When Michael Downes visited the in Avon at a friend’s recommendation, he wasn’t a horse-lover and didn’t know what to expect.
As he was leaving, he looked out on the thick fog settling on the field. What happened next was unexpected and almost poetic.
“I heard the thunderous sound of the herd and the troops flew through the fog past me in perfect military order,” Downes, of East Haven, said.
He turned to the adjutant and said, “You can teach me to do this?”
Downes eventually became commandant of the First Company, serving until his retirement on May 24. Downes is currently the communications department manager for the Connecticut House Republicans.
As he devotes more time to work and family, he’ll never forget 10 years full of memories as a member of the First Company. He met his wife, Tara Stapleton Downes there and married her at the grounds. He also spearheaded the company’s search and rescue training over the past couple years, making the company the only official equine search and rescue unit in the state. He hopes to see that training go to use.
Stapleton Downes – the previous adjutant in charge of communications – left the Horse Guards at the same time and works as communications director for the state of Connecticut comptroller.
People in the Horse Guards are volunteering their time on top of their paid jobs. Downes said it becomes like a family and there’s a role for everyone. You don't need experience to start.
“It’s just a great treasure out there that I hope many others discover,” he said.
As Frank Judice, of Granby, takes over as the new major, and Greg DeManche, of Avon, assumes the adjutant role, the Horse Guards are in an “active recruiting mindset.” Judice, who lived in Avon in the late '70s and often drove by the horses, joined four years ago. At the time there were 40 members and now there are only 20.
“I don’t know if I can put my finger on any one cause,” Judice said, though he noted that in tough economic times, many volunteer organizations suffer in numbers. “I’d certainly like to see us get back up to full staff.”
Downes said people each have their own reasons for joining – usually an affinity for the military or horses. That was true for Tara, who grew up riding them. But that is not always the case. While Judice is looking for riders, he said that roles managing the kitchen, supplies and armory are just as important. First-time recruits start as enlisted personnel.
All officer positions are elected like in a militia. Judice previously served as first lieutenant and acting executive officer to fill in for a retired captain.
The First Company has drills every Thursday night at 7 p.m. at its headquarters on Arch Road. The public is always invited to attend.
Judice said that they will also be looking for three, possibly four, new horses. When Downes joined the First Company, there were about 38. Now there are seven – Colonel, Hanibal, Jete, Beau, Wes, Bill and Polo – after the state capped the herd at 10 last year. Three horses retired – Gregory, who was the horse Downes rode, Pip and Herman. Another horse, Eliot, is recovering from a leg injury and will be put up for adoption. All of the company’s horses are donated.
The was a product of a tightened state budget. The state initially asked the Military Department . But that plan was shelved after a compromise was made to keep both and increase fundraising efforts.
The company has always fundraised, but last year they added a benefit at the Thomas Hooker Brewery in Bloomfield that brought in some more money. On Sept. 10, they are hosting their annual golf tournament fundraiser at Farmington Woods.
Downes said he is thankful for the support the community has long given the Horse Guards.
“I would hope that the people of Connecticut would voice support for keeping the organization alive and thriving,” Downes said. “Once it’s gone, it can’t be replaced.”
Judice doesn’t think the First Company is leaving any time soon.
“My sense is that we have the full support of the Military Department,” Judice said. “If General Martin wanted to shut this place down, he’d shut this place down.”
He also plans on collaborating more with the Second Company.
“They’re no different than us,” he said. “We’re forging what I believe to be a strong partnership.”
The Horse Guards are known for ceremonial traditions like escorting the governor in parades and the company’s annual horse show. The First Company is the oldest continuously operated cavalry unit in the United States. It was chartered in 1788 to "escort to prominent visitors to Connecticut’s capital city," according to the unit's website.
But it is the community spirit – as well as his love of horses – that draws Judice to the Horse Guards. The unit is very involved in community service, like providing classes to Boy and Girls Scouts who need to earn badges. They also host Horses to Homecoming, an equestrian program for children of deployed soldiers, in collaboration with the Connecticut National Guard as a way “to help bridge the connection between deployed soldiers and families.” On Sept. 19, they will ride in a parade during Connecticut Day at the Big E.
Leaving was a tough decision for Downes and Stapleton Downes, but they retired knowing the First Company remains in good hands.
“Working with horses not only taught me a lot about horses,” Downes said, “but it taught me a lot about myself.”
For more information about the First Company Governor's Horse Guards, visit ctfirsthorse.org or call 860-673-3525. The Horse Guards are located at 280 Arch Rd. in Avon.