By Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.February 3, 2017
They wake before the sun comes up each weekday. They spend the early morning bathing, eating, strapping on equipment, getting a haircut and polishing shoes. By 8 a.m., they are on the job, carrying a fallen warrior to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia
They are not your typical Soldiers. Each weighs about 1,200 pounds. They are the steeds of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Caisson Platoon.
The mission of the Old Guard is time-honored. One that is respected, admired and much appreciated by the family members of fallen loved ones being laid to rest. The firing party is always in sync and the casket team always on point. But for many, one sight stands out the most: the arrival of the Caisson team.
Tall, strong-looking horses, ridden by sharply dressed and decorated Soldiers working together to escort a fallen warrior to his final resting place, honoring him the best they can. Something special about them captures the eyes and the attention of those in attendance. Maybe it's the posture of the rider, maybe it's the calmness and tranquility of the horses.
"It's a huge honor just to be able to show the family that we care -- that they're not going to be left behind, ever, because their loved one gave so much to our country and to the military" said Sgt. Jake Kausen, a senior instructor for the basic horsemanship course. "I don't know how to explain it other than that. It's definitely one of the best things I've done in my life, and I don't know there will ever be a way to top that."
"Even the horses can sense the importance," he said. "They can feel it through the riders, their posture and tightness. They can feel that, so they actually know they need to be good."
Perfection comes only after meticulous training.
Even the selection process is painstaking. Trainers have a few places around the country that they purchase horses from.
"I can go to their places, their ranches, their farms, wherever that may be, and I look at the animals and see if they match what we need. See if it's the size, color and shape. You know, they have to be sort of pretty, because we are in the public", said Robert Brown, the Caisson Platoon's horse manager.
The herd has 50 to 60 horses at any given time and to avoid half of the herd retiring at the same time, Brown spaces out the ages of the horses when purchasing them. The last batch he bought included two 1-year-olds, a couple of 3-year-olds, and went up the age bracket to 7-year-olds.
Newly-purchased horses are taken to the stables that are nestled in a corner of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, hidden by trees and chain link fences. Upon arrival, the horses spend a few weeks in quarantine, separated from the rest of the herd. This is a precaution to ensure the horses aren't sick and don't contaminate the rest of the herd if they are.
Rubin Troyer, once a sergeant in the platoon, is the horse trainer. It's his job to make sure they're ready to work in the cemetery. He spends his days with the horses, desensitizing them, getting them used to different equipment and situations that would scare the average horse, things like gun fire, music and crowds.
"What we ask of these horses is extremely unnatural for them, we're asking a claustrophobic animal to accept apparatuses and to go into environments that by instincts and by their nature they are really scared of," Troyer said.
New horses train alongside the Soldiers attending the Basic Horsemanship Course.
"Soldiers learn how to ride and control the horse and the horses learn to deal with the Soldiers, although the horses generally like to challenge the riders." Kausen said "Like children, they want to see what they can get away with."
Once a horse has demonstrated that it's capable of handling the basics, it is taken to Fort Myer, Virginia, for the next step. Troyer spends four weeks shadowing each horse after they are attached to the caisson and it works alongside the other horses and Soldiers. Then, if the horse is successful in its duties, Troyer turns it over to the Soldiers of the caisson platoon. That's when the horse's training is officially over.
From there, the horses will spend their career on the Caisson team. "We like to shoot for like 10 years of service," said Kausen. "So 10 years, then we do the adoption process of adopting them to a good home where they will take care of them and they can be horses."