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Connecticut Governor’s Horse Guard Faces Uncertain Future

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A member of the Connecticut Governor's Horse Guard (file / credit: Governor's Horse Guard)

A member of the Connecticut Governor’s Horse Guard (file / credit: Governor’s Horse Guard)

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AVON, CT (AP / CBSNewYork) - A storied tradition in Connecticut might go the way of the typewriter or Kodachrome if a deal isn’t reached to save it.

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Lt. Bill Stone uses a walker since he broke his hip two years ago but still arrives at the First Company Governor’s Horse Guard every day to be available in case he’s needed.

Stone, who joined the unit of the Connecticut Army National Guard in 1952, said he’d be at a loss if the Avon site closes to save money. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee proposes to do just that. It has approved a plan to consolidate the guard’s First Company in Avon with the Second Company in Newtown, just east of Danbury in western Connecticut. The Avon unit would close.

“People from Danbury don’t want to come all the way here, and we don’t want to go all the way to Newtown,” Stone said. “The state should leave it alone.”

The Horse Guard, which began in 1778, serves the governor as a ceremonial unit of the state’s Army National Guard. In addition to making horses available for parades, the Guard can be called upon to control riots and other disorders and helps in civil defense. The Avon unit recently added mounted search and rescue to its portfolio.

A deal is in the works to save the Avon site while still cutting state funding. Under a proposed compromise, funding for each of the two Horse Guards would be cut in half and the units would raise money to come up with the remainder, said Sen. Toni Harp, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

The House Guards now get about $76,000 annually from the state.

Harp said looking for a relatively small savings of $76,000 to close a deficit of $3.3 billion to $3.5 billion demonstrates that lawmakers are serious about cost-cutting.

“It really shows you we’re trying,” she said.

Michael Downes, commandant of the First Company in Avon, said the state pays $78,000 for the upkeep of the horses, and the unit’s nonprofit group raises between $15,000 and $30,000 a year for equipment and uniforms. He said the unit has offered to cut costs and raise more money to preserve the Avon site.

“We understand times are tight,” he said. “We don’t want to lose 233 years of history that goes back to the American Revolution.”

The First Company is home to 19 horses housed in stalls with their nameplates in front sporting names such as Polo, Smitty, Ozzie and Herman. The number is down by about half in nine years, Downes said.

In addition, he said the 45 volunteers at Avon are unchanged over the past few years as the deep recession and weak recovery cut into voluntarism, he said.

Walter Woodward, Connecticut’s state historian, said the Horse Guard dates to the earliest “mounted Minute Men” who defended Connecticut during the Revolutionary War.

“Part of the reason for forming dragoons was to give stature and honor to the new American government, which was still in some ways trying to establish its legitimacy,” Woodward said. “I think having traditions that stretch back to the beginning of the country are valuable and genuinely important.”

Sen. Kevin Witkos, a Republican who represents Avon, said the challenge for Horse Guard volunteers to raise more than $70,000 a year to keep the Avon site will be difficult, but volunteers are passionate about the Horse Guard, he said.

“They’ll do what they need to do to keep the facility open,” he said.

Stone said workers plan to use a part of the spacious fields at the Avon site to make hay for sale to make some money. In the meantime, despite the use of his walker, he said he is optimistic about his own recovery.

“This year I want to ride again,” Stone said.

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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