The History of Tentpegging in Great Britain

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The term ‘Tentpegging’ refers not to the ability to pin down the guy lines on an 18 x 24 tent as fast as possible, but to the cavalry sport of removing wooden ‘tent pegs’ from the back of a galloping horse from the ground using a sword or lance.


The origins of the sport can be traced back around 2,500 years to the time when Asian armies relied on their skill with the lance. There are many apocryphal stories where the origin is stated as the practice of disabling enemy war elephants by spearing their toe nails, or the removal of tent pegs in an enemy encampment as the first wave of an attack. Both are highly improbable, a lancer would be lucky to get in range of a war elephant, let alone spear its toe nail and survive the attempt for he would be a prime target for the arrows and spears raining down from the elephant’s occupants; galloping through an encampment, criss-crossed in tent guy lines is equally improbable, as anyone who has put up a tent knows you knock the pegs in firmly, even flush to the ground to keep the tent up, such a peg is very hard to take with the lance, even if the lancer’s horse had not fallen over the guy lines beforehand!


What is far more probable is that cavalry men, when training in camp would have had an abundance of wooden tent pegs to use as makeshift targets on which to demonstrate their skills with the lance at a full gallop. Human nature would soon develop this display of skill into a very competitive game.


After the Battle of Waterloo, the British Army adopted the lance as a weapon, having been on the receiving end of Napoleon’s Polish Lancers, and converted several Regiments to Lancers. It was these regiments that, when stationed in India, met with the native sport of tent pegging and adapted it to their own needs.


During the Victorian Era all manner of ‘Feats of Arms’ or ‘Assaults at Arms’ became a popular form of public entertainment. In particular the Naval and Military Tournament, which became the famous Royal Tournament, began in the 1880’s earning the ‘Royal’ prefix from Queen Victoria in 1884. Tent pegging has featured since 1880 and still continue to this day, with the mounted elements of the Royal Tournament taking place annually at the Defence Animal Centre.


The earliest rules for Tentpegging appeared in the Victorian era and remain fundamentally the same today.


The Edwardian era was a time of change for the whole Army, khaki had become the standard field uniform, and the importance of musketry was learnt the hard way in the Boer War. This did not however mean the end of mounted cavalry, who although recognising the importance of dismounted rifle and supporting machine gun fire, also still valued the importance of sword and lance in shock action if the tactical situation was right.


An important change made to the cavalry which affected sporting use of the weapons was the adoption of a purely thrusting sword in 1908, often cited as the best cavalry sword ever produced. It is still the weapon of choice for tentpeggers today.


By the First World War the elements of the sport were well established as competition disciplines, together with the additional development of the Sword Lance and Revolver discipline.


Surviving Rules for the sport reflect its military origins: Regulation swords, lances, revolvers and even saddlery were standard requirements.


After the Second World War, several experienced mounted cavalrymen were discharged from service and found themselves employed in various Mounted Police units around the UK. The value of tent pegging to the development and testing of a riders skills remains as great as ever, as any experienced horseman who tries tent pegging for the first time can testify. Hence the Mounted Police became regular competitors on the Tentpegging circuit, with regular competitors still participating to this day.


Towards the end of the last century the sport had declined in the numbers of participants, just as the armed forces' remaining mounted units reduced in size and increased in workload. The Mounted Police units also stopped competing on their service horses as a result of a mixture of political correctness and penny pinching.


Civilians dabbled in the sport both before and after the Second World War, however no great developments came from this at the time, however several civilians did learn to peg, either in riding schools ran by ex-cavalrymen, or as part of mounted re-enactment activities.


To remedy this and to keep this skilled sport going, the British Tentpegging Association was formed in the 1990’s. It’s formation has allowed civilian riders to compete alongside their Army counterparts. This organisation represents both military and civilian in one combined national governing body.


In recent years teams representing Great Britain have consisted of both soldiers and civilians.


Contemporary developments have also seen wooden pegs replaced by softer plastic coreboard, or even cardboard: a change which no longer requires the rider to use the momentum of the horse and a locked arm to hit the peg, simulating an enemy, hard enough to do him mortal harm.


The peg has since at least 1906 remained at being 12” x 3” by 1” thick, until a couple of years ago this was made of softwood, bound with wire top and bottom, and soaked to prevent splitting.


Another constant has been the requirement for pace: Since the beginning of Tentpegging, the rider has been required to be at a full gallop. The challenge of competing on the sport’s many disciplines has not changed since it’s inception. A rider still needs a good seat, steady nerves, and rapid reactions delivered accurately in a fraction of a second. Indeed many competent horsemen who have tried the sport find it much harder than it looks, but this difficulty is what makes it a challenge worth working hard to achieve.


Looking towards the future, the sport has taken many measures to widen participation. There are now properly recognised instructors for the British Tentpegging Association so that those keen to learn the sport can now do so. Most riders learning the sport would need to be on their own horses, but there are some places from which horses who know the game can be hired to train or compete on.


A new development has been the introduction of the sport to Juniors - a process in it’s infancy in the UK. Many developments in Tentpegging have reflected the changing times, however Great Britain is the only country in which tentpeggers who are serving soldiers and officers still compete in uniform. At Royal Windsor Horse Show, held annually in May, you will still see military competitors riding in No1 Dress. 


Internationally it is hoped that the sport will become an FEI full discipline, there are surely enough countries now competing. International rules do exist and allow for nations to keep their own versions of the sport but to compete on an even keel internationally, in essence the only rules internationally relate to sizes of pegs, length of runs, weapon lengths and the time in which each run is to be completed to ensure that pace is kept up. Style marks are not awarded as there is no common style. Many Asian and Arab nations have keenly embraced the sport. India, Pakistan, Oman and even Iraq have all been seen competing, and doing well. One day it will hopefully appear at the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics.



This History of Tentpegging is taken from an article written by Major David Puckey - Team Manager of the Royal Logistics Corp Team and BTA Training Officer.


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