The poignant message on a tombstone outside the HQ of The King’s Troop at Woolwich Army barracks says it all: ‘Here lies an old horse called Wonder, his extraordinary age being forty years old when he died. This stone was placed August 1, 1808,’ writes Melissa Kite for the UK’s Daily Mail.
Of course, that was back in the days when horses really went to war. One can only imagine the battles Wonder courageously survived.
But the fact that Wonder lived to such a ripe old age — in human years, well over 100 — is testament to the fact that even when horses were used on battlefields, the British Army valued and looked after them.
Today, the four-legged members of The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery housed at Woolwich don’t have to charge at the enemy, thank goodness.
They perform only ceremonial duties, such as Trooping The Colour, state funerals and military tattoos. The worst they have to cope with is galloping through theatrical smoke at the Horse Of The Year show.
What’s more, they live in a luxurious state-of-the-art equestrian training facility, with an army of grooms tending to their every need. They enjoy 24-hour care, with a dedicated vet and farrier on site.
Special bond: Gunner Amy Stevens and Highfield (H.P), who is retiring
They are exercised daily in the arena or hacked out in nearby Charlton Park. Once a year they go on a four-week summer holiday to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, where they spend time out at grass.
And yet, despite this, animal rights activists launched a withering attack on the MoD last month, accusing the Army of being cruel to horses.
Campaigners from Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) claimed the military should not be allowed to keep any animals at all.
They seized on figures showing the MoD had put down 109 of their horses in the past six years as evidence of neglect.
Anyone with experience of horses — like me — will tell you that figure is actually quite modest considering the MoD has 500 horses in its care at any one time at Woolwich, where The King’s Troop is stationed, and at Knightsbridge, where the Household Cavalry is based.
Activists singled out figures showing that horses were put down because they fell lame or suffered from colic. They suggested the MoD did not try hard enough to re-home horses who could no longer work.
Again, any horse owner will know that colic and leg injuries in equines are all too often serious enough to warrant euthanasia and that it is sometimes the only option. However, this didn’t stop the activists.
The artillery fire a 41 Gun Royal Salute in Green Park in honour of Her Majesty The Queen’s 87th birthday
Mimi Bekhechi, director of Peta, complained: ‘The Ministry of Defence has no business using horses, dogs or any other animals. They are not soldiers, nor are they pieces of military kit to be used and then decommissioned at the end of their involuntary service.
‘While painless euthanasia is the only humane option for sick or wounded animals, a combat zone is no place for them.’
But no horses are used in combat now. What the animal rights lobby appear to be campaigning for, therefore, is an end to the role of horses at official events. This is a worrying development.
For anyone who feels proud to watch the magnificent spectacle of our gleaming military horses on parade at Buckingham Palace or on The Mall, it seems unthinkable.
What’s more, anyone who visits the Woolwich base can see that they are incredibly well cared for.
The King’s Troop horses pictured in 1952, leading King George VI’s through wet London streets
By any standards, The King’s Troop headquarters is an amazing facility. Everywhere you look, soldiers are sweeping, scrubbing and polishing.
The horses are in peak condition. Their coats are glossy, manes neatly trimmed.
If they actually bothered to visit, the naysayers would see that the horses look as happy as can be.
As he shows me round the stable blocks, Captain Nick Watson explains that the soldiers become incredibly attached to the animals in their care. They put years of painstaking work into training them.
Almost all are bought as four-year-olds, mostly from Ireland, and stay in service until 18. Every effort is then made to find them civilian homes where they can kick up their heels.
But military chiefs readily admit it can be tricky finding the right home. It is not just a simple case of turning them loose in a field or handing them over to the first person who comes through the door. These are working animals who are used to an interesting and varied life.
On parade, the unit’s soldiers drive a team of six of the horses with each pulling World War I field gun.
They perform in front of massive crowds and so it is imperative that they stay calm and perform their duties unflustered.
Those coming up to retirement age include 18-year-old Doughnut, a quiet bay mare who nuzzles me gently when I pet her over her stable door.
A typical ‘war horse’, according to her handlers, she never makes a fuss. She featured in last year’s Trooping The Colour and will take part in the Queen’s birthday parade again in June this year — one last time, perhaps.
Like the rest of the troop, Doughnut is smaller than the huge black horses of the Household Cavalry. The King’s Troop features some horses who are just over 15 hands (5ft), so they are lighter to manoeuvre. ‘She’s awesome,’ says Sgt Andrew Higson, who rode Doughnut at the last British Military Tournament to take place at Earl’s Court, in 2013.
‘She’s had more outings than people have had hot dinners. She’s worth her weight in gold. Anyone new who can’t ride when they come here, we put them on her and she looks after them.’
They will miss her terribly, but want her to go to a home where she won’t be overworked.
‘She has had a full career,’ says Sgt Kathryn Charters. ‘So, we want her to take it easy. Our vet will stipulate that she is rehomed only to someone who will not do too much with her, perhaps just lightly hack her.’
Another horse they will be sad to lose when he retires is Junior, also 18. As he gallops and bucks around the arena, you can see how incredibly fit he still is for his age, perhaps living up to his name. Junior has performed in all the Queen’s birthday parades, the Windsor Horse Show, the British Military Tattoo, the Horse Of The Year Show and the Olympia Horse Show. Like Doughnut, he featured in last year’s Trooping The Colour and will again this year.
Whenever a horse is deemed unfit to work, it goes through a process called ‘casting’, whereby it is found a new home. The military never needs to advertise because there are always willing takers.
The horses are sold in a negotiation that involves the potential new owner putting in a bid. Only if it is reasonable is it accepted.
Anyone who does want to rehome a ‘war horse’ has to go through a strict process in which they must trial ride them and sign a contract stipulating what they may do with them.
Highfield, or H. P. for short, a handsome bay mare with a distinctive stripe down her face, is due for rehoming in the next six months.
‘She’s got so many letters in her folder from people who want her,’ says Sgt Charters.
One horse who was successfully retired recently is Bert, or Mr Twister, to give him his formal title. A 15-year-old black charger who had been with the troop since 2005, he was the lead horse in Baroness Thatcher’s funeral procession.
As thousands lined the streets of London to watch the former prime minister’s funeral cortege in 2013, Bert stayed steady as a rock as he walked in front of the gun carriage.
Sadly, he had started to suffer from osteoarthritis, so his duties had to come to an end. Due to his medical issues, Bert needed an expert home, so in February he was taken to the Horse Trust for retired horses in Princes Risborough, Bucks. Any suggestion that the military should be prevented from having horses seems ludicrous when you think how much care and attention is paid to their needs at every stage of their life, right into their old age.
And when you consider what would be lost if Britain did not have ceremonial horses, as well as the traditional skills that would disappear, it seems little short of an outrage that an animal welfare group would call for these horses to lose their jobs.
There is clearly a special bond between the horses and their handlers. ‘They eat before us, they get seen to before we do anything for ourselves. They have a better life than most horses,’ says one soldier.
Little wonder, therefore, that some of the soldiers end up taking the older horses home themselves.
A few years ago, Sgt Charters re-homed a horse called Moose back to her family home in Devon, where her mother runs a livery yard. She is now 22 and enjoying giving pony rides to children as part of the Riding For The Disabled scheme.
Such stories are a tribute to the bond between horses and soldiers. And as the tombstones to veteran steeds testify, war horses are never incidental or forgotten.
They may not fight for their country these days, but they still do Britain an amazing service by putting on the pageantry for which we are world-renowned.
It seems so sad to think that if the animal rights lobby get their way such a key part of our heritage could be lost. It’s enough to make old Wonder turn in his grave.
The Musical Drive of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery