Walking through fire, barking dogs, blue and red flashing lights of a police car, gunfire and firecrackers. All these distractions were encountered by horses and their cavalry riders during a Mounted Police Confidence Training Workshop over Easter weekend, given by Bill Richey, a retired mounted police officer, the founder and CEO of National Mounted Police Services, training riders world-wide.
Crowd control including how to protect and extract a person from a crowd was another skill taught by Richey (who is based in Georgia). He rides herd on crowds at Mobile, AL’s Mardi Gras.
“He’s really amazing,” said workshop host, Laura Hamilton of Roxbury, VT’s VT Firefly Farm. Since 2015, Hamilton has been Norwich University’s Cavalry riding instructor at her farm. She provides the cavalry’s mounts, and has prepared riders to ride in campus parades alongside a marching band. She provided seven mounts (Fell ponies) for this workshop, plus a four-year-old, which was led through obstacles.
Hamilton, along with a few of her students plus 13 NU cavalry students took part.
Cavalry has been part of NU’s heritage for 200 years. Norwich’s Vermont 1st Cavalry fought in the Civil War. From 1948 to 1967, Norwich trained armored units, including tanks and armed personnel. In 2004, they re-formed their cavalry.
Richey trains civilians and police alike, systematically teaching riders to de-spook their horses, by delving into horse psychology. “Maybe they’ve been out on a trail, and a dog comes at them and they spook. If you tense up when the dog comes running at you, the horse gets scared,” said Hamilton. “Be in the moment, concentrate on what you’re doing, not the dog, to deal with stressful situations. Essentially you are the lead mare. If you, the lead mare, freaks about the dog, then, yes, the horse will freak out.”
Through Richey’s classroom lectures, “We learned how the horse sees things and how that’s different from how we see things; the horse sees in two dimensions and we see in three. They have side focal lenses — they see things flat, at different levels. We may think they’re trying to evade things when they are trying to actually see it,” when they move sideways.
Riding her Morgan, UVM-Kitala, Hamilton lined up in the arena with others as Richey drove up in a police cruiser with flashing lights that contained a German Shepherd trained to rush up to horses as though attacking and retreat. Kitala skittered around, as though afraid. “What she really wanted to do was to go check it out, as soon as I released the reins. She was upset I was holding her back. I had to allow her to go closer to see this thing.”
In this instance, a horse may bunch up, wanting to rear. “When your horse gets upset and tense, your response is to pull the reins back and get the attention back with you. You have to think more like the horse. On the top of horse’s list are one: am I safe; two: where’s the food and three: where’s the herd,” said Hamilton.
To meet the workshop’s intensity, “We had a couple things going for us. The Fell ponies are pretty steady,” and military students are very fit. “Riding comes easier because they’re fit, and they’re being trained in the military to stay calm, mentally fit, to be focused in stressful situations. Training them to connect with the horse, where the horse is also a weapon — a big, powerful, animal, traditionally used in invasions, dangerous at both ends — they are finding that connection, that peace with the horse. It’s really beautiful.”
Day one was rough, working on drills and mounted maneuvers, first single file then two by two and side-by-side, using herd psychology. “If one horse is really brave, one horse follows the other, controlling the pace, learning how to maneuver,” said Hamilton, things she teaches in dressage. “As instructors, we teach pace, and directional control. Walking a certain distance behind another horse, and beside them during drill, taught them to regulate their speed really quickly, stuff I’ve been trying to find an easy way to teach for years.”
Day two was Obstacles — walking over plywood two-by-twos and two by fours, moving onto PVC tubes and pool noodles placed at different heights. By clinic’s end, horses were walking through fire, barking dogs and firecrackers.
Cadet Master Sergeant Francis Smith, a NU junior will join the private sector to study manufacturing of firearms upon graduating Norwich.
A two-year student of Hamilton’s, he joined the cavalry as a Norwich student hailing from Colorado, where horseback riding is key. “It’s one of the best decisions I could have made during my career here and I have never looked back.”
“Laura’s amazing, she’s been an absolute blessing to us – can’t give higher praise,” agree Smith and Cadet Second Lieutenant Alyssa Pinard, 22, a senior who learned of the cavalry a week before joining the student body.
The cavalry’s rule of thumb is, ‘Is what you are asking of the horse fair and appropriate, and are they capable.’ If you can’t ask them to do something, modify it, explained Smith.
“The basic thing Richey instilled in us to have better command of the horse’s body and mind, no matter whether leaves were rustling, or smoke bombs were going off or fire breaking out.” He added, “The horse is a beast of burden under you; you are not the beast of burden.”
To walk through fire, Richey poured gasoline on the arena floor in a line or series of circles. “The fire is there to get them used to optical illusions. It’s not a brick barrier, post, or hard-to-traverse, but they have to trust the rider to go through it,” said Smith, whose mount Glory crossed multiple lines of fire.
By day three, “Both horses and riders get more and more tired, forgetting to be nervous; part of it was exhaustion, you go over the obstacles without resistance, just want to get it over with,” said Pinard. Her mount Esther eschewed the flames initially. “I actually hopped off, and Karen Swanson, Bill Richey’s senior instructor who helps teach the clinics, got on to give me a rest.” After graduating from Norwich, she’s joining the Air Force, as a missile and nuclear officer.
For Smith, the workshop gave him, “A level of confidence, a higher sense of satisfaction knowing that the horse listens to me, rather than spooks and runs. I now know that I can command a better connection with the horse.”