Sussex Peggers: Skill at Arms
PUBLISHED: 01:16 29 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:54 20 February 2013
An equestrian sport based on the skills of medieval knights and Indian Army cavalrymen is growing in popularity here in Sussex. Simon Irwin finds out more
There is a corner of a Sussex field where the arts of Mounted Skill-at-Arms (SAA) are still taught. Riders as young as seven learn how to handle weapons in the sport that traces its origins back to the days of chivalry.
Among the horseback skills they learn at the Ditchling Common Stud Riding School (DCS) are how to shoot balloons with a revolver, pick up a peg from the ground or take a ring with a lance or sword at full gallop.
Some such as taking the ring with the lance are medieval in nature. Others have a more modern heritage. Spearing a tile on the ground with a lance or a sword while riding at full pelt is called tentpegging.
It was developed as a way to improve horsemanship for cavalrymen in the Indian Army during the Raj. It remains a very popular sport in the sub-Continent to this day.
The present-day followers among the Sussex Peggers Riding Club (SPRL) have its founder John Dudeney to thank for its current renaissance in the county.
John, who runs the riding school with his wife Joyce, was first taught the sport of SAA by a Metropolitan Police Officer by the name of Bernie Barker, who sadly died.
Bernie was a proficient competitor in the sport and with his help John managed to persuade the military to allow civilians to compete at what in the past were military-only shows.
John and a number of his clients have competed in military-run SAA competitions in the UK at Aldershot, Royal Windsor and the Royal Tournament at Melton Mowbray. John also competed in the last two Royal Tournaments before it was moved out of London to Melton Mowbray.
In November 2009 the Dudeneys and their clients at DCS decided to set up a riding club for Skill-at-Arms.
There was sufficient interest in the sport to float the idea of developing the riding club. Now there are around 70 members enjoying the sport.
John says that he was first attracted to SAA about 15 years ago because he thought it was far more rewarding and enjoyable than eventing.
I became disillusioned with the amount of money and effort in return for what you got out of it with eventing. I read about a group that was doing Napoleonic cavalry in Horse and Hound. It was a sort of progression from doing a bit of re-enactment to thinking how realistic could we be.
Mounted Skill-at-Arms is as broad as you want to make it. It could include anything from archery to jousting. In particular what we do is we use the sword, the lance and the revolver.
And the sport that we specialise in is really a Victorian sport that came back with the Army from India and would have been a way of entertaining and training the troops and horses.
A lot of what we do can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Taking rings with a lance is something that an armoured knight had to be able to do to learn how to find the chinks in somebody elses armour with his lance.
The exercises with the revolver go back to our cavalry of the First World War or Continental cavalry of the Second World War.
We take pegs out of the ground at a gallop with sword and lance.
The pegs are three inches wide, a foot long and an inch deep. They used to be made of wood. We now tend to use corrugated plastic stuck together which is much cheaper.
The rings are about two and a half inches wide and equate to the chink in the armour or somebodys mouth or throat. It is about looking for the weakest spot.
Shooting balloons with a forward firing blank revolver is being phased out because they are very expensive and difficult to get. That is being replaced with bursting the balloon with a pricker. Firearms are always a rather contentious issue so we tend only to use those on special occasions.
John says that as well as being fun, training in the sport improves his clients riding skills: Ive found that the teaching improves peoples riding enormously and also gives them a purpose and direction.
The problem with a lot of the modern competitions, dressage, showjumping and eventing is that it costs a lot and you dont proportionately get a lot in return whereas with this sport you get an awful lot and, as far as horse sports can be, it is not excessively expensive.
Its like all things with horses. If you go and watch show jumping there are some that thoroughly enjoy it, some that will do it because they have to and some that just say nuts.
Generally speaking they do thoroughly enjoy it and certainly here on a weekend when I take six horses off to the Battle Proms, those that are left behind look pretty glum.
Its not just a spectacle at major public events, it is also a competitive sport. In the UK, points are given for style, abroad, there is a time element with riders competing against the clock.