The Caisson Platoon at Arlington National Cemetery

It’s a scene that defines Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) and reminds the visitor that this cemetery is no outdoor museum, rather it’s an active graveyard. At first, all you hear is the clip clop of a team of horses.  Then, it all comes into view, and the observers, mostly tourist, stand at attention.  Some put their hands over their hearts while others stand and salute.  Passing through is the Caisson Platoon of the Third Infantry Regiment, a.k.a. the Old Guard, the oldest infantry unit in the United States Army.  

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A team of horses, either black or white, and several servicemen comprise this particular group.  They are conducting one of the most solemn activities in the United States – carrying the remains of a U.S. serviceman to his or her final resting place – a task that this unit will conduct 8 times on this particular day.

The Caisson Platoon Arlington National Cemetery

Photo courtesy of the Caisson Platoon’s Facebook page.  Click the image to be taken there.

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Involvement of the Caisson Platoon is an honor reserved for officers of the United States military who are eligible to be buried or inurned in ANC. The Platoon traces it’s heritage to a time when horses were the military’s beasts of burden and were relied upon to both carry ammunition and other provisions to the battle front as well as transport the wounded and dead back to the military hospitals and morgues. For officers of the Army and Marines who reached the rank of colonel or above as well as Presidents of the United States of America, a riderless horse, with an empty saddle and boots turned backwards, can also be included.  The riderless horse gets its roots from the ancient world.  When a dead warrior was buried, his horse was sacrificed and buried alongside him, so that his soul would be able to ride in the afterlife.  Today, the riderless horse serves only as a symbol of this ancient practice.

A typical caisson team consists of at least 7 horses, 4 riders, one serviceman holding the colors of the service the deceased served in plus the caisson. Six of the horses are pulling the caisson, three of which have riders.  The other three horses are riderless.  In days past, these horses would have been outfitted with supplies, feed or were intended as replacement horses.  The two horses closest to the caisson are called the wheel horses and these are the most experienced horses and act as the brakes.  The front two horses are the leads and they are the 2nd most experienced.  The middle two horses are the swings and they are the least experienced.  The 7th horse, which has a rider, the the guide horse.

The platoon is comprised of roughly 50 service men and women as well as approximately 60 horses.  There are 4 riding teams.  At any given time, two teams are actually riding, with each team conducting up to 4 full honor funerals per day, while the other two teams work in the stables and farrier caring for the horses, alternating every week.  There are a total of five caissons in the fleet.  Training for both the horses and the humans is intense.  Horses are chosen for their easy going temperament and the ability for withstanding all the different stimuli that they could be exposed to, including sounds from trumpets, airplanes and most importantly, rifles and cannons.  The horses must learn to ride as a team with the caissons. Interestingly, riders with little or no riding experience are preferred.  Each rider must learn how to care for the horse as well as how to ride them.

The daily activities of the Caisson Platoon has its members up before 4 a.m., when they must report to the stables to begin their day.  There’s much to do, including washing the horses, cleaning and fitting their shoes, cleaning the barn stalls and shining the tack that the horses Caisson Platoon in Presidential Inauguaral Paradewear.  Then, the horses must be fitted with their saddles and bridles and then hooked up to the caisson.  All this is done, before the caskets are secured.  Watch the video above to get a better understanding of the Caisson Platoon behind the scenes.

In addition to full honor funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, the Caisson Platoon also takes part in presidential inaugural parades and presidential funerals as well as other military or historic events in the Washington, DC area, the Spirit of America, a community outreach program and the Twilight Tatoo, a military pageant that takes place on the grounds of Fort Myers, where the platoon and the entire 3rd Infantry Regiment are based.

To learn more about the Caisson Platoon as well as the 3rd Infantry Regiment, plan on visiting the Old Guard Museum, located in Fort Myer, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.   (Image courtesy of the Horse and Man blog.  Click the link below to be taken to the page)

Please also take a look below at some of the pages used as references for this article.