The 1st Continental Light Dragoons, also known as Bland’s Horse, was a mounted regiment of the U.S. Continental Army.
I had a pony as a little girl. A tiny, ancient pony, given to us by an older gentleman whose children had outgrown her. My dad used to saddle her up, and I would sit in my little western saddle with my cowboy hat on. The pony wouldn’t move half the time, but I was practically a baby and never noticed or cared that we stood in one spot until my dad got bored and said that riding time was over.
My husband, Brian, had a more exciting childhood around horses. His grandfather raised and raced Standardbreds. The house his grandmother still lives in today was built from the earnings of one horse in particular, Goody’s Pride. But the horse raising days ended by the time Brian was a teenager, and his family had moved to the city. This was the extent of our horse experiences when we decided to dive into the world of horses again.
Brian and I met through a Revolutionary War reenactment organization called the North West Territory Alliance. The NWTA is a Midwestern based organization that was founded in the 1970s, and hosts several Revolutionary War reenactments from late May to mid-October. Brian has been reenacting from a young age with his father, and I was introduced to the “hobby” through extended family. Brian and my cousin were part of a military unit portraying cavalry, or Dragoons, and always lamented that horses were not allowed to participate in reenactments. Wearing the cool uniforms, and wearing Dragoon riding boots is fun, but there was always something missing.
Campaigns to introduce horses to the NWTA were attempted several times throughout the years, but it wasn’t until the 2015 season that there seemed to be a really good chance of the board voting to give horses a shot, thanks to the intense efforts of the 1st Regiment of Light Dragoons, 5th Troop. The board meeting to vote on allowing horses into the NWTA was in November of 2015, and the motion passed with flying colors. It was time to get thinking about actually participating in historical camps and battles with our horses.
With the prospect of finally having horses participate in reenactments, it a was time to start looking for our first horse. It took us a little while to find Ben. We knew that we wanted a younger horse, one that we could grow old with and reenact with for years and years, and that the horse had to be a solid color for period-correctness. But that is about all we knew, and the advice and opinions were flowing from all of our horse-owning friends and acquaintances. Age, breed, temperament, price, adopt or shop – everyone had something to say.
The owner of the riding stable were we took lessons pointed Ben out to us in October of 2015. He was a recently retired Standardbred, known as “Won Nine” and he was beautiful. I’m not ashamed to admit that was my first thought, before wondering what “green broke” meant. There was a video of him walking down a lane with a tiny child riding him, her mother walking calmly beside them and not touching the horse. Ben was young, he was an ex-racehorse, and he was green. He was basically everything we had been warned against, but he was a Standardbred and we had been reading up on their temperaments which seemed exactly in line with our reenacting needs. Steady, level-headed, bombproof. So we went to meet him, fell in love, and brought him home the same day.
Brian had been taking weekly riding lessons for about 6 months when we adopted Ben, I had MAYBE gotten 3 lessons under my belt. We spent the winter working on teaching ourselves and Ben how to be a team and how to move and trot under saddle without looking like a gangling teenage boy rushing home to beat curfew while stone drunk. It was definitely not an overnight process.
In addition to transitioning Ben from driving to riding, we worked on desensitizing Ben over the winter, in preparation for sights and sounds he might encounter while in camp and on the battlefield. We got help from trainers and other stable boarders and thought we were in good shape. Pool noodles, flags and pop-guns didn’t faze our amazing boy. We were ready for the first reenacting event of the season. Or so we thought. Due mostly to the level-headedness of the Standardbred, Ben’s first event went off amazingly well. He handled gunfire, canon blasts, smoke, running and shouting men, large billowing skirts, campfires, loudspeakers, crowds, and a picket line as if he had been doing this for years. We got compliments left and right on his well-mannered behavior, and we never looked back. He was the perfect Ambassador for horses in the NWTA.
Our goal was never to permanently board Ben, and when we got him, we had been advised that his one vice was jumping fences to avoid being in a pasture alone. So, we knew that we would eventually be shopping for Horse #2. Our reenactment group had several breeds represented: A Tennessee Walker, an Appendix Quarter Horse, Foundation stock Quarter horses, and even a Mustang. But thanks to Ben, we knew we wanted to stick with Standardbreds. We had gotten Ben from Starting Gaits: Standardbred Transition Program, and when I started casually asking about horses in the program Mandi Cool, the Executive Director of the program, quickly suggested Cash. Cash, or Sharp Money as he was known, was a year younger than Ben, but described by Mandi as an “old soul” with what she thought would be the best temperament for reenacting. We talked about him for a couple weeks, but the timing was off and he went to another adopter. But fate was on our side because in the spring of 2016, Cash came back to Starting Gaits right about the time we were ready to bring home Horse #2.
Mandi had originally planned to keep Cash for trail riding, but soon discovered that he had a locking stifle when asked to rack, so she needed him to go into a home where he would be asked to trot instead. Cash was pokey, gentle, and had the kindest eyes. In adopting Cash, we were able to move Ben out of the boarding stable and into our backyard. Again, the forgiving nature of our boys has been a blessing as we learned what having horses in the backyard really means. Especially when we realized that Cash was going to need surgery on his locking stifles\ a couple months after bringing him home. Surgery was a breeze, and my gentle giant was a gentleman every time I poked and prodded him in an attempt to keep it clean and happy.
Cash missed several reenactment events at the beginning of the season due to his locking stifle and subsequent recovery time. When we finally got to bring him out, I was starting to worry that we couldn’t possibly be so lucky twice. Ben was so good for his first event; could we hope the same for Cash?
Well, he blew us all out of the water with his performance. Mandi really knows how to match a horse with his second career. If Ben had managed to act as though he had been reenacting the Revolutionary War for years, Cash would have you thinking he had been doing it for decades. His first military training demonstration was nothing short of a miracle. He was ridden by another member of our unit, and you would never have known it was their first ride together. He experienced his first time having a black powder pistol fired from his back before the demo, just to see if he could participate in that part of the show. His only reaction to the sound of the shot and sight and smell of the smoke was to look back at his rider to find out what was going on. He didn’t move otherwise. Ben and Cash were the only 2 horses present for that demo, and without a “senior” horse to look to for guidance, they advanced unwaveringly towards a firing line while blank rounds were shot off in the air. They weaved in and out of a line of soldiers, they rode toward targets with sabers drawn and calmly handled their riders slicing open watermelons from the saddle. They were rock stars. After the excitement of the training demonstration, they stood calmly at the edge of the crowds, while their riders answered questions from the onlookers and walked back to camp from the battlefield as though they had finished a lazy Sunday trail ride.
All of the horses in the 1st Dragoons have done an amazing job of paving the way for more horses within the NWTA, our boys included. Sure, there have been hiccups. Like the time a pistol was fired too close to Cash’s ear (although, the only reaction he gave was a really dirty look back at his rider), or Ben got a bit too excited by the charge at a line of infantry and thought it was a race to the finish line. But all in all, they have been champions of the Standardbred breed and made true believers out of more than just Brian and myself. It takes a special kind of horse to be level-headed in the conditions of even a “mock” war, and the Standardbred has proven to be the perfect war horse. We hope to be able to take the horses out on the battlefield next year and use the training gained in the demonstrations to put on a spectacular show.
During the off season, our boys continue training for battle. We are focusing on neck reining and sword fighting. When the horses get to take part in the battles as opposed to the demonstrations, there is almost always a good sword fight on horseback, with shiny, flashing blades and lots of good old-fashioned clanging. But we also let them relax and enjoy weekly trail rides through the local park. They are a truly versatile breed. Adopting our off-track Standardbreds was the best decision Brian and I could have made.