EQA Interview with Dr. Kate Vigurs on Performing Historical Re-enactments on Horseback

A woman appears on a sleek, bay thoroughbred. She is dressed in traditional Victorian clothes and sits side saddle, her dress flowing neatly down her horse’s left side. She turns to the crowd of watchful eyes and begins her story. In the distance, the large stately home serves as the backdrop…

Author: Krystal Kelly

When I first met Dr. Kate Vigurs, I knew she was a unique Equestrian Adventuress with a story to tell. As the director of History’s Maid and a historical interpreter, she brings to life stories of powerful women throughout history.

How it all Began

“I have ridden all my life,” she begins, “but after a nasty fall in my late teens I quit for a while.  After completing my drama degree at the University of Hull, my dream job was advertised at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK.  They wanted actors who liked history, showed promise at sword fighting and who could ride. At my audition I rode a beautiful bay called Lancer. I got the job and the rest is history! I was taught to ride one handed and how to use a sword, javelin, lance and gun from horseback.  I’ve ridden as an Elizabethan lady, a dragoon in the Wars of the Spanish Succession, Annie Oakley and even performed Medieval mounted falconry.”

Made Redundant and Going Alone

Dr. Vigurs does everything for the company History’s Maid – from writing scripts, doing the historical research, to maintaining the huge collection of costumes, armour, tack and weapons. She also looks after her horse, Daxi (History’s Horse) on a full time basis. Before History’s Maid came into existence, Kate shares what could have been a very different story. “I was made redundant from the Armouries and tried office work, I hated being bound to office hours and chained to a desk. I spoke to a friend who worked as an event manager for English Heritage and said ‘If I go it alone would you book me?’ He did, word spread and History’s Maid boomed.”

Kate Vigurs during historical re-enactment as first aid nursing yeomanry
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Photo Credit: Kate Vigurs

Giving Voice to Women of History

Women aren’t always seen at the head of historical re-enactments. Oftentimes you find men putting on medieval jousting performances or military cavalry riding demonstrations. “There are very few women who do these shows in the way I do,” she explains. “As a trained actress, the performing and acting from horseback is definitely my ‘Unique Selling point.'”

“My ability to commentate whilst riding is also quite unusual and something that I really enjoy. There are lots of wonderful historical side saddle riders who I work with and am proud to know, especially Emeline Macret and her girls. They’re always helpful, friendly and sometimes life savers! (Like when my side saddle stirrup leather snapped two minutes before a show! There was lots of calming me down, improvising of leathers and a feisty leg up ensured that the show went on and I was not even late!)”

A Kingdom for a Horse

Kate’s passion for horses and history eventually led her to look for her own horse, with the intention of performing in mind.

“Having learnt to ride side saddle, it became a big part of my work.” For many years she was commentator for the Arundel Castle International Joust, “I would tell the crowd what was going on whilst sitting sideways on a horse and trying not to get hit by pieces of flying lance…or angry jousters if they messed up their run!  On one memorable day a horse I was riding stopped as I was entering the arena. He refused to budge, I looked and felt silly. I decided at that moment that the time had come to get my own horse. After all the saying goes, ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!’ I started looking that evening, and after one disastrous try out, I found my perfect partner in Daxi.”

Not Your Typical Re-Enactment Steed

Daxi is a retrained racehorse and an ex-polo pony, not the typical horse breed of choice for many historical re-enactors. “Most people like Spanish horses for their look and temperament. Ex racehorses are great though, they have been there, done it and seen everything. The polo pony is even better as she can neck rein and is used to having something moving in the rider’s right hand, be it polo mallet, sword, lance or mace!”

World War I skills shown during historical re-enactment
WWI Skill at Arms. Photo: Kate Vigurs

“The very first show together was in April 2016 and was a delight. I had no idea how Daxi would react to this strange environment to which I had brought her. My character was a 1930’s polo player, this meant I could ride astride and she was kind of in her comfort zone. We zoomed around and I stick and balled a little whilst talking to the public. In front of that beautiful house I felt like I was in the Great Gatsby!”

“At the end of my talk the audience went to applaud and I suddenly realised that Daxi had never heard it before, so I stopped them. I asked them to clap as if the show had been really bad, then a bit louder, as if it had been ok and then as if they were in a West End Theatre. Daxi’s ears shot forwards and she loved it. Those people felt they had been part of her education, and she now has a faithful following wherever she goes!”

A Day in the Life of a Historical Re-Enactor

When asked about her “typical day” as a traveling equestrian, historian and actress, Kate grinned before replying, “The one thing you can say about my job is that there is no typical day! However, most shows I get up early to exercise the horse.  She needs to see the site and get used to any strange things, which are always a lot! Tents, flags, people in costume, electricity cables, microphones, speakers, guns, bunting, dogs, arenas, portable loos… Then I go back and have breakfast.”

