Monday, 18 July 2016

Early mornings with the Household Cavalry

It was 6am on a cold February morning. Hyde Park was still shrouded in darkness, the roads empty and not a soul in sight – except for a soldier in khakis and high viz, standing beneath an imposing stone archway that looked into an open courtyard. I’d often passed that same entrance during the day and, though it was rare to see a horse there, the smell is unmistakeable. I hesitantly wheeled my bike towards him... It turns out the most obvious entrance is the wrong one. I was redirected to a discrete, metal gate on Knightsbridge Road, where a muffled voice crackled through the security speaker, “ID m’am”, before the gate swung open.

A brutalist concrete block in the heart of Knightsbridge, the barracks look more like a multi-story car park than a stable yard. Over 150 horses are spread over two tiers, with about 6 blocks of 16 on each level – the Lifeguards downstairs, the Blues & Royals upstairs, with a forge and horse walker on the lower levels. I was directed to the riding balcony, a viewing gallery that overlooks an indoor ménage, where a troop of 16 were trotting nose-to-tail in circles. As I watched more than one of the soldiers were unseated, rolling forwards from the saddle and onto the sand.  It should have served as a warning…

I was there following an e-mail from a lance corporal in the Household Cavalry. It had come as something of a surprise. Over two years earlier, I had written (several) letters applying to become a Civilian Support Rider but, on receiving no response, had given up hope. Then, out of the blue, I was instructed to present myself at the barracks at 0625hrs on 10th February, wearing the ‘proper kit’ (they take dress code very seriously), for a riding assessment. The morning went by in a bit of a blur. I was one of six nervous riders led to the stalls, laden with a random assortment of tack and shown a horse to get ready. Ten minutes later, we were cantering circles in the ménage, watched with a stern eye by the Riding Master who, after 20 minutes, brusquely told us we’d passed, but needed to brush up. Already an hour late for work, I left the barracks buzzing.

I got the call up about a month later. I’d been allocated to the 3 Troop Blues & Royals, and could take up my position as soon as I was available. Having been in awe of the majestic cavalry blacks ever since I saw a military display as a horse-mad ten-year-old, it was like a dream come true. Sadly, my excitement was quickly stifled on day one when, on cantering across the west side of Hyde Park, I suddenly found myself sailing over my horse’s ears and landing with a thud at his hooves.  The horse looked as surprised as I was. Thankfully, he didn’t seize his opportunity to gallop back to the barracks, allowing me to jump back on, hopeful that the marks on my jacket wouldn’t give me away to the Riding Master. Needless to say, it was a short, sharp lesson that the Queen’s horses are actually quite a rowdy bunch.

I should have expected it really. You don’t have to look far online to see various misdemeanours on parade. Unpredictable, cheeky, fit and strong, you can never be sure quite what you’re getting on in the morning. Now, I feel a certain sense of trepidation before every ride….

For the first two weeks, it all felt a bit traumatic – I dreaded the 5am start, the intimidating environment, the difficult horses, the shampooing and polishing when you’re in a rush, the cycle across London to get to work in time. But now, a few months in, what I had found terrifying is becoming fun and familiar – touchwood.

I am usually there by 6am, when the barracks are already a hive of activity, pop music blaring while troopers muck out and sweep the length of the stalls. On arrival, you check the whiteboard, where your name is paired with a number that corresponds to a horse – it is, quite literally, a lottery. It’s also very easy to end up tacking up the wrong horse. On more than one occasion, I’ve got half way round the park before panicking that I’m riding the wrong one. I’ve not yet fallen off again, but I have had a few fairly eventful mornings, including unintentionally galloping the length of the park, and alarming early morning joggers by careering onto a footpath when trying to stop.

I’m still yet to ride any horse more than 2 or 3 times, and would struggle to recognise any of them on parade. Even so, I’m starting to become quite fond of the unpredictable beasts – for all their foibles.

I’ve fallen for Hotspur. He’ll nip your side when you tack him up and is strangely fussy about which side of the path he walks, but has a fantastic canter. Ladysmith is another sure favourite. Tall and gangly-legged, he is the only one I can spot on duty due to his endearing walk. Nose to chest, his front legs clumsily over-crossing, he looks like he’s concentrating hard to go in a straight line.

Integrity is the old man of the troop. He’s got a persistent cough and arthritis, but is beloved by everyone. Nervous to handle, he’s unusually jumpy – he once took fright when the horse walking next to us farted! There’s Luxembourg – tall, wide and, so I was told, “safe as houses”. Yet, when I rode him, he decided to rear up and run off, apparently unaware there was someone on his back hauling at him to stop.

Then there’s Nico – he’s scared of everything and hard to stop. Lingen is endearing, young and sometimes unnerving in his exuberant enthusiasm; Kaiser – slow, lumbering and has a big buck. And Katherine? I’ve been warned to avoid her at all costs.

It can all feel a bit surreal at times – riding the cavalry blacks through Hyde Park, greeting soldiers out exercising their horses, or watching them rehearse in ceremonial kit. Sometimes, we’ll pass a horse and carriage from the Royal Mews, or see the heavy-stepping drum horses. For one or two hours every morning, Hyde Park is a horsey haven. The early mornings are worth it for that!