A few months ago, I put the idea to the lovely community of photographers in Small and Supercharged that we should organise a meet up. We've been chatting, discussing, advising and laughing together for several months, in the brilliant group set up for country and equine small business owners by Rhea Freeman. With members from all around the country, in fact across the world, it was proving to be a bit of a challenge to get everyone together.
After much discussion and planning a group of equine photographers braved the early start, battled rush hour in London and met up for a fun filled day of horses. It was a tricky one to organise with our geographic diversity having a part to play, London doesn't seem to obvious choice for horses but it seemed like the easiest place for us all to get too. The original plan was to follow the Cavalry on their route from Knightsbridge down to Horse Guards Parade in Central London, however Katie Mortimer organised a fantastic day out for us all at the Kings Troop, near Woolwish Arsenal. Anyone who knows me, knows that for a fact I love everything to do with the history, ceremony and pagency of both the Kings Troop and the Cavalry.
I met the lovely Sian Smith slightly later than planned - who would have thought there could be so many trains leaving Reading station at 6.30am on a Monday morning, all heading to Paddinton - I had a 50/50 chance of getting in the right train to meet Sian, who had travelled down from Cardiff. Well, I got it wrong, but she was only two minutes behind me when we got to Paddington. Our group grew in numbers as Louise Groom and Anna Kemp met us at Woolwish Arsenal Station - we bumped in to Beth Hicks and Sophie Callahan (the only S&S member that I had previously met!) and we somehow made it to the barracks (after consulting with Google Maps!) to meet Katie Mortimer, Katie Neat and Samantha Frogley. We were introduced to Sgt Leighton, or Lisa, who we all owe a massive thank you to for giving us our time to take us around the barracks.
With just a few minutes to spare, we watched the troop of horses return from their 90 minute excercise around London; with the "Trumpeter" leading the way, stopping traffic and communicating with all the riders as they battle through the communters all eager to get to work. They are such an amazing sight, the hooves clattering on the tarmac, tourists stopping to snap away and even day-to-day workers taking a moment to admire the spectacle.
Each rider will lead two horses from their horse during excercise. The horses of the Kings Troop, unlike the Household Cavalry, vary greatly in colour: from bright bay to black. The Kings Troops fire guns during royal anniversaries, birthdays, state occassions and the black horses are used for state funerals; however each rider is a fully trained member of the Army and will have seen action or assisted in "missions" either abroad or at home. Whilst the Cavalry are on their annual holiday and training camp in Norfolk, the Kings Troop take over their role of the Queen's Lifeguard at Horse Guards.
The new barracks at Woolwich has been home to the Kings Troop for 5 years - purpose built to be as self-suffiecnet as possible, even the stable and horses waste is recycled to produce energy! Over 40 tonnes of waste is produced by the 100+ horses stabled at Woolwich, a week, so something needed to be done with it all! The biomass boiler produced energy to heat the water and provide heating. With an onsite cafe (which fuelled everyone up with toast, cake and tea quite nicely!) a bar and of course everything that is needed to keep the troop operational: the gun room, pharmacy, forge, a saddler and tailors workshop. The new barracks are bright and airy and also includes a large indoor riding school.
In comparison to the Cavalry, the Kings Troop is largely made up of female recruits. As I mentioned before, it's easy to forget that they have all been trained to fight and protect their country within the Army. One thing that was particularly striking was the relationship that each of them had with their horses. Towards the end of the morning, Sgt Leighton organised for three of the troop to have some photographs with their horses. They jumped at the chance and took great pride in showing off their favourite mounts to us.
The first area of the barracks we visited, whilst some of the horses were tied up outside enjoying the warm spring sun on their backs, was the feedroom. I'm sure the horses will tell you that is the most imporant room in the stables! The horses are fed based on their individual weight and workload, as laid out on the whiteboards. The stables are laid out in "blocks" with a feedroom and tack room for each section. Dodson and Horell create a special feedmix for the horses.
Each horse has their own stall, with the larger horses and the officers horses in stables. If some of the older horses are feeling stiff or one is recovering from injury they will also move in to a stable where needed. Above each horses stall you will see a name plate - the name corresponds to the first letter of the Officer's surname that they passed out under. Sgt Leighton also pointed out to us all that some of the horses did not have their manes hogged - that meant they were still in training or were yet to be passed out. Once a horse is deemed ready to take on it's ceremonial duty, it will have it's manes hogged - a tradition which can be traced back to before the world wars.
