When old soldiers hang up their uniforms and retire from service there are many options available, but have you ever considered what happens to the Army’s veteran horses? They don’t get given clocks, a pension or membership of the local ‘Legion’. Empress, the latest military working horse to retire from duties, is off to the wide, open fields of Buckinghamshire.
Cavalry Black charger, Empress, was born in Ireland in June 1999. She started service with the Household Cavalry in Windsor in June 2003 as Remount 8100 and has a fantastic blend of attitude, willingness to please and quiet competence: all the qualities required of a charger.
As an elegant and sturdy horse, Empress quickly became a favourite of officers and novice riders alike, spending a long stint at the Household Cavalry Training Wing in Windsor, training new riders. Empress passed out of training in June 2004 and has since had a distinguished career as a Trooper within the divisions, as a Standard horse (carrying the elaborately embroidered regimental flag) and as an Officer’s Charger.
She had a leading role in the Royal Weddings of both Prince Harry and Prince William, nearly all of the State Visits to the UK, all the Queen’s Birthday Parades on Horse Guards and the magnificent ceremonial displays that mark every Major General’s Inspection of the Regiment since 2004.
For such an impressive animal and a real Army favourite there was no contest when it came to decide her future, when Empress's retirement beckoned.
Most military working horses retire to carefully screened, loving families or farms, enjoying a new life as hunters or hack ponies, or just live out their days peacefully with former soldiers with whom they struck up a powerful bond. Captain Skip Nicholls is Riding Master at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. He explained: “Most military working horses will serve an eighteen-year career. It’s not heavy work but they do have to carry a lot of weight with all the ceremonial uniforms, and we will never work a horse to the point they can’t continue at peak performance. We want them to retire with some quality life left in them so they can enjoy a happy 5-10 years retirement in a nice home”.
The Army has a database of all its horses and when the time comes for them to retire people can bid to buy a horse. The Army checks the prospective owner, their property, to ensure it is safe, sanitary and that the animal will be assured of a good cared-for life. If they pass the checks, they can then become the owners of a marvellous military veteran horse. But there aren’t private homes for every horse, and as all military horses deserve the best retirement available, that’s where the Horse Trust comes in.
“The Horse Trust takes about twenty-five horses a year from the Police and the Army,” said Captain Nicholls. “They take our oldest, our boldest and those dearest to our hearts. The Horse Trust is fantastic - we’d love them to buy more fields so they could take more animals, but sadly it just comes down to acreage. They won’t compromise on standards.
The Horse Trust is the world’s oldest equine charity and provides 24/7 expert lifelong care for retired working horses and rehabilitation for rescue horses. Jeanette Allen is the Chief Executive and explained why it’s such an important final refuge for military horses: “Working horses today are the equine equivalent of the civil servant. Seventy-five per cent come from government jobs, working with the police or the military having been owned by the state. But unlike civil servants they don’t get a pension when they retire so we step forward and offer these remarkable animals the retirement they deserve. It’s like the Royal Hospital Chelsea for Army horses”.
Captain Nicholls agrees: “We know the Horse Trust has the best horse care and attention possible: 24/7 on-hand veterinary care, a fantastic equine facility, fantastic grazing, and a first-class team to look after our animals till the end of the lives. But best of all we can go and visit them after they’ve retired, which is something we can’t do when they go to private hands.”
In 2018 the decision was made to lessen Empress’ workload. She has spent her last three years as a mount for the Foot Guards Officers of the Household Division, seeing her in a leading position on some of the nation’s most high profile events. Guards Officers aren’t always the most able riders, so many rely on the Army’s brightest, calmest and most capable horses to help them look their best on parade. Empress was soon a firm favourite!
Skip said: “She has had an impressive and varied career and never, ever faltered. I will miss everything about her, her nature, her kisses. If you want a horse that can carry an officer and sit at the front of any parade that you’ve not done before then she’s the horse you’d always turn to, to lead that parade. We’ll all miss her”
There were moist eyes in the ranks when Empress was ridden forward at the end of her final parade. The entire regiment was mounted in glittering ceremonial, horse flanks gleaming, hooves polished, hocks chalked, tack clinking and armour flashing as it had on every working day of Empress’s incredible career. But this day wasn’t to end with a net of hay in the stable lines.
Empress was walked forward to stand alone in front of the Major General Commanding the Household Division. Slowly, and gently, her gorgeously polished black kit was removed, her saddle, bridle and reins, until she was stripped of the burdens of service.
As all looked on, in silence, Captain Edward Keith, Adjutant at Knightsbridge Barracks, read out her citation and then said: “Empress has given the last 18 years of her life to the Household Cavalry, so it is fitting that as a 22 year old horse she retires to the glorious 280 acres in Buckinghamshire that the Horse Trust offers, to be cared for there by former Riding Master Mark Avison and former regimental Veterinary Officer, Nicola Houseby-Skeggs. She will also no doubt enjoy the company of her 37 former colleagues who live there, including two of her equine peers Burnaby and Elizabeth. We thank Empress for her service and all she has done for the regiment which has firmly solidified her place in the Household Cavalry Hall of Fame.”
Empress had her heavy iron shoes removed by the farrier. She’d never have to walk a London street again. Then after final hugs from her groom and pats from the Officers and Troopers she was led gently away and handed to the Horse Trust for her short journey to freedom in horse heaven at the Horse Trust.
Captain Nicholls said: “When she sees the fields she’ll instantly relax. There’s quite a few horses there she’ll recognise by smell, they’ll have the odd whinny, and it won’t be too long before she realises she’s home.“
Jeanette Allen who was there to witness Empress’s military retirement ceremony said: “I’ve seen the military do this special farewell ceremony at the Horse of the year Show, and at Olympia, but to see them take so much care even in private, like today in Knightsbridge Barracks, is really special. These horses have earned it, they deserve it. They deserve that moment in the sun when everyone says thank you.”
She reassured everyone that Empress has a great life ahead of her:
“They come to us shiny, well behaved, immaculate, beautiful and glistening, but as a retired veteran she’ll soon be woolly, muddy, and silly, a real natural horse again. It’s so lovely to see them gradually realise that they’re not working anymore and that nothing is expected of them.”
Have a long and happy retirement Empress. Thank you for your service.