While having roots in antiquity, the custom of a riderless horse participating in a funeral procession has changed dramatically since the time of an ancient legend of mourners leading a horse to a burial site, where it was slaughtered and eaten as part of a ritual. Horses were occasionally sacrificed so that their souls could accompany their masters into an afterlife, were buried in tombs from time to time for the same purpose, and were dispatched on similar journeys to another world well into the 14th century.
In North America, early Native Americans had great reverence for horses, and while the founders of the United States of America may not have shared that reverence initially, they nonetheless respected the animal’s significant roles in transportation, agriculture, sport and the military. At the end of the 18th century in the United States, with the death of America’s first president, a new role emerged: the riderless horse representing the mount of a fallen leader.
A former officer in the American Revolutionary War, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee eulogized George Washington in December 1799 as being “…first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen…” Twelve days after Washington’s death at Mt. Vernon, a riderless horse took part in an elaborate, simulated funeral ceremony conducted in Philadelphia, the then-capital of the United States, with an empty casket symbolizing the late president. The event was described in The Pennsylvania Gazette:
Immediately preceding the clergy in the funeral procession, two marines wearing black scarves escorted the horse, who carried the general’s “saddle, holsters, and pistols” and boots reversed in the stirrups. The riderless horse was “trimmed with black – the head festooned with elegant black and white feathers – the American Eagle displayed in a rose upon the breast, and in a feather upon the head.”
The empty boots facing backward in the stirrups had two levels of meaning. First, their being empty indicated the individual would ride no more. Secondly, they suggested the deceased was taking one last look back at his family and the troops he commanded. Both of these meanings carry forward to today’s tradition of boots reversed in the stirrups.
In 1850 the funeral of President Zachary Taylor, a former Army general celebrated as “Old Rough and Ready,” took a more personal turn, so to speak. Taylor’s own Army horse, Old Whitey, was walked in the funeral procession while bearing the military saddle worn in combat during the Mexican-American War, when Old Rough and Ready sat astride him as “shots buzzed around his head.” As in the Philadelphia ceremony commemorating George Washington, the general’s boots were turned backward in the stirrups.
A light gray horse, Old Whitey was familiar to many who witnessed the funeral cortege that day in 1850. He had become a popular tourist attraction while grazing on the front lawn of the White House during his master’s sixteen-month presidency, which ended abruptly when Taylor was struck down by an alleged gastrointestinal complication that reportedly stemmed from ingesting cold milk and cherries on an extremely hot day.
Perhaps because the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln was immediately recognized as a profound tragedy in American history, Lincoln’s funeral was orchestrated on a grand scale befitting the people’s adulation. A funeral train carrying his casket traveled nearly 1,700 miles through 180 cities and towns in seven states, stopping occasionally for public viewings and tributes, as it progressed toward its final destination, Springfield, Illinois, where a young Abe had grown to manhood.
This marks the first time we have photographs of the riderless horse participating in the funeral of an American president. Of the many photos of Lincoln’s horse Old Bob, one of the most memorable shows him draped in a black mourning blanket bordered in white, trimmed with alternating black and white tassels, and a black hood topped by an elaborate head-dressing as he stands in front of a building with windows draped and adorned in a similar manner.
Ridden by Lincoln from town to town while the self-educated lawyer campaigned for office, Old Bob was brought out of retirement in a pasture for his master’s final rites. He was led in the funeral procession by the Reverend Henry Brown, an African-American minister who performed occasional handyman tasks for the Lincolns, as they followed the hearse to Lincoln’s resting place.
Curiously, the tradition of the riderless horse in funerals of American presidents was not observed for the next eighty years. It was not until 1945, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died unexpectedly while in his fourth term as president, that the horse appears once more. As it turned out, the horse seems to have been almost an afterthought in the plans for FDR’s funeral.
Roosevelt’s death stunned Americans to the core, and inasmuch as U.S. government officials were focused on the transition to their new leader in a world at war, it is understandable that the participation of a riderless horse in FDR’s funeral procession may not have received the attention it had in earlier days. This is how the New York Herald Tribune described the matter:
“Directly in back of the caisson (bearing FDR’s flag-draped casket), a Negro soldier led a riderless horse.” The horse was “draped in black, its head covered in a dark cowl, and a saber bouncing gently off the horse’s belly.” The funeral procession was in Hyde Park, New York, where the late president was buried in a garden on the Roosevelt estate. We will assume the saber was attached to a saddle and bounced gently off the horse’s side.
The year 1963 marked another traumatic time for Americans, particularly the family of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 23rd. The riderless horse who took part in JFK’s funeral procession would become the most renowned of them all: Black Jack, who would represent the mount of a fallen leader in the processions for Kennedy, Presidents Herbert Hoover (1964) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1973), as well as General Douglas MacArthur (1964), among other prominent Americans.