The Kings Troop were very generous in letting us walk around and snap away at the day to day life behind the scenes. It was a privellige to be able to witness something that not many people get to see, and even more so to be able to document and photograph everything in front of us. The horses loved the attention and there were a few very nosey ones who loved sticking their noses out for the camera or posing beautifully!
It's not all ceremonial work for the horses and riders - they get to have a go at many different disciplines, including: eventing, racing and showjumping with special competitions set up across the British Army, as well as the opportunity to compete in both affiliated and unaffiliated competitions. These horses are trained to pull guns so naturally can get strong and forward so are regularly schooled as well as being excercised each morning to keep their lifestyles varied and to improve their way of going.
I don't think I've ever seen a group of people get so excited about going in to a tack room - we spent quite a while their - it was interesting to take a step back and watch everyone snapping away. Despite all being in the same places at the same time, the variety and styles of each photographers images were different. I love the sense of support and community between us all. There are varying levels of ability, ages and backgrounds but everyone worked together to help eachother out, answer questions and enjoy a good old chat! A previous discussion between us all highlighted the fact that for some reason many trades are unwillling to support eachother, I guess a fear of giving something away to your competitor. But not with us - that's what I love about the S&S gang, everyone is open, supportive and we often collabroate on projects together. Many of us have experienced a shaded reception from many experience equine photographers who did not want to chat or work together on anything, I think that's a massive shame and ultimately, it's them who will be missing out!
Commeradery and teamwork was evident within the barracks too. Despite having a serious role to play within the Army, it was lovely to see the typical "desk ornaments" scattered throughout the shelves and tables: decorated mannequins, tiaras on the dust extractors and silly memos and personal objects placed amongsth the tools on benches.
With the largest forge in the British Army, the Kings Troop can shoe over 70 horses a week. When each soldier leaves the Troop, they will have a transferable skill or qualitifcation to see them through civillian life. Be it as a farrier, a riding instructor or a master saddler to name a few professions.
The saddlers room produces every peice of tack that the horses wear, everything from their leather halters to the harnesses that will pull the guns. A team of 6 horses pulls each gun so the tack is meticulously checked and cleaned after each use. It's one areas that could bring the troop to a standstill, that can stop a ceremony going ahead - if the leather were to snap or break then there could be serious injury to the horses, soldiers or the public. Every piece of leather is hand stitched - until recently the tack was held under the official secrets act. The leather harnesses are lined with a metal thread to ensure they can carry the strain of each gun and increases the tonneage the leather can withstand.
The tailors room was a burst with colour: ribbon, gold thread, buttons - a real treasure trove! With jackets laid out to be altered, broken garments to fix there was so much to photograph! Sgt Leighton shared her stories and knowledge with us all throughout the day and answered all of our questions. It was an amazing experience and we are all so greatful to Katie for organising the opportunity but a massive thank you again must go to Lisa for putting up with us all!
We enjoyed a little longer at the barracks after being shown around - we experimented with Katie's flash gun set up as well as taking our own portraits of the horses and riders as well as watching some of the horses being schooled in the indoor arena.
Before we left we visited one last room - the gun room, I can't remember it's technical name, was it the Armoury? There was so much to take in and absorb: the sense of national pride, the history. Every one of the guns has seen first world war action, some during the battle of the Somme. It's incredible to think of the history surrounding the machines and the iconic and tragic scenes they were part of. With many of the parts required to keep the guns functional to fire during the state ocassions no longer available, it's down to the Mechanical Engineers (REME) to keep them working and to remain part of our contries heritage for years to come. In the day and age that we live in, I think it is so important to keep these traditions going for younger generations. If only history was this interesting at school, I would have paid much more attention. Everyone that spoke to us at the Kings Troop had a story to share, be it about the regiment's history, their role or their job - a sense of pride was evident from every one of them.
We packed so much in to our morning at the Kings Troop - I have so many more tales and interesting facts I could share with you all, but in fear of how long this post already is, I'll leave you with just one more! Sian is a mounted Police Officer, she asked how the Kings Troop kept all of their ropes looking so white and clean. She said that they've tried using bleach and various other cleaning products, and the answer apparently is, to just paint them white when they get dirty and touch the specs up with Tippex!
A massive thank you to Sgt Leighton and her team for allowing us in and being so generous and welcoming. It was a real treat to be able to experience the behind the scenes at the barracks. It was so lovely to meet everybody too - I will fill you in on the rest of the trip to London in a subsequent post!