FORT MEYER, Va. — At 4 a.m., soldiers were already getting their hands dirty at Fort Meyer. They chat with each other over saddles and harnesses instead of coffee, fingers turning black as they worked the leather buffer.
This group of Old Guard 3rd U.S. Infantry soldiers are part of the Caisson platoon, and their job is to take care of some of the most famous horses in the world.
The caisson horses are responsible for pulling the caskets of deceased servicemembers and their families through Arlington National Cemetery to their place of burial. The horses duty - and that of their riders - holds a sacred place at Arlington.
There are about 61 horses at Fort Myer and 56 soldiers that care for them.
Getting ready for work
The horses’ preparation is similar to that of a persons: they wake up, shower, get dressed, some slip on new shoes, and off they go.
As some of the soldiers clean the saddles, others are taking the horses out of their stalls and into the showers, where they are thoroughly bathed - whether they like it or not. And like their human counterparts, some are rather grumpy as they get hosed down.
After their showers, the horses dry off before they are brushed and their horseshoes checked. If a horses’ shoes need repair, their name is added to a list and their shoes are replaced or fixed. They are dressed in their saddles as soldiers go around tightening bridals and checking ropes. A black tabby cat with several different names - one of which is Rihanna - wanders around the barn, keeping an eye on the horses as the soldiers move methodically from horse to horse. Afterwards the horses are brought outside and hooked up to the caissons that carry the caskets.
Each horse has a distinct personality, and soldiers have their favorites. One horse 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 tied to the caisson.
Caisson horses do not refer to the type of horse but rather what they are pulling: a replica of a wagon built in 1918 used for 75mm cannons and originally equipped with ammunition chests, tools and more. Six horses pull the caissons through the cemetery, but only the left side of the team has riders.
Part of the reason for the empty riders go back to tradition, where right horses were used for carrying provisions and if needed, a spare horse. During battles, the caissons were used to haul the dead and wounded from the battlefield in addition to carrying the ammunition. The riderless horse and use of caisson would eventually be used as an honorific in military funerals.
According to the small museum at Fort Myer in the stables, one of the earliest examples of a caparisoned (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.
President Lincoln, however, was the first president to be honored with a caparisoned horse in a state funeral.
The tradition goes back further than the founding of America. 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 deceased soldier had fallen as a warrior and would ride no more. Eventually that tradition would evolve into the horse living and being riderless during funeral processions to symbolize the fallen warrior.
The museum dates the tradition as far back as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.
The public is allowed to visit the caisson horses.