If Joey Had Been a US Cavalry Horse, He’d Probably Have Called Nebraska Home

Fort Robinson Stable

Are we in the Bluegrass? No, this is western Nebraska and these are some of the old stables of the US Quartermaster Corps' Remount Depot. At its height, the fort housed 11,000 horses. Today it's a state park. Zaxy photo.

In War Horse, you see the British Cavalry come to Albert’s village and offer the local farmers cold, hard cash for their horses. The war had just broken out and Great Britain needed trained horses–and they needed them quickly. Historians tell us that they acquired 165,000 horses in the first 12 days of the war.

But they would need a million horses. There weren’t enough Joeys hidden away in enough little villages of England. The British military sent horse buyers around the world, but especially to the United States and Canada, where they would buy 618,000 horses and mules, and load them onto ships bound for Liverpool. Once in England, they’d be trained and shipped to France or to the combat zones of the Middle East.

warhorsenews GOLD logo SMALLAt the end of World War I, the United States military took a long hard look at its own horse inventory. Would it be caught short in the event of another war? Maybe it was the economy or maybe it was the combustible engine, but the price of horses was down and so was the supply.

The government’s glance fell on a historic army base in western Nebraska and the US Cavalry took it from there. It would transform the hilly countryside of Crawford, Nebraska into the biggest horse producing zone in America. At one point, it held more horses in its pastures than some states have today.

Fort Robinson was the equivalent of The Bluegrass–for war horses, not racehorses.

For insight to Fort Robinson and the war horses who lived there, I turned to Nebraska journalist Algis Laukatis, who writes for the Journal Star in Lincoln, Nebraska. Algis has written a great article about Fort Robinson, and I’ll share a few lines from it here.

Joey and the Horses Trained at Fort Robinson in Western Nebraska Have Little in Common” is Algis’s conclusion.

In 1919, World War I was over, and Fort Robinson was close to being abandoned. The historic outpost no longer was used as a troop station, and its buildings were in disrepair.

Fort Robinson, the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse, had seen better days.

And then something saved it.

The War Department established a Quartermaster Corps remount depot at Fort Robinson. It was one of four such horse-training facilities in the country. The others were in Oklahoma, Montana and Virginia.

“The climate, terrain and pastures, all of those things desirable in a Remount Depot, were available at Fort Robinson, in a more generous way than (at) either of the two other depots,” Thomas R. Buecker wrote in his book, Fort Robinson and the American Century 1900-1948.

Even with the advent of tank warfare in World War I, the military still saw a need for cavalry units, which often led the battle charge.

In the Army’s view, good animals had become scarce, Buecker noted, because the horse market was slumping and ranchers had stopped breeding riding horses.

“With increasing mechanization, both the Army and the United States Department of Agriculture feared the American riding horse was in danger of disappearing,” Buecker wrote. “By implementing a breeding program, the Army hoped ranchers would turn anew to the production of better horses.”

Between 1920 and 1931, the Fort Robinson remount depot issued 9,758 horses and mules, Buecker wrote.

Most of the animals went to military posts in the central and western United States, but they also were shipped to the Philippines, the Canal Zone in Panama, Hawaii and Alaska.

By 1943, a herd of 12,000 horses roamed Fort Robinson

Eventually, Fort Robinson became the country’s largest remount station.

Brown and black horses with a minimum of white markings were preferred by the military. Grays, pintos and light-colored animals were rejected because they could be too easily seen by the enemy. The average price paid for a horse was $165.

Horses that made the grade were well taken care of during their stay at Fort Robinson.

“They have a life of pampered pets, properly fed, properly sheltered in the cleanest of clean stables,” Buecker wrote.

The officers and enlisted men didn’t have it bad either.

Because of its informal atmosphere and variety of outdoor activities, Fort Robinson became known as “The Country Club of the Army” during its years as a remount depot and beyond.

After a visit, a newspaper reporter wrote: “The longing to leave the recreational cabins, creeks bright with fat trout and outdoor games isn’t simply overpowering.”

Buecker noted that some of the officers who came from affluent families brought their own horses for the Fort Robinson polo team. They played against other military posts and civilian teams in Denver, Colorado Springs and Hot Springs, S.D.

The stables in which the horses were kept and the training area still are visible today. The fort is now a state park.

Algis’s story ends there but of course I had to start digging for more information. I found out that Fort Robinson suffered greatly when the Cavalry was dismounted during World War II. Cavalrymen turned in their beloved horses, which were warehoused at Fort Robinson until they could be sold at auction. The price seemed to drop with each successive auction.

