New horsepower for war zones: Special Forces saddle up

Jim Michaels, USA TODAY 7:51 p.m. EDT June 22, 2014


BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — The men emerged over the crest of a ridge and guided their horses along a tree line, skirting a wide meadow. They picked their way along narrow trails, climbing higher into the Sierra until a panorama of snowcapped peaks and a broad green valley unfolded beneath them.

The men, Special Forces soldiers dressed in jeans and other civilian clothes, led their horses into a thick stand of pine trees, where they dismounted and let the horses drink from a clear mountain stream before breaking out their own rations.

At this remote training area high in the Sierra, the U.S. Marine Corps is reviving the horsemanship skills that were once a key part of the nation’s armed forces but were cast aside when tanks and armored vehicles replaced them. The need to bring these skills back was driven home in Afghanistan in 2001, when the first Special Forces soldiers to arrive found themselves fighting on horseback alongside tribesmen in rugged terrain without roads. Many had never ridden a horse before.

“We don’t want to reinvent anything,” said Marine Capt. Seth Miller, the officer in charge of formal schools at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. “These are skills that were lost.”

Marine instructors are teaching the students, most of them Army Special Forces soldiers, how to control horses, care for them and load packs. The students are taught how to calculate routes and distances for rides and what to look for when purchasing horses from locals. For example, checking teeth is a good way to determine age and avoid getting ripped off by a farmer trying to pass off an ancient mule or horse.

In a throwback to the old Wild West days, instructors are considering training soldiers in how to shoot from a moving horse.

No one is talking about bringing back the cavalry, but horses are an effective way for Special Forces and other small units to move around the battlefield, instructors said. They can travel long distances quietly and don’t require the gasoline and massive logistics trains that encumber motorized forces.


For all its advantages in technology, the U.S. military has been dragged into the most primitive of fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving home the point that technology isn’t always the answer.

“We get caught up with what’s new and high-speed,” Miller said.

On a recent morning, 13 students packed their mules and horses shortly after sunrise at base camp, preparing for a 14-mile ride that would take them high into the Sierra, mountains that were familiar to gold prospectors more than a century ago. Students ride a total of about 110 miles during the 16-day course.

“My butt’s going to be sore,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. Jeryd Leuck, who specializes in search-and-rescue operations, as he prepared to mount his horse, Chesty. Leuck said that before he started the course, his only equestrian experience was a childhood pony ride.

The students mounted horses and picked their way up a steep, shrub-covered slope that would take them out of the base camp. Six mules were part of the patrol.

The animals are remarkably efficient. Mules can carry several hundred pounds and walk up to 55 miles a day, requiring nothing more than grass and water. If required, they can survive several days without water and longer without food. They have no problem climbing to heights of more than 10,000 feet, at altitudes where some helicopters struggle because of a lack of lift.

“This has been proven to work,” said Marine Maj. Sven Jensen, operations officer for the training center, pointing to a group of men resting by their horses and mules as sunlight streamed through the trees. “This has worked for the last 3,000 years.”

The Marines Corps, which takes an almost perverse pride in a Spartan lifestyle and a fondness for low-technology solutions, has offered a mule-packing course here since the 1980s. It launched the horsemanship training about three years ago after receiving requests from Army Special Forces soldiers.


It’s the only such course in the U.S. military, and demand is high.

USA TODAY was allowed unlimited access to observe training as long as it didn’t identify by name or photograph the faces of the Special Forces soldiers taking the course. Because they sometimes conduct covert missions, Special Forces soldiers typically request they not be identified publicly.

The only requirement for students is that they are part of the special operations community, since they would have the most use for the training.

Tony Parkhurst, director of the horsemanship and mule packing course, built the curriculum by delving into old cavalry manuals and studying American Indian tactics and techniques. The equestrian sports of today, such as dressage or jumping, are too specialized to be of much use to the military. Instead, Parkhurst studied procedures that were popular when horses were used for transportation and plowing fields.

“The Indians were actually better than our cavalry,” Parkhurst said. “They were phenomenal guerrilla fighters.”

Cavalry officers in the 1800s had to calculate things such as how far horses could march, how much food they consumed and how best to pack them with equipment and weapons.

The pack saddle used for mules here would be recognized by Genghis Khan’s army, Parkhurst said.

The Marines have stopped at nothing in an effort to recapture the skills lost when the military turned to mechanized warfare.

Not many people know how to shoot from a moving horse these days, so the Marines turned to Annie Bianco, who goes by the name Outlaw Annie and is a leading practitioner of the small but growing sport of cowboy mounted shooting. She fires a six-shooter at targets from a galloping horse. A couple of instructors from the training center visited her ranch in Arizona.

Bianco knows how to desensitize horses to the sound of gunfire. “Horses are flighty animals,” she said. “Their first response from gunfire is to try and get away from it.”

What instructors have discovered is the horses of today are softer than their ancestors, who plowed fields and carried riders over vast distances.

“We’ve bred them and made them more athletic over time,” Bianco said. “That’s made it more difficult to find the well-rounded horse.”

Most of the horses used at the course are former mustangs, or wild horses, trained by inmates in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. They are both well-rounded and cheap.

Although the Pentagon is turning back to age-old battlefield techniques, it is hardly giving up on technology. In fact, it’s trying to make a robotic version of the mule. The $62 million program is called the LS3, or legged squad support system, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency describes it as a “highly mobile, semiautonomous legged robot.”

The Pentagon consulted with some of the instructors here to learn more about real mules. The instructors seem skeptical that technology can improve much on the real thing.

Parkhurst said, “I can buy a whole load of mules for $60 million.”



