The King's troop & I

What’s 54 feet long, requires no petrol, travels faster than the average London bus and has a turning circle smaller than a family car? Helen Robinson found out during a colourful day with the King’s Troop
The invitation to spend a day with the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery required neither second thought nor checking of my diary. I was going no matter what. Passionate about ponies from an earlier age than I can (or care to) recall and an admirer of precision and excellence, my day with the King’s Troop offered a little of everything I love.

The origins of the Troop can be traced back to the formation of the Royal Horse Artillery in 1793 when Captain Quist (a graduate of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna) was tasked with training both horses and gunners to support the Royal Artillery Regiment. Captain Quist clearly loved his job and continued in his post until his death in 1821, aged 91.

Prior to them moving from their most famous barracks in St John’s Wood to purpose-built accommodation in Woolwich in February 2012, several different locations have been home to the Royal Horse Artillery, including St James’s Park and even Lord’s cricket ground, which was requisitioned during the First World War to provide additional stabling and grazing for the swelling numbers of horses required for the war effort.

Kings troop

Between the First and Second World Wars, all the horses were sold when, in line with the entire British Army, the Horse Artillery was mechanised. But following the Second World War, at the request of King George VI, a saluting battery ‘dressed and equipped in traditional style’ was formed under the command of Lt Col Gillson. This would be the King’s Troop.

Their first salute was fired in celebration of the King’s birthday on 24 October 1947 and following his inspection of his newly-formed riding troop, the King announced that he wished it to be known as the King’s Troop, a wish graciously supported and continued by his daughter when she became Queen, in recognition of her father’s special interest in the Troop.

Today the Troop’s duties include the firing of Royal Salutes on Royal anniversaries and State occasions, participation in Armistice Day parades, the Lord Mayor’s Show and the Queen’s birthday parade. As part of the Household Troops, the Troop also performs the duties of the Queen’s Life Guard at Horse Guards for one month each year. Perhaps the most famous of the Troop’s duties is the provision of the gun carriage and team of black horses for State and Military funerals.

Kings troop

At any one time there will be up to 120 gun team horses who, having been selected and purchased in the main from Southern Ireland aged around five or six years, are broken in and trained by a specialist team.

The age at which they are purchased is significant as it is only by then that their bone structure has developed sufficiently to give them both the strength and agility they need. Their initial training spans three months spent in Leicestershire, after which they are brought to London and introduced to the military equipment and harnesses with which they will become so familiar.

During their training period the horses are known as ‘remounts’, clearly denoted by the fact that they still have manes. In exactly the same way as their human colleagues, the horses have to reach a required standard before ‘passing out’ to the satisfaction of the commanding officer. Only then do they have their manes ‘hogged’ (shaved off), a visible demonstration that they have made the grade. Each of the horses has a unique number branded into its hooves by the troop farrier. But they are far more than just a number, each of them having a unique name beginning with the same letter of the surname of the commanding officer at the time of their purchase.

I noticed many names relating to alcohol – Bollinger and Bacchus come to mind. The officers’ ‘chargers’ enjoy slightly more unusual names which are all sourced from Jorrocks’s Hunting Diaries and are rather splendid, such as Colonel Chatterbox, Lucy Glitters and The Duke of Dazzleton, but these are all shortened for affectionate stable names. One magnificent black charger is simply known as ‘Bert’.

They are perhaps best known for the Musical Drive, for which, in addition to their official ceremonial duties, the Troop is so famous. This provides great entertainment but also publicly demonstrates the skill and agility of both horses and riders. Each of the six guns (yes, they are real) weighs an incredible 1.5 tons and is drawn by a team of six horses in three pairs, each pair ridden by a soldier. It’s 54 feet from the first horse’s nose to the rear of the gun carriage.

Kings Troop

The front pair (‘leaders’) are generally slightly taller, more athleticallybuilt horses who together act as the accelerator. These are driven by the most senior of the three soldiers, the bombardier.

The centre pair of horses, driven by a gunner, tends to be slightly smaller, adding extra draught power to the team whilst keeping the traces (harness leatherwork) off the ground.

The final pair, the wheel horses, is thicker set, strong and powerful. Driven by a lance bombardier this pair acts as the brakes. They have to have the strength needed to stop the ton-and-a-half gun that is immediately behind them.

There are only 10 guns still in existence. Each dating back to between 1912 and 1918, they have seen active service in both the First World War, where they were drawn through the mud-ridden fields of France, and the Second World War, when they were prepared as anti-aircraft guns.

With the exception of the ‘George gun’, which is reserved exclusively for the funeral of the reigning monarch, all of the guns are used daily on parade, in training or at events. They are maintained by a limber gunner to an exacting standard, which is more than a challenge given that there is no published maintenance manual, nor spare parts.

The King’s Troop

At any one time, there are approximately 140 men and women in the King’s Troop. Having initially been allowed to apply in 1996, around 40 per cent of the Troop are now women.

The uniform is a work of art and more a piece of armour than the glamorous black, gold and red kit it presents as. Lined in pigskin, it is constructed to protect its wearer from sword strikes. The gold brocade protects the chest, the buttons emulate musket balls, while the raised collars prevent penetration of lethal slashes to the neck or throat. There are a huge number of uniform combinations for the King’s Troop, some as subtle as a change of tie. An average day will require four or five changes; for officers this could be as many as 12.

Having toured the stables, watched a parade and full draught parade practice, visited the forge, veterinary clinic, gun carriages and tailoring, the pinnacle of my day was being offered the opportunity to ride. Having not been ‘on board’ for more than 10 years and having suffered a broken neck since, which has persuaded me to stay firmly on two legs, I was filled with both fear and excitement. I needn’t have worried as Bollinger (with whom I have fallen in love) was a perfect lady.

I was surprised by the softness of her mouth and responsive sides and quickly felt very much at home in the saddle. When these wonderful horses retire (around 16 years), they are sold, often to the soldiers who have spent so many years working alongside them but not unusually to members of the public who want to give these magnificently gentle creatures a wellearned retirement as a field companion or quiet hack. Rest assured, I have made a mental note as to when Bollinger may be retiring.


Christmas Eve at the King’s Troop is ‘fun day’. The horses are often dressed up with tinsel (below) so they are included in the festivities. Christmas Day is a normal working day. However, the horses have a day off from parades and practices and approximately 50 per cent of the soldiers may be off sharing the day with friends and family.