“I typically do three or four shows a day. This can be in character, or commentary. Before each show I tack up slowly, lunge her for a few minutes if possible and ride to the arena. Each show finishes with a Q&A session and pat the pony. After our last show she is washed down and returned to her paddock, tack is cleaned, repairs are made and gin is poured!”

historical reenactment showing World War I bridle and gas mask on horse
WWI bridle and gas mask on “History’s Horse,” Daxi. Photo Credits: Kate Vigurs

Medieval Fashion

A lot of behind the scenes effort is made prior to the shows and performances, especially in regards to the costumes and tack for Daxi. “My work involves specialist tack for Daxi (History’s Horse) and costume for me. All of my costumes are historically accurate and made specifically for me. Correct materials are used, patterns adhered to and accessories worn.  For example, my side saddle habit is based on one at the V&A. The costumier made the skirt as a safety apron for my own personal safety but also as a talking point in the shows. I sourced a silk (top hat), veil, appropriate gloves and most importantly had a riding corset made. I also portray the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and chose one photo to copy to the exact detail.  My medieval dresses are silk and of the highest quality that I can afford.”

The Mayhew side saddle used for historical re-enactments
The Mayhew Side Saddle. Photo: Kate Vigurs

“Daxi’s side saddle is beautiful, it is a Mayhew and fits her very well. It is checked every year to ensure it is still comfortable for her and the flocking is adjusted if need be. Her military tack is very comfortable- for her, I hate it! Her welfare is paramount. We fit, train with and maintain our tack to a high standard. Her bridles vary from plain English snaffle to WWI military to Spanish complete with mosquero.”

Word of Mouth

Many might still be wondering, “How does she find work?”

“My reputation has built up over the last ten years as have my working friendships. So much of work comes through word of mouth. Of course there is now social media and websites that help too. We mostly travel to castles and stately homes in the UK. Daxi has been to Arundel Castle, Brodsworth Hall, Wrest Park, Milton Keynes Museum, Audley End House, Kenilworth Castle, Cusworth Hall and even to Queen Victoria’s private house on the Isle of Wight.  I have lost count of all the places I rode before I got her, but remember being extremely proud when offered the commentary job for English Heritages Victorian Gymkhana.”

The Show Must Go On

Of course not all performances go as planned, “Last year I portrayed Queen Victoria at Wrest park, this involved delivering a monologue whilst mounted side saddle.  About halfway through my speech a major gun battle started in a nearby arena. I was terrified, Daxi barely flinched. In the next show I knew that would not happen again, so was more relaxed but instead of guns, a piece of cling film (sandwich wrapper) blew into the arena Daxi was terrified, she snorted, swung round and began to rear, all whilst I was sideways and trying to act calm!  Luckily my partner was nearby and he saved the day!”

The horse which is used for historical re-enactments is inspecting a dragon sculpture with interest
Daxi meets the Dragon. Photo Credits: Kate Vigurs

Retraining a Racehorse

In order to maintain her horse’s training during the on and off season, Dr. Vigurs has multiple facets of schooling. “Daxi is trained in her side saddle as often as we can. This winter I have focused on building up her balance and flexion so she can carry it even more comfortably and we can work together on improving our schooling. It is important we work in harmony and this has been the aim over the last few months.

She has also been trained to get used to me using a sword, lance and even carry a flag from her. She carries Maille armour (more commonly known as chain mail) and has had to get used to full plate armour being worn around her too. My wonderful friend Nicky Willis at Horses4history has helped me immensely with this by feeding her treats whilst clanking about.

Her gun firing training was simple – we just did it. She was fine, and barely even flicked an ear! For her World War One work she has had to get used to having a sword attached to her saddle – lunging is always a good start for anything. We then build her up slowly so she gets used to all the weird and wonderful things she does. I also do a lot of natural horsemanship and join up with her, she trusts me – and I trust her.”

Historical re-enactment in front of stately home at Wrest Park
The Lady Equestrienne at Wrest Park. Photo: Kate Vigurs

Equestrian Adventuresses of History

When asked, what does being an Equestrian Adventuress mean to you, Kate had this to say, “I am proud to represent women and their horses from history, I am proud to tell their stories and show how they did things, what they wore and what they said. I portray women who rode their horses to witness the Crimean war, who played polo in India, who trained to ride onto the battlefields of the Great War (although they never actually did), women who trained the horses of the Great War, women who rode astride and broke with tradition. They are the Equestrian Adventuresses, and I get to be like them, just for a short time and to tell everyone how amazing and inspiring they were. I travel the UK bringing history to life.  I love my work and I love my horse. I’m a lucky lady!”

Historical re-enactment by Kate Vigurs riding a side saddle
On the wonk at Audley End. Photo: Kate Vigurs

The hard work put into History’s Maid has not gone unnoticed, “One aspect of my work is organising events, I am extremely proud of the Victorian Sports horse event I run at Audley End. At this show Daxi does side saddle, polo, gymkhana games and tent pegging all in one day. She is so versatile it is almost unbelievable! I am proud that she is mine and that all my training and hard work, the dark mornings, the mucking out, the tantrums and the bruises are all worth it when we hear the applause and wonderful comments.”


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