18 May 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch is confined to barracks for again writing about ‘Nothing To Do With Rowing’.
Following my attendance at the Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Association Parade and Memorial Service in London’s Hyde Park on 12 May, my host, John Walker, Chairman of the Oxford and District Royal Dragoon Guards Association, took me for a drink in the NCOs’ and WOs’ Mess of Hyde Park Barracks.
Hyde Park Barracks (sometimes known as Knightsbridge Barracks) is home to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. The Household Cavalry consists of two regiments, armoured reconnaissance and mounted ceremonial, with both units manned equally by soldiers from the Life Guards and the Blues & Royals. They provide mounted ceremonial troops for all state occasions. The barracks houses 500 soldiers, 120 families and 250 horses. The site has been in such use since 1795, but the present, rather brutalist structure was completed in 1970. The ornate portico pictured above is all that remains of the barracks that stood between 1880 and 1967.
Most horses used by the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment are ‘Irish Draft Cross’, all measure above sixteen hands (i.e. above five-foot four inches from the ground to top of the shoulders), are gelded to make them better-behaved and easier to control, and are ‘Cavalry Black’ in colour. The horses must be capable of carrying a rider with heavy ceremonial kit for long periods so the smaller modern sport horse is rejected in favour of a robust, more old-fashioned type, with feet ‘as big as pizzas’ and ‘a leg in each corner’. However, good temperament is as important as strength.
It was charming to observe the young soldiers with their horses. Typically, on recruitment, the troopers are ordinary urban youths with absolutely no experience of anything equine, but the army soon makes them into good horsemen with an obvious affection for their mounts, talking like proud parents about the different personalities of their charges.
My visit ended on a sad note, as I came across the little memorial to the horses killed in the Hyde Park bombings 37 years ago. On 20 July 1982, Irish terrorists exploded 11 kg of gelignite packed with 14 kg of nails in Hyde Park as members of the Blues and Royals were passing on their way to the Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards Parade. Four men and seven horses died. One wounded survivor suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and committed suicide in 2012. There is a memorial to the men at the spot where the bomb was detonated and the Household Cavalry still salute it every time they pass. A famous photograph of the dead horses, innocents in the political and military conflict, shocked the world, perhaps more so than if a picture of the slain men had been published.