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On Horseback at Culver: 125 Years of a Proud Tradition on the Regional and International Stage

Jeff Kenney

Black Horse Troopers at Culver's first appearance in a presidential inaugural parade when Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913.

 

125 Years of the Black Horse Troop

 

Sept. 1, 2022

One of the most recognizable facets nationally of Culver Academies is its horsemanship program, which began with the storied Black Horse Troop, though there's much more to the program, which celebrates 125 years since its founding this year, than that specific entity. 

Horsemanship at Culver indeed owes its origins to the Black Horse Troop, originally a unit of the Cleveland Cavalry that wowed the nation in March, 1897, when it escorted President William McKinley down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., as part of that year's inaugural festivities (in those days, inaugural parades were held in March rather than the January time-frame of today). 

Among those impressed by the pageantry of the troop was a young Virginia Military Institute graduate who had been hired just a few months earlier by Culver Military Academy founder Henry Harrison Culver to serve as the commandant of cadets at the fledgling school, which had opened its doors less than three years prior, in 1894. Leigh Gignilliat would later become superintendent of the school (in 1911), a brigadier general after serving in World War I, and a figure of national prominence for his role in the Preparedness Movement of the early 20th century, which helped give birth to the ROTC, among other effects. 

Perhaps more than any other individual, Gignilliat's vision and methodology helped put Culver on the map internationally, placing its cadets in headlines and newsreels, its name into two Hollywood film titles ("Tom Brown of Culver" in 1932 and "The Spirit of Culver" in 1939), and its graduates among the most accomplished in the nation, not only in their military service but in the business world, the arts, politics, and more. 

One of Gignilliat's first endeavors was to recommend to the Culver family the purchase of the mounts of the Black Horse Troop, shortly after the inaugural parade of that spring day in 1897. The first 16 horses were soon on campus, and Gignilliat lost no time, in the coming months and few years, in putting them in front of regional audiences. Culver's Black Horse Troop escorted the governor of Indiana, members of the Grand Army of the Republic, and took part in the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1903 (where it served as personal escort to legendary Admiral of the Navy George Dewey) and the Jamestown Exposition in 1907, to name but a few early appearances of note. 

By 1898, an impressive red brick riding hall graced the Culver campus, matching the design by renowned St. Louis architect Albert Knell of the campus' other buildings. Cadets in the Troop were trained not only in general equitation but also jumping and rough riding, hearkening back to the hallowed tradition of cavalry in warfare and making for an even more impressive spectacle in newspaper photos, films, postcards, and in-person audience revues. 

In 1906, an accomplished horseman in the form of Spanish-American War veteran and Cavalryman Col. Robert Rossow joined the Culver staff as director of its horsemanship program. One of his first suggestions, met with enthusiastic approval by Gignilliat, was the formation of a summer cavalry program to complement the recently (1902) launched Summer Naval School, thus beginning, in 1907, a longstanding and cherished program in its own right, today known as the Summer School of Horsemanship. 

By 1908, an event that would become a beloved annual tradition began within the summer cavalry program: the Troop hike. Initially known as the "100-mile hike," the event took summer cavalry cadets "on the trail" on horseback for miles away from Culver, often journeying through surrounding towns and tent camping along the way (today the tradition continues, though not with quite the same scope of distance). 

Perhaps its most visible manifestation began for the Black Horse Troop in 1913, when former Indiana Gov. Thomas Marshall invited the entire Culver corps of cadets to escort him down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, under whom Marshall served as vice president. Culver cadets made an impressive showing at that inaugural and its follow-up in 1917, with the Troop in particular capturing headlines, media photos, and film clips. 

Over the following decades, members of the Black Horse Troop and its honor organization, the Lancer Platoon, appeared at a wide array of regional and national-level events, escorting a host of dignitaries including President Herbert Hoover, World War I Supreme Allied Commander Marshall Foch, the King and Queen of Denmark, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, Prince Charles of England, and many more. Perhaps as testament to the stature of the Troop, two popular juvenile novels were published in the 1950s: "Black Horse of Culver" by Helen Orr Watson, and "Tex Reins, Culver Trooper" by Robert Rossow. This in addition to numerous recordings and sheet music compositions paying tribute to the Troop (including a march composed by legendary bandleader John Philips Sousa). 

 

The Black Horse Troop Lancer Platoon escorting Emperor Hirohito of Japan in Chicago in 1975.

 

In the meantime, a new (and the current) riding hall replaced the 1898 structure. Completed in 1916, Culver's riding hall was hailed as the largest indoor equestrian center in the United State, with its massive arena home to polo matches and a variety of riding exhibitions and events. Various additions have graced what is today known as the Vaughn Equestrian Center including, in 2009, a large-scale renovation of the entire facility including the now state-of-the-art stables, which can house some 100 horses. 

The 1950s saw efforts by Culver students to revive the inaugural tradition. These finally bore fruit when, in 1957, the Troop participated in President Dwight Eisenhower's second inaugural, beginning a consistent run of inaugural appearances ever since, with only the 1993 parade as an exception. 

From the first female students at Culver Military Academy starting in 1957, horsemanship opportunities had been available to young women at the school, even if membership in the Black Horse Troop proper -- as a living unit in the military school, which is male only -- wasn't possible. This had only increased by 1965 with the start of the Summer School for Girls, and into the 1970s girls in the summer and high school boarding program (which by 1971 included the Culver Academy for Girls, today's Culver Girls Academy), when equestrian hikes, jumping, and polo became available for girls. 

In 1978, a girls' hunt club evolved into the CGA Equestriennes, the first honor organization for young women at Culver Academies, as of 1981. The Equestriennes can boast of a rich history in their own right, sometimes at events alongside members of the Black Horse Troop or Lancer Platoon, and sometimes in their own unique appearances around the country. 

The Equestriennes were invited for the first time to join their Troop counterparts in Washington, D.C., for the 1985 Reagan inaugural, though that parade was canceled due to inclement weather. Thus the 1989 inaugural parade was the first for the Equestriennes, who (with the exception of the aforementioned 1993 parade) have joined the Troop at every inaugural since. 

 

The Equestriennes, a riding unit for students in Culver Girls Academy, make their way down Pennsylvania Avenue for their first  presidential inaugural parade in 1989.

 

They have appeared in events (both on their own and alongside Troopers) surrounding the Indianapolis 500, the Kentucky Derby, the Fort Worth Stock Show, and the renowned World Equestrian Games, among many others. 

Today, the rich tradition of horsemanship continues at Culver Academies under the direction of recently-installed Director of Horsemanship Captain Sean "Skip" Nicholls, who served since 1991 with the British Armed Forces Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment in London, England, and began his Culver tenure last year. 

And so, a century and a quarter later, students at Culver continue to learn lessons instilled by four-legged, as well as human instructors and to enthrall audiences locally, regionally, and internationally as they carry on a hallowed equestrian tradition.

 

Members of the Equestriennes during the "virtual" presidential inaugural of 2021.

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