The man with the golden arm

‘Man with the golden arm’ saves 2million babies in half a century of donating rare type of blood

By Mail Foreign Service

James Harrison

Life-saver: James Harrison has donated his rare blood nearly 1,000 times

Read more:


George R.R. Martin Wants to Kill You for $20,000

A gory death at the hands of Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin can be yours for the one-time price of $20,000. The death will, of course, be of the text-only variety.

The honor is reserved for a top-tier donator on Martin’s Prizeo crowdfunding campaign, raising money to support the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary and Food Depot in Martin’s adopted hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The winner will choose their character’s position in the fictional world (lordling, maester, peasant, whore, etc.) and meet a grisly death that could rival the Red Wedding.


George Martin Wolf

George R.R. Martin interacts with a wolf in the WIld Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Candy Kitchen, New Mexico.

If you don’t have $20,000 on hand, don’t worry. Everyone who donates any amount is automatically entered to win a tour of the wolf sanctuary and take a helicopter ride with the author/murderer-of-all-hopes-and-dreams himself. Other donation tiers include signed maps of Westeros, show scripts and Martin’s own hat.

Martin and his wife, Parris McBride, have donated money and helped raise funds for the wolf sanctuary for several years. The sanctuary now houses more than 60 wolves and wolf-dogs, including a pack of nine named after the warring continent of Westeros featured in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.



George R.R. Martin speaks with Leyton Cougar, director of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Candy Kitchen, New Mexico.

Martin describes his love for wolves on the donation page, writing:

“I’ve always been fond of wolves… direwolves in Westeros, and real wolves in the real world. US wolf populations hit critical lows during the twentieth century, and finding a way for humans to co-exist with this majestic creatures is an important part of the conservation movement.”

All men must donate.

maya angelou worked in hotel rooms — 6/6/14

My deepest condolences to Angelou’s family and friends. is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 
Today’s selection — from Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. We sadly note the passing of the highly esteemed Maya Angelou, and include below her own description of her writing habits.
“Angelou has never been able to write at home. ‘I try to keep home very pretty,’ she has said, ‘and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.’ As a result, she has always worked in hotel or motel rooms, the more anonymous the better. She described her routine in a 1983 interview: 
 ‘ I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. I keep a hotel room in which I do my work — a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes 1 hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.’
“In this manner, Angelou has managed to write not only her acclaimed series of autobiographies but numerous poems, plays, lectures, articles, and television scripts. Sometimes the intensity of the work brings on strange physical reactions — her back goes out, her knees swell, and her eyelids once swelled completely shut. Still, she enjoys pushing herself to the limits of her ability. ‘I have always got to be the best,’ she has said. ‘I’m absolutely compulsive, I admit it. I don’t see that’s a negative.’ “

the other side of the monroe doctrine — 6/2/14 is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 

the other side of the monroe doctrine — 6/2/14

Today’s selection — from James Monroe by Gary Hart. The Monroe doctrine was a declaration by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823 that the Western hemisphere was now off-limits to European powers and that the 300 year era of colonization by Europe in North and South America was therefore officially over. It was a bold declaration, and well beyond America’s ability to truly enforce, but it was one of the most important and consequential doctrines ever put forward by the U.S. Few remember, however, that it was also a reciprocal doctrine — the U.S. simultaneously pledged not to meddle in the affairs of Europe and had no intention of imposing its political system on any who did not wish it:

“On December 2, 1823, James Monroe submitted his seventh annual national report to Congress, and it included what were first known as the Principles of 1823 and later as the Monroe Doctrine. His statements were simply a presidential declaration of national principles and never codified in any statute, treaty, or proclamation. …

“James Monroe’s message to Congress yield[ed] the following principles:

1. Neither North nor South America should any longer be considered subject to colonization by any European power.

2. Any effort by any European power to extend its monarchical system of government to any portion of the Western Hemisphere will be considered as a hostile act by the United States.

3. Although the United States will not interfere in existing South American colonial relations, any effort to reassert European power over those former colonies who have declared themselves to be independent republics, and have been recognized as such by the United States, will be seen as an unfriendly act by the United States.

4. The United States will remain neutral in any ongoing war between Spain and the new South American republics so long as new circumstances (presumably the intervention of the Holy Alliance) do not require additional steps by the United States to ensure their security.

5. The United States will continue to refrain from interference in the affairs of any European power and will seek to maintain cordial relations with all, but in turn will not itself accept being interfered with by them.

6. Allied European powers (that is, the Holy Alliance) should not seek to impose their monarchical system of government anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Believing the new South American republics will never be subdued by Spain, the United States will leave those parties to themselves and expects other powers to do the same.

“Particular attention is due the fifth principle, which should be called the principle of reciprocity. The conventional, and traditional, understanding of the Monroe Doctrine has almost always been as a unilateralist declaration: Europe is no longer welcome in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, Monroe, and [his Secretary of State John Quincy] Adams, were stating that the United States also was declaring its policy of noninterference in European affairs, particularly its conflicts. ‘In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part,’ Monroe states, ‘nor does it comport with our policy to do so.’ This was consequential in that, as the United States gained maturity, influence, and power, one or another side in the endless European struggles would be seeking alliance with it to add to its side of the scale of influence.

Officials Creating Monroe Doctrine

“Monroe further declared that, aside from South America, ‘with the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere.’ This might provide a degree of comfort to those in Europe who feared America as a militant firebrand with a self-appointed mission to stamp out colonialism, and monarchy, throughout the world. Monroe was saying, according to one historian, it was ‘only when American rights were menaced that the United States made preparation for defense.’ What made the difference between the American hemisphere and the rest of the world was the contrast of the two political systems: ‘It is impossible that the allied powers [European] should extend their political system to any portion of either continent [in the Western Hemisphere] without endangering our peace and happiness,’ Monroe stated. But he also made it clear the United States had no intention of imposing its political system on any who did not wish it.”