I spent the summers of 1956 and 1957 (ages seven and eight) on the cattle ranch of friends of my mother in Idaho. There I learned how to ride and shoot. I also came to learn about cow ponies. Cow ponies were smart, professional and did most of the actual work… you just pointed them at what cattle you wanted to keep away from the fence repairs and they wouldn’t let it within five feet of the fence.
My next experience was at the other end of the scale. After I’d been in Rhodesia (1976) for a month I enlisted in the British South Africa Police — the national police force of Rhodesia. At the time the Bush War was waging. This would be my second war.
Just as the British East India Company had settled India, Rhodesia was settled by the British South Africa Company, which had its own police force (BSAP). The BSAP had a history much like the Texas Rangers on the American frontier. Its men had both police and military responsibilities.
During much of the Bush War, I would be with the Police Anti-Terrorist Units (PATU) in the bush going after hot and cold running terrorists armed and trained by the Russians, East Germans and Cubans from across the border in Mozambique.
The good news was that the BSAP was highly professional and very effective in the bush. The bad news was that at the training base in Salisbury (Morris Depot) they still had horses.
After the Matabele and the Shona wars of the late 1890s, the majority of BSAP officers rode one-man patrols covering a couple of hundred square miles each. Camels were tried briefly in the early 1900s because they were more resistant to tropical diseases that were prevalent in some of the areas at the time; but horses won out in the end. The last of the horse patrols ran in the early 1950s when Land Rovers became standard issue. Of course, there were some used as an honor guard for parades and such: In the BSAP the idea of horses died hard.
Another reason for keeping horses at Morris Depot was that at the South end of the country, which was a bit drier and more wide-open veldt, the BSAP had a (horse) “Mounted Infantry Unit.”
Keep in mind though, that these were mounted infantry, not cavalry, though they could fight from the saddle if required. (The Rhodesian Army also had the Grey’s Scouts, again, a mounted infantry unit. Both units were a mixture of black and white troops.)
But Depot had nothing to do with the MIU.
One of the last pockets of “British Army mentality” was that all of us Regulars in the BSAP went through the same training. And there was the British attitude that “a gentleman must ride…”
By early 1977 the equitation course would be disbanded and the horses would either be sent to MIU or returned to the donors. But it was still going when I was going through the Academy. Though because of the massive expansion during the war, only half of the trainees could be taught equitation — this, unfortunately, included me.
Rhodesia had been in a bush war since 1966. In 1975 Mozambique next door fell to the Marxists. This meant that Soviet and East German advisors and Cuban troops were on our Eastern border. But the equitation course, essentially British Army Riding School, was still taking some of our training time although we would be on foot in the bush, within a few months, tracking terrs.
The big letdown for me was that these weren’t bright cow ponies: They were big, beautiful, dumb, and hostile ceremonial animals. To make it worse, they were more in control than we were. What’s more, British saddles offered less stability and control than American “Western” saddles.
I don’t know if you are familiar with a snaffle bit (pictured above). It is a bit that’s hinged in the middle. So instead of giving the horse commands, you are giving him “suggestions…” The idea was to prevent trainees from ruining the horse’s mouth by doing something dumb like kicking the horse to go while not being aware that they were reining him in at the same time. Horses liked snaffle bits just fine.
Part of equitation training in “riding school” sort of looked like rodeo grounds — there was a lot of soft dirt. Then they’d move you out into an open area with a circular path of one-mile length. Some days we’d be ordered to cross our stirrups over our saddles. So if a horse got the idea to “take off at the high port…” not only was stopping it problematic, but simply remaining in the saddle was hard as well. This was a dumb-ass way to risk broken bones and such for youngsters. (I was 27. The next oldest 21 and the rest mostly 17-18.)
In traditional British Army Riding School fashion, trainees were responsible for the actions of their mounts. Just as trainees were not allowed to move while in formation, neither were the horses. That last was a problem, especially when you were “Standing to Horse” by holding the reins — reins that the horse could freely ignore. If your mount bit someone you would be in trouble: if your mount bit you… well then, that was your problem. You could “slap” your horse along his neck with the back of your arm; but if you “punched” him you were in trouble.
Some horses sleep standing up; some sleep lying down; and some trade-off. An early bay mount of mine named “Cloud” was a total pig. It slept lying down every night, so I had to be arriving earlier in the morning than most to groom him.
Grooming in a military unit is more than just brushing animals down. You picked out any grunge built up in the hoof areas. You took a clean wet sponge and wiped it around the eyes, the mouth, and nose. Then you lifted its tail and “cleaned the dock…” (If you were really annoyed with your mount, you might reverse the order of cleaning, but the horse would noticeably protest.) Grooming was no big deal: it was just like cleaning a 1300 lb baby that might try to bite or kick you.
The first part of each day’s session involved “PT with your mount.” So you’d rapidly mount and dismount. This came with the caveat that in training you were never allowed to use stirrups to mount: You had to swing into saddle. Only then you could put the front of your boots in the stirrups. Then, you’d raise your rump in the saddle and spin around hoping that the horse didn’t move. You’d squat and charge back and forth under your horse really hoping that it didn’t move.
The shocker was when we got the order to mount from the RIGHT side of the animal. Horses were trained to accept rider mounting from the LEFT side, and a great many will take umbrage if you try the wrong side. But we had our orders. It wasn’t therefore a big surprise that the first thing that the BSAP did when they got the donated horses (all of the horses were donated) was to train them to accept riders from either side.
During mounted PT in the riding school, the ever-present danger was that some icehole on the road right outside the high fences might honk his horn for some reason, and then all the horses would start bucking — except Cloud: Cloud’s thing was to twist and “sunfish” and then try to fall on me.
I could continue, but I think that you get the gist. I may have become a better rider by surviving all that, but it sure as hell sucked all the fun out of horseback riding for me. And I couldn’t wait to get out into the bush and do some proper soldiering.
This article was written by Yankee Papa. It was originally published in December 2019.