ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA —
A matched team of horses pulls retired Army Col. Robert Gambino's flag-draped casket on a caisson at Arlington National Cemetery
For his funeral, the decorated soldier receives full military honors; a gun salute and an escort platoon accompanied by the U.S. Army Band.
Gambino is being laid to rest at the nation’s best known military cemetery, just outside of Washington, D.C., the final resting place for those who have served on active duty, presidents and other notable Americans.
A U.S. soldier prepares a horse for caisson duty at Arlington National Cemetery. (VOA/J. Taboh)
A riderless horse, another distinction of the soldier's rank, follows behind. The boots in the stirrups face backwards, symbolizing the warrior who will never ride again.
In order to execute this solemn task, the animals involved must be as disciplined as the United States Army soldiers who work alongside them.
Caisson horses have performed this sacred ritual for more than 60 years.
Both the horses, and the men who care for and ride them, have been specially trained. They are members of the caisson platoon of the 3rd United States Infantry regiment, also known as "The Old Guard
It’s a tradition that dates back to the early 19th century, when horse-drawn caissons moved men and equipment to and from the battlefront.
U.S. soldiers polish a saddle for a caisson horse before it sets out for duty at Arlington National Cemetery. (VOA/J. Taboh)
“The horses were used to pull those weapons,” Army Sgt. First Class Eric Hayman says, “and also for getting the wounded back to the hospital. Later, it evolved and we didn’t need those anymore and we later turned that duty into caisson duty moving our fallen heroes in Arlington National Cemetery.”
Forty-four horses are housed at the Caisson Barn at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, adjacent to the cemetery.
It takes several hours for each team to be prepared, groomed and made ready for these special occasions.
Hayman is responsible for the health and welfare of the whole platoon of horses, as well as the soldiers.
When it comes to horse selection for the caisson platoon, he looks for a “cool temperament, good, easy-going characteristics typically found in bigger draft horses.”
But there is something more that distinguishes these animals.
“They’re highly disciplined, highly de-sensitized, their natural environment is them running around in a pasture grazing and being a horse and then we put them in this environment where they must stay still," he says. "And in a way, render their own honors to the country’s fallen heroes.”
Caisson horses dry off after their morning showers at the Caisson Barn at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (VOA/J. Taboh)
A large part of that discipline comes from their special training.
According to Hayman, a herd manager and a couple of horse trainers, who are active duty military, work with the horses every day for four months to train them for the funerals.
“The most important training, for these horses to be part of the caisson wagon, is desensitizing them,” says Hayman. “That is, getting any of that prey instinct out of the horse so when it sees the unfamiliar items out in the civilian life or in society, they don’t get spooked. So we focus a lot on that.”
Once this funeral is complete, the caisson platoon will quickly begin preparing to accompany the next fallen warrior to his or her final resting place. The Old Guard provides final honors at about 40 military funerals each week.