What’s that speck of dust, you ‘orrible little dragoon??!!

Grooming Cavalry Mounts in the 1790’s


Body brush and curry comb


 One of the problems in researching Napoleonic cavalry is that while there’s quite a lot of information regarding their campaigns, or at least the parts horsemen played in those actions, not so much of the nitty-gritty survives. I mean the day-to-day stuff of life with horses; what animals were fed rather than just the quantities each was allowed; how they were looked after, that sort of thing. Because it would be nice to compare then…and now.

 I began to despair of finding any substantial written evidence; perhaps horse care was all ‘assumed knowledge’ which we’ve subsequently lost.

 So I was excited to come across a set of Standing Orders recently which gave more detail (I know – I’m a very sad person).

Standing Orders were a set of instructions, authorised by the Regimental Colonel and aimed particularly at officers, detailing exactly how that regiment should operate. The Orders would include such things as how certain duties for both officers and men were to be carried out, how the regiment was to be organised in barracks and on the march, how the men were to dress on specific occasions and, in a cavalry regiment, how horses and equipment were to be cared for.

I’ve been particularly keen to discover how horses were groomed, and how that compares to the British Horse Society/Pony Club guidelines of today. In this instance Standing Orders say:

 The first thing is to turn up the Litter (bedding) under the Manger, sweep out the Stable, give water, half a pail when the weather is not cold; then Hay, which is to be shaked (sic) into the Rack very light…

 Pretty standard so far

 …then curry well both Body & legs,

 ‘Currying’ body and legs with a metal comb is frowned upon nowadays, the curry comb being used only to clean grease and loose hairs from the body brush. It’s acceptable to use a rubber or plastic curry to remove mud and loose hair but more usually a stiff-bristled Dandy brush is used first.

 …after currying take some clean straw & wisp him well,

 You don’t often see wisps today. A wisp is  (usually) hay, twisted into a rope before being woven in a particular fashion to produce a solid block. It was used for ‘banging’, toning up a horse’s muscles by massage, but in this instance ‘wisp’ seems to refer to a loose handful of  straw. It looks to me as if all this rough currying and wisping was designed to warm the horse up; open its pores before getting down to the real business of grooming.

 …after wisping take the Curry comb & Brush & brush him well. The Currying, wisping & Brushing always to begin at the Croup & finish at the neck, first against then with the lying of the Hair, beginning with the off side, then the near side.

 Starting from the hind end of the animal and working forwards is unusual, and brushing against the hair a definite no-no! And you’re more likely to begin on the near-side these days

The above done take off the (head) Collar, turn the Horse round, wisp & brush his Head & Neck well, clean his Mane Lock by Lock with the Brush, put on his Collar, turn him round again & clean his tail in the same manner, having first dipped it into a Pail of Water:

 Pretty sensible really, not currying a horse’s head ; it’s far too bony. The remainder seems okay, but we’d probably put water on a brush to wet his tail rather than dip the whole lot in a bucket

…then with the Horse cloth rub him down smooth from Head to Croup with the grain of the Hair, shake the Horse cloth, put it on, with Straw wisps under the Surcingle;

For ‘Horse cloth’ read ‘Stable Rubber’, basically a linen towel. Again, wiping any settled dust off is what we should do nowadays, though few would bother unless for a special occasion. I can only assume strapping the used cloth across the horse’s back ‘thatched’ with straw dries out any dampness; the straw wouldn’t be thick enough to pad the surcingle (strap around the belly). Note that the surcingle would also have been used to keep the sheepskin in place over the horse’s saddle when it was tacked up.

 … then with a water brush smooth his foretop (forelock), mane & tail. Litter him down again, unless ordered to the contrary, rub his legs for 8 or 10 Minutes, & if fed, stand by him while feeding.

 Laying the mane and tail with a water brush remains common practice, but ‘rubbing his legs for 8 or 10 minutes’? Blimey, who’s got the time to do that?!

I was surprised to find no mention of hoof-picks. They must have been in common use, being part of every dragoon’s equipment issue. ‘Pick out feet before horse leaves stable’  is the usual instruction, so the horse doesn’t drop bits of bedding all over a freshly-swept yard!

 On the face of it, though, not a lot appears to have changed in the 220 years since these orders were written. Grooming equipment is similar; techniques aren’t very different.

Except…if you keep a horse nowadays I’ll bet you wish you had the time to obey ‘Standing Orders’.


~ by cavalrytales on February 6, 2012.

7 Responses to “What’s that speck of dust, you ‘orrible little dragoon??!!”

  1. I’ve found a book, translated from the Russian, of a Russian lancer who was charged with the restoration of about 140 horses and their uhlans. The thing is, this lancer was a woman. She was wounded, went to hospital, sent back to the front via the Reserves and the recuperation of battle-worn horses, and she KEPT her secret the whole time.


    • Was it Durova in ‘The Cavalry Maiden’? If so that’s on my ‘wanted’ list. My reading/writing balance has been weighted far too much towards reading lately so I’m desperately trying to correct it.
      If it’s not Durova – tell me, tell me!!


  2. Hasn’t changed a bit really. Like getting up and puttin on your pants. Brushing teeth. etc.


    • One interesting thing was that this regiment’s Colonel followed a (largely 18th century) French school of thought on horseshoeing.
      Instruction to farriers says
      Any Farrier who presumes to try on a hot Shoe will be punished with the utmost severity.
      I’m trying to find out how common a practice this cold-shoeing was in the UK at the time.


  3. […] What’s that speck of dust, you ‘orrible little dragoon??!! […]


  4. […] What’s that speck of dust, you ‘orrible little dragoon??!! […]


  5. […] What’s that speck of dust, you ‘orrible little dragoon??!! […]


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