Arlington Cemetery pauses horse use for 45 days for health concerns

·4 min read
FILE: Burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with coffin carried on horse drawn caisson. / Credit: Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
FILE: Burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with coffin carried on horse drawn caisson. / Credit: Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The horses that lead the caissons holding caskets of fallen service members at Arlington National Cemetery are taking a 45-day break over concerns for their health.

The Army in a statement said the suspension of the horses in the caisson platoon is meant to "prioritize the health of the herd." The pause comes after four horses of the unit died in the past two years. The horses' living conditions have undergone recent scrutiny.

"We look forward to the return of the U.S. Army caisson horses performing their sacred duty of escorting our nation's heroes to their final resting place," Army spokesman Lt. Col. Terence Kelley said in a statement. The suspension, which began on May 1, is a "conditions-based" pause and won't impact military funerals. The Army is looking at temporary solutions like contracted services to provide funeral escorts while the military working horses take a break.

During the pause, horses with foot, joint or muscle issues will have a "more deliberate and adequate rest and rehabilitation cycle," according to a spokesperson for the Army's Military District of Washington. The command will also take the time to procure additional youthful horses and modernize equipment needed to decrease potential future injuries.

"Unsatisfactory conditions" for horses managed by infantry regiment

Last year, an Army inspection first reviewed by CNN found that the more than 60 horses managed by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as  "The Old Guard," were living in "unsatisfactory conditions" at Fort Myer Caisson Barns and Fort Belvoir Caisson Pasture facility.

The inspection requested by the unit's commander was prompted by the death of two horses within 96 hours of each other in February 2022. Both horses died as a result of severe gravel and sand impaction in their digestive systems. Tony, one of the horses that died, had 44 pounds of gravel and sand in his system, according to CNN.

Trainer suspended after 2 horses mysteriously die during Kentucky Derby Week

Subsequent tests included in the inspection showed 80% of all of the horses managed at the facilities had high or moderate levels of sediment in their systems. Sediment could be found in their digestive system if horses are eating hay off the ground, rather than off a feeding mat.

The Army's Military District of Washington and the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment have made several changes to the care of the horses, as a result of recommendations made after the inspection, like buying more feeding mats, hay quality testing kits and a more nutrient-balanced feed. The command has also hired several equine experts to help manage the health of the herd.

The deaths of two other horses in the unit over the past year were unrelated to the living conditions described in the inspection, according to an Army official. One of the horses died after an injury sustained at rest, after likely being kicked by another horse, and another horse was euthanized because of an intestinal issue.

The inspection last year also noted the horses' insufficient living space.

The horses of "The Old Guard" rotate between Fort Myer and Fort Belvoir. The recommended acreage for healthy horses is one to two acres per horse, however, the pasture facility at Belvoir only consists of six acres — for the more than 60 horses in "The Old Guard."

To give the horses more space, the Army Military District of Washington announced a partnership last year with the Bureau of Land Management to house some of the horses at the Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area in Lorton, Virginia, about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C. 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 from Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, in last year's defense legislation that required the Army to submit a briefing to Congress on the care of the horses within "The Old Guard." An Army official confirmed the Army completed that briefing earlier this year.

"The Old Guard" horses

In the hundreds of funerals at Arlington National Cemetery a year, six horses pull a flag-draped casket on a black artillery caisson. The caissons, built in 1918, originally carried ammunition chests and tools for cannons but now have a flat deck for caskets to rest on.

The Army will provide updates for the public on the health of the horses and the interim solutions to their absence on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

The sights and sounds of coronation day

Biden administration prepares for expiration of Title 42

Ukraine accuses Russia of using phosphorous munitions in Bakhmut