FORT ROBINSON STATE PARK, Neb. - Seven mounted Soldiers appear on the horizon, silhouetted by the setting sun against the backdrop of the Nebraska plateaus.
Approaching, their features become more distinct; wide-brimmed black hats with gold tassels shade their heads; thick wool shirts protect them against the cool westerly wind; black calf-high boots polished to a shine adorn their legs; sheathed before their right boot, each Soldier holds a saber; the uniform of an 1870s U.S. Army Cavalryman.
As they approach, these 19th Century warriors draw their swords and form a battle line with their chestnut brown horses - each awaiting the command, "Charge!" The cavalry is off to fight the revolutionary Villistas of the outlaw Francisco "Pancho" Villa.
So ended the Major Howze Mobility Test for the riders of the Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard during the first day of the 2009 National Cavalry Competition held Sept. 24-27 at Fort Robinson State Park, Neb.
The NCC, a contest of horsemanship and cavalry tasks, held during the National Cavalry Association Annual Bivouac, was created to keep people interested in the history and tradition of the U.S. Cavalry, said Jeffery Maahs, the founder and director of the National Cavalry Competition.
Maahs said he organized the competition in 2002 because it seemed to him many people in the Army, including mounted color guard members, were losing interest in their cavalry heritage.
"This competition keeps the cavalry alive," he said.
Extending an invitation for active duty military units to attend the annual competition, Maahs said he hopes today's cavalrymen will take stock in the history they represent while building support for the National Cavalry Association.
Sixty-one riders participated in this year's NCC, more mounted Soldiers than Fort Robinson has seen since the cavalry post closed in 1956, said Maahs.
All of the active mounted color guards in the Army participated in the event, a goal of the NCA for many years, he added.
Many rival color guards competed in the event, said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Roy, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard. Color guards from Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Riley, Kan.; and Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; vied for bragging rights in this three-day test of cavalry prowess.
An artilleryman assigned to Company A, Division Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, Roy said the rivalry between the military teams this year motivated the Soldiers to raise the bar and perform to a higher standard.
Despite the competitive spirit, the riders have shown respect and support to their comrades from different units, said Roy.
"Everybody encouraged each other; we helped each other out," Roy said. "I think this year has been a success story."
Roy said he believes the mounted color guards serve a vital purpose in the modern Army, riding to honor tradition and history and to boost Soldiers' morale and unit pride.
Soldiers of the Fort Carson Color Guard spend two years assigned to the detachment, working solely as representatives of Fort Carson and the Army, riding for military ceremonies and special events such as the NCC, said Roy.
During the first two days of the competition, the Fort Carson riders competed in the Military Horsemanship, Mounted Pistols, the Major Howze Mobility Test, Military Field Jumping, and Mounted Saber events.
The Major Howze mobility test is a mock saber charge based upon the exploits of Maj. Robert Lee Howze, who led his Cavalrymen during an all-night expedition, culminating in a famous pistol charge against the outlaws of Pancho Villa.
Joan Baird, an NCC judge, explained contestants were judged on equestrian sportsmanship and dexterity as well as the historical accuracy of their uniforms.
"We look very closely at the riders' uniforms," said Baird. "We want them to take pride in the time period they have chosen to represent."
During the award ceremony on the final night of the bivouac, the competition judges recognized The Mountain Post Color Guard for their 1870s cavalryman uniforms.
Two of the lead riders, Sgt. John Husby, cavalry scout, and Cpl. John Slatton, mortarman, both assigned to Company A, DSTB, 4th Inf. Div., excelled during the first two days of competition and earned the opportunity to compete in the Bolte Cup, the NCC championship.
The Bolte Cup combined aspects of the previous challenges, pitting the 15 best riders at the competition against each other in a timed event. The riders were required to maneuver obstacles, fire a carbine and their revolvers at balloon targets, and dispatch simulated foes with their sabers.
"This is a complicated event," said Slatton, before stepping into the arena. "It'll be fun to try."
Both Husby and Slatton won awards for placing in the Military Horsemanship, Mounted Pistols, Military Field Jumping, and Mounted Saber competitions.
Cpl. Bobbie Poe, veterinary technician assigned to the Fort Carson Branch of the Rocky Mountain District Veterinary Command, won third place in the Military Field Jumping event with only one day of practice the day before the contest.
Poe, invited on the trip to provide veterinary assistance for the horses, volunteered to participate in the competition.
The NCA Chaplain Paul Shultz loaned the horse, Rocky, to Poe the day before the contest.
The NCC was an outstanding event providing the Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard the opportunity to prove itself and build confidence, said Roy.
"I think we did pretty well this year," he said. "This event is like our finale before we end our season for winter, and we went out well."
The team looks forward to next year's competition and will train to compete and improve their riding skills, Roy said.