Never Mind the Helmet, Here Comes the Cavalry!

Me and Cat, out for a stroll.

The riding helmet was small for me, so it looked like black puffball mushroom on my head. It was good enough for my purposes, though. I would be taking a couple horseback laps around an indoor ring, going only at a walk. My daughter, who has some professional experience training horses, would be walking alongside me.

This wasn’t my first rodeo—if you call walking around an indoor arena a “rodeo.” We’ve owned a horse for years—Reilly, named by my daughter after her dear friend and fellow Stonewall Jackson groupie, Frank O’Reilly.

Her new horse, Cat, stood sixteen-and-a-half hands tall. A hand measures four inches, so that’s five-and-a-half feet to the top of his shoulders. That was nose-level for me.

That’s a little taller than Reilly, who was just over fifteen hands. Reilly, who’s now enjoying a quiet backyard retirement, has a dark bronzey sheen to his coat that shimmers in the right sunlight. Cat is darker—“dark bay,” Steph says. He looks like liquid dark chocolate and moves with the same sort of liquid grace.

Cat is a retired thoroughbred. For most of his professional racing life, he had two speeds: “at rest” and “hell bent for leather.” He’s not used to walking. This trip around the ring will be something different for both of us.

Steph let me borrow her helmet and did her best not to laugh at me once I had it on.

“He’s not used to having someone on him as big as you, either,” my daughter said. I top the scales these days at a little over 200 pounds, so I’m no Winfield Scott—but I’m no Willie Shoemaker, either. Cat, in comparison, weighed about 1200 pounds—well over half a ton.

Cat put his back to it and lowered his head into his bit and off we walked. Steph easily kept pace beside. I held the reigns loosely in my left hand, a convention of Western-style riding. That’s cowboy style. In his new life as a show horse, Cat was only used to English-style riding—fox-and-hound, tally-ho, pip pip and all that. Steph rides both. At this breathtakingly casual pace, I’m not sure it really mattered.

The horse and I settled into a routine, as all horse-and-rider combos must in order to be successful, and soon Steph fell away and Cat and I were on our own.

I ride so infrequently now that I forget how empowering it is to sit atop a beast so tall.

At the same time, I was completely at Cat’s mercy. I rode atop a beast that could quite literally kill me in a dozen different ways if it wanted to. One of the keys to good horsemanship is making sure you don’t make the horse want to kill you.

As a society, we’re so far removed from our horse-bound days that we tend to forget such things. Horses are a pleasant abstraction. “People riding horses” = no big deal.

But it is. In Cat’s case, it’s 1200-pounds of big deal. I could hardly imagine being on him at hell-bent-for-leather speed.

Yet that was often the case for cavalrymen in the Civil War.

The cavalry has been on my mind a lot lately, as it happens. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time these days at Brandy Station working on a book project with my friend Eric Wittenberg. Eric, as it happens, is the leading expert on Union cavalry in the Civil War. (Check out his series on the evolution of cavalry tactics if you want a taste.) Brandy Station, of course, was the largest cavalry battle of the war. Horses aplenty, all of them going all-out across open fields, with cacophonous noise and eruptive chaos all around them, their riders trying to stay mounted while also shooting and slashing at each other.

Me and Reilly, circa 2012
Me and Reilly, circa 2012

In general, people are kind of cavalier—pardon the pun—about “guys riding around on horses” without really knowing what that means. Being on Cat made me once again appreciate the complexity of the dynamics involved. 

So, a couple days after my time with Cat, I reached out to Eric. I’ve been horseback riding, I told him. That’s got me wondering what it was like to be a cavalryman.

“The average Civil War cavalryman was 5’3” to 5’9” and weighed 130-150 pounds,” Eric told me. That was slightly shorter than the typical infantryman.

“I assume he’d have a saddle, bridle, strap, saddlebags with a bunch of crap in them, and the reins. Probably the rider’s bedroll.” I said. “Anything else that was standard back then?”

Eric gave me a great list:

  1. Blanket
  2. Saddle
  3. Bridle
  4. Reins
  5. Stirrups
  6. Feed bag
  7. The soldier’s personal effects
  8. Food
  9. Canteen
  10. Carbine

“Each soldier carried a saber and at least one pistol,” Eric said. “And he had his cartridge box. The whole thing ran about 60 pounds.”

Plus the weight of the rider.

Horse and rider had to stick together. Rider had to stay on horse—no small feat—and horse had to let rider guide him/her. Rider had to care for horse and horse had to not kill rider. They had to trust each other implicitly. They had to take care of each other.

I knew what that felt like, too. Before putting Cat back in his stall, I brushed him down, wiping away the perspiration and the dust. It’s a little like fingernails scratching the back of your scalp—mmmm, feels good. Most horses I know love it. I’ve always enjoyed it, too. “It’s your zen, remember?” Steph had said, tossing me the first brush.

As I ran the brush across Cat’s shoulders, I found myself humming a little tune I’d heard a long time ago:

If you want to have a good time, jine the cavalry!
Jine the cavalry! Jine the cavalry!
If you want to catch the Devil, if you want to have fun,
If you want to swell Hell, jine the cavalry!

3 Responses to Never Mind the Helmet, Here Comes the Cavalry!

  1. Staying on the back of a horse hauling ass down the road or across a field is a big deal if you’re alone. It’s a really big deal if you throw in lots of other riders some of whom might be shooting at you or trying to whack you w/ a sabre. Speaking of Eric, I’m reading his book now that he cowrote with JD Petruzzi, “Plenty of Blame to Go Around” about Jeb Stuart’s ride on Gettysburg campaign. This is a great read w/ firsthand accounts by yank and reb cavalryman mixed in w/ civilian experiences too.

  2. Nice piece. I’ve never ridden a horse before, and have it on my list of to-do’s. I feel to understand what it was like to live — and fight — in an era when horses were a main form of transportation, I owe it to myself to give it a try! I am sure it is complicated as you point out.

  3. Chris, Very entertaining – and informative – article. Takes me back to an occasion in North Dakota riding a very (as in steroids) spirited Buckskin horse. It only took me about 1/2 mile to turn him around – or maybe he just decided it was time…I don’t know. I do know however, that it was fear of falling off – nothing more – that kept me aboard -or ahorse? The stop at the barn, inside the corral was a thing of beauty. By the time I had reached a conclusion that we were going to go through the closed barn door in a shower of splinters he reared up on his back legs and came to a complete and sudden stop. I know what y’all are thinking, but saints be praised I stayed in the saddle. Betcha I looked just like one of those heroic cavalrymen of days gone by, huh?

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