I found this account of initial recruit training and thought it worth sharing. The recruits at this point had completed several weeks of dismounted drill, and had just been introduced to their mounts. The author was somewhat small of stature, to the point of initially being enlisted as a bugler and not a regular trooper.
“The riding school was simply a large ring marked out on the ground and a trail following the outside margin in which the horses should always move while marching. Our riding outfit was simply a blanket strapped on the horse’s back with a surcingle and a bridle and then a pair of the small sharp pointed cavalry spurs on the heels. Stirrups were not used with beginners. They had to learn to mount their horses by a vault. Not like the farmer or others generally do by springing up and throwing the breast over the horse’s back and then the legs. In a cavalry vault the right leg must pass over the horse’s back before the cavalryman’s breast passes over the horse’s shoulder. That was not easy for a small fellow like me to do, as Uncle Sam’s horses are of the largest size.
“We kept up the vaulting exercise for several days with tolerably good success, as we supposed, but apparently not quite satisfactorily to our drill-master. The sharp pointed spurs we were obliged to wear gave us endless trouble. To complete the training in vaulting we were finally issued saddles, but without the stirrups and from then on we had to vault into the saddle, which made it even more difficult, and at last we were ordered to appear on drill under arms, with waist belt, cartridge box, saber, carbine and sling belt, and from that time on we had to vault into the saddle with all the rig that belongs to a cavalryman except the revolver, which had not yet been issued.
“If the vaulting exercise had been difficult before, it was now still more so; in fact, it had reached its climax. The heavy carbine was attached to the sling belt by an iron swivel and hung, muzzle down, when the trooper was mounted, but when dismounted and standing to horse ready to mount, it was thrown over the right shoulder and hung down his back. The saber was attached to the waist belt by two narrow straps, one a little longer than the other and always hung loose in them except when worn on foot drill, when it was hooked up on the waist belt.
“With that rig, and in the style just described, we stood the day after the order was given, by our horses, ready to mount if we could, but it certainly didn’t look like it was possible. We had to overcome the difficulties in vaulting into the saddle and believed ourselves well on the way to perfection in that part of mounted drill, but when I stood by the side of my horse that morning looking at the long saber by my left side, the lower part of the scabbard resting on the ground about two and one-half feet behind me and the upper part of the scabbard wit the hilt of the saber projecting out at least one foot in front of me, and the carbine hanging down the middle of my back with the butt end just opposite the back of my head, I wondered if it was possible for me to make a spring with such force as to bring myself and those loose and dangling weapons up on the back of my horse.
“That there was fun on the drillground that morning when the first sergeant, after having explained the rules in the new exercise, gave the necessary commands to mount, can be imagined. Few, if any of us expected to be able to execute the command in proper style, and when the command fell there followed a scramble and a terrible rattling of sabers along the line, but only a few could be seen on top of their horses when the commotion was over. The others were either lying on the ground or standing by their horses with a disgusted look on their faces, I being among the last named. It took several days fo that kind of vaulting exercise before Sergeant O’Connel allowed us to begin exercise in the riding ring. Even then we had to turn out “under arms” at every drill hour and make several vaults with the whole rig on before we were allowed to take off our belts, “stack” carbines and take the ring.” (James Larson, Sergeant Larson, 4th Cav., pgs 96-97)
If this sounds amusing to you, as it did to me, I urge you to attempt the cavalry vault if you have the opportunity. I’m tall and reasonably athletic, and was able to successfully complete the vault without equipment after a few attempts on a well-broken horse. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be in full equipment. The saber Larson describes sounds like the Model 1840 heavy cavalry saber, known as the “Old Wristbreaker”, not the lighter and shorter Model 1860 cavalry saber. The Model 1840 was 42” long overall, and weighed just over 5 pounds. The carbine mentioned was the Sharps, which at least one battalion of the regiment had received during fall of 1860. It was 39” long overall, and weighed 8 pounds. The horses, while broken to the saddle, were not yet trained cavalry mounts and undoubtedly thought little of the exercise.