Times Argus Article 10/16/10

At Norwich University, the cavalry tradition continues

Norwich University senior Michael DelBello performs a backflip off a horse during cavalry training at the school. Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

By Linda Freeman Correspondent – Published: October 17, 2010

The evening news of October 6 covered the story of Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller, U.S. Army, receiving posthumously the Medal of Honor for his heroism and valor in combat in Afghanistan.

On January 25, 2008, SSG Miller lost his life while providing cover for his men and drawing fire from the enemy saving his fellow soldiers and 15 local Afghan National Army soldiers. As the story unfolded, photos were flashed on the television screen. One showed Miller, a Special Forces weapons sergeant, on horseback in Afghanistan.

When you think of cavalry, do you think John Wayne, the Civil War or the Wild West? Do you trace the history back to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table or do you go even farther to the use of chariots in Central Asia, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon?

Perhaps you think of early Olympic equestrian teams made up primarily of military riders or you jump directly to the modern-day Army in which cav troops are made up of highly mobile, technical machinery?

Heavy cavalry operates in track vehicles while light cavalry refers to humvees, towed artillery, unmanned surveillance drones and ground sensors, among others.

The mission of cavalry, however, has not changed from the days of soldiers mounted on horseback: Reconnaissance, surveillance, sometimes movement to contact and minimal offensive operations.

Doug Stanton, author of “Horse Soldiers, The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan,” (Scribner 2009) surprised many readers with new stories of special forces and their modern day use of horses in warfare.

At Norwich University in Northfield, the legacy of cavalry is being kept alive. Begun in 1909, cavalry training reached its zenith prior to World War II when every Norwich cadet rode. Horses were stabled and training took place on the grounds of Norwich. Today the Cavalry Troop has returned and is growing, with as many as 30 entering freshmen each year.

At Breckenridge Farm, a picturesque horse farm in Plainfield, Judi Whipple brings her vast background and abilities in teaching and riding to literally and figuratively hold the reins of the cavalry program.

Recognizing the need for horses in the military, Whipple said: “Horses can get to places where tanks can’t. Special forces in Afghanistan find the only way to get up into the terrain is on horseback.”

Here at home, however, the cavalry program is designed to teach the cadets basic riding technique (few have ever been on a horse before), how to manage and care for horses and how to ride drills or precision work. Each year, depending on the interests of the cadets, a variety of equine activities are offered: dressage, Western (including barrel racing), jumping and vaulting.

Individual efforts combine to become a functioning unit. Cadets learn ceremonial drills, ride in parades, perform musical rides and participate as both individuals and a team in intercollegiate activities.

On a rainy October afternoon, two horse trailers pulled onto the field at Norwich and unloaded the four horses to be used for training that day. Cadets in ACUs and combat boots saddled and bridled their mounts. With part of the company nearby doing jumping jacks and in the midst of cacophony from shouting,drilling and running cadets all around, the horses and riders ignored the distractions, endured the 52-degree wet weather, and went on with their riding lessons.

Cadet Master Sergeant Ryan Thompson, a junior from Rockland, Mass., said: “The most rewarding experience is to come here knowing nothing and this year I’m the NCO teaching candidates, which helps to hone my leadership skills.”

Cadet Captain Josh Szakal, a senior from Westbrook, Conn., had never ridden before either. Both Thompson and Szakal had “checked the box” for Calvary Troop.

“Freshman year we were getting thrown right at it,” Szakal said. “It’s my turn now to get more interested and show people what it’s all about.”

You’ve seen circus riders perform tricks, or vault, on the backs of their horses. Thompson and Szakal vault. When he first watched vaulting, Szakal said: “That’s cool but it’s not for me. Now I love it and wish I had done it sooner.”

Thompson, too, saw vaulting in a spring cavalry demonstration and thought it looked like fun.

“Vaulting requires some degree of athleticism,” he said.

Yes, athleticism and mental discipline are required to mount at the trot, to kneel, stand, or even perform a headstand while your horse is trotting or cantering or to maneuver an “around the world” with your horse in constant motion.

“We’re a lot closer group than some of the companies,” Thompson said. “We’re what stands out as different. We represent the legacy of horsemanship that Norwich holds.”

Leadership is a word used frequently.

“Riding a well-trained horse demonstrates that there is no better leadership experience than effectively communicating with a non-verbal animal,” Thompson said.

Whipple speaks with respect of the military.

“They are a different breed of people. They are dedicated. They defend what we enjoy every single day.”

Their dedication, discipline, rigorous training and attention to detail make the cadets coachable. They learn quickly and bravely undertake challenges that might take others far longer to embrace. Most of all, they put their leadership training to the test while working with each other and with their equine partners.

“There is nothing like putting a student on the back of a 1,200-pound animal that can’t talk to teach benevolent leadership,” Whipple said.

Whipple has a dream: the cavalry’s return to the Norwich campus with facilities to stable horses as well as an indoor arena for training and competition. Once again Norwich would become the premier cavalry training facility in the United States.

Add to the relevancy of horses in today’s military the need for training for mounted law enforcement officers and the opportunities for intercollegiate competition and it is easy to envision the scope of Whipple’s dream which merely acts as a catalyst for other possibilities.

For example, Thompson and Szakal suggest that the Veteran’s Cemetery in Randolph would be an idea setting to involve horses, particularly the “Riderless Horse” during military funerals. Cadets or civilian students who own their own horses could bring them to college as the Norwich riding program grows. Norwich could provide an even more impressive ceremonial presence for parades and events.

Might this dream become a reality? With Whipple’s enthusiasm and expertise guiding the dedicated Cadets and their horses, anything is possible.

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