There was a time when “war horse” was not just a figure of speech. The place was where the Piedmont meets the Blue Ridge.
By Andrea Gaines
“The United States will have a permanent supply of horses of the type most useful for military purposes as well as general purpose usage when plans now being formulated by the federal authorities are carried to fruition.” So began an early 20th Century news article marking a crucial turning point in the U.S. Army’s “remount” movement. So began one of the most interesting chapters in military-and Virginia thoroughbred industry-history.
“Remount” is the term used to describe the purchase, training, and delivery of horses and mules used by the United States military, a process designed to make available a supply of fresh draft and cavalry animals. As far back as the Civil War, the US government had encountered great difficulty in securing quality horses and mules, and in caring for them. The system was decentralized, inefficient, and incapable of meeting demand should a large number of animals be needed quickly. But it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th Century that the Army got serious about the “remount problem.”
In 1907, Major General James B. Aleshire, then Qartermaster General, issued a report outlining the remount problem and recommending the establishment of a special division to be charged with the purchasing and handling of horses and mules. He also recommended the establishment of centralized locations with established standards and procedures.
On Aleshire’s recommendations, key remount depots were established at Fort Reno, Oklahoma; Fort Keogh, Montana; Front Royal, Virginia. But, while Aleshire got his remount depots, it wasn’t until the United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917 that his full vision was embraced. Military experts of the time estimated that the United States might be called upon to produce as many as million horses and mules, and on May 15, 1918, the Secretary of War approved a Quartermaster General plan for the breeding of a “suitable type” of cavalry animal.
The Virginia Front Royal Remount Depot (named for a time after General Aleshire) was acquired by act of Congress in 1911 and in operation by the fall of1915. Its function was quite specific: “for the purchase, receipt, quarantine, and conditioning for issue of animals required by the Army in the eastern zone.”
Virginia was well known as the home of the half-breed hunter in America, and scientifically-based breeding of horses had been going on for many years. It was the perfect place for the ultimate goals of the Army: a superior military and “civilian” horse! Front Royal was designed as a clearinghouse for stallions used in the Army’s breeding program. The majority of the best stallions purchased by the Army in the 1920’s was purchased in the East, conditioned at the Front Royal Remount Depot and shipped to other Depots across the country.
This enabled the Front Royal Depot to develop an extremely skilled breeding program, and it also attracted the attention and generosity of the most successful horse breeders and owners of the day. Many breeders and owners donated their winning stallions to the Army for breeding purposes through the Front Royal Depot, not only maximizing the quality of our military horses but also energizing the entire US thoroughbred industry.
“Jenny Camp,” the most famous Army-bred horse, was born at the Front Royal Depot. She was one of only three horses to win consecutive individual medals at the Olympics. The Depot also has connections to the famous Lipizzaner stallions rescued by General George S. Patton in World War II, who were at one time on display there, and “Nordlicht” the horse once described as “the finest thoroughbred on the continent” of Europe. Horseman Samuel D. Riddle donated the services of “Man o’ War,”one of the greatest racehorses of all time, to the Front Royal Depot, as did scores of other prominent breeders.
General Pershing is reported to have ridden his horse the 70 miles from Warrenton to the Depot, part of a “recuperative program” suggested by his physicians. Pershing’s famous horse “Kidron” which he rode in the Paris victory parade of 1919, passed its last days at the Depot, where he died in 1942.
The Virginia horse industry and the Front Royal Remount Depot placed superior animals on the market, helped ensure high quality animals would be available to the Army, and made equestrian dreams come true. Together, they made history. As the Quartermaster journal noted in 1930, “The Front Royal Remount Depot now occupies a place in the breeding industry not only of Virginia but the entire East…a model for the average practical horseman for experimental breeding, care, and conditioning of stallions, brood-mares, foals, and young stock.... Since the War we have learned much about remount work and breeding. Within very limited appropriations we have been able to clear fields, properly rotate them, and construct temporary sheds and stables that follow the modern ideas of the breeding, care, and conditioning of horses.”