A riding adventure through American cavalry history

11 June, 2006

by Mark Gochman

The other day I watched an amazing film, "Horses of Gettysburg", the previously untold story of the over 70,000 horses and mules that participated in the Civil War battle that was a turning point in American History. It's a captivating film not only for history buffs, but also for horse lovers.

As I watched incredible scenes of riders galloping into position, cavalry charges, and private moments on horseback, I wanted to learn more about these riders, where they came from, and how they learned to ride in period tack, at high speed, and sometimes amid gunfire.

Mona Raymond and Midnight.
Spectacular Events

What I learned is that all across the country, from Fort Tejon north of Los Angeles, to Southeast Ohio, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the hobby of period horseback re-enacting attracts thousands of participants, and many more spectators. From Civil War re-enactments, to the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn - re-enacted every year outside Hardin, Montana - there are opportunities this summer and fall to see incredible displays of horsemanship and learn about and experience this piece of our history.

Participating in re-enacting

Colonel Darrell Markijohn, an attorney by day, is with the 6th Ohio Cavalry, a well regarded Civil War re-enacting unit. A former trail rider, roper and fox hunter, he took up the hobby of Civil War re-enacting 13 years ago. "It's definitely one of the best things I've ever done," Markijohn told me, "it really gets the blood up." Like many others who participate, he stressed the camaraderie that everyone participating feels.

Markijohn is also the commanding officer of the United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, an East Coast umbrella organization, and a great source of information for people interested in viewing or participating in re-enactments.

Taking the field at Gettysburg.
Photo: Joanne Sease

A sabre melee.
Photo: Carl Staub

Ann Moss and Uncle Remus, Victorian Ladies Aside.

Troopers heading out to "Morgan's Raid."

I asked Markijohn about the demanding riding I had seen in "Horses of Gettysburg", and he told me that while riding in re-enactments could sometimes be "aggressive, with two lines riding at each other carrying sabers," he stressed that one of the main things for horse and rider is endurance. "We sometimes do 10 to 15 miles per day, according to the standard cavalry manual, altering gaits between walking and trotting, and sometimes getting off and walking alongside the horses, as a way to cover the most ground."

The 6th Ohio recently did a demonstration at West Point Military Academy with 65 horses in the field from over 10 states and Canada.

"I often tell folks that I have done a lot of things on my horse, but cavalry re-enacting is by far the most exciting thing I do," Markijohn said. "I am sure my horses would all agree."

A Family Hobby

Markijohn explained that families frequently traveled with Civil War units, and for many re-enacting is a family hobby.

Women have the option of wearing hoop skirts and recreating period women's dress, or wearing uniforms and participating in the cavalry, either recreating the documented cases of women who masqueraded as men to participate in the Civil War, or doing what is referred to in the re-enacting world as a "male impression." Children also can participate in period dress.

From All Riding Disciplines

Laurie Post, a former three day eventer, started doing re-enactments out of Fort Tejon, north of Los Angeles, which has an in-house Dragoon Unit that recreates the US Cavalry in the period before the Civil War. Like Markijohn, she is now in the 6th Ohio, as is her daughter. "What I really enjoy is the camaraderie, the excitement and the friendship", she told me. "The history is so fascinating, and it's a huge rush riding into a battlefield."

Mona Raymond owns her own hunter/jumper barn in Stamford, Connecticut and has been teaching riding for 25 years. She got into re-enacting through her husband, and found out that she loved it. "It's a whole different way of riding, and it's great to be doing something really fun and different from the competition of showing," she said.

She participates as a re-enactor with the Second US Cavalry, Company H, an equestrian living history group made up of riders primarily from the Mid-Atlantic States.

She enjoys participating in numerous re-enactments throughout the year, noting that people come from all over the world to see the larger re-enactments, such as Gettysburg. She especially enjoys the camaraderie of "tacticals," where re-enactors gear up and go on adventures without an audience, sleeping in the woods, and reliving the life of soldiers.

Members of the Victorian Ladies Aside, an organization dedicated to preserving side saddle riding (known correctly as "riding aside") also attend Civil War re-enactments and promote side saddle riding while wearing period dress. Anne Moss, a VLA member, is currently the only woman in the US to have won her silver medal from the US Dressage Association while riding aside.

Attend a Cavalry School

So where does one go to have a vacation and learn the skills of cavalry riding? One place is the US Cavalry School in Twist, Washington. John Doran started the school after riding in the film, "The Postman" with Kevin Costner. The friends he made during the filming lamented that there weren't places to just cut loose and gallop the way they had in the film.

He invited his new friends the following Fourth of July to his ranch, where they staged a big cavalry ride. When people started asking about learning to ride the way the cavalry did, he decided to open the school.

His goal is to "put on as close to historically accurate a cavalry school as we can." He told me that he has had several husband and wife teams come study and ride at the school. "The only requirement is that people bring a love of horses and history," he told me.