Gungadin- The racist horse
Back when the world was young, 1989 to be precise, I was a fresh faced trooper in The Life Guards, serving at Hyde Park barracks. Ceremonial duties were portrayed in Household Cavalry recruitment leaflets as glamorous affairs, described as "the proudest moment in your life". When viewed from the luxury of memory The Trooping, The Garter Ceremony, Investitures and Queen's Life Guard (QLG) were indeed unique experiences, and I do now have a sense of pride in being a part of it all. However at the time these ceremonial duties, for the troopers at least, were nothing but an endless series of drudgery and sleep depriving nonsense. Cleaning kit for Queen's Life Guard make the trials of Sisyphus appear as a mere vexation. Kit, lots of kit, endless god forsaken piles of kit. Leather and brass and buckskin. Woolen tunics and plumes. Yet more leather, a soupcon more brass, well you get the idea. Obviously the Household Cavalry would be a fairly dull show if it weren't for the horses. Each trooper has a "guard horse". The horses too have lots of kit that needs to be cleaned. Due to the horse's inability to hold a brasso brush or polishing cloth (known as a diddly), cleaning their bridle, saddle, sheepskin and "steelwork" also falls to the trooper. A "smart guard horse" was a blessing. A smart horse is one which holds itself with a regimental bearing and looked like it might want to charge a Frenchman in anger. A horse like this could be the difference between the orderly officer placing you as one of the four smartest men "in the boxes" on Queen's Life Guard or to be relegated to "tabbing it".
My guard horse was called "Gungadin". Like all Household Cavalry horses he was black (admittedly trumpeter's horses are grey and the drum horses skewbald or piebald). A touch roman nosed, he stood a shade under 17hh, had a small white snip on the right nostril, and his military number of 133 was burned into his somewhat upright off fore hoof. The letters "LG" on the near fore marked him out as being a member of the senior regiment in the army. Military horses are simply four legged squaddies. Officer's chargers are delicate thoroughbreds. Warrant Officers and Senior NCO's horses are dependable types, built for comfort rather than speed. The trooper's horses however are a mixed bag. Some bite your face off, others will kick your teeth in for no discernible reason. Some are nondescript and forgettable merely melt into the background and making up the numbers, a few are talented athletes. A rarer few are characters. Characters are capable of feats of lunacy and quirkiness that break the rigid handcuffs of regimentality. Individuality is not a desirable trait in the Guards, be you man or horse. We are supposed to be "as one". Gungadin, who had already served for ten years by the time I got my youthful hands on him knew this. But Gungadin thought that idea was bollocks, he was a "character". If he had a middle digit, his would have been raised with a frequency the most ardent anarchist would admire.
Gungadin had been banned from Queen's Life Guard for a number of years following a serious misdemeanor. He had infamously taken it upon himself to wade into the ranks of the Blues and Royals at guard change in the tilt yard at Horse Guards. Myth had it that like any good Life Guard he merely hated the "Dinks" (as the junior regiment of the Household Cavalry are known) and wanted a fight. A more likely story was his rider had probably fallen asleep and in his slumber inadvertently given Gungadin a jab in the ribs with his spurs and ended up in "enemy territory". Whatever the reason Gungadin having joined the Dinks "kicked off" with teeth and hind feet. Thus forever afterwards he became known as "Dennis the Menace". When I joined 3 Troop, The Life Guards, Dennis became "my" horse. My troop leader, Tom Thorneycroft, decided the horse should return to full duties. Citing my previous riding experience as qualification, in reality I was more expendable compared with more experienced members of the troop. As a result I took Dennis on his return to Queen's Life Guard. He behaved like a star. Weeks turned to months and the old horse endlessly clip clopped up and down the Mall with me, never once batting a lid over his slightly piggy eye. No fighting, no biting, no kicking. Then one day I got a "box". By some fluke my usually badly cleaned kit was slightly shinier than my colleagues. I therefore had to sit out in the boxes at Horse Guards on Gungadin, rather than march up and down on foot.
Your first box is a memorable occasion. Dennis hadn't stood on these hallowed cobbles for years, if ever before. Yet as I took up my position in the left hand box, looking out over at the MOD building, my chest swelled with pride. Dennis arched his neck and stood like a rock, the epitome of the cavalry black. As British as warm beer and cricket, it was horse and man like this who smashed the Cuirasseurs at Waterloo. Tourists flock around you as you stand on guard. The combination of silent soldier and horse is like a magnet to visitors to the Capital. Dennis stood like a statue amongst their pats and pulls, he even shunned polos. However when little children reached up to pat his muzzle he would lower his big old head to permit the briefest of strokes.
All seemed perfect. Then from my right a large family appeared. Three generations of what I took to be Indians from the beautiful tangerine, blue and green Saris worn by the ladies. A gentleman from among their number asked me with characteristic politeness if he could take a photograph. I gave the minutest of nods. Dennis shifted his feet. One of the sari clad ladies lifted her child into her arms, stood next to my right boot and turned to face the camera. Dennis erupted. His ears flattened to his head, he made a noise that was a mix between a primeval roar and a reptilian hiss. Arching his head around he made to bite the lady, his teeth cracking together with a report like a rifle and a jangle of curb chain. Snatching only sari, he then tried, with lightning speed, to stamp with his front foot on the understandably surprised gentleman clutching the camera. The lady, her sari unraveling attempted to snatch the fabric from my horse's awful mouth. I meanwhile jabbed with my spurs and growled at the now enraged horse. This only made Dennis angrier, he snaked his head out snapped with his tombstone like teeth at the now rapidly retreating family, missing the face of one of the children by a whisker. Wisely the family ran in the direction of Trafalgar Square, barely daring to look back. Dennis shook himself, I could feel his heart rate slow and within a minute he was back to his stolid self.
I put this bizarre behaviour down as a one off and made no mention of it to anyone in authority. Yet I discovered over the following months that my now beloved Dennis had developed this strange quirk. He would stand imperviously whilst people from Europe, America, Australasia, Asia or Africa hung off his bridle for a souvenir snap shot. However the merest appearance by anyone from the Indian sub continent was like the rustle of a whore's petticoat to Jack the Ripper. He became in an instant a savage, hissing, biting and stamping like a beserker, only returning to placidity once they had retreated from his venom. Determined that Dennis shouldn't once more be banned from QLG, I came up with a solution. Whenever anyone appearing to be from India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka appeared, I immediately reined back into the box and gruffly shouted at them to "stand clear of the guard", thus ruining their photo opportunity but saving them from a mauling.
Therefore may I take this opportunity to apologise to anyone from these countries who may have visited London, in particular Horse Guards, from early 1989- 1991. It was nothing personal, merely my horse Gungadin, it turns out he was a frightful racist.