Free to a good home: Horses who have served their country
By JULIE ZAUZMER | The Washington Post | Published: February 21, 2016
He received good marks in his early days in the military: "quite impressive," his supervisor once wrote. But after he kicked a few soldiers, he swiftly found himself unwelcome in the Army.
Meanwhile, his buddy started out with similarly good reviews - "a big morale booster" - but found his military service cut short by a painful foot condition.
Now, the two retirees are, like so many veterans leaving the service, looking for their next homes.
Preferably homes with lots of hay and some room in a barn.
"These guys did their service," Staff Sgt. David Smith said. "It's their time to be a horse."
Kennedy and Quincy, highly trained horses who have served in the Army's Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, have finished their tours of duty. And both are up for adoption, free to a good home.
They have served in a role almost unique in the U.S. military, that of the caisson horse.
Caisson horses pull coffins to burials at Arlington, bringing former officers and service members killed in action in America's wars to their grave sites with haunting uniformity and precision.
The choreographed procession, led by a riderless horse, is one of the most solemn and stylized rituals in the nation.
Kennedy and Quincy performed it about eight times a day, every other week, in every sort of weather. But since they are now unsuitable - Quincy, an 11-year-old quarter horse, is having trouble with his feet because of navicular disease, and Kennedy, a 15-year-old Standardbred, acted out too many times - members of the public have the rare opportunity to adopt a caisson horse.
The horses will go free to two lucky new owners, but the vetting process is strict. Smith said that a herd manager from the Army will travel to prospective homes to make sure the horses find suitable places to spend the rest of their days.
Applicants can visit the horses on Tuesdays at Fort Myer, the Army installation adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. The six-page application, available online, asks questions including, "How often do you think a horse should be wormed?" and "If you go on vacation, what would you do with this animal? If you had to move, what would you do with this animal?"
Jenna Sears was the most recent person to make it through the vetting process. Now, she is the proud owner of Freedom, a 12-year-old quarter horse who had to leave the Army because of an eye cyst.
"The caisson horses are known for being very calm and barn-proofed. They're kind of the ideal horse," Sears said.
A horseback rider since she was about 10 years old, the 27-year-old Fredericksburg resident said she is thrilled to have her own horse for casual trail riding. She boards him in King George County, Virginia, and has owned him for about a month.
"Not many people can say that they own a caisson horse," she said.
The caisson horses are accustomed to hard work. They start their day in the barn at Fort Myer at 4:30 a.m., when soldiers assigned to the caisson come in to prepare for the day's funerals.
Pfc. Kris Loudner, who has been one of the caisson riders for more than a year, said the riders polish every piece of tack daily - that's 314 pieces of brass shined every morning.
By 8 a.m., the horses are ready to go to the cemetery, where they stay until about 4 p.m. "These horses have been doing this so long, they know what the job is," Loudner said. He marveled when he first joined the caisson at how the animals knew how to behave when each funeral procession started.
"The horses will be nipping at each other, acting the fool," he said. "As soon as it's time, they tighten up. They're ready for the mission to start."
Quincy typically walked at the front of funeral processions or in the middle position, Smith said. Kennedy had the most distinctive job of all, that of the riderless horse.
The tradition of a horse walking riderless to a grave site, its saddle empty to memorialize the service member who will never ride again, dates back to the funeral of Genghis Khan, an exhibit in the barn at Fort Myer says.
Riderless horses also distinguished the funerals of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The horse that led John F. Kennedy's funeral is buried at Fort Myer. The horse from Ronald Reagan's funeral is too old to work but still lives in the barn as an honored elder statesman.
Just a few stalls down, Kennedy and Quincy live side by side.
"I've always liked Quincy. He's got a good attitude, a good personality," Loudner said. "He's just an excellent horse."
Quincy, seeming to hear the praise, bobs his head vigorously. Loudner chuckles: It's the same move Quincy makes when they play music in the barn.
Loudner, 24, is an Oklahoma farm boy by birth. When he joined the Army, he was excited to find his way back to a barn. "I take a big whiff, and it just takes me back to when I was a kid."
Asked about his job, he lets out a contemplative puff of air. "We're the final escort to America's fallen service members," he said. "We take America's service members to their final resting place. It's a very honorable, very awe-inspiring job."
That's the job that the two horses will soon retire from.
"I think one of the reasons to own a horse like Quincy or Kennedy is to have a piece in this mission," Loudner said. "In a way, you're tending to a horse that has honored America's service members."