CHAS: The California Historical Artillery Society-Part 1

There is nothing more exciting at a Civil War reenactment than seeing horses doing what horses used to do, and doing it well. One organization in California has dedicated themselves to presenting this type of experience for onlookers, and to saving horses. Quoting from their website:

            The California Historical Artillery Society (CHAS) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization dedicated to preserving the life and times of the military horse with emphasis on horse-drawn artillery. CHAS offers educational    opportunities with its horse-drawn artillery detachments and gun demonstrations through living history events, school talks, parades, and other events. CHAS proudly uses retired Standardbred trotters to work in teams pulling light artillery   cannons. These former harness racers were rescued from California’s harness racing industry. We are one of only a handful of units in the world to portray how light artillery historically operated.

Warhorses have always entranced me. When I saw them at events or in parades, I wondered just how a modern horse is trained to withstand the noise of a large battle reenactment. When ECW ran a month of artillery posts, I began looking for an answer to my question. Luckily, I found Judith Boling and the California Historical Artillery Society (CHAS). Ms. Boling is the Corresponding Secretary and Membership Clerk for CHAS. I approached her for an interview, to which she graciously replied with a resounding “Yes!” Hopefully, this will help us all understand how a 21st century Standardbred becomes a warhorse, along with a lot more information.

MG: Judith–welcome to the virtual pages of Emerging Civil War. Thank you for your time. Let’s just jump right in–How did you come to this “calling” of both saving animals and portraying the 3rdU.S. Field Artillery?

JB: The field artillery impression came first. We were originally a battery for the Union artillery in National Civil War Association (NCWA).

Our horse rescue started in the 1980s when one of our members, Dennis Winfrey, went to a reenactment to ascertain how Civil War-era harness was used to move the cannon on the battlefield. Instead of horses, however, he found pickup trucks, and manpower moving the cannon. He proposed purchasing the tack and using his pair of draft horses to do the job. This worked well, but the draft horses didn’t meet the U.S. Army specifications for artillery horses of the 1860s. It occurred to Dennis that American Standardbreds best met those specifications.

Standardbreds are used for harness racing in trotting and pacing forms. Dennis started looking around for Standardbreds to go with the one he already owned. He discovered he could acquire retired harness racing horses for good prices, sometimes at no charge. While talking to the owners, he learned that the horses we didn’t buy could be sold by the pound for dog food. He also invested in the tack, as that purchased for the draft horses was too large.

After the new horses, and drivers, were trained, Dennis began thinking bigger and started acquiring more horses, and tack. Our herd is much smaller now, but at one time, we had more than 30 horses—sufficient to field four teams and cannon, as well as the ambulance, a wagon, and outriders.

MG: What kind of horse is best for pulling a cannon in the 21stcentury?

JB: We found that American Standardbreds are the most like the artillery horses specified by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. These are also the horses most used by the Amish to pull their carts.

MG: Pulling a cannon in tandem with other horses is quite a bit different than pulling a sulky. How do you help these horses make the switch?

JB: As more horses were acquired, CHAS developed a training program. Since the 1990s, we have used the following program:

Initially, new horses are introduced to the herd by placing them in a pasture adjacent to that of the free-range herd. After a period of time, the gates are opened and the newcomers are allowed to integrate themselves into the herd, allowing them to acclimate into the pecking order. Horse herds maintain a definite hierarchy.

Once they’ve sorted themselves, we watch them to ascertain the best pairings for the team. We then take a new horse to an event and let it stand on the picket line, allowing it to accustom itself to the people and noises of a reenactment. If the horse is not bothered with battlefield noises, we will then take it to stand at the edge of the battlefield. With that test passed, the horse is inserted into a team of veteran horses as the off, or non-ridden, horse of the middle pair of a six-up team. They may eventually be moved to the left side and tried with a rider.

Our training program is designed to minimize the anxiety the horse may have with this new experience. It is also safe for the other horses, and the drivers.

MG: How do you teach a horse to withstand cannon fire? Firing of any type?

JB: We have found that keeping the team moving during the first firings on the battlefield helps with any anxiety the horses may feel. By keeping them occupied with movement and maintaining pace with their teammates, the cannon and rifle firing isn’t as frightening. Over time, the noise becomes second nature. The horses stand still, gunfire all around them, with few reactions. Some of the horses have been known to fall asleep on the battlefield until called upon to move again.

Not all horses are cut out to be army horses. Some simply never become accustomed to the noise and commotion around them. We give a horse a year to become acclimated. If, after that period of time, the horse is not able to remain calm, we no longer put it on a team and look for a new home where it can live out its life in an environment better suited to its demeanor. Many of these horses are sweet and make good saddle stock. They simply are not cut out for an army life.

MG: How did the decision to include the Ambulance Corps in your impression come about?

JB: Dennis Winfrey found an ambulance for sale, and purchased it. Once it was repaired, Dennis started driving it at events. The ambulance impression includes long line driving a team of horses as well as ambulance attendants who take the “injured” off the battlefield to a field hospital.

MG: Umm–pardon my ignorance, but what is “long line driving?”

JB: Long line driving is when you drive a team from the driver’s box on a conveyance— think stagecoach or wagon.

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At this point, I will let readers contemplate what has been discussed. We will continue the interview with Part 2. Personally, I am going to to send a bag of Purina Apple & Oats flavored horse treats (in the green bag) to Ms. Gumdrop, a “level-headed mare” that pulls the ambulance.

Ms. Gumdrop

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