, it was largely the fighting skills of Native American horsemen that revived the government's interest in the cavalry in 1832. In The Story of the U.S. Cavalry by Major General John K. Herr and Edward Wainwright, the Indian mounts are described as scarcely 14 hands, slight in build, with powerful forequarters, good legs, a short, strong back and a full barrel (deep heart girth). Although they did not resemble the "blooded" horses from the East, it was said they had sharp ears and bright eyes, and unusual intelligence. "The amount of work he could do and the distance he could cover put him fairly on a level with the Arabian," Herr and Wainwright wrote.
The Indian pony was an example of the wild plains horses, known as mustangs, whose herds numbered in the tens of thousands and roamed throughout much of the Midwest and Southwest into Mexico. Tales of these horses carrying riders 70 miles a day without tiring or going unsound were common. In 1856, J. S. Rarey, who referred to himself as an "American horse tamer," wrote in The Modern Art of Taming Wild Horses, "On bringing a [wild] horse into a stall for the first time, the best way is to lead a gentle horse into the stable first and hitch him, then quietly walk around the wild colt and let him go in [the stable] of his own accord. It is almost impossible to get men who have never practiced on this principle to go slowly and considerately enough about it. They do not know that in handling a wild horse, above all other things, is that good old adage true, that 'haste makes waste;' that is, waste of time for the gain of trouble and perplexity."
By the 1850s, the United States Army Cavalry was well established, and horses continued to play a strong role in the affairs of the country with the onset of the Civil War. The Confederate Cavalry demonstrated its equestrian prowess early in that conflict. Men such as General Robert E. Lee and Major General Jeb Stuart hailed from a population where riding and hunting were an integral part of life and a focus of education, and they lived up to the title "horseman" and all that it conveyed about the ability to do almost anything from the back of a horse.
The riders of the Union Cavalry lagged behind their Southern counterparts for a time, men from the North being recruited primarily from urban areas, few having experience in the saddle or any skill in the handling of horses.
The training time for a cavalryman was approximately two years and required a high order of intelligence and initiative. A good trooper had to be equally efficient on the ground or in the saddle. The Confederate rider's knowledge of his horse resulted in better care of the animal, while the early Yankee cavalry lost a great number of its horses through ignorance of even the simplest horsemanship principles, such as the severe debilitating effects of allowing an overridden, hot horse to fill his belly with cold water.
In 1862, a Captain Vanderbilt described a chaotic scene that might easily have been anticipated by any experienced horseman in the same circumstances.
My company had been mustered into the service only about six weeks before, having received horses less than a month prior to the march. In issue we drew everything on the list, watering-bridles, lariat ropes, extra blankets, nice large quilts presented by some fond mother or maiden aunt, sabers and belts, carbines with slings, pockets full of cartridges, nose bags, extra little bags for caring oats, haversacks, canteens, spurs, curry-combs, brushes, ponchos, button tents, overcoats, frying pans, and coffee pots, etc. Such a rattling, jingling, jerking, scrabbling, cursing, I never heard before. Green horses, some which had never even been ridden, turned round and round, backed against each other, jumped up or stood up like trained circus-horses. Some of the boys had a pile in front on their saddles and one in the rear, so high and heavy it took two men to saddle one horse and two men to help the fellow into his place. The horses sheered out, going sideways, pushing the well disposed animals out of position, etc. Some of the boys had never ridden anything since they galloped on a hobby hose, and they clasped their legs close together, thus unconsciously sticking the spurs into their horse's sides. Blankets slipped from under saddles and hung from one corner; saddles slipped back until they were on the rumps of horses; others turned and were on the under side of the animals; horses running and kicking, tin pans, mess-kettles, flying through the air; and all I could do was to give a hasty glance to the rear and sing out at the top of my voice, "CLOSE UP."
The Confederate Cavalry not only took advantage of the inexperience of the Union Cavalry men, they depended largely on captured Union mounts to fill their needs. The situation gradually improved for the North when the Quartermaster Department built remount depots in convenient locations to train and furnish horses for the Union army. Records show that the government bought or captured a total of 210,000 horses in one year alone to supply the army's need. In 1861, Philip St. George Cooke wrote Cavalry Tactics, an instructional book on mounted maneuvers. It was this organization and education of both the horses and men of the Union Cavalry that helped turn the tide of the war.
