JBSA-FORT SAM HOUSTON –
Part 2: Soldiers use leadership to teach 'greenhorns,' learn new skills
Just as in any military unit, Soldiers in the Fort Sam Houston Caisson Section use leadership skills to train to ride and manage horses, albeit with a twist.
"All he needs is a kiss," calls out Sgt. Benjamin Roberts to recently arrived Spc. Robert Neal saddled atop Bainbridge. "He doesn't understand 'Go buddy!'"
It is Neal's inaugural ride and he is clutching the reins and saddle horn for dear life as Roberts urges Bainbridge into a cantor, then a trot and then finally into a gallop, kicking up dust around a small arena behind the stables at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
Bainbridge, a quarter horse and the smallest of the caisson horses, is the one with which new riders begin their horsemanship instruction. Learning to ride a 1,000-pound horse that towers above an average Soldier can be intimidating for those without prior experience.
As the horse moves around the arena, Roberts draws air in through pursed lips - making kissing sounds - a gentle signal in tandem with the tap of a crop to the horse's hindquarters to let Bainbridge know he needs to quicken his gait.
Neal loosens his grip and relaxes a bit as he becomes accustomed to the horse's movements.
Fellow Caisson Soldiers, hanging from the railings around the arena, chuckle and wisecrack between themselves, while studying Neal's capabilities in the saddle, looking for excessive fear or any reticence that might need extra work in addition to equine skills training.
Like Neal, most of the Soldiers assigned to the caisson section arrive as "greenhorns," without experience.
It is the "old hands," along with stable master John Deeley, who lead new members through the six-week, on-the-job training program Deeley established, giving directions and offering advice, usually with a dash of Army humor.
"Remember - hold the reins like a .50 cal," Roberts instructs Neal.
As a team chief, Roberts seems a natural at horsemanship, yet he said he learned all of his skills while assigned to the Fort Sam Houston Caisson Section.
Roberts has been a part of the unit for a total of three years, alternating between assignments to Bagdad, Iraq and Kabul, Afghanistan with a Quick Reaction Force.
Before the first ride, a Soldier prepares and saddles the horse, practices getting and staying in the saddle, then gets lessons on communicating with the horse.
Safety is a priority for all riders and helmets and safety vests are worn during all phases of instruction on the horse.
Deeley's immersive, hands-on program uses sounds, hand signals and crops to communicate with the horses and he teaches his Soldiers the same techniques he's refined after 30 years of training and riding. The stable master also owns a ranch in Schertz, Texas.
"We teach them balance in the saddle. We teach them the footfalls of the horse, different gaits and how to keep the horse going in the right direction," Deeley said. "We teach them how a horse thinks, how a horse reacts."
Much of the training involves tutoring the Soldiers on conveying intent to the horse properly. If a horse does something wrong, it's because the rider gave the wrong input to the horse, Deeley explains, such as pulling back on the reins while kicking to go forward - opposing messages.
"Confusion usually turns to fear for a horse and fear usually turns into panic and that means a trip to the San Antonio Military Medical Center for the rider. In order to avoid confusion the rider must control a horse physically, emotionally and mentally. That horse has to be focused on you," Deeley said, adding that a rider leads and controls the horse with pressure.
"When I have the bit in his mouth and I am pulling to the right, I am not pulling his mouth, I am putting pressure on this side of his mouth and he is yielding to that pressure," Deeley explained. "That's how horses talk to each other - pressure."
Lessons on equine anatomy, proper feeding and caring for the horse as well as stable and pasture maintenance are part of the program Deeley engineered. Caisson Soldiers also learn to use and clean tack - the saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits and harnesses - used on a horse.
After completing the in-depth training program, a caisson Soldier wears an English-styled set of spurs.
After 75 Caisson ceremonies, a Soldier is allowed to train other personnel and is awarded a Western-styled set of spurs that sport a round rile and makes a characteristic clink when the Soldier walks.
The "cowboys" of the caisson section still retain a disciplined Army regimen. The Soldiers rotate duty during weekends, feeding and caring for the horses and follow a set schedule during the week.
"We come in at 0630, do formation, take accountability then feed the horses," said Team Chief Sgt. Tony Holmes. "In the summer, physical training is done in the afternoon and in the morning during the winter."
Holmes, the senior spurred rider, has been with the Fort Sam Houston Caisson Section since 2011. He came to San Antonio from Afghanistan, where he served with a special operations task force, living in rural areas of the country where he and his unit contributed to village stability operations.
Originally from Dallas, Holmes said he grew up with horses, so it was easy to pick up the skills he needed to work with the unit.
"It's a new experience, a new trade," said Sgt. Angel Aguilar who, along with Neal, recently joined the caisson section. Aguilar was originally trained as a microwave technician. He said he almost fell off of the horse during his first ride, but managed to stay in the saddle.
"We'll see tomorrow," Aguilar said. "I am very cautious with what I am doing, but am excited to be part of the caisson unit."