Even as horses have largely disappeared from standard military operations, they maintain an important role in military ceremony. A mounted Ceremonial Unit or Military Honor Guard may be provided for a Change of Command Ceremony, military funeral, retirement ceremony, or special events. The use of horses reflects a deep tradition in the U.S. Army and other military units. The appearance of horses in an event is a sign of respect, honor, and connection to the tradition.
Reenactment groups preserve the characteristic uniforms, equipment, and tactics of vanished mounted units. Many of these groups are formal units attached to military commands while others are volunteer groups of civilians. They have much to add to events and ceremonies and are greatly appreciated when they appear.
1st Cavalry Division Horse Detachment reenacts a traditional cavalry charge for the retirement ceremony in honor of GEN Leon J. LaPorte, Fort Hood, TX, 31 Mar 2006.
Today in WW II: 19 Mar 1941 99th Pursuit Squadron activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul, IL, the unit that became the Tuskegee Airmen. More↓
Brig. Gen. James Doty, acting senior commander, 4th Infantry Division and Fort Carson, promotes Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard horses in a ceremony 13 Dec 2010, the 45th anniversary of the mounted color guard at Carson.
Symbolic of the past of horses in the U.S. Army, mounted color guard units are maintained informally at posts that want to preserve the tradition. For example, Ft. Carson, CO, established such a mounted color guard in 1965 when enthusiastic soldiers sold the idea to the commander of the 4th Squadron, 12th Cavalry (Mechanized), 5th Infantry Division, then at Fort Carson. The post stable had about 30 horses that belonged to the Central Post Fund, and no-budget volunteers put in the labor to search out and repair or create proper uniforms, weapons and tack for riders and their mounts. The Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard made its first appearance at a retreat ceremony in July 1965. Ten horses and riders paraded in front of the 5th Inf. Div. Headquarters where the commanding general inspected the troops while riding a big white horse.
Mounted color guard units provide a spirited addition to retirements, parades, retreats, change of command ceremonies, rodeos, state fairs, and other activities both on-post and as invited guests at outside events. They are always well received by crowds of spectators.
In 2010, Mounted Color Guard Units existed at Fr. Carson (CO) and Ft. Riley (KS), plus in other Ceremonial Units in the Army and National Guard. The Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard, stationed aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, CA, celebrated New Year's Day for the 16th consecutive year by riding in the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, CA.
Military Horses in Funerals
Horses add dignity and the honor of long tradition for the funeral of five US Military members who were killed when their MH-53M Pave Low helicopter crashed in Afghanistan during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, as they are brought to their final resting place by a horse-drawn caisson during a mass funeral at the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, 21 Jan 2004. Honored are US Air Force MAJ Steven Plumhoff, US Army SGMJ Phillip R. Albert, USAF MSGT William J. Kerwood, USAF TSGT Howard A. Walters and USAF SSGT Thomas A. Walkup.
The horses that appear in military funerals are governed by a rigid, traditional set of procedures. For a caisson funeral, held at Arlington National Cemetery and other military cemeteries, seven horses are used: three teams of two plus a lead horse to the left of the first team. The three teams together pull the flag draped casket on a black artillery caisson. All six horses pulling the caisson are saddled, but only the three on the left side carry riders, while the three on the right do not. If appropriate, an eighth horse follows the caisson, a single fully harnessed, riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, called the Caparisoned Horse in reference to its ornamental coverings.
The customs evolved from the days when horse-drawn caissons were the primary means of moving artillery ammunition and cannon. The riderless teamed horses carried provisions and feed. The Caparisoned Horse follows the casket of an Army or Marine Corps officer who was a colonel or above, or the casket of a U.S. President, by virtue of having been the nation's military commander in chief. Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865, was the first U.S. president to be honored with a Caparisoned Horse at his funeral. The reversed boots denote that the honored deceased is a fallen warrior who will not ride again.
Military Horses at Arlington National Cemetery
At Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia across from Washington, DC, both men and horses train constantly for funeral duty. They are members of the Caisson Platoon of the 3d United States Infantry (The Old Guard), based at the adjacent Ft. Myer. In addition to their duties in military funerals, the Caisson Platoon participates in numerous historic pageants performed by the Old Guard.
The Arlington National Cemetery horses are matched in groups, gray or black. The three horse teams pulling the caisson are called the lead team (in front), the swing team (middle), and the wheel team (nearest the caisson). The caissons were built in 1918, used for 75mm cannons, originally equipped with ammunition chests, spare wheels, and cannon tools. These have been removed and replaced with the flat deck on which the casket rests.
PFC Arthur Carlson waits with Black Jack for President Kennedys coffin to be brought down the Capitol steps,
25 November 1963. Photo: John F. Kennedy Library.
The Caisson Platoon at Ft. Myer, VA was the home of the Army's most famous horses. "Black Jack" was foaled 19 January 1947, a Morgan-American Quarter Horse cross. He came to Ft. Myer on 22 November 1952 from the Remount Station at Fort Reno, OK. "Black Jack" was honored by being named for General of the Armies John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. "Black Jack" was one of the last of the Quartermaster Remount horses branded with the U.S. brand (on the left shoulder} and his Army Preston serial number 2V56 (on the left side of his neck).
Unusually sleek and beautiful, "Black Jack" became famous when he served as the Caparisoned Horse in the televised funeral of President John F. Kennedy, 25 November 1963. He also accompanied the funerals of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as General Douglas MacArthur. He was the riderless horse for literally thousands of others in Arlington Cemetery during his 24 years of service with the Old Guard.
"Black Jack" ended his dedicated, dignified military career on 6 February 1976. He was cremated and is buried on the parade ground of Fort Myer's Summerall Field, under a marker near the post headquarters flagpole. He is one of only two U.S. Army horses to be buried with full military honors, the other being "Comanche", the 7th Cavalry horse that was one of the few mounts from Gen. Custer's detachment to survive Little Big Horn.