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Arlington Nat’l Cemetery horse-drawn funeral operations suspended

Retired Governor's Horse Guard Captain Gary F. Brooks, 72, walks through the 10 horses grazing in Avon. (Douglas Hook / Hartford Courant/TNS)
June 12, 2023

In May, the Army announced that horses from the Army Old Guard, the Caisson Platoon, would be given a 45-day break from escorting military funerals in order to rest and recuperate. The break has been extended to last a full year, with the soonest return to service expected in June 2024. 

According to the Washington Post, the military horses, who work as escorts at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, don’t have a specific health complaint. June R. Jeffrey-Kim, Army spokesperson, said the rest “provides a more deliberate and adequate herd rest and rehabilitation cycle for horses with foot, joint or muscle issues, to procedure additional youthful horses, and to modernize equipment needed to decrease potential future injuries.” 

Following the death of two horses, one of which was found to have died through complications of gravel ingestion, the U.S. Army issued a concerning report regarding the care and keeping of the horses in April 2022. 

According to CNN, “significant efforts” made by the members of the Caisson Platoon to improve the quality of life held by the horses were not effective, primarily due to a “lack of funding” granted to the care and well-being of the animals. 

More than a dozen inspections held between 2019 and 2022 found various unsatisfactory conditions, citing sanitation conditions of the pastures, paddocks and barns. The horse that died due to complications of sediment ingestion was not deprived of food but appeared to have ingested sediment while grazing. 

There are over 60 horses in the Army’s Old Guard, with the animals living either in a facility in Northern Virginia, a small, three-paddock facility in the Army base at Fort Meyer, Washington or a six-acre pasture at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

According to the U.S. Army’s website, the Army has enacted a wide approach to improve the lives of the horses. Horses are rotated through physical therapy and cared for by veterinarians. The Army is attempting to expand available pasture land for the horse’s use while also seeking to modernize saddles, caisson equipment and tack to reduce strain on the animals. 

During funeral honors, the horses, some ridden by infantrymen in full dress, pull a flag-draped casket carrying a fallen soldier to their final resting place. Behind the caisson, a riderless horse follows, bearing an empty saddle and reversed boots in stirrups to symbolize the lost soldier. 

When not providing service for funeral honors, the horses participate in historic pageants with the Old Guard.

According to CNN, some funding issues have already been resolved, however, Col. Patrick Roddy, Old Guard Commander, still sees room for improvement while assuring the horses are cared for. 

“I’d like to redo a bunch of these facilities,” Roddy said. “But on a day-to-day operational funding, horses are not going hungry, horses are not going without medical care, horses are not going without the required supplements. Our prioritization of funding goes to the health and welfare of the horses, and we’re constantly watching that.”