The Cavalry Rides Again in IHSA

At the United States Military Academy at West Point, cadets who join the equestrian team follow the tradition of leaders including Army generals Ulysses S. Grant, George A. Custer and George S. Patton.
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At the United States Military Academy at West Point, cadets who join the equestrian team follow the tradition of leaders including Army generals Ulysses S. Grant, George A. Custer and George S. Patton.

When I first came to West Point, I never realized there was an equestrian team. After completing Beast Barracks and starting the semester, I was looking for activities to get involved in. Shortly after school started, I received an E-mail about an informational meeting concerning the Cadet Equestrian Team. Wow, I thought, what a great experience to continue something I love to do and to have a place to relax and get away from the insanity of massive amounts of schoolwork and the daily harsh demands of being a plebe, the West Point term for a freshman.

After tryouts, and being asked to join the team, I was excited just to be a part of it, because of what it was: an equestrian team, a place to meet friends, and a chance to get away from the daily rigors. Little did I know at the time, but there is a great history behind it all as well.

Cavalry training at the United States Military Academy began in 1839. Under the direction of Major Richard Delafield, and with the approval from the Secretary of War, a sergeant, five dragoons (cavalrymen) and twelve horses reported to West Point. In 1846 the Cadet Riding Hall was completed so that cadets could ride all year long, especially in the winter when outdoors activity was not possible. Today the Cadet Riding Hall is now Thayer Hall, the main cadet academic building. What remains of the former Riding Hall are a few pictures and a plaque honoring all of the great horses and riders trained within its walls.

During the Civil War riding instruction was suspended because the horses were needed in Washington for the war effort. Shortly afterward instruction began again. Then in 1907, 30 years after the first black cadet graduated, the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-black unit from the 10th Cavalry Regiment, reported to West Point. Their main purpose was to support cadet riding instruction and mounted drill until their disbandment in 1946.

Following the Second World War, the Academy and the Army began to change their focus and emphasize motor vehicle instruction and movement instead of horsemanship. This led to a halt of formal instruction until horsemanship was brought back as a club team in 1967.

The first competitive intercollegiate team was sponsored and coached by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Robert S. Ballagh and several interested cadets. Also involved were Captain Jack Fritz, judge and co-founder of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, Colonel Donald Thackery, also a highly respected and admired judge, and General Burton, a mainstay in the equestrian community. Although the focus was different than the cavalry training of the earlier days, the team concentrated on riding and on the physical, mental, leadership and military instruction necessary for a future Army officer.

Although equestrian team members spend as much time as possible training, our primary focus is our military training. Besides Cadet Basic Training, there are many other summer assignments that cadets must complete in order to graduate and be a competent lieutenant. During the second summer, yearlings (sophomores) participate in Camp Buckner. This is another six-week training program in which the basic soldier skills are tested and more advanced skills are taught. During this summer, yearlings begin to take leadership positions within their squads to test not only their knowledge, but also how well they can lead others. The final culminating event and test is a weeklong field training exercise known as "Infantry Week." During this time, the yearlings are expected to participate in squad, platoon and company tactics according to Army doctrine. In addition to the time spent in West Point training, the cadets go to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for a weeklong exercise with tanks.

During the third and fourth summers at West Point cadets have a choice of a wide variety of Army schools, training programs and educational opportunities. All cadets must participate in a West Point detail, to help train either the new cadets or yearlings. Additionally, cadets have the opportunity to advance their military training at Airborne school, Air Assault school, Sapper school, Military Police Special Reaction Team school, Northern Warfare Training school, and at Combat Diver Qualification course. Further advancement is gained through Cadet Troop Leader Training or Drill Cadet Leader Training, in which cadets spend about a month at an active army unit and posts all over the world as either a platoon leader or a drill sergeant. Through these training programs, cadets get a good handle of what will be expected of them when they graduate and reach their first unit.

There are also many academic programs that a cadet can participate in as well. For the Foreign Area Exchange Program, West Point cadets travel as ambassadors to military academies all over the world. They then host cadets from those academies over the summer for a week to introduce them not only to the United States Military Academy but also to the United States. Additionally, through a cadet's respective major department, he or she has the opportunity to use the knowledge he or she has learned in the classroom and apply it. Cadets participate in programs at major corporations, the Pentagon and various Washington organizations, and they also have the ability to build their own program.

Finally, cadets can participate in an exchange program with the Naval, Air Force, and Coast Guard academies during the first semester of their junior, or cow, year. Cadet Sev St. Martin, class of 2003, a beginner walk-trot-canter rider for the Army team, spent this past semester at the United States Coast Guard Academy. According to him, "Being at the Coast Guard Academy gave me a perspective of another branch of the service, and helped me appreciate them more. Especially after September 11th, they have an important mission to protect the waterways."

A day in the life of a cadet begins with breakfast formation at 0650, followed by a morning of classes, lunch, afternoon classes, mandatory physical development or drill and ceremony and finally mandatory study time until taps at 2330, military time for 11:30 pm. It can become tiring, but nevertheless we continue on! In addition, an upperclass cadet is responsible for at least one underclass cadet. It is his or her duty to make sure that the subordinate achieves success in academics, military instruction and physical development. During the first two years, cadets take core curriculum classes in history, math, physics, English, geography and social sciences. During their junior and senior years, cadets take classes in their major or field of study. This is not a 9-to-5 job, but an all-encompassing lifestyle that is learned and loved.

Clearly life at the United States Military Academy has a broad focus. Cadets, especially those of us on the Cadet Equestrian Team, divide our time between athletics, academics and military training. Our coaches, Peter and Sherry Cashman, share a philosophy based on our working with our fellow teammates in improving each team member's riding skills as well as supporting each other during practice and competitions. We also improve our leadership skills by mentoring underclassman. Although we practice for only an hour two or three days a week, we place very well within the region. Over the past four years the team has had the number-one Western team in the region as well as the second-place hunt seat team. This year, as in the past, the Army will be represented at Nationals, not only by individual riders but also by our Western team.

Team co-captain Amanda Goldstein, a senior who will join the Military Police upon graduation in June, has been the Cacchione Cup winner in the region for the past two years. Amanda placed 4th and 9th in the Individual Open Fences class at IHSA Nationals in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Team co-captain and future Engineer officer Erin Searfoss has participated at IHSA Nationals for the past two years competing in various Western classes. Additionally, senior Matthew Rains, future aviator, has represented the region several times as the AQHA Regional High Point rider, and junior John Collins was an Individual Western walk-trot rider last year at IHSA Nationals. We have had 11 riders perform 18 rides at Nationals over the past three years.

Past, present and future military leaders have gained not only leadership experience but also prominence because of our riding experiences at West Point. Some of the best riders and military officers to come out of West Point include General Ulysses S. Grant, General George S. Patton and General George A. Custer, to name a few. The success of the early cadet equestrian program can be applauded for its excellent instruction by the showing of George S. Patton Jr., class of 1909, as a member of the 1912 U.S. Olympic team. The tradition of Army officers representing the United States as the nation's Equestrian Team continued until 1952. Evidence is in our physical development center, Arvin Gymnasium, where a plaque shows that more than half of the hundreds of cadets and officers who have participated in the Olympics were in the equestrian sports.

Today, my former teammates are representing the Army all over the world. Even though the Army no longer has mounted cavalry, West Point continues the tradition of mounted soldiers. The cadets that are on the team are not only students in college but also the future fighters of America.