But at one point, there were about 12,000 surplus government horses on the Fort.

During World War II, Fort Robinson shipped some horses east and some horses west. They were to be used by the Coast Guard.for the unique purpose of patrolling the nation’s beaches to watch for landing craft or submarines.

But it wasn’t the horseflesh that made Fort Robinson famous in World War II. It was the mules. In 1943, the fort purchased 10,000 mules; they ended up in Burma, China, and even Italy. They carried supplies and weapons and ammunition through jungles and over mountain ranges, and served the country–and Fort Robinson–outstandingly well. They became legends–but that’s another story. “War Mule” has such a nice ring to it!

Thanks to Algis and the Journal Star for their help. Photos via Nebraskahistory.org, where much more about Fort Robinson can be learned.

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Who Groomed the War Horses?

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Taking care of horses is a lot of work, whether in war or peace. Here you see some grooms in the British military during World War I. It was their job to make sure that the harness was cleaned and oiled and the horses cared for. Sometimes, the task was superhuman, when the horses were affected with mange or lameness. Image courtesy of Nick Stone.

The millions of war horses that were part of World War I required a lot of grooming. In fact, proper grooming care turned out to be critical to the success of the British military.

Perhaps artillery horses at the front couldn’t be properly cleaned and groomed all the time but all horsemen know that a horse in a dirty muddy harness is more likely to get sores than a horse in a clean and oiled harness. That meant a lot of oil and saddle soap. There was no synthetic harness like we have to today, and probably no hoses to clean the horses. The grooms probably were as wet as the horses.

One of the biggest problems that the British military faced was that it was losing more horses to disease and exposure than to enemy fire. Horses tied in a picket line at night allowed for the easy spread of the mange mite from horse to horse. Early in the war, the British solution to widespread mange was to clip every horse from head to toe. That would be fine in summer, but it meant that the horses needed blankets when the weather turned cold, or else the mange would come back. Next problem? Those blankets were constantly soaked by rain. You can imagine how the horses suffered.

Halting to refresh the horses in a stream

The grooms had their hands full. The cavalry may have required that each rider care for his own horse, but the artillery horses and mules and the pack animals far outnumbered the cavalry mounts like Joey in War Horse. In those photo, you see a British military unit pausing in a stream, possibly for the benefit of their horses' tendons. (National Library of Scotland archival photo)

But the grooms had to not only struggle to keep the horses dry and the harness clean; they had to make sure that the harness fit properly, or there would be just as many problems with sores. And as the horses lost condition because of poor quality hay–or complete lack of hay–and overuse, their harness may or may not fit properly. It’s said that the most important tool a groom had was a hole punch and that they were in constant use.

And we all know that you will eventually run out of leather; there will be no place left to punch a hole.

Artillery horses also required properly fitting collars. Collars don’t have much range of adjustment. They either fit…or they don’t. Do you remember the scene in War Horse where Frederick stuffs the rag under Joey’s collar?

Grooms today are often the unsung heroes of the horse world, and their World War I counterparts were just as under-appreciated by historians. The photo provided by Nick Stone shows that this group of grooms wasn’t too serious, but there’s also a possibility, from Nick’s notes, that the photo was taken in Cambridgeshire before either the horses or grooms or both were shipped overseas. They probably sobered up pretty quickly if they served at the front.

To learn more: Grooms today have a new home on the web. Visit Liv Gude’s proequinegrooms.com for information about the profession and tips from the pros on how to care for your horse.

Photo of grooms courtesy of Nick Stone.
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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Special Effects: The Truth About the Amazing Opening Shot of War Horse’s Cavalry Charge

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Could you hear me cheer earlier this week when the British BAFTA film award nominees were announced?

Some critical people who made me love War Horse were at the top of the list for individual awards: Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designers Rick Carter and Lee Sandales and the special visual effects crew of Ben Morris and Neil Corbould were nominated–along with the sound crew and composer John Williams, who wrote the score.

There’s one special scene that they had to build.

You won’t believe which scene!

We hear so much about Spielberg’s comments that the Devon landscape served as a character in the film, but so did the artificial landscape created by Carter and Sandales for the war scenes. There was no natural No Man’s Land for a location–they had to build it.

And there’s one special scene that they also had to build. You won’t believe which scene! When I read the article in The Telegraph, I was stunned. How could anyone create this much magic from an emtry field?

