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In the run-up to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration weekend, a team at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR) are working hard behind the scenes to suit and boot the horses and riders.
The regiment is one of only two that have their own saddlers, farriers and tailors, and it takes countless hours of polishing and grooming to produce the much photographed image of the Queen’s mounted guard.
Each saddle, still made to the same design as it was in 1902, takes 60 hours to make and it takes 12 hours to polish each pair of trademark thigh boots to a glass-like finish. The imposing 16- to 19-hands-high (1.6 to 1.9 metres) black horses are groomed and worked every day - with their shoes changed every two weeks.
Indeed, the HCMR’s Farrier Major, Staff Corporal Neil Sherlock, and his 11 farriers reshoe 120 horses every week during the ceremonial season, with some horses wearing through their shoes in just seven days:
Our job is to make these horses have as long a working life as possible,” explains Staff Corporal Sherlock, who, with the rest of his team, tailor-makes the shoes for each horse as well as making the tools used in the workshop.
There is a lot of science behind shaping the shoes to correct problems for the horse, which is why you have to serve a three-year apprenticeship and complete your associate exams after six years to become a farrier.
It’s hard graft, physically and mentally, but it’s very satisfying when you can correct a problem in a horse needing remedial work.
Underneath the farrier’s workshop, the saddle shop also works at a constant pace and can see the products of their labour every day on the parade square:
The most satisfying thing we can make from scratch is the saddle obviously, but they are made to last, so we only make about 25 new ones a year,” says saddler and second-in-command for the saddle shop, Lance Corporal of Horse Antony Wenham.
Traditionally, the saddlers only had 20 minutes to fix any broken leather in the riding tackle or saddle when the horse was involved in a battle, so sturdy, simple saddles were important:
One of the most rewarding things we make are the Sam Brownes [belts] worn by the officers. We hand-cut and hand-stitch everything on them so one belt takes a whole day to make, but you get to see that belt every day as the officers walk around in them.
It is a dying art now, which is a shame. There are only three of us at the barracks to make and fix all the leather state uniform for the 360 horses here, as well as their riders.
Like the farriers, the saddlers have to complete a lengthy apprenticeship, and don’t actually get to work on any ceremonial items until they have completed one year of the apprenticeship:
Our cutting tools are sharp, so one slip and you could ruin a piece of leather, meaning you have to start the whole thing again,” explains Lance Corporal of Horse Wenham.
When the finished saddles and bridles leave the saddle shop they are then buffed and polished by the soldiers at least twice-a-week to maintain their shiny, crisp appearance.
The sheer amount of work required can often be overwhelming for new soldiers to the regiment.
The hardest thing for new soldiers is that they have to do everything,” says Trooper David O’Mahoney who is mentoring the new ‘ride’ of soldiers coming through.
The mounted ceremonial role is like no other job in the Army. It’s not just standard soldier discipline, but also maintaining all your ceremonial kit, with some items costing several thousand pounds, as well as all the horses’ kit.
The first set of ceremonial boots the soldiers get take up to 12 hours to burn, buff and polish to an immaculate finish, which you need to redo two or three times a year, while you also polish them three times a week to maintain the look. To do it and be part of the big mounted ceremonies, however, is one of the highlights of your career.
The master tailor is responsible for the uniforms of the regiment. Corporal of Horse Paul Holliday explains:
The master tailor’s job is to uphold the maintenance of all the ceremonial uniforms within the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment.
We could be doing anything from fixing sheepskins for the saddles, to remounting medals, to sewing a button on a tunic. Because we have 280 men to look after, we’re in ceremonial uniform daily. That’s a lot of wear-and-tear, and it’s constant.
The Khaki Ride Instructor
Lance Corporal of Horse Dayle Abbott is the Khaki Ride Instructor. He teaches the novice riders the basics:
Khaki Ride is the ten-week phase-two riding course. Riders learn to walk, trot and canter on their own. They’ve got the opportunity to learn how to jump.
The Kit Ride Instructor
Lance Corporal of Horse Joshua Tait is the Kit Ride Instructor. He prepares the student riders for ceremonial duties on horseback. He says:
The Kit Ride is the second phase in the learning process. This phase is where troops learn to ride the horse in all the ceremonial uniform and learn all the ceremonial drills required.
In total 116 soldiers and officers will ride out to escort the Queen as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations this summer.
Published: 29 May 2012
From: Ministry of Defence