Monday, 22 June 2009

Waterloo - Bles is bombproof?!

Last weekend was my first Napoleonic re-enactment. And the first for my Gelders horse (Bles) as well. I had an absolute blast and am extremely impressed with Bles.

Bles has experience with jousting and skill-at-arms shows, as well as with medieval re-enactment with a small amount of artillery. But nothing like a noisy battlefield with loud bangs and smoke pretty much everywhere.

So I honestly did not know what to expect. I did know that worst case, his response could be something like:
* Stand in place and not go anywhere
* One wild turn for the rear before I could stop him
* Backing away from scary stuff
* Some bucking that I was confident that I could ride out (he bucks pretty slowly...)

To my amazement none of the above happened. On Friday Bles enthusiastically loaded on the truck for our long trek to Waterloo - first to pick up Albert's Belgian warmblood horse Kidnapper, then on into Belgium. Due to huge traffic jams it took us 7 hours to make the 300km journey. Both horses were pretty relaxed throughout.

Once arrived on the camp site, we tied them to a picket line, and judging from their behaviour, they were obviously best of friends already. This wouldn't change over the weekend, the two horses entirely content with each other's presence. Being tied up to a picket line was another first for Bles, so we had a safety boundary around in case he did disagree with the idea. This proved pretty much unnecessary, but did allow us to give them a small area to roam during the first night (when there still was grass...)

The next day the event kicked off for real. The first few times when people were doing musket drills nearby, I kept a close eye on Bles. His response never was much more then perking an ear or glancing over his shoulder. Cannon fire was a bit more startling, but only just.

We did some formation work together, where I was once again reminded just how much slower his natural walk is than that of e.g. Kidnapper. On a few occasions I did manage to get him to pick up his walking pace, but in a lot of cases we did have to trot to keep up. Definitely something for me and Bles to work on. Other than that, Bles seemed to be enjoying himself, he really does enjoy 'playing with other horses' - be it formation work, playing tag, or melee.

The first battle was due on Saturday evening. We set off to Plancenoit, a 30 minutes (rough estimate) ride that was pleasantly interspersed by a friendly offer of ice cream from a local vendor, before we arrived on the field of battle to await the French. Manoeuvring around the field, scouting for the French and generally keeping the horses moving, we finally saw them marching onto the field.

(photo courtesy Phil Thomason)

Initially I was a bit concerned about the relative small size of the field, and therefore our proximity to the guns and musketry. The battle started off with us parked on the right flank, about 20~30 metres off the artillery. As we were hugely outnumbered by the opposing cavalry we would have to seek our opportunities to gain an advantage, anything else would be plain silly. (8 allied cavalry versus reportedly 60+ french - all the hired horses had gone to the French, only horse owners on the allied side. We counted about 35 hostile cavalry. So either the reported 60+ french cavalry was an overstatement, or a substantial part never made it to the battlefield; probably a bit of both)

The initial volleys sure were loud enough, the blast easily felt, and the roar cascading off the surrounding hills. Bles took it entirely in stride, as if a veteran of many campaigns. Off to my side, Kidnapper seemed to calm down, now that the game was on. We were waiting for a good while, until the French cavalry came charging forward on the other flank, to hit the infantry and artillery to their front. Orders were given, and we rode out, wheeled left and charged across, straight into the flank of the French cavalry. Maybe it was the gun powder smoke hiding us, but apparently they never saw us coming. Their charge thrown into disarray, a brief melee followed before we retired behind the infantry.

This game of hide-and-seek continued for the better part of the battle, with Bles remaining well forward and enthusiastic. Nothing really seemed to bother him much, be it enemy cavalry charging us, guns firing in close succession, or volleys of musketry a few yards off.

We had one hairy moment where Bles proved absolutely sterling. While we were trying to quickly manoeuvre out of the way of a cuirassier charge, Bles slipped and fell. I kept my leg out from under him, kicked my other leg free of the stirrup and landed next to Bles. I hurriedly got up, and Bles had already beat me to it. He didn't budge,patiently standing there waiting for me to take the reins, check him out and remount. This in one of the most chaotic environments, where it would have been entirely natural for him to take off with the other horses that were milling about. And after that interlude, his appetite for more fun seemed entirely unspoilt. I'm not sure what I have done to deserve such loyalty, but I feel well blessed with my horse.

On Sunday, the battle was on a different field, next to Hougoumont. On this field they had allowed the crop to grow waist-high to get the authentic picture for the battle. Whilst visually very attractive, it is quite a challenge to the horses. Not wanting to risk injury to the horses, we had decided to stick to walk and slow trots only, no cantering.

Bles took quite easily to walking in the high grass, I guess his "all-terrain" hooves help a lot there. From a natural follower, in this environment he lef the other horses until they also felt at ease. Other than that, his response to the battle was much the same as the previous day. He seemed to really enjoy himself, and I had to rein him in several times to stop him from taking off at the canter. The terrain making for very hard work. and as the end of the battle drew closer, exhaustion was starting to tell with the horses of both sides. We fell kept behind the infantry to give our horses to rest. Less forward than previously, Bles still responded well enough.

Overall, I am very pleased with Bles. More importantly, he seems to actually enjoy the experience of a Napoleonic battle. He is about a bombproof as any horse I could have wished for. This definitely is something we'll be doing a lot more of, now.

Photos to follow shortly.

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