It’s Saturday, and Scott Stadium is full of screaming fans, clad in blue and orange. The percussion starts, the fire shooters flare and out charges the Cavalier on horseback, sword poised, ready to fight and ready to win.
Traditions are the backbone of the Cavalier community. Along with school-specific terminology for grade levels and “Grounds,” zeal for streaking the Lawn and love for the “Good Ol’ Song,” the mounted Cavalier is a tradition specific to our school with a long, unfamiliar history.
According to Virginia Sports, the first Cavalier on horseback — Francis Bell — debuted in Virginia’s home football game against Harvard Oct. 11, 1947. Bell was joined by one other unidentified horseman and both participants were members of the Student Independent Party — a political group unassociated with fraternities.
Class of 1959 alumnus Charles Brooks can recall cheering for the Cavalier on horseback at home football games and is proud of the tradition the mounted Cavalier represents today.
To Brooks, the Cavalier on horseback represents “‘the good guy’ coming to the rescue of whoever is in need,” as a symbol of strength, force and tenacity.
From 1963 to 1973, the mounted Cavalier remained but was only represented by the Virginia Club Polo team, beginning with student-rider Doug Luke. Riders and horses were provided by Virginia’s Club Polo team.
With the 1974 implementation of astroturf in Scott Stadium, the tradition was put on hold and the Cavalier performed solely on foot.
In 1989, the Cavalier on horseback returned in the Florida Citrus Bowl after the University’s failed experimentation with alternate mascots. At that point, the honor of being the Cavalier was shared by Charlottesville mounted police and various members of the Virginia Club Polo team.
The mounted Cavalier’s made a return to football games in 1989.
"[It’s] something different from other schools, to make sure the fans got to the stadium early and had a more individualized pregame show," current rider Kim Kirschnick said.
Class of 1994 alumna Kristina “DeKoz” Georges was one of the few Club Polo members chosen to be a Cavalier on horseback when Polo team members alternated with Charlottesville mounted police.
Representing Virginia on horseback was a way polo coaches recognized outstanding members of the club who were typically in their third or fourth years. As treasurer for two years and vice president of the Polo club, Georges was selected to ride Sept. 17, 1994 in Virginia’s home football game against Clemson.
“I was nervous, but I was so excited because it was something I’d dreamt of doing for years,” Georges said. “It was exhilarating. It was absolutely one of the highlights of my time down there.”
Being chosen as a rider from the Polo Club was an immense honor for the jockeys and their peers.
“We didn’t want to brag about it, but then again, our friends were pretty proud of us,” Georges said. “You just couldn’t tailgate that day.”
From 1963 to 1973 and from 1989 to 2000, Virginia’s Club Polo team provided both the rider and the horse. Two horses were used — an additional one was brought in for backup.
“They were horses that were known for being dependable and okay with the noise,” Georges said. “They would actually put ear plugs in the horses ears … You just can’t imagine. I guess the football players are used to it but it’s just so loud being down there on the field.”
For the opening ceremony, polo team riders were instructed to ride one loop around the football field to rally students and fans.
“Honestly, I was having such a good time that I did a second loop,” Georges said. “I didn’t want it to end.”
In 2000, Kim Kirschnick began his career as “the man on the horse.” Nearly two decades later, Kirschnick is still the Cavalier and remains a fixture at athletic events.
When asked about the transition from the student participation of the polo team to the hiring of Kirschnick, Georges suggested the change must’ve had something to do with liability.
“The crazy thing is the polo program is one of the most successful teams at the University,” Georges said.
In fact, Virginia Polo has won 20 national championships and made it to the finals 46 times.
While the reason for the transition still remains unclear, it is apparent that Kirschnick and the tradition of the mounted Cavalier are beloved by students and the Charlottesville community.
“I’ve grown up watching Virginia football and my favorite part of games since I was little has always been the Cavalier’s powerful entrance,” first-year College student Ellie Thatcher said.
Kirschnick is in his 19th year as the Cavalier and has become a well-known and beloved symbol of the University.
Kirschnick describes his career as an extremely humbling experience and feels fortunate and lucky to be able to perform with his horse.
Besides home football games, Kirschnick and his horse Sabre have participated in several other Virginia events. Kirschnick fondly recalls riding in the 2017 Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., and what it meant to the Virginia fans there.
“There were a lot of alumni from the Baltimore, Md., area that came up and thanked me for coming to the bowl game … they appreciate the effort,” Kirschnick said. “It means a lot to have your school not only represented on the field but by your mascot as well.”
Kirschnick continues riding as the mounted Cavalier today because of the importance of the tradition to different segments of the University community.
“Every year you do it, you get a little more humbled when you realize how much this tradition means to the alumni, the faculty, the students, the toddlers, the first-years and the fourth-years,” Kirschnick said. “Everybody shows a different kind of positive expression of what it means to them.”
Be sure to watch and cheer on Kirschnick and Sabre Nov. 23 at 12 p.m. when football takes on Liberty at Scott Stadium.