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Fed. Govt./Horses
Kids Corner
First Posted: Oct 14, 2013
Jan 21, 2020

Caisson Horses

by Debora Johnson

Image: http://horseandman.com/wp-content/uploads/Caisson-Platoon_web.jpg

Caisson Barn at Ft. Myer Bill and I, along with a dear friend, Margo, one of her sons and her friend, Amy, and several others visited Fort Myer to take a tour of the Caisson Horses and learn all about them. These tours are open to the public and are free of charge. The stables are open 12:00 pm- 4:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday. The stables telephone number is, 703.696.3018. The main Fort Myer number is, 703.696.3003. You enter through the Henry Gate on Arlington Blvd. US Route 50 and North Pershing Drive. Interstate 395 can also be used, however, it is much more complicated to find the Hatfield Gate. The way is not well marked and is really confusing. You must have a picture ID. The gates are well secured. The guards will ask you to get out of your car while your vehicle is fully searched. You must state why you are on base and answer any other questions that you may be asked. Get instructions from the gate guards on how to get to the Caisson Barn. It is quite easy once you are inside Ft. Myer.

Our equine vet, of many years, Dr. Nancy Sitarz, now gives tender loving care to the Caisson Horses at Ft. Myer. She is no longer in private practice but is using her wisdom to keep these exceptional horses and the war dogs well. I can tell you that they are very fortunate to have Dr. Sitarz, indeed. She has a 6th sense about the animals and is able to figure out problems that many others would miss. Bill and I have always said that "Dr. Nancy" has an uncanny ability to diagnose and treat like no other equine vet. She saved the lives of several of our horses. One of them was a Thoroughbred, pasture name, Little Bee, race name, GoVanGough, who impaled herself on an uprooted tree limb. The hole was so deep you could see the lungs and heart. Nancy did the operation in the field as there was no time to get to an equine hospital. She saved the Little Bee's life and the horse, once healed, was perfectly sound. Gambler's Gold Star, another one of our horses, tied up and Nancy stayed hours into the freezing winter night providing care. It is a miracle that both these horses lived and were sound once again! She also diagnosed a parasite that no other vet could figure out. That parasite was onchocera; a parasite that many vets have never seen. Two horses that we had purchased in the south, as colts, had that parasite and no one knew. At two years of age the symptoms started to show and Nancy nailed it immediatly! Dr. Sitarz told us to have meds compounded to treat it and exactly which compounding company to use. Of course, she also explained exactly how to administer the meds. We used them for the lifetime of the horse. We cannot say enough good about Nancy. She is really beyond amazing.

Nancy Sitarz Caisson Horse and War Dog Vet
Nancy Sitarz, Caisson Horse and War Dog Vet

About the Caisson Horses

There are always 60 caisson horses. There are 40 horses that are stabled at Ft. Myer and 20 horses that are stabled at Ft. Belvoir. Generally there are eight full honor funerals each day, splitting the workload between two riding teams for a total of four funerals per day for each team. However, there can be as many of 16 burials a day at Arlington Cemetary. "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...Priority is to those killed in action..." Stars and Stripes

It should be noted that these caisson horses are rotated and rest between missions. The caisson horses work a two week shift of cemetary duty. After that two weeks they are given R&R at Ft. Belvoir and another twenty of the rested caisson horses are brought to Ft. Myer for their two week shift of cemetary duty. Their mission is physically and psychologically demanding. The horses must be well disciplined, standing still for long periods of time, being steady and not reacting to anything that might be a disturbance. Always remember that a horse's natural instinct is to take flight for protection. They are prey animals. The caisson horses must learn to override their instincts and work in a partnership with their human team mates. Of course, there is supposed to be silence when the caisson procession winds its way through Arlington National Cemetary. This procession is at an extremely slow walk, very deliberate--which can actually be difficult for the horses. The riders must be in perfect riding position. It should also be noted that the men rotate out every 18 months. Bonding between horses and man need to take place quickly. To be a part of this honor takes constant practice and precision. The other 20 horses stay at Ft. Belvoir and work with the Wounded Warrior Program.

