Pfc. Brian Watts’ uniform was still dripping when he stepped off the bus. His body ached. His eyelids felt heavy. And tucked under his right arm was a brown stick horse with a plush head.
“His name’s Fred,” the 21-year-old Georgia native said Friday, his sentences interrupted by laughs. “They gave it to me in the beginning, and I had to keep up with him the whole time. I’m supposed to gallop with him everywhere I go. But it’s over and done with, so I’m not galloping anymore.”
That pretty much summed up the previous 36 hours for Watts, a human resources specialist with Fort Lewis’ 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. He and 46 others had just finished one of the cavalry’s oldest traditions, a “spur ride” that tests their skills and ends with the soldiers receiving a set of silver spurs they can wear on their boots.
The test is physically and mentally taxing, but also a source of humor. Any scolding from the experienced soldiers running the courses was delivered through a wide smile. Newbies tried to stifle laughs while doing push-ups amid a barrage of water balloons or being called “spur maggots.”
“A lot of it was joking around where they were quote-unquote ‘mean’ to you,” said Sgt. Michaela McLain, who operates Shadow drones for the squadron.
The spur ride is a tradition that dates back generations, when cavalry scouts rode horses deep into unknown territory. The ride was a grueling test of skill – still captured today as modern-day cavalry soldiers ride in Strykers, helicopters or armored vehicles – that culminated with a more-experienced rider presenting the spurs.
Soldiers undergoing the spur ride are called “shave tails,” from the practice of shaving the tail of the horse of a new soldier so others could give the rider more space during operations.
The 2nd Squadron’s spur ride included water survival training, road marches, rifle shooting, blindfolded weapons assembly, night land navigation, small-boat operations and tests on the cavalry’s history and traditions.
Its deployment to Iraq as part of 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in 2007 and subsequent training for its second tour meant this week’s spur ride was the first since 2006. The brigade leaves over the next few weeks again for Iraq. By cavalry tradition, the soldiers can earn the right to wear brass spurs on their deployment. Many are made from the remains of shell casings.
The ride was open to anyone assigned to the squadron, from cavalry scouts to intelligence personnel. More than 125 soldiers started the test, but 47 finished.
“Team-building is really what all this is about,” said Sgt. Jeffrey Hart, who earned his spurs in 2006. “This is all about trusting in the guys next to you and building that cohesion.”
The course ended with the soldiers lined up in a horseshoe-shaped formation in front of the squadron’s building. The candidates lay prostrate on the ground and raised one leg in the air as the candidate slipped on a spur on each boot. Each received a framed certificate acknowledging their accomplishment, and then everyone dug into the stacks of barbecued burgers and hotdogs.
Fred, the stick horse Watts carried throughout the exercise, was gone by the time the celebration started. But the soldier’s humor remained: He joked that his butt hurt from all the galloping he had done over the past two days.
“It was pretty hard going through it,” he said. “But man, it was worth it.”