Suffering animals are not easily able to call attention to their plight, instead dependent on their caretakers to notice and react in their best interest. That includes a small group of voiceless heroes right here in Northern Virginia — the horses of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard”, Caisson Platoon. These are the horses who transport military members to their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Those hero horses were poorly housed, with several in poor health for some time.
The Arlington’s caisson unit came under increased scrutiny in 2022, after receiving 18 “unsatisfactory” inspection reports dating from 2019. Army reports outlined unsanitary and potentially life-threatening conditions for the horses, poor-quality feed, parasites, and housing in tiny mud lots scattered with gravel, construction debris, and manure at Fort Myers and Fort Belvoir. National attention was brought to conditions in the unit in Spring 2022, when two working horses died unexpectedly within 96 hours of each other. One, Tony, from what equine veterinarians say, could have been preventable intestinal compaction, that was caused by 44 pounds of gravel and sand found in his gut. The second horse, Mickey, died of septic colic, which can be caused by a gastrointestinal illness or injury that has gone untreated, allowing manure or bacteria to make its way into the bloodstream and cause an infection. Two more horses of the, originally, 60 horse unit were to die within nine months of Tony and Mickey.
Following those losses, the Army sought a temporary solution for improved pasturing and increased acreage. In December 2022, it announced a partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, obtaining a five-year lease for use of land at Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area on Mason Neck. Under the plan, about a dozen horses were expected to pasture there on rotation, for two weeks at a time, under full-time supervision, while not performing their shift of ceremonial funeral duty.
Continuing review of the unit’s conditions early in 2023 found that the horses were living in only about 18 percent of the space recommended by equine medical practitioners. Further, 27 horses had muscle and joint injuries, as well as hoof issues, and required rehabilitation. With insufficient healthy horses available, the Army first suspended caisson services at Arlington for part of 2023, later continuing the suspension until June 2024, to provide time for rehabilitation and to make improvements. They announced plans to buy lighter weight caissons than the 2,500 pound versions then used, and better-fitting saddles and tack to reduce the horses’ musculoskeletal strain. The Army also committed to establish a network of expert advisers and contract with new trainers and farrier, hire a new herd manager, and improve the feed, to better manage the quality of life for the horses.
Funding of $15 million from Congress was included for the caisson platoon in the FY2023 National Defense Authority Act, passed in December 2022. The act, passed annually, which funds vital military and national security priorities, in that year addressed the plight of the horses as an “other matter;” reflecting the importance of making conditions better for the horses.
Meanwhile, with an agreement with BLM already in place for use of 14 acres, early in 2023, the Army had begun making improvements to prepare for the horses’ rotating use of the Meadowood paddocks. Fencing, with multiple paddock sections, was added, with water troughs, flake racks, and temporary shelters. After consultation with Virginia’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, pesticides were applied to target Milkweed and other plants growing in the meadows that are toxic to horses. By May, the scene at Meadowood looked idyllic and ready for horses in need of rest and space. But the caisson horses never arrived.
“The pastureland at Meadowood was never a permanent option, but a short-term solution while the Army developed its plans for long-term facilities and high-quality care for its animals,” the Army’s Public Affairs office explains. “The contracted equine facilities that the Caisson Platoon are currently utilizing provide tailored professional fitness training, quarantine for new horse arrivals, training areas and rehabilitative care for horses not available in the pastures at Meadowood. The Army continues to work with BLM on the way ahead for Meadowood, and while it remains an option, the property does not meet the Army’s immediate needs for the Caisson Platoon.”
The Caisson Platoon is currently using stabling and pasturing at three locations: its mission support site at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington; an exclusively contracted 37-acre equine fitness and training center near Aldie, Va. in Loudoun County; and a contracted rehabilitated care facility, Foxhall Equine, in Fallston Maryland.
The herd is now at 53 horses. Twenty-three horses are in rehabilitation at Foxhall, 25 horses are at the Aldie facility, and five horses are working at Myer.
The 37 grassy acres near Aldie provides much more room to stretch than their former crowded paddock. The Maryland rehabilitation facility is spa-like, with available treatments such as hydrotherapy, aqua-tread, salt room, laser therapies and a solarium.
Life is significantly better now for all the horses, thanks to the public and Congressional interest in their plight, and the Army’s responsive action.