Horseback riders practice at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., from which an elite group of riders participated in the Presidential Inaugural parade in January as members of the Black Horse Troop.
Horseback riders practice at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., from which an elite group of riders participated in the Presidential Inaugural parade in January as members of the Black Horse Troop.

CULVER, Ind. — Some special visitors hoofed it to Washington to take part in the Presidential Inaugural parade.

The Black Horse Troop, an elite group of riders from the Culver Academies preparatory school in northern Indiana, made its 16th formal appearance at the event, though nothing quite compares to the first time for members of the school’s equestrian team.

“It was a long, long day, but it was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had,” said Claire Haldewang of Syracuse, Ind., who rode a dark brown quarter horse, also named Claire, in the celebration.

“We were going down Pennsylvania Avenue and I made eye contact with Vice President Joe Biden and I saw Joe’s smile get bigger — it was one of those moments where you see someone else smiling back at you when you are enjoying what you do,” she raved. “It definitely is something I would do again.”

“The Black Horse Troop was the only representative from Indiana in the parade,” noted Doug Haberland, director of publications and editor of the Culver Alumni Magazine.

“This year marks the 100th anniversary of the troop’s first appearance in 1913 honoring new President Woodrow Wilson,” he said. “The students here are very passionate about the chance to ride in the historic parade.”

Home to 800 students, 350 girls and 450 boys in grades 9 through 12 and situated on a sprawling campus of Gothic Tudor-style buildings, the Culver Academies is cited as one of the top stables in the country and is famous for its Black Horse Troop.

The air in Vaughn Hall, renovated in 2009 and named for sponsor Jack Vaughn, is moist and close with the smell of wood and fresh hay, the sunlight streaming milky light through the window, the tractor smoothing the lines of dirt in the corral.

It’s filled with palpable ambition, reverence and gallantry — clues to the amount of work that goes into not only learning to ride a horse and do it well, but build a community of horsemanship.

The hall sports all rubber surfaces to cushion the horses’ hooves and gait and to prevent slipping on concrete.

The horses alternate trips outside each day to the paddocks and enjoy a daily diet of hay and a grain pellet that combines oats, barley and pelletized feed.

Eighty-three of the 94 black horses residing in the stables participated in the parade this year, some after only a few days of practice for the big day, said Mark Waller, director of horsemanship and an instructor at Culver Academies and also a retired London police officer.

In parades and formal events, young men traditionally ride the black horses, while equestriennes, the women on the Culver Girls Academy Equestrienne Team established in 1980, will ride horses of other colors, Waller noted.

While all the horses at Culver Academy are athletes, those that participate in the stately parade are highly trained, he stressed.

“The majority of boys here do not know how to ride when they first arrive — we teach them — while the majority of girls do know how,” the instructor said. “The difference in our academy is that we teach them life skills and leadership along with riding a horse.”

“They learn about the history of the cavalry while they also learn how to groom and care for a horse,” he said. “The first thing we teach them is how to fall, since we’ve found that kids who are not afraid of riding are not afraid of falling. Before they first ride a horse, they practice on a barrel to get the rhythm of riding. We use an Equicizer to train the smaller riders.”

Waller said that while training horses involves repetition and building a sense of trust, practicing for the Presidential Inaugural parade presented the additional obstacle of preparing the horses to the noisy, boisterous atmosphere of an event of such magnitude, which would include a 400-piece band and other distractions.

Culver Academies maintains high standards for its horses and its students.

The polo and jumping teams are members of the Indiana Equestrian Association, all interscholastic, as well as the U.S. Polo Association and are all recognized bodies of the sportsmanship.

Waller said safety is a top priority at the academies, that all the instructors have been certified with the Certified Horsemanship Association and that the site also is accredited.

“We are one of the top stables in the country, and everything we do needs to reflect that,” he said.

The equestriennes perform at the academies five to seven times a year and travel to various regional parades, including the Presidential Inaugural parade in 2009. They have performed in the Presidential Inaugural parade seven times since 1985, Haberland said.

Other equestrian classes offered at Culver include jumping, polo, rough riding and summer mounted drill team.

Aside from the horsemanship program, students at Culver Academies also study academic subjects and participate in sports including lacrosse, hockey, wrestling and football, often in preparation for later athletic programs at West Point and universities.

“Culver Academies offers advanced placements courses and honors courses, including honors in equine science,” Haberland said.

While Haldewang learned she had been chosen to ride in the parade last Christmas, another student learned only moments before the parade began that he would be mounting a horse and carrying an American flag with the others on horseback.

Quan Zehao, who will graduate from Culver Academy in 2015, rode Cacee in the event.

Though she was a bit nervous, Zehao said he had learned to relax and be confident around the horse and though he’d only been training since the end of September, he was happy to be in the parade.

“I like riding horses,” he said. “I’d like to participate in polo this spring. If I can, I will continue to do ride.”