Sunday, May 12, 2013

Horses in Fiction: Firsthand Cavalry Experience

As I hinted awhile back, I have been hoping to line up some guests for this series who have interesting horse experiences different from my own. At Norwescon this year I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with Jim Franklin, a retired U.S. Cavalry officer, the only person I know who has actually used horses on military maneuvers in combat. Major Franklin is a great guy with fascinating stories, and he has graciously consented to share a few with us.

In his words:
"First let me start with a little background. My experience with horses began very young, growing up on a farm and then in the mountains with a girlfriend in my teenage years who owned horses, so I spent much of my youth riding through woods both during the day and night in the Oregon Coast Range and Cascades. Also, as a Boy Scout, I had used pack animals several times in the mountains. So when the opportunity arose to participate in military operations with horses, and having joined the Army as a Cavalry Scout, who would not jump at the chance?
The two biggest periods I used horses involved a period in the mid-1980s, participating in Central America, dealing with both drug cartels and rebel groups. The second was in Bosnia in 1996-1997.
In Central America, we used horses for several important reasons. At first we were given jeeps and dirt bikes, but those require fuel and maintenance, a large support network that takes up valuable space on supply runs, don’t like many of the “roads”, and make a ton of noise, announcing to people where you are for miles. The solution was to use local wranglers to supply horses, which can eat local food, are used to the heat and humidity, make very little noise going up a “road” (read trail!), and give you an extra pair of eyes and ears, which hear much better than you do.
When volunteers were asked for, I jumped at the chance and was the platoon leader for a 25-40 man mounted “cavalry” platoon, which mostly used the horses to get where we needed to and fight dismounted. No sabers (darn it), just M-16s and M1911 Colt Pistols. It took much effort to train people who had never been on horses before and we had about a 50% washout rate, both in people and horses. It’s funny, because just as many people who cannot handle horses, horses cannot handle people. When we started it was a rude surprise to both sides in how effectively we could move and cover an area, and to the “rebel” forces, because they expected noisy Americans to just move loudly and on roads.
There were many logistical problems, from keeping the horses healthy to teaching people how to take care of equipment. Horse tack is not in the military system, so private contractors had to provide the gear, and much of it had to be returned because it was cheap stuff. We had to design and build a special saddlebag to carry the radios because U.S. Military radios don’t ride well on a person’s back.
The funniest thing that happened was that most of our horses were used to being stopped when any firearms were discharged. Most had been desensitized to the loud noise, but I made a big mistake once. While chasing a group I decided to shoot my pistol from the horse at speed. Well, she decides when the shot goes off that she is supposed to be stopped. So, she stopped. I did not. Cartwheel over her head and down the side of the slope. It was funny, much later.
Point of order, horses don’t like the sound of supersonic bullets; something about the wiz of the bullet before you hear the discharge makes them nervous.
In Bosnia--rather, in the Hungarian and Croatian areas that had to be patrolled--the Hungarians use horses to patrol the borders between them and Croatia, and given that the conflict almost brought Hungary into it, the military has a real good handle on the border. Also, the Hungarians have a history of Horse Archers so the country is covered with horse ranches and excellent riders. In my job as the National Support Element Force Protection OIC (sounds important does it not?) I had several opportunities to ride with the Hungarian border units, on both sides of the Hungarian-Croatian border.
James Franklin
Major, US Cavalry (Retired)

Thank you, Jim, for taking the time to share with us a little of the real world of horses in the military. And thank you for your service. It is much appreciated.


Sara A. Mueller said...

Wow! Thank you SO much, Sue, for posting this! And thank you Major Franklin for sharing it. I've had people who didn't believe me when I said that *some* horses can be acclimatized to shooting (there will always be feather-brains). Next time I hear it, I'll point the skeptics here.

Unknown said...

What a gift this post is, and this whole series of posts. I once wrote a first draft of an epic fantasy chapter with bicycles as placeholders for the horses, so that in revision I wouldn't miss any of the spots where I was writing out of ignorance. To the extent that I can start from a better position now, it's largely because of the generosity of folks like you.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sara, we shot a lot at home when I was a kid, and only one of our horses minded it after a while. But then, my dad rescued poor Lady from a fox farm, where they used to just walk out and shoot a horse whenever they needed fox food. So she had a good reason for never liking the noise. Most of the time the horses would either run off to some other end of the pasture, or, if they were locked in the corral, run around for a couple of minutes, then settle down and get over it. They would need work, though, if we had ever intended to try and shoot off of them. The Civil War (and other)recreators used horses in their mock battles all the time, and one of the requirements to "jine the cavalry" there is that the horses must pass their tests (including the loud noise/cannon test) to prove they won't run amok and kill someone.

claredeming said...

Thanks for this, Sue and Major Franklin! Lots of good stuff to think about.

Morgen Rich said...

Sue and Major Franklin,

Thank you for posting this piece and sharing your stories. It really made me wonder about medieval war horses and the number of them required to "weed out" the ones who would have reacted poorly not just to the sounds of battle, but also the sight of swinging weapons and shields.

Food for thought!


Terri Bruce said...

OMG - this was an amazing post! Thank you to Sue and Major Franklin for sharing this info.! I had no idea the U.S. Army still uses horses for anything other than ceremonial uses. Cool!!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Morgen and Terri, I'm so glad it was helpful! Jim will be tickled, too.