Wounded Warrior Program at Ft. Belvoir and the caisson horses

Interesting Facts About the Caisson Horses

  • A team of 6 horses pull an American flag draped casket on a black artillery caisson.
  • These horses are paired into 3 teams.
  • The "lead" team is in front and is the calmest of the horses.
  • The "swing" team is in the middle. They help in the turning of the caisson to the right or to the left.
  • The "wheel" team is in the back closest to the caisson. This team does most of the pulling. Note that the caissons have no brakes, therefore, the wheel horses serve as the break, as well.
  • The six horse matched team is either black or gray. (Gray horses turn white with age.)
  • All six horses are saddled. However, only three of these horses, on the left, have mounted riders. Early horse-drawn artillery had one horse of each team mounted with a rider and the other three horses were used to carry provisions and feed. This has become a tradition.
  • Four of the horses are mounted. There are three, as mentioned above, as well as one more mounted horse that rides along side of the caisson. This 4th horse is ridden in the front, left side of the first pair of horses, aka the "lead team". This unharnessed horse acts as a guide.
  • Most of the men are trained infantry not horsemen.
  • Horse and rider drill, train and live together. They must be able to qualify to be ready for their mission.
  • The rider must train to ride in a military forward position.
  • McClellan saddles are used. "The McClellan saddle was a riding saddle designed by George B. McClellan, a career Army officer in the U.S. Army, after his tour of Europe as the member of a military commission charged with studying the latest developments in engineer and cavalry forces including field equipment. Based on his observations, McClellan proposed a design that was adopted by the Army in 1859. The McClellan saddle was a success and continued in use in various forms until the US Army's last horse cavalry and horse artillery was dismounted in World War II. Today, the McClellan saddle is used by ceremonial mounted units in the US Army. The saddle was used by several other nations, including Rhodesia and Mexico, and to a degree by the British in the Boer War." McClellan Saddle
  • McClellan Saddles

    Caisson Horse Saddles are McClellan Saddles

  • Most of the horses are already saddle broken; however, they require extensive training to work with the caisson.
  • Many of the horses come from Virginia, Texas, Maryland and Illinois. Many horses are donated--but not all.
  • The farriers also train for their positions. The care of the horse's feet, the shoeing and some of the work on the caissons are part of their mission.
  • The farrier's work room.
    Farrier and his work room.

    Comparison regular horse shoe and caisson draft horse shoe!
    Comparison of standard horse shoe and caisson (draft) horse shoe.

    Draft Horse (left) compared to light riding horse. (right) Image by: Montanabw/GNU Free Documentation License.
    Image by: Montanabw/GNU Free Documentation License/Wikipedia.
    Comparison of a Percheron-type draft horse to a Quarter Horse-type light riding horse. The Quarter horse is roughly 15.1h to 15.2h and is a rather fat and stocky light riding horse at that! Quarter horses are really well-muscled. It is easy to see why the draft horses take such a large shoe by comparison.

    Different size shoes that the farrier may use.
    Different size shoes the farrier may use.

    Borium studded horse shoe for better traction and wear.
    Borium studded caisson shoe for better traction and better wear.

  • The Caissons were built in 1918 and used for 77 mm cannons.
  • Originally the caissons had ammunition chests, spare wheels and tools used for the cannons. These have been replaced with the flat deck on which the casket rests.
  • Black rectangular ammunition box.
    Rectangular black box is the ammunition box.

    Caisson: Casket is carried on top of caisson.
    Originally the caissons had ammunition chests, spare wheels and tools used for the cannons. These have been replaced with the flat deck on which the casket rests. Casket is carried on the caisson top.

    Caisson Work Room
    Inside the Caisson Work Room

  • The five stars on the side of the caissons represent each branch of the military: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.
  • Caisson wheel and 5 stars.
    The five stars represent the five military: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.

