Easy-peasy, I thought. Just sit on the horse, reach down with right hand and pull sabre from scabbard. Hmm…
A problem manifests itself straight away: there’s another dragoon sat on a horse to my left, in what they hilariously call, according to the 1801 Drill Manual*, ‘loose order’. I say hilariously because in the cavalry of that time, ‘loose order’ meant a gap of six inches between your left knee and the right knee of the dragoon on your left. And the same on your right. So there wasn’t much elbow room.
Next problem: I must put the horse’s reins in my left hand. Because it’s a double bridle* there are four, and because it’s a military bridle the reins are made from wider leather than usual. Which is a pain if, like me, you’ve got fairly small hands. From now I have to ride one-handed and pray the horse knows how to neck-rein*.
Now I reach for the sabre, which hangs quite low behind my left thigh. The shortest route is to reach below my left arm but…aagh! If I pull the sabre out that way I’ll cut through the reins, or something even more painful!
So – reach down over the left arm and grab the sword hilt, whilst deftly slipping my hand through the leather sword-knot. This is an art in itself when you’re wearing gloves.
Now the proximity of another horse becomes a pain; I can’t just pull the sabre out or I might accidentally disable one of my own side! No – I must grasp the grip and turn the guard through 180 degrees so that it faces the rear, draw the blade partially from the scabbard until my right hand is level with my left shoulder, forearm horizontal across my body and elbow under my chin. Now I can draw the sabre fully out but keeping my arm horizontal. Only once I’ve got this far can I twist my wrist (the rest of the arm stays still) to bring the blade to a vertical position, keeping it parallel to the horse’s body, the tip tracing an arc to the rear.
Then I move my hand until the sabre is at the ‘salute’, blade vertical in front of my nose. Finally, I must bring the sabre to the ‘attention’, right arm bent, forearm parallel with the ground and sabre hilt level with my waist.
Whew – sorted.
Good job it’s only a practice, really. If French cavalry were charging at us they’d have skewered me by now.
1801 Drill Manual is ‘Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry’ (Fourth Edition)
Double bridle – a bridle with two bits (mouthpieces), hence two sets of reins – the example below shows an 1805 pattern (ish) bridle with modern bridoon and original 1830’s curb badged to the Yorkshire Hussars
Neck-rein – turning the horse by laying the rein against the opposite side of its neck to the direction you wish to take (eg. left side to turn right) rather than pulling the rein on the same side.
My grateful thanks to Paul Martin of the 15th Light Dragoons (www.xvld.org) for commenting on and correcting my original text. And for not laughing at my initial efforts on horseback. Yes, it really is as difficult as it reads!