Hero on Horseback


John Gavin


Now, while horse handling is a skill, larrikinism is a talent, and Len had this in spades. And while many a tale could be told of his bravery and courage it’s the stories that aren’t recorded by history that often make the best legends. Here’s one of them.

In the few days prior to his departure for combat, Len was in training in New South Wales. Given a day off, he decided visit one or two pubs in a nearby town. Needless to say, Len had fun but found himself later that night on foot, hung-over, broke and some distance from his military camp.

While stopped and resting against a fence, a curious horse wandered up to the stranger, and thrust its nose out for a nuzzle. By force of habit, Len responded, first by talking to the young animal, letting it become familiar with his scent, stale beer and all. In return, Len fondled the horse rubbing it behind the ears and under the chin.

This was not getting Len closer to the army camp and curfew was approaching. Then he hit on an idea. Removing belt and tie, Len fashioned a crude halter, which was able to slide over the horse’s nose. Then he opened the gate, leading the horse through and carefully closing the gate behind him. After all, Len was reared in the bush.

Working around the horse he gentled it, beginning to apply weight to its back. Then he mounted it, bareback. Then Len urged the animal in the direction of the camp. He was not overly concerned when the animal gave a few bucks and for a short time, bolted down the road. All the while, Len was speaking to the horse, reassuring and settling it down for the distance it still had to go to reach the camp.

Len and the horse reached the gates without mishap at the precise moment when the guard changes. This is known as Guard Dismount, and in the military it is a very solemn occasion. The same ritual takes place each day at Buckingham Palace.

The steed upon which Len was mounted finally decided to let all and sundry know that it had never before been ridden and bolted through the guard post at the moment of Guard Dismount. While this meant that Len was back in camp before curfew expired, it left the guard scattered in complete disarray.

Not surprisingly, Len was unpopular with the camp commandant. After spending most of the night restoring his ‘riding’ gear to inspection standard, Len appeared before the commandant to be fined £5 and given seven days Confinement to Barracks. In effect Len was restricted to camp until the time of his deployment.

What to do about the horse? The company commandant wanted the owner to press charges of horse stealing, a serious criminal offence in those days. But the farmer who owned the horse would have nothing to do with it. If Len had not taken the horse and ridden it at he did, the farmer would have had to pay the expense of a horse-breaker. So instead of getting mad , he gratefully offered his thanks to Len for giving him a horse that he could use.

While Len will neither confirm or deny this, legend has it that as the horse was being led from the camp, it paused at the guard post to give its new friend one final nuzzle.

The story was written for and published by Equilore, a NSW based equestrian magazine.