By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – Sgt. Cody Fordemwalt and Spc. Zach Vincent never thought they would join the Army and ride horses.
They never thought their uniforms would consist of cowboy boots and Stetsons.
They never thought they'd travel the country demonstrating cavalry tactics from the Indian Wars era.
They certainly never thought they'd learn the art of leather-working or how to make boots and saddles.
Pretty good for two guys who had never been on horses before – even if they are from Kansas and Ohio.
Fordemwalt and Vincent are members of the 1st Cavalry Division's Horse Cavalry Detachment. The detachment represents the division, III Corps and the Army in ceremonies, parades and demonstrations across the country, according to its Web site, which can be found linked to the division's at www.cavcountry.net.
The soldiers also "serve as a link to America's military past" and "aid the U.S. Army's recruiting efforts across the country."
The detachment strives to be as self-sufficient as possible, said Capt. Ted Zagraniski, the unit's commander. Soldiers construct about two-thirds of the unit's equipment and tack.
When the Horse Detachment was formed, it had a tiny leather shop, more like a tack room, Fordemwalt said. He now works in a building dedicated to the process.
Vincent is the detachment's saddle builder. He constructs saddles, harnesses for the mule team, bridles, spur straps and belts. He makes nearly everything the soldiers use except for the English saddles and gloves.
He attended a six-week school in Springdale, Ark., where he learned how to work leather. He said the hardest part of the process is hand-stitching, because it tears up his fingers. He prefers to hand stitch because it's stronger, more precise and more challenging.
The shop does have machines for stitching, some of them ancient works of cast iron from the early 1900s. Because they are older, they can be unreliable. Machines for this work are still made, but can cost anywhere from $3,000-$6,000, Fordemwalt said.
Vincent likes the independence that working on a saddle gives him. It takes about 40 hours to construct one saddle, and Vincent starts from the ground up. It begins with a wooden skeleton and includes an in-depth process of stretching leather and painstaking stitching. He also makes the accessories, such as stirrups, and attaches those to the saddle.
Fordemwalt also likes the independence that the work gives him.
"As a boot maker, it's all you," he said.
He is one of two boot makers for the detachment and guessed that they were probably the only boot makers in the Army. He makes the 19-inch-tall black leather boots the soldiers wear during their performances.
He attended a three-week school in St. Joe to learn the art from a third-generation boot maker. There, he built a pair of ornate cowboy boots from the ground up in 40 hours. The cavalry boots he makes for the detachment are simpler because they don't require as much artistic work.
When he prepares to make a pair of boots, he takes 13 measurements of the person's foot. He then creates a cast to build the boot around. It truly is "building," too. Fordemwalt stitches pieces together and nails on heels during the process. A pair of boots made in the shop can last four to six years if they are well taken care of, he said.
Everybody's foot is different, Fordemwalt said, and it takes years and years of perfection to get boot making right.
Like saddle making, it is a painstaking process that can be ruined with one bad stitch or one slip of the knife.
Soldiers in the leather shop also make repairs to pieces they didn't make and equipment from other equine organizations, including the Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard based out of Fort Riley, Kan. The color guard is Fort Riley's version of the Horse Detachment.
Fordemwalt has worked as a boot maker for two years and Vincent has worked as a saddle maker for one-and-a-half years. To specialize in an area like this, Horse Detachment soldiers have to apprentice in the shop for six months before they are allowed to go to school. For the first time in more than a year, a soldier was recently sent to saddle school.
Soldiers have to show an interest in the crafts, but they have to become members of the Horse Detachment first. That is a process in which soldiers must try out and show they have dedication to the unit's standards.
"We maintain an extremely high standard of perfection out there," Zagraniski said.
It takes hard work to become one of the uniformed cowboy soldiers leaping their horses over obstacles and shooting at balloons during demonstrations.
A potential trooper must be a soldier in the 1st Cavalry. After a 30-day training process, candidates take a written and riding exam. If they pass, they are named a "C Grouper." The C Groupers must wear helmets when riding horses. In six months, they must pass another set of exams to get to wear the black Stetson cowboy hats. They still don't get to wear the spurs.
At 12-16 months, the soldier takes an all-day riding and written test to move to the B Group. That test has a 30 percent passing rate, Zagraniski said. Those who move into the B Group get to wear spurs, but without the rowels. The rowels are the spiked disks that make a spur jangle.
A member can pass to the A Group 18 months to two years after that. It includes a three-day riding test and a two-and-a-half to three-hour written test. Once soldiers are named to this elite group, they earn spurs with rowels and a silver belt buckle. The soldier will maintain that A Group status.
The detachment has about eight C Groupers, 16 B Groupers and four A Groupers, Zagraniski said.
Horse Detachment soldiers are allowed to serve in the unit as long as they like must serve a minimum of 18 months. The commander is the only one with a time limit. Zagraniski began training with the unit in May 2006 and has about one year left. The average time a soldier spends in the detachment is about 24 months, he estimated.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547