The Army said Thursday it is extending the suspension of its horses responsible for carrying fallen service members to their final resting sites at Arlington National Cemetery after an initial 45-day break aimed at remedying the horses’ health proved to be insufficient.
The pause for the ceremonial unit, which began May 1, is now slated to go through June 2024. The modification comes as the Army implements a long-term rehabilitation plan for the animals after the deaths of some of its military working horses prompted a report that highlighted their poor living conditions.
Two horses from the caisson platoon of the 3rd Infantry Regiment — the Old Guard that is known for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — died early last year, CNN reported. Both horses, Mickey and Tony, died within days of each other after appearing to suffer intestinal issues. The recent deaths of two additional horses in the unit were unrelated to the living conditions described in the inspection, an Army official said, according to CBS.
Maj. Gen. Trevor Bredenkamp, the commander of the Military District of Washington, told reporters Thursday during a roundtable the pause is meant to give the Army the opportunity to assess the health of the horses and what staffing and facilities are needed to support the equines going forward. Of the 48 horses in the herd, 27 are undergoing care at various rehabilitation facilities, the majority of which are in the caisson unit, he said.
“We do regret the impact this extended suspension in caisson operations will have on families laying their loved ones to rest,” Ray Alexander, the Arlington National Cemetery superintendent, said during the roundtable. “In addition to our commitment to these families, though, we recognize that the life, health and safety of the caisson herd is a top priority.”
The suspension in caisson operations will impact a funeral ceremony’s method of transportation to the gravesite, Alexander said. Alternative means of carrying remains, such as a hearse or a cemetery vehicle, will be used instead, he added. Other elements of funeral honors will not be impacted.
The cemetery notified around 200 families impacted by the initial 45-day suspension, many of which have proceeded with their service as originally scheduled, Alexander said. On Thursday, cemetery officials began notifying an additional 351 families that will be impacted by the extension between June 15 and September 30, he added.
Officials should know by around February 2024 if the timeline to end the suspension as currently planned in June 2024 needs to be reevaluated, Bredenkamp said, adding they are regularly assessing that timetable.
In addition to examining the health of the horses, including whether any need to be retired, the Army is assessing the equipment the animals regularly use. The service is working to acquire a lighter weight caisson, the wheeled cart the horses draw to carry a casket to a gravesite, that creates less strain on the working animals, Bredenkamp said.
Some horses are still expected to participate in funeral honors between now and June 2024.
Later this month, a riderless horse is expected to trail a hearse in a small number of eligible funerals. In the fall, the Army expects a horse with a rider to lead a hearse at all ceremonies that would be eligible for caisson support, an Army release noted.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media