Former Household Cavalry soldier and BFBS writer, James Wharton, recounts a heart-warming reunion with a retired military friend and uncovers the remarkable story of a retreat for some of Britain's most celebrated horses.
Sixteen years ago, I was an 18-year-old fresh-faced trooper in the Blues and Royals.
Back then, horses were a part of my everyday life. I would get up at 5.30am each morning and ride up and down the streets of London before most people were even out of bed. It was a remarkable experience, trotting up the King's Road or along Embankment with my mates and their mounts.
Every few days, I would carry out The Queen's Life Guard, an important role the Household Cavalry has conducted for centuries. It meant putting on state kit, turning out immaculately with a beautifully groomed horse and riding the two or so miles through the capital, past Buckingham Palace and down The Mall to Horse Guards – the site of crucial ceremonial occasions like Trooping The Colour.
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The horses were both our friends and colleagues. In one breath, they were vital instruments of our trade. In another, their individual personalities provided us with companionship; comradery like this, between horses and soldiers, has been a constant in the military for hundreds of years.
I fondly remember the standout figures in our troop. Quorum, the old lady of the yard; William, one of the tallest horses I ever saw. We understood their characters as quickly as we did our duties.
One of the more popular horses, not just in Two Troop to which I belonged, but the whole Household Cavalry, was a majestic horse called Empress.
True to her name, she commanded the attention of onlookers, not least those of us who knew her well and had grown used to her regal nature as a cavalry horse.
This week, all these years on, I was reunited with her at a unique retirement home for working horses. More than a decade had passed since I last saw her after her career in the British Army far outlasted my own. In July, at the grand old age of 23, she was finally retired. The pageantry of London's Summer months and the early morning winter road rides through the hustling West End are now a thing of her past.
Today she lives with The Horse Trust – an organisation with a rich and royal history of looking after some of the most well-known horses in Britain's history.
The Horse Trust had lost its way, CEO Jeanette Allen told me, before she took hold of the charity's reins in 2010. On a bright Autumn morning at the trust's Speen site in Buckinghamshire, Jeanette walked me through her role in the organisation. She said:
"Of the 100 horses that were here on my first day there were only 30 you could have classified as having worked outside of sports. It was a bit of a 'if you can't look after it anymore, we'll take it' mentality. And that didn't feel right. So, we thought we can't be taking these kinds of ponies on anymore. It's just not the appropriate."
Jeanette's vision for the charity was based on the significant work it had done a century earlier when horses were used as instruments of war. Back then, soldiers and their war-wearied equine companions returned from France changed creatures. The Horse Trust, or as it was known back then, The Home of Rest for Horses, was there to help.
Jeanette talked me through some of the myths around horses and the Great War:
"Come the First World War," she said, "four of our horses and what we called our loan stud were sold to the Army. This was part of that massive roundup that the Army did at the beginning of the war to get more horses.
"At the end of World War One, we started seeing more retirements of military horses coming in. The standout is a horse called San Toy."
Jeanette explained that the portrayal of what happened to horses in the fiction-based story of War Horse, the book of which was written by Michael Morpurgo, was in her opinion, a little different to what actually happened with the Army's horses at the end of World War One. She said:
"[War Horse] gave everyone the impression they were all shot for meat and that the officer's horses came home, and Troopers' horses didn't.
"The Army graded all horses into four categories: young and fit; older and fit; young or older but could still do something, and finally, horses that should be euthanised on medical grounds."
I was struck by how much passion Jeanette held for the history she was talking me through. The matters she described happened over a century ago, yet her summary of how horses were saved and how some, sadly, were not, felt as if she were talking about something that happened just the other week. It was infectious.
"And San Toy is a great example of that because he came back [aged] 27 and he was still brought home because he was fit. And actually, he wasn't an officer's horse. He had served in the Boer War, so he'd been shipped all the way to South Africa, fought in a war, came back, was shipped over to the Western Front, came back and then he was, because he was too old to work for the army, put up for public auction and a group of ladies heard his story, bought him, and paid for his retirement to us."
According to legend, San Toy never missed a single day's duty in the Boer War and The Great War. He lived out his days at the charity until passing away in 1922.
Another resident who enjoyed a long retirement at The Horse Trust was Sefton, the iconic survivor of the 1982 IRA bombing at Hyde Park. Four soldiers and seven horses were killed in the terrorist attack, and a further seven soldiers from the band of the Royal Green Jackets died in a separate incident at Regents Park that same day. Remarkably, The Horse Trust's current Director of Equine Care, Mark Avison, was a 17-year-old Trooper in the Household Cavalry on the day of the bombings. He recalled those events and the memories he keeps:
"The bomb went off and everyone knew something had happened. The first horse down the ramp to Sick Lines was Echo, and because I was down there I stayed with Echo all the way through the operation."
The 'Sick Lines' Mark referred to is the area of the barracks in Knightsbridge where unwell horses go to be treated. On that day, it was far from the usual. The horses Mark helped care for were horrifically disfigured. Mark added:
"With Sefton, we all knew him because he had a reputation of biting people. We used to call him Le Shark because he looked like one, and he was known for biting people.
