Fort Riley soldiers keep the spirit of the cavalry alive in competition

By Corene Brisendine

This past week, horses and riders from across the country gathered in the place where the cavalry started — Fort Riley — for the National Cavalry Competition.The 11th-annual event involves about 100 civilian re-enactors and soldiers assigned to mounted color guards from Fort Riley; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Huachuca, Ariz., who want to keep the cavalry spirit alive.

Events took place Wednesday through Saturday and included combat horsemanship, military horsemanship, mounted pistol and saber and military field jumping.

On Thursday, riders competed in the mounted pistol competition. The event requires a rider to negotiate the horse around poles, jump obstacles and shoot balloons throughout the course.

1st Sgt. John Wear of Fort Riley is the leader of his team and also the organizer for this year’s event. Wear said there are three levels of riders, with Level 1 being the beginner level and Level 3 being the most advanced.

The rider’s level of skill dictated the difficulty of the obstacle course.

One of the riders in the competition, Sgt. Jordan Wright, entered the Army as a grunt, an infantry soldier. Wright said he came to Fort Riley from Germany just to ride horses.

After three years, Wright is not only a Level-3 rider, but also a member of the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard.

“I was terrible when I first started, but I just stuck with it,” Wright said. “Now, I am happy did.”

Wear agreed that Wright was a bad rider at first. He said Wright holds the record with the color guard for most times falling off a horse in one day: 17 falls.

But Wear said the color guard actually prefers training riders who have no experience because military horsemanship is different from both English and Western saddle riding.

“You have to sit vertically for one thing,” Wear said. “Also, you have to learn how to ride bareback.”

Wear said learning to ride bareback was necessary because there are many times when a rider’s feet could get knocked out of the stirrups.

“We spend a lot of time with no feet in the stirrups,” Wear said. “Whether that’s because we are operating very close together as a color guard and the horse next to me takes a step forward thereby knocking my foot out of the stirrup. . . or if I’m not seated deep enough into my saddle when we do a cavalry charge, where the horse is approaching 60 miles an hour, and I blow my stirrups because I wasn’t prepared for that horse to take off.”

While Wear is one of the few full-time staff, the riders can only join the unit for 18 to 24 months.

At the end of their “special duty” with the team, the riders must return to their original unit and spend a period of time working their “real jobs” before seeking to return to the horses.

Wear said the unit does not train with the rest of the military units; its soldiers spend the entire year training and preparing for this single event.

He said training for the national competition is similar to the rest of the military training for deployments either on Fort Riley or Fort Polk. While other soldiers train to fight in combat, his soldiers walk, trot, canter, jump, and charge in order to perform well at this annual competition.

Last year, Fort Riley took home 29 out of 41 ribbons, including first place overall at Level 3 and Grand National Champion.

At Fort Carson, Colo., Master Sgt. Shawn Farnsworth, trainer for the Carson unit, said they have been using the horses and training for more than just the competition. He said they have been using the horses as part of their wounded warrior program, for special needs kids and training for Special Forces, whose soldiers need to have a wide range of skills and who might go into remote places where horses would be a practical means of transportation.

Because of the large number of requests for Special Forces training, Farnsworth said he has been sharing that training information with Wear in hopes of starting similar programs at Fort Riley.

“They are our biggest rivals, but also our biggest friends,” Farnsworth said of Fort Riley’s unit.

While the majority of the riders and horses are active duty military, there are also civilians competing as well. Wear said that about 20 of the 77 competitors at this year’s competition are civilians. He said that those were mostly retired military, though.

The yearly competition returns to the Flint Hills region every three years. Next year, the competition will be at Fort Carson, Colo.

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