The protocol for Black Jack in Kennedy’s funeral procession would set the standard for riderless horses from 1963 to the present day. He was tacked with a black modified English riding saddle and black bridle. Black, spurred cavalry boots faced backward in the stirrups, and a scabbard with sword hung from the rear of the saddle’s right side. Positioned beneath the saddle, a heavy saddle cloth, or saddle blanket, was ornamental in design.
Although he was a military horse named in honor of General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Black Jack was not born into the service. A dark bay Morgan-Quarterhorse cross with a small star on his forehead, he was foaled on a Kansas farm in 1947 and later purchased by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps for remount service, the remount referring to a soldier’s need to replace a mount that had been injured or killed in the days of the U.S. Cavalry. The Army then shipped Black Jack to the Fort Reno, Oklahoma, Remount Depot, where he was raised and trained.
He was not a tall horse – 15 hands, weighing 1,050 pounds – but he had a big personality and was spirited. In fact, his rambunctious spirit was a problem for his handlers when he was transferred in 1952 to Fort Myer, the Army post adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In his first outing as a riderless horse in a funeral procession to Arlington, he pranced and danced a great deal. Mourners liked his spirited nature, however, and so his unmilitary antics were tolerated. Those antics continued until he was retired in 1973 after participating in several thousand funerals.
When Black Jack passed away in 1976, his remains were cremated and his ashes buried with full military honors. A monument on the parade ground at Fort Myer’s Summerall Field attests to the degree he had been revered. Raven, another dark horse, succeeded Black Jack in his duties as a riderless horse.
Raven made no appearance in the funeral procession of an American president, although he likely participated in more than a thousand funerals of military leaders who were eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The stately funeral service provided for presidents, who are military commanders-in-chief, is also available to Army and USMC officers having a rank of colonel or higher, and there are many such officers among Arlington’s honored dead.
At this point a mention should be made of President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, who passed away in March 1969 and was buried in Abilene, Kansas. No horse of record participated in the Kansas funeral ceremonies, but earlier, in Washington, a riderless horse did follow the horse-drawn caisson bearing Eisenhower’s casket from the Washington National Cathedral to the Capitol, where the late president lay in state for public viewing in the Capitol Rotunda.
A video of the procession from the Cathedral to the Capitol shows a riderless horse who is nearly liver chestnut in color with a small star on his forehead, a horse whose prancing and dancing in the procession, and pawing impatiently while standing “at rest,” bear a suspicious resemblance to Black Jack’s behavior. If the fidelity of the color in the video is flawed, and the horse’s coat is indeed nearly black, it could be that BJ, as Black Jack’s grooms and walkers called him, had a connection with the man who was the most popular military commander of World War II and, later, the 34th president of the U.S.
The most recent riderless horse to represent the mount of a deceased American president, and the last on record, followed the caisson bearing the body of Ronald Reagan in 2004. Reagan was later buried in Simi Valley, California, so here again we have something of an Eisenhower situation. The late president’s tan, spurred riding boots were reversed in the stirrups, replacing the black cavalry boots traditionally used. The procession in Washington ended at the Capitol, where a closed casket lay in state for viewing.
The riderless horse in the procession paying tribute to Ronald Reagan was Sergeant York, a dark bay gelding named for the decorated American soldier of World War I, Alvin C. York. Before Sergeant York the horse entered military service, however, he had plied a trade in harness racing for several years under the name Allaboard Jules. A standardbred foaled in 1991, Allaboard Jules became an Army horse with a famous name in 1997.
The military has been referred to many times in this article, which will draw to a close with an explanation for those many references.
In 1948, the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment was assigned the responsibility of organizing and conducting the funeral processions of American presidents laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, as well as other Americans eligible for burial with military honors in Arlington. The Old Guard, as the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment is known, was formed in 1784, is the oldest active unit in the U.S. Army, and is based at Fort Myer, Virginia, adjacent to the nation’s most hallowed cemetery.
The Old Guard’s Caisson Platoon provided the muscle and polish for the formal and elegant funeral procession honoring JFK in 1963, as well as the processions that followed that point of time in this article. The soldiers in the Caisson Platoon are dedicated to tradition, are respectful of the honored dead, respectful of the forty or more horses they provide care for, respectful in their maintenance of the 1918 caissons that bear the caskets to their final resting places with full military tribute.
The riderless horse is also known as the caparisoned horse, the caparison referring to the ornamental design on the horse’s saddle cloth, or saddle blanket. The solider who leads the riderless horse is called the cap walker, and in the case of the spirited Black Jack, the young cap walker handling him in a procession likely had quite a story to tell his comrades in the Caisson Platoon at the end of day.