Saturday, May 6, 2023, was a big TV day for horse lovers, royalists, race enthusiasts and eventers. With Badminton Horse Trials, the Kentucky Derby and a King being crowned, the day was a bit of a write-off, chore-wise.
I realize watching a crown being placed atop a man’s head doesn’t scream horses, but his trip to and from Westminster Abbey was nothing but horses with a large gold carriage somewhere amongst them all.
Horses and Carriages
Before all this pomp and ceremony kicked off, the horses participating in ushering the King and Queen from point A to B to C underwent a refresher course on crowds, so they could better handle the throngs of people lined up to see the Royal duo roll through parts of London.
Preparing the horses for the coronation started a few months ago and consisted of the horses facing a daily barrage of fellow Royal Mews employees cheering, waving flags, beating drums and doffing caps. And with thousands of people lining the streets vying to catch a glimpse of a king, queen, prince and/or princess, I think a refresher course in tolerating so many jubilant royalists was a jolly good idea.
The majority of the horses seemed relatively unperturbed by the proceedings and carried on with their jobs as expected. But no amount of false jubilance can prepare every horse for the real thing. From the comfort of my couch, it was easy to spot a lot of gnashing teeth, flipping heads, prancing sideways and several practicing passage. But all and all I’d say the horses were well-behaved given the atmosphere and the amount of time they stood around waiting.
The first major task was getting the Royal pair safely to Westminster Abbey. The pair travelled in the three-tonne Diamond Jubilee Coach which is the smaller of two coaches used. Due to its enormity, six Windsor Greys were enlisted to pull it with three postillion riders.
I noticed immediately that rider safety gave way to tradition as many of them wore metal hats with extensive plumage or, as with the postillions, hut caps set upon platinum hair. And while I understand the desire for formality and such, I admit the postillion’s straw-like tufts of blonde hair poking out beneath their hats was baffling. A tradition, I suspect, I know nothing about.
Anyway, the second major task was to return the King and Queen in one piece to Buckingham Palace in the four-tonne 260-year-old Gold State Coach pulled by eight Windsor Greys.
The Greys, I learned, are the only horses allowed to pull carriages carrying the King and/or Queen, which is an impressive job, though a little nerve-wracking no doubt. This coach is notoriously uncomfortable as it sits on two leather straps, albeit thick ones, allowing it to jostle about in all directions, which is why the horses never break out of a walk.
The Windsor Greys used to pull the carriages not only underwent the mandatory desensitizing classes but also partook in a weight training program to ensure they had the strength and endurance required to pull multi-tonne coaches.
About the Horses
The Royal Mews are made up of 30 horses which are either Cleveland Bays or Windsor Greys.
The Windsor Greys, which are mostly Irish Draught, have been bred by the Royal family since the 1800s and are hand selected by the Head Coachman, which sounds daunting. The two main requirements horses must meet are the minimum height of 16.1 hands and, of course, be grey.
Now, we all know how hard it is to keep a grey clean and we don’t have the added pressure of a King or Queen wandering down the barn aisle whenever the mood strikes. So, with that in mind, these greys are bathed every day, which helps mitigate stress over impromptu royal visitors and manure stains.
The Cleveland Bays, which pulled the lighter coaches during the coronation, are used at the Mews for various duties such as the daily Royal Mail run. This task consists of a horse-drawn carriage shuttling mail and important messages between Buckingham Palace and St. James Palace which are 1.5 miles apart, which doesn’t sound too taxing.
Since the Royal Mews are situated in London, there isn’t much in the way of turnout. But once a year, all the horses are taken to Hampton Court Palace, which is 45 mins SW of London, for a few months where they are turned out for a holiday. It only seems fitting that they should be allowed to graze with a palace as a backdrop.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
Since I’m a Canadian it would be remiss of me not to mention the RCMP members and horses that participated in the coronation.
Over the last several decades the Royal Family has enjoyed a personal relationship with the RCMP, and King Charles III has taken over the role of Commissioner-in-Chief. As King Charles took on this role, he was presented with the RCMP’s ninth musical ride horse Noble.
During Her Late Majesty’s reign, the RCMP presented the family with eight Hanoverians, three of whom are currently in use by the Royal Family: George, Sir John and Darby.
Four Musical Ride members went to England for His Majesty’s coronation and those Mounties along with the three previously gifted horses, as well as Noble, participated in the procession and were positioned only a few horse lengths away from the King and Queen.
The history behind the black horses of the RCMP traces back to 1937, the same year S.T. Wood headed the RCMP contingent at the coronation of King George VI. And it was Wood who ordered the RCMP to buy only black horses due to how striking the contrast was between the black coats of the horses and the red outfits of the riders. And the easiest way to find black horses is to make them yourself and so the breeding program began in 1939.
And that is how all the King’s horses ended up in such finery on May 6, 2023. Where would we be today without horses, I do wonder.
Sources: Royalmews.lgfl.org.uk ; RoyalCollectionTrust.uk ; RCMP.grc.gc.ca