Who doesn't? Pretty much all kids (and kids at heart) are mesmerized by all the floats, the marching bands and, you guessed it, the horses.
Equestrian units have been a hallmark of parades for well over 100 years ~ likely a whole lot longer. In fact, the first parades in the USA consisted almost exclusively of horse-related entries. There seem to be very few that do not feature horses prominently, from the small town cavalcade heading through Main Street America to the (inter)nationally televised processions down the boulevards of our largest cities.
But what if you want to ride in one? As a rule, you're not going to get picked for the Tournament of Roses extravaganza with no experience, so you've got to start somewhere. Most parades are organized by cities or civic organizations. If you are familiar with when parades in your area are happening, keep an eye on the local paper so you can catch the contact information for whoever hosts those events. They will have entry forms you will need to carefully fill out and turn in, and an information packet available which you'll need to study and follow. Pay special attention to the timelines of when you need to be mounted, in line and ready to go.
Many years ago my earliest experiences as a parade participant were with our region's ETI (Equestrian Trails, Inc) club. After riding back in the group a couple of times, my lovely grey *Raffles-bred Arabian gelding and I were tapped to carry the American flag. Flag training was a fun and challenging endeavor. I started by using a flannel bed sheet attached to an old rake handle and practiced riding with it in the arena for a while each day until my horse was fully comfortable ~ making sure to also practice on windy days!!
By 1984 I was invited to ride in the Rose Parade itself, which was the honor of a lifetime. There are no words to describe the feeling of receiving one of those very special invitation letters, let alone riding your beloved mount down Colorado Blvd on New Years Day! Keep in mind, though, it does usually take some years of experience before reaching that pinnacle of parade-dom.
Since then I have ridden in many parades, both as an individual and as part of a group. Riding by yourself isn't such a big deal, however grouping horses (as well as the choreography involved) can be a challenge. First, you need to pair horses of similar size and stride length. Color can be a consideration, too, then designing a formation based on how many horses you have to work with and what they look like.
Practice makes perfect! Once that formation is decided on, work on several key points. Keeping time with each other, maintaining a consistent speed (you can ask the parade organizers approximately how fast or how slow they will expect you to be...generally relatively slow) and building up your horse's patience and endurance for a longer parade. I like to use a car driving in front of us to set the pace for the first time or two of practice, so we can get into the mode of speed we need to be in.
Another major consideration, especially in picking horses to be in a parade, will be how well they each handle distractions and behave themselves in noisy or stressful situations. Be sure ALL horses deal well with traffic, lots of people, a great deal of noise and that they have no problem with walking on pavement or blacktop. Also make certain that they are fine with crossing painted lines on the street. This is a must to avoid issues during the parade itself and all part of training the parade horse.
After you're entered, you've practiced and you are ready to go comes deciding on attire and decorations, if applicable. For a 4th of July parade, obviously red, white and blue are in order; when you are riding in a Christmastime parade, stick with reds and greens, silver and gold. With a large group, all riders should either be wearing the same simple costume (such as a white shirt, black jeans and a black hat, for example, and you can purchase or make matching saddle blankets and even colorful leg wraps that match your saddle pads) or you can all be attired in proper show clothing, which is what our show team generally does. On our horses, we only use simple, classy embellishments like bows, roses and/or neck garlands based on the theme of the parade. For a Christmas parade a few years back, we bought beautiful silk and velvet poinsettia garlands to go around our horses' necks. See picture below:
Most of all, have fun and make sure someone takes plenty of pictures for posterity!
In two days' time, once again there will be horses marching through Pasadena, this time heralding the arrival of 2010, along with all the additional pageantry that is the annual Tournament of Roses parade.
I wanted to make special mention of the fact that Region One of the Arabian Horse Association has a group riding in this prestigious event, along with my dear friend (Region One Director) Nancy Harvey and her breakthrough Carriage Driving horse. Nancy and her beautiful mare are National Champions in Carriage Driving! Watch for them ~ these guys and gals (as well as their gorgeous Arabian show horses) are making us all so proud!!