SPRING HILL — For longtime Civil War re-enactor Robert Niepert, there are few things more thrilling than racing through a field on horseback into battle. Enveloped in the flash and roar of cannon and musket fire and surrounded by other cavalry soldiers, it's anything but a joy ride.
"It gets your heart going," said Niepert, 54, of Winter Garden. "It gets a little chaotic from time to time, but it's an awful lot of fun, too."
Niepert has been involved in cavalry re-enactment for the past 12 years, and for the past six years has served as coordinator of cavalry troops at the annual Brooksville Raid Re-enactment.
Commanding troops on horseback is not an easy job, Niepert says. Working with upward of 80 participants requires planning, tact and a lot of patience.
Safety for horses and riders is the top priority. Constant training is required to assure that all who ride into a harried battlefield are prepared. Finding a horse that fears neither the cacophony of guns nor the onward rush of people isn't easy, Niepert said.
"You can pretty much tell in a few minutes whether a horse has the right stuff," said Niepert, who has owned and trained horses for 35 years. "Good ones have an easygoing mentality and a willingness to pay attention to you. From there, it's just a matter of getting them used to the kind of riding you'll be doing during a battle scenario."
Niepert admits that even veteran horses can become spooked during battle. But if it happens too often, the animal needs to be withdrawn from action to keep from endangering itself or its rider.
Niepert, a lieutenant colonel in the Florida 3rd Battalion, known as Hardy's Brigade, works directly with troop commander Gen. Mike Hardy in coordinating cavalry troops. Together, the men collaborate and participate in battle scenarios in as many as eight Civil War re-enactments throughout Florida and elsewhere each year.
An ardent Civil War history buff who operates the Web site, www.floridareenactorsonline.com, Niepert acknowledges that most spectators probably don't comprehend the intricacies of 19th century battlefield tactics. So he and Hardy concentrate on giving them a good show.
Familiar terrain such as the Brooksville Raid Re-enactment site at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation offers Niepert several options for calvary troop movement. Although accidents are rare, the risk increases with the number of people swarming onto a battlefield, which is why Niepert is glad to have so many seasoned veterans take part in events.
"We typically ride close — boot to boot," Niepert said. "It's easier when you know the capabilities of the person next to you."
Niepert's cavalry unit currently has about 45 horse soldiers, most of whom participate annually in the Brooksville Raid event. Some will even play both sides of the battle flag.
Like everything, the slow economy has taken its toll on the re-enactment business. According to Niepert, it costs about $4,000 to outfit a cavalry solider, which includes a uniform, saddle and other period-correct accessories.
The added cost of food for the animal and fuel to trailer it to and from re-enactment events has made it more difficult to hang on to veteran riders and to attract new recruits.
"There's not much you can say about it, other than you hope they come back when the economy improves," Niepert said. "I tend to think they will because the people who take up re-enacting do it because they love it."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.