"And so, Sefton came to The Horse Trust. I then came back into contact with him again when he left here [in 1993] to go to Melton Mowbray, where, unfortunately, they were going to put him to sleep. I was based there, and the night before he was due to be euthanatised, me and my wife went to see him and gave him loads of carrots. And he was a different animal. He was a lot more friendly, and he wasn't biting. Over the years, his behaviour changed because when he was at The Home of Rest here at Speen, the public saw him, and he thought, you know, this is not a bad life.
"So yes, we put him to sleep, and I buried him. In a way it's a complete full circle for me to be working here today … we still call Sefton's Barn after him."
Mark went on to have an illustrious career, rising to the rank of Major and holding the coveted appointment of Riding Master– one of the most prestigious jobs in the whole of the Household Division. Indeed, during my time in the Blues and Royals, Captain Avison, as he was back then, was a familiar face to me. Over the years, I was on the receiving end of more than one of his ticking offs. Today, it is difficult not to feel anything but admiration for a man who joined the Army at the very bottom of the ladder and rose to a place that frequently put him in the awareness of all sorts of important people, not least the Queen.
The Horse Trust, like Empress, holds a close link with the Royal Family. The Queen has, according to Jeanette, "visited in the past but in a private capacity." Her daughter, Princess Anne, is the charity's patron. As Mark told me, she can see her former charger, a Household Cavalry horse called Elizabeth, whenever she visits thanks to the trust counting her as one of their residents. It is another neat little full-circle the organisation can be proud of.
But what exactly qualifies a horse to retire in the plush surroundings of The Horse Trust's impressive facilities?
Jeanette said the rules are simple: "They have to be taxpayer's horses." She outlined that The Horse Trust's residents are typically drawn from four areas: The Household Cavalry, The King's Troop, the Police and the Royal Mews. Yet, when a horse comes up for retirement, they do not come with a cheque or pension the team can draw on for financial support. Instead, it is looked at from the perspective of "relieving the taxpayer of the burden." A stark reminder that to the penny counters of Whitehall, these creatures are first and foremost working animals. And here is where the charity's core purpose sits. Was it not for The Horse Trust, the horses would either be sold on or euthanised.
"We aim to give them at least two years here," Mark told me as he walked me around their site, "And the site's getting larger. We have just acquired that field over there, but to fence it alone will cost six figures."
The expense to manage such an estate should come as no surprise. The trust's facility in the Chiltern Hill's is impressive. And with the number of horses they care for approaching 140, all that land and all those animals need looking after not just physically but also financially. Jeanette outlined how people can support the charity:
"We are open five days a week now, so people can visit our horses and walk around the stables. There is a museum and a nice cafe.
"But a key was to support our work is to sponsor a horse. Obviously some of our horses aren't going to be here for that many years and some people will finish their sponsorship when that horse passes away, but most people are happy to have it passed over to a similar horse, perhaps another police or trumpeter's horse."
The Horse Trust's website currently provides the opportunity for supporters to sponsor over 20 different horses, with sponsorship costing as little as £3 per month. The really nice thing about taking out sponsorship of one of these beautiful animals is that the trust goes out of its way for you to get to know the horse you are supporting. You can even arrange to pay a visit in person. It is a great way to donate to a charity that has, for more than 130 years, stepped in and helped horses, sometimes when nobody else would.
At the end of my visit, Mark and Jeanette arranged for me to reunite with Empress. I was nervous about seeing her again after so long. The last time we crossed paths would have been Prince William's royal wedding in 2011. That day, Empress was ridden by an officer, and I rode a lovely horse called Jimmy.
While waiting at the stables, Mark talked me through the other things the trust gets involved with. He pointed out a memorial unveiled by Princess Anne that marked the centenary of the Great War – perhaps the period most detrimental to horses in all of history. While admiring the bronze, I heard the unmistakable heavy hoofs of the horse I used to know so well, and soon enough, from around a corner, the giant that is Empress appeared.
"She looks so big," I remarked to Mark, forgetting for a moment that I only ever really knew giant horses. Since I left the Army, I have not had much to do with the animals at all. Momentarily, I felt like one of those tourists who look on at the cavalry's horses in amazement all the time.
Empress stopped right in front of me. I said hello and rubbed her jowl. For a few moments, we stared at each other, and I wondered if she remembered me. Mark said there was no evidence to prove horses placed people or other horses in the long term. Still, just for a second, it seemed she looked right into my eyes. Perhaps she thought to herself, yeah … I know who you are. It was quite an emotional experience.
And then, just like that, she began to fuss, so it was decided she should be taken back to her stables. I patted her on the neck, wished her well, and she was led away. I'll probably never get the chance to see her again.
Tradition is a word that has been tarnished lately by ideas of outdated perspectives. I, too, have grappled with notions of tradition, particularly where some of the British Army's rich history is concerned.
Yet, within the fabric of this charity exists a set of values, the ontology of which lie in tradition. These values are as evident today as they were during the First World War, and it's what makes The Horse Trust so distinctive.