The Horse’s Role in British Ceremonial Life

The World Says Goodbye to Diana, Princess of Wales
The eyes of the whole world were on London on Saturday, September 6th, 1997, as Diana, Princess of Wales, took her final journey through the streets of London from her home at Kensington Palace to the funeral in Westminster Abbey. Her coffin was placed atop a gun carriage and drawn by six bay horses of the Royal Horse Artillery, their riders resplendent in their traditional uniforms. Mounted Metropolitan Police outriders flanking the funeral cortege completed the picture.

Following the funeral, the subject of the Royal Horse Artillery came up on rec.equestrian, a newsgroup concerned with all things equestrian. Several posters noticed that some of the horses seemed restless and “chafing at the bit”. We debated the possible reasons for this and the following day I recieved an email from Dee Hinson, in London, England. She was unable to post to rec.eq herself and asked me to repost her email to me. The information she includes is very interesting and I have included it here for you to read.

“I was very interested to read the discussion about the horses in the Princess of Wales’ funeral cortege. As my husband is a former senior equitation instructor and lead driver in The King’s Troop , Royal Horse Artillery, (not tank, as someone mentioned) as well as a British Horse Society Instructor, perhaps a little elaboration is in order.

The riderless horses are called “hand horses’ and indeed have a single hand rein to the rider. They are ridden in a universal bit called a Port Mouth Reversable , or PMR, a form of pelham, not a double bridle. Ideally the horses should all be in full draft, that is, facing forward with their head and neck in a straight line with their body. They are in every sense ” working” horses and during the summer months perform their regimental musical drive at least three times a week at horse shows and displays ,travelling regularly all around the country. These drives are performed at full gallop and the horses are very very fit indeed. In fact, if you should stroke one, your hand would literally bounce off again, as they are very round,hard and muscled, hard as nails, tough as an old boot and hugely loved by their regiment .They are exercised on the streets of London and Wormwood Scrubs, a huge grassy expanse, for at least 90 minutes every day from their barracks in north London, and their riders are encouraged to event and show jump them regularly in off hours.

Being extremely fit, you must appreciate that it is difficult mentally for them to walk at such an extraordinary pace for four miles. After all, their services have not been called upon for several years. There is no question of them being “untrained” for the job; they are Army horses and as such fully trained to the demands of regular ceremonial and military duties in full public show, but these duties are always at trot., and having ridden one, I can vouch for their willingness to “go forward” ! Quite properly, the unique formal demands of the funeral temporarily supercede the demands of the horse;this goes for man and horse ! They were not grain-fed the night before,when they actually bivouacked (camped) in Kensington Gardens, and were hard exercised early on Saturday morning. My husband was in fact deeply exasperated by the wheel driver pulling his hand horse’s head over to the left too much, and repeatedly said that he ought to let out his hand rein and the curb chain should have been slackened off a link !

By the way, there were two equitation NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) walking by the side of the team to ensure all went to order; they can be distinguished by the gold spur high on their right sleeve. The team was black, but as they had just come off their summer camp they were slightly sunburned and hence looked dark bay. The black team is known as “F Sub-Section”.

Since posting the above on rec.equestrian, I have received emails from several people thanking me for passing it on.

Horses in British Ceremonial Life
For many centuries, horses have been an essential part of the majesty surrounding the throne. They were long used in warfare and even after their replacement in battle by tanks and armored personnel carriers, there are still regiments who have close ties and connections with horses. Nowadays, a team of handsome horses pulling a carriage add splendor to Royal and State occasions that no motorcade can equal.

Horses can be seen all around London. Every morning when the Queen is in residence at Buckingham Palace, horsemen of the Household Cavalry leave Wellington Barracks and head for Horse Guards Parade. The Household Cavalry consists of two regiments that can be distinguished by their uniforms. The Life Guards have white plumes, red tunics (or cloaks in winter) and white sheepskins over their saddles and the Royal Horse Guards have red plumes, black bearskin saddle covers and dark blue tunics or cloaks.

Collectively, they are known as the Queen’s Life Guard and each morning at 11 a.m. they ride out to mount the guard at Whitehall, and to provide sentries throughout the day till 4 p.m. This tradition stems from the time when the ruling sovereign actually lived in Whitehall Palace and Horse Guards Arch was the entrance. Later, when St. James Park was closed to the public, Horse Guards Arch still provided the only access to St. James Palace, which was the official residence of the Sovereign from 1699 to 1762 and to Buckingham Palace, the official residence from 1762 onwards. Even when Trafalgar Square and the Mall presented such an impressive approach to Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria decreed that Horse Guards Arch would remain the official entrance and it does so to this day.

The Royal Mews
The stables at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace were designed in 1825 by Nash and are both elegant and functional. For many years they housed Hanoverians, first imported by George I. Then there were the “Creams”, used at all official occasions and bred at Hampton Court until the 1920s. For two years they were replaced by black stallions, but nowadays the Mews house greys and bays.

Some of the bays are Gelderlanders, strong horses with placid temparaments, from Holland. There are also Cleveland Bays, handsome horses with roots in Yorkshire and resembling the Yorkshire Coach Horse that was popular in Edwardian times.

The greys are the famous Windsor Greys, which are not any specific breed but are selected for their appearance and temperament. Eight Windsor Greys harnessed in pairs drew the magnificent Gold State Coach at the Queen’s Coronation and other ceremonial events, such as the Royal Wedding. They also draw the Royal carriage at Ascot Races each year.

Horses from the Royal Mews carry the Lord Mayor of London in his fairy-tale like carriage through the streets and also carry ambassadors and other dignitaries and perform at any State occasion.

For a photographic tour of the Royal Mews, please check the Royal Mews link in the “Related Articles” box at the top of the page.

The Metropolitan Mounted Police
The importance of mounted police in a metropolitan area can be seen in cities around the world. Even a modern city such as Houston, where I now live, has mounted police officers and I have seen them keeping watch over public parades, outdoor concerts and on the streets, giving out parking tickets. They excel in crowd control, where the rider has the advantage of being in a higher vantage point, traffic control and general patrolling. The horses of London’s Metropolitan Police are trained at Imber Court and give exciting displays, including jumping through fire and paper hoops, at major horse shows throughout the summer. Details of their rigorous training can be found at the Metropolitan Police Web site.

For more information on Mounted Police throughout the world, please check the links in the “Related Articles” area in the left column of this page.

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