Burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with casket carried by horse-drawn hearse
FILE: A burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with a coffin being carried on a horse-drawn caisson.

Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Horses carrying caissons with coffins of fallen servicemen Arlington National Cemetery are taking a 45-day break due to health concerns.

In a statement, the army said the suspension of the horses in the caisson platoon was intended to “prioritize the health of the herd”. The pause comes after four of the troop’s horses have died in the past two years. The living conditions of the horses have recently come under scrutiny.

“We look forward to the return of the U.S. Army’s caisson horses as they fulfill their sacred duty of escorting our nation’s heroes to their final resting place,” Army spokesman Lt. Col. Terence Kelly said in a statement. The suspension, which began May 1, is a “conditions-based” pause and will not affect military funerals. The Army is looking at temporary solutions, such as contracting services to provide funeral escorts while military workhorses rest.

During the pause, horses with foot, joint or muscle problems will have “a more deliberate and adequate rest and rehabilitation cycle,” according to a spokesman for the Military District of Washington. The command will also spend time purchasing additional young horses and upgrading equipment needed to reduce potential injuries in the future.

“Unsatisfactory conditions” for horses in the command of an infantry regiment

Army inspection last year first reviewed by CNN found that more than 60 horses under the command of the US 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Old Guard,” were living in “unsatisfactory conditions” in the Fort Myer-Caison barns and Fort Belvoir-Caison pastures.

The inspection, requested by the unit commander, was prompted by the deaths of two horses within 96 hours of each other in February 2022. Both horses died from the force of the gravel and sand hitting their digestive systems. Tony, one of the dead horses, had 44 pounds of gravel and sand in his body, according to CNN.

Subsequent tests included in the inspection showed that 80% of all horses kept at the facilities had high or moderate levels of sediment in their systems. If horses eat hay off the ground instead of a feeder, they may have sediment in their digestive system.

The Military District of Washington and the US 3rd Infantry Regiment made several changes to horse care as a result of recommendations made after the inspection, such as purchasing more feed mats, hay quality testing kits and more nutritionally balanced feed. The command has also hired several equine experts to help monitor the health of the herd.

The deaths of two other horses in the unit last year were not related to the living conditions described in the inspection, according to an Army official. One of the horses died after an injury sustained while at rest, probably after being kicked in the chest by another horse, and another horse was euthanized due to an intestinal problem.

An inspection last year also noted insufficient living space for the horses.

The “Old Guard” horses rotate between Fort Myer and Fort Belvoir. The recommended acreage for healthy horses is one to two hectares per horse, but Belvoir’s pastures are only six hectares – for more than 60 horses at the Old Guard.

To give the horses more space, the Army Military District of Washington announced last year that it was working with the Bureau of Land Management to house some of the horses at the Meadowwood Recreational Management Area in Lorton, Virginia, about 20 miles from Washington, DC. The Army plans to use approximately 14 acres to house and graze 12 horses on a rotational basis through December 2027.

Congress included an amendment by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, in last year’s defense legislation that would have required the Army to provide Congress with a briefing on horse care in the “old guard.” An Army official confirmed that the Army completed that briefing earlier this year.

The “old guard” of horses

At Arlington National Cemetery’s hundreds of funerals a year, six horses pull a flag-draped coffin on a black artillery caisson. The caissons, built in 1918, originally housed ammunition boxes and gun tools, but now have a flat deck for resting boxes.

The Army will provide the public with updated information on the health status of horses and temporary solutions for their absence on Arlington National Cemetery website.


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