War Horse News gold logo (small)From an interview with actor Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls): “The battle was shot at Stratfield Saye House in north Hampshire, the estate of the Duke of Wellington. ‘It was one of the most amazing days of my life,’ Hiddleston recalls. ‘One hundred and 20 horses waiting in line in a phalanx of military formation, and everything about the context was real except for the bullets.’

But The Telegraph’s Sally Williams corrected Hiddleston and, insodoing, spilled the beans. Or the wheat. Or whatever that waving field of grain would have yielded in harvest. Sally tells us:

“This isn’t strictly true, as in order to create the desired effect of men and horses streaming like ghosts from a field of reeds, plants were imported from another part of the country. ‘There was a marsh in the south of London still in bloom,’ Rick Carter, the production designer, has said. ‘We went there and paid a farmer to cut his whole field down, then we put the reeds in styrofoam’.”

But it didn’t stop there–there were rows like narrow paths through the reeds for the horses to follow.

How many horses were really in the grainfield scene? Here's the British cavalry charging through the open toward the German camp. (DreamWorks photo)

Then the task was passed to the geniuses at digital film effects consulting company Framestore, who literally multiplied the number of horses and riders following those paths. In a Below The Line interview with Framestore’s compositing supervisor Chris Zeh, the digital animator said,

“The sequence was supposed to show many dozens of British soldiers hiding in this field of reeds, but they had neither sufficient reeds nor soldiers to make it work. Over nearly 30 shots we filled the landscape with reeds – not just 2D but 3D – and soldiers. And we helped fill the air with seeds floating from the reeds.”

The more I learn about War Horse, the more amazed I am. And the more I want to see it all over again (again).

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Working with Horses: War Horse Cast Shares Horse Encounters of the Embarrassing Kind

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warhorsenews GOLD logo SMALLDon’t you wonder if actors’ memories of filming movies just get all jumbled together? All those long hours on the set, rehearsing and re-shooting and going through makeup and costuming can be exhausting.

But one thing is for sure: the actors from War Horse will never forget their co-stars in the film: the horses! In this video, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberblatch and Tom Hiddleston share some fun memories of the horses they worked with during the filming of War Horse.

Their memories of high horse humor moments will no doubt improve every time they’re retold!

One key piece of information from Emily Watson is the role of the dedicated poop scooper on the set. I wonder if he or she is listed in the credits!

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Only Remembered: War Horse Stage Play Soundtrack CD Launches in USA Next Week, Listen In!

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“Only Remembered”, sung here by Coope Boyes & Simpson, is probably the most popular song from the War Horse stage play. This version of the song is not from the soundtrack, which goes on sale in the USA on January 24.

Playbill.com has some exciting news today: next week, the CD of the music of the Tony Award winning stage play War Horse will be available to US listeners. It has been for sale in the UK, but now will be released in America by Sony Masterworks. The sale date is listed as January 24.

In case you have seen the movie and not the play, the music is very different between the two productions. Both are stunning! The play soundtrack features a mixture of what you might call traditional folk music and evocative orchestral suites–and even a hymn that has now evolved into a sort of anti-war theme.

warhorsenews GOLD logo SMALLYes, that’s what you hear on this YouTube video. Originally written in Scotland in the early 1800s, and sung in churches in America, “Only Remembered” is probably the most popular song from the stage play’s repertoire. John Tams did the arrangement that is used for War Horse onstage.

If you listen to the words–and there are several versions of the lyrics available–you might understand that this hymn was written in Scotland, possibly by a Presbyterian, who was extolling the virtues of hard work, and reminding people that they needed to improve the world around them. In that sense “Only rememembered for what we have done” admonishes you to achieve something in life, to make something of yourself: a very Scottish attitude!

But seen through the lens of anti-war sentiment, the lyrics suggest that those who died in World War I would not be remembered as individuals but as mere numbers of fatalities and veterans who achieved a goal in winning the war–if it can be said that that war had a winner, given the losses–and not what they had to endure to achieve that goal.

The YouTube video is from the First World War Poetry Digital Archive at the University of Oxford.

There is certain to be some confusion between the soundtrack for the play and the soundtrack for the movie–I recommend both! They are very different, but each is inspirational in its way. The play’s music a bit more pastoral than John Williams’ compositions for the movie.

To learn more: War Horse News featured John Tams and War Horse author Michael Morpurgo singing “Only Remembered” onstage in Toronto last month.

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in War Horse News on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you!