Following the Civil War, Cavalry units were dispatched to the Western frontier, where attacks against white settlements by Mexicans and Native Americans had been on the rise. In January 1880, the War Department set the following specifications for a horse that was to be considered suitable for an army remount: "To be sound in all particulars, from 15 to 16 hands, no less than 5 years and no more than 9 years old, except when suitable in every other way for cavalry use. Colors to be bays, browns, blacks and sorrels. Good trotters and bridle wise."
The War Department continued to use horses and their riders into the 20th century, culminating in what may still be considered the nation's greatest equestrian school, the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas. Much of the information in the Horsemanship and Horsemastership Manuals, written in 1942 and used as a part of the curriculum at Fort Riley, is as appropriate today as it was at the time it was written. Old photographs and diagrams show the correct seat and position for the rider who wanted to be ready to meet any contingency, from jumping a fence to sliding down a steep embankment, and I would venture to offer that any rider who aspires to become an accomplished all-around horseman or horsewoman could do much worse than to acquire a set of these old books and study them carefully, doing his or her best to follow exactly the instruction set forth in their pages.
Members of the United States Army Cavalry, excellent riders on well-trained horses, represented the United States at the Olympic Games through 1948 in the three major disciplines of dressage, eventing and jumping. Captain Guy V. Henry, who served in the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II, was the first of many American riders to travel to France to train at the French Cavalry School at Samur. The school, notorious for the quality of its equestrian programs and its horses, left its mark on Capt. Henry, who later modeled the Cavalry School at Fort Riley on the French school. Promoting advanced courses for both riders and horses, he is credited with being the creator of the modern American doctrine of equitation.
In 1912, the United States Army Team won a bronze medal in the Olympic three-day event. Henry rode as a member of the team on a horse named Chriswell. Displaying the all-around ability of his mount, Henry also showed the horse in the dressage competition, placing 11th, then led the United States jumping team to a fourth place as well. (It is interesting to note that the Olympic dressage tests didn't require the elegant movements of passage and piaffe, but did require jumping obstacles immediately upon entering the arena and as a part of the test.) He added to his versatile equestrian career by winning three medals at the 1948 Olympics: a team silver in dressage, and an individual silver and team gold in three-day eventing.
Henry continued his passion for horses throughout his lifetime, acting as civilian director of the United States Equestrian Team, which was formed to take over the responsibility of fielding equestrian Olympic teams when the cavalry was disbanded in 1949.
In The King Ranch, Volume I, by Tom Lea, the origin of the term cowboy is credited to the men who were paid to steal Mexican cattle to feed federal troops located north of the Nueces line in Texas. Rough-riding bands of 10 to 15 horsemen would gather 200 to 500 head of wild cattle, keeping them in a punishing run for as long as 24 hours, gradually slowing their gait when they were so tired that they could be controlled. These riders were young toughs who had served in the army-gangs who referred to themselves as Cow Boys and carried bowie knives and muzzle-loading rifles. "The generic name for future practitioners of the most celebrated legend on the continent thus was given birth, in the region of the Santa Gertrudis," Lea wrote.
As the nation expanded West, American cowboys-men who made their living on the back of a horse-began to have a greater influence on the nation's style of riding. In the early 1900s, entertainment extravaganzas like the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show and early Hollywood Westerns popularized the versatile skills and expanded the legend of the cowboy, including his saddle type and his horse-the 14.2 to 15.2 hand, heavily muscled cow pony. This influence would continue to cast its spell over amateur riders around the world for more than a hundred years. In 1998, the United States Equestrian Team (whose members had previously competed exclusively in English disciplines riding flat saddles) would succumb, expanding their ranks to include the stylized discipline of reining-maneuvers distilled from the work a cowboy and his horse performed in handling cattle.
The horse best suited to life in the West was similar to the cavalryman's mount, both horses performing many jobs. There was also another similarity: Both cavalryman and cowboy came to realize that the best all-around horses fell within a fairly narrow size range, 15 to 16 hands. Larger horses were not "good doers" and smaller horses just didn't have the length of leg for sustained speed.
It was common practice for ranchers to try to improve the local wild horse herds by turning out blooded stallions to mate with the wild mares, then harvesting the offspring to use in ranching and farming and to sell to the United States Army as remounts. Before this could be done, however, the herd stallion had to be shot, because no stallion raised in captivity was considered to be the equal to his wild cousin in a fight for herd supremacy.
Out of the forge of the Southwest emerged a type of horse eventually known as the American Quarter Horse. Founded with Thoroughbred blood, the Quarter Horse breed was also influenced by crosses to mustangs and Mexican Vaquero horses descended from the Spanish Barb.
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