Headstones and horses: Caisson Platoon at Arlington adds to solemn traditions
Three horses mug for the camera as a servicemember of the Old Guard steadies them between the caissons. The horses were waiting to head to Arlington National Cemetery to participate in funerals.
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FORT MYER, Va. — The sun isn’t up, but the soldiers were already getting their hands dirty at Fort Myer. They chatted over saddles and harnesses instead of coffee, fingers turning black as they cleaned and conditioned the leather.
These Old Guard 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment soldiers are part of the Caisson Platoon, and their job is to take care of some of the most prestigious horses in the world.
The caisson that the horses pull through Arlington National Cemetery carry precious remains to their final resting places. The horses and their riders play a sacred role at Arlington — one full of ritual, solemn in step and steeped in meaning for those they serve.
That ritual starts with these soldiers, up at 4 a.m. to prep the horses and equipment. There are 61 horses in the team, with some on rest at Fort Belvoir and some at work at Fort Myer. The horses rotate between forts, working one week and off the next. There are currently 49 soldiers who care for them, but there are positions for 56.
“We conduct eight full honor funerals each day, splitting the workload between two riding teams for a total of four funerals per day for each team,” said Staff Sgt. John Ford, who has been with the platoon for two years and is the Caisson Operations NCO. He spent one year as a riding squad leader conducting funerals for the platoon.
There are four riding teams (two squads), so when the two riding teams are not conducting funerals, they are responsible for maintaining the stables. The platoon conducts an average of 1,700 funerals per year between all five service branches. The honor is reserved for all officers, warrant officers, sergeants major (E-9, the highest enlisted rank) and anyone killed in the line of duty, Ford said.
“Priority is to those killed in action,” Ford said.
Saddles must be cleaned, horses too — whether they like it or not. Like their human counterparts, some are rather grumpy as they get hosed down. After the showers the horses are dried off and brushed down. Shoes are checked and horses are dressed. A black tabby barn cat with several nicknames — such as Rihanna — watches from the wings as the soldiers move methodically from horse to horse.
Afterward the horses are brought outside and hooked up to the caissons that carry the remains. The whole process takes several hours.
Each horse has a distinct personality, and soldiers have their favorites. The horse Mickey is missing an eye, surgically removed a few years earlier. Another is known to be rowdy in the shower. Some horses get along better than others, other horses don’t like to follow certain horses once they are hooked to the caisson.
“Working with the horses is its own reward, and being able to be part of a tradition so steeped in history is amazing, but the greatest honor of being able to ride funerals at Arlington National Cemetery is being able to provide closure to family members and to be able the offer that last measure of respect that the United States Army and our sister services can give,” Ford said.
The horses pull a caisson, a replica of an early 20th-Century wagon used for 75mm cannons and originally equipped with ammunition chests, tools and more. There are five caissons in the fleet, and the Old Guard is in the process of upgrading their carriages. The fifth caisson is used for training purposes.
“We are installing new casket desks which do not have the bunting and instead have the brass stars down the sides,” said Ford.
The caisson team is made up of seven horses, but six horses pull caisson through the cemetery. Only the left side of the team has riders — another aspect steeped in tradition.
“The seventh horse is ridden off the team to allow the section chief to move independently of the team to ensure the routes are clear and passable, and to coordinate with the marching troops prior to the funeral service,” Ford said.
In battles, the horses on the right side were used for carrying provisions and if needed, could replace a main horse if needed. Caissons were used to haul the dead and wounded from the battlefield in addition to carrying ammunition. The field artillery used a six horse hitch, and today the platoon uses their equipment, tack, techniques and their training methods laid out in the artillery manual printed by the Army in 1942, Ford said.
“We perform the exact same funeral service when two family members are in attendance as we do when half of Maryland has journeyed to our cemetery, because the departed has earned those honors,” Ford said.
Special funerals have a caparisoned, or “cap” horse, where empty boots are positioned backward in the stirrups. This horse would follow the caisson with the casket and was usually led by a single foot soldier. At Arlington, that happens when an Army or Marine Corps officer was ranked a colonel or above. The most famous cap horse at Fort Myer is Sgt. York -- named after the World War I soldier Alvin C. York — who walked behind President Ronald Reagan’s caisson.
According to the small museum in the stables at Fort Myer, one of the earliest examples of a cap horse in the United States was the funeral of George Washington. His horse, carrying his saddle, holsters and pistols, was led behind the procession. Abraham Lincoln, however, was the first president to be honored with a caparisoned horse in a state funeral.
According to the museum, the use of a cap horse originated in the ancient custom of sacrificing a horse at the burial of a warrior. It symbolized that a soldier had fallen as a warrior and would ride no more. Eventually that evolved into the horse being rider-less during funeral processions to symbolize the fallen warrior.
“Our actions in Arlington Cemetery tell the surviving family members that they are not alone in their grief, they are not alone in their loss,” Ford said.