Household Cavalry Band musician. Picture: Adam Blackmore-Heal

British Army Uniforms: What Are They Wearing?

Household Cavalry Band musician. Picture: Adam Blackmore-Heal

The British Army is famed worldwide for its professionalism on and off the battlefield. 

In ceremonial terms, the military's various uniforms are rightly thought of as some of the world's most stylish garments. 

Steeped in history, each has purpose and, often, fascinating stories as to how and why they appear in our Armed Forces' wardrobe. 

Here, we take a closer look at the State Dress of the Drum Horse and its rider in the Band of the Household Cavalry, one of the oldest uniform's in the British Army.

Drum Horse and Rider 2019.
Picture: Adam Blackmore-Heal.

What Is The Band Of The Household Cavalry?

Formed in 2014 following an amalgamation of The Life Guards and The Blues and Royals' bands, The Band of the Household Cavalry is the only mounted band in the Armed Forces. And thanks to its more than 60 full-time musicians, the largest regular military band in the UK.

"The Band" takes its place in the regimental family of the Household Cavalry, which traces its history as far back as 1660 and the reformation of the monarchy.

Today, The Band performs on all significant ceremonial occasions. It is famed for their striking gold coats, the marvel of their ability to play music while commanding horses and for the unmistakably conspicuous sight of their leading performer, the Drum Horse and his rider.

HM Queen meeting the Drum Horse Perseus in 2017 at Hyde Park Barracks.
HM Queen meeting the Drum Horse Perseus in 2017 at Hyde Park Barracks.

The Uniform

It is because of that key historical moment in the 17th century that the beautiful gold-coat uniforms worn by The Band exist.

In 1660, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Richard Browne, purchased the uniform purposely for the restoration of King Charles II following his almost decade-long exile on the continent.

The Band's State Dress is, therefore, the oldest continually worn uniform in the British Army. It is only worn on occasions when a senior member of the Royal Family is present or the incumbent Lord Mayor of London.

Drum Horse with numbers
Picture: Adam Blackmore-Heal.

Here are the most essential elements of the dress:

1.     Blue Jockey Cap

As its name suggests, the headdress worn by all band members when wearing State Dress is styled upon a jockey's cap.

2.     Gold Coat

The coat worn by members of The Band on "state occasions" is the stunning Gold Coat.

The iconic garment includes real gold-covered metal on its velvet cuffs, coat body and ball buttons. In the centre sits the Royal cipher of Queen Elizabeth II.

3.     Silver Drums

When The Band performs on state occasions, such as The Trooping of the Colour, it is led by two musicians riding Shire horses.

The musicians are each playing kettledrums, known more formally as the Timpani. They must ride their horses using reins attracted to their stirrups.

In 1805, King George III personally gifted a pair of solid silver kettledrums to the Royal Horse Guards (who became the Blues and Royals in 1969) as "testimony to their honourable and military conduct on all occasions." Now more than 200 years old, those drums are still used annually on the Queen's Birthday Parade.

The drums themselves are priceless. In fact, they are so valuable, they are held in a specially designated store in the centre of Hyde Park Barracks, Knightsbridge, under a special lock and key with a senior non-commissioned officer assigned to the equipment's protection.

4.     Drum Banner

Like the solid-silver drums they attach to, the drum banners are a high-valued Drum Horse's kit item. They are only brought out from their "Full Dress Store" for actual state occasions, meaning The Band must use cloth in their place for rehearsal events or practice.

5.     The Drum Horse

According to the Household Cavalry Museum and Shop, standing at least 17 Hands, the drum horses are "Traditionally from one of the heavy horse breeds, either Shire or Clydesdale crosses," and usually are "bought as four- or five-year-olds."

In a 2016 Facebook post, the museum also said that:

"They must also have quiet temperaments so their riders can control them merely by means of 'foot reins' which allow the drummer to play his drums without reigns getting in the way; the reins are attached from the horses bit to the drummer's stirrups so that he can steer the horse with his feet."

The most famous drum horse of recent times was Cicero, whom, ahead of his career as one of history's best-known horses, was used to pull milk floats in his native Scotland. That was until the Queen saw him while passing by and bought him, changing his destiny for the rest of his life.

6.     Bridle (Or "Black Kit")

The horse "black kit" are the leather straps, bridles, brasses, and other pieces of furniture that serve as necessary horse-riding equipment. Many of these items and parts can trace their origins back to when men rode into battle on horses, meaning that alongside their objective necessity in allowing a rider to command a horse properly, they also bear a historical significance.

One such item on the horse's black kit is the "Head Brass", a heavy brass strap that affixes to the top of the bridle. It would offer protection to the horse's skull from an oncoming strike by a swordsman in battle.

A soldier must clean every inch of the black kit for horse welfare purposes and to maintain the highest standards of cleanliness on parade in front of senior members of the Royal Family and the onlooking world.

7.     Jack Boots

The jackboots worn by soldiers in the Household Cavalry are, on the one hand, remarkably identifiable and, if prepared correctly, the shiniest part of the soldier's uniform while on parade.

But on the other hand, like the items described within the black kit, they were essential elements of a Cavalryman's protection in battle during historical moments such as the Battle of Waterloo.

When fitted correctly, which all boots are by the regiment's in-house Saddler's Shop, the stiff, waxed leather rises roughly one fist's length above the rider's knee. This would offer protection from impacts which included cavalry charges or hand-to-hand combat with swords.

From start to finish, it can take a soldier more than 12 hours to prepare their jackboots for ceremonial parades.

8.     Beard

Fixed to the leather underside of the horse's bridle, the beard is an extravagant piece of furniture that hangs below the horse's chest, providing prominence to the horse and his rider. Traditionally made of authentic horsehair, the soldier is responsible for keeping the beard unknotted and well brushed.

Cover image: Adam Blackmore-Heal.