  • The Amish now make the wheels for the caissons.
  • The caisson horses have other responsibilities. The Caisson Platoon takes part in historic pageants performed by the Old Guard. The Spirit of America and Twilight Tattoo are two of these.

Our guide and Lucky  Lucky eats only Triple Crown!
Our guide and Lucky. Right: Lucky.

A grayish caisson horse (they turn white as they age)
A grayish caisson horse. Gray horses turn white as they age.

More Images of the Caisson Horse Area at Ft. Myer

Inside the barn. Lucky eats only Triple Crown!
Left: Inside the Caisson Horse Barn. Right: Lucky eats only Triple Crown!

Let's go inside the clinic.

A View of Inside the Clinic (Vets Work Area).

Inside the clinic. Vets work area.

Inside the clinic. Medical Rooms

Honor Guard's Platoon

About TOG

"The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) is the face of the Army. Old Guard Soldiers represent all Soldiers in ceremonies in the National Capitol Region and throughout the nation. The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) is the official Escort to the President of the United States and our nation's Premier Memorial Affairs and Ceremonial Unit. Old Guard Soldiers are in Arlington National Cemetery daily rendering final honors to our fallen, both past and present. The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) is the oldest active Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Army and has a distinguished history of service throughout our nation's conflicts; from its creation in 1784 through Operation Iraqi Freedom. Old Guard Soldiers are tactically proficient in their soldiering skills. Besides our ceremonial duties we stand ready to defend the National Capitol Region in the event of an emergency." Follow this link and read all about the 1/3 Battalion HHC Caisson Platoon: 1/3 Battalion HHC Caisson Platoon

A Word About Black Jack

Blackjack's 29th birthday commemoration plaque in the stable of Ft. Myer

Blackjack: Most Famous Riderless Horse.The most famous riderless horse was "Black Jack," a half-Morgan named for General of the Armies John "Black Jack" Pershing. Black Jack took part in the state funerals of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1963), Herbert Hoover (1964), and Lyndon Johnson (1973), and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (1964).

Black Jack was foaled January 19, 1947, and came to Fort Myer from Fort Reno, Oklahoma, on November 22, 1952. Black Jack was the last of the Quartermaster-issue horses branded with the Army's U.S. brand (on the left shoulder) and his Army serial number 2V56 (on the left side of his neck). He died on February 6, 1976, and was buried on the parade ground of Fort Myer's Summerall Field with full military honors, one of only two US Army horses to be given that honor.

Black Jack Caisson Horse/Most Famous Riderless Horse

A Word About the Riderless Horse

The riderless horse named Sergeant York aka Allaboard Jules, during the funeral procession for the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, with President Reagan's boots reversed in the stirrups.

A riderless horse or caparisoned horse (in reference to its ornamental coverings, which have a detailed protocol of their own) is a single horse, without a rider, and with boots reversed in the stirrups, which sometimes accompanies a funeral procession. The horse follows the caisson carrying the casket.

The custom is believed to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed to serve the fallen warrior in the next world. The caparisoned horse later came to symbolize a warrior who would ride no more. Others suggest that this tradition hailed from over a thousand years before Genghis Khan, when the Afghan people represented the Buddha as a riderless horse.

In the United States, the caparisoned horse is part of the military honors given to an Army or Marine Corps officer who was a colonel or above; this includes the President, by virtue of having been the country's commander in chief and the Secretary of Defense, having overseen the armed forces. Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States to be officially honored by the inclusion of the caparisoned horse in his funeral cortege, although a letter from George Washington's personal secretary recorded the president's horse was part of the president's funeral, carrying his saddle, pistols, and holsters. Traditionally, simple black riding boots are reversed in the stirrups to represent a fallen leader looking back on his troops for the last time.

For More Information:

Mucking About With the Old Guard
Mucking About With the Old Guard/Part 2
Mucking About With the Old Guard/Part 3
The Caisson Platoon Equine Assisted Programs
Caisson Horse Articles

Federal Government/Horses
Kids/Big Kids Corner