Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day & The Riderless Horse (2009 Post)

I lived just outside Washington, D.C. all but 9 years of my life, and once lived next door to the Iwo Jima Memorial, heard the bells of the Netherlands Carillion and overlooked Arlington Cemetery from my balcony. This holiday to me is a somber one.

Today, a retired 28th Infantry Division Pennsylvania Army Major, William H. Wolfe, will perform one of the military's most hallowed ceremonies during the 2009 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.

In 2009, Major Wolfe led the riderless horse -- his own 10-year-old black Tennessee Walking Horse gelding, Winchester, in the No. 7 spot in the parade. He served in the Persian Gulf and in Operation Iraqi Freedom 3 in Iraq for a year. This year, Cruiser, will be led by equestrian Dee Staley. At this time of this blog post, I could not obtain a photo of them.

The riderless (or caparisoned) horse, led by a "cap walker," is fully saddled and bridled and bears a pair of boots set backward in the stirrups. The honor is reserved for high-ranking government officials and for officers of the rank of colonel or above who have died. In this case, Winchester will memorialize those who were killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While you view memorial events in our country set forth to remember those who have fought for our freedom, here are some explanations of the customs adhered to in the processions:

(1) Today's customary three shots fired over a grave probably originated as far back as the Roman Empire. The Roman funeral rite of casting dirt three times on the coffin constituted the "burial." It was customary among the Romans to call the dead three times by name, which ended the funeral ceremony, after which the friends and relatives of the deceased pronounced the word "vale" (farewell) three times as they departed from the tomb. In more recent history, three muskets were fired to announce that the burying of the dead was completed and the burial party was ready for battle again.

(2) The custom of using a caisson to carry a coffin most likely had its origins in the 1800s when horse-drawn caissons that pulled artillery pieces also doubled as a vehicle to clear fallen soldiers from the battlefield. Caissons are pulled by 6 black or grey horses. In Washington, D.C., the horses used for this are kept at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia where they graze happily alongside Rt. 50 behind something like a 20 ft. chain link fence and are surrounded by concrete office high-rises, and apartment buildings.

(3) As noted before, in the mid to late 1800s a funeral procession of a mounted officer or enlisted man was accompanied by a riderless horse in mourning caparison followed by a hearse. It was a custom to have the boots of the deceased thrown over the saddle with heels to the front signifying that his march was ended. You will more often see the rider's boots reversed in the stirrups, indicating the soldier will never ride again, as well as signifying the commander's parting look upon his troops, who march behind.

When the beautiful Caisson horses are not being utilized for memorial / funeral events, they are utilized in therapy on the grounds of Ft. Myer in the rehabilitation of our injured soldiers.

We wish for you to have a safe Memorial Day, and to please remember those who have not yet, or will ever, return home to their families and country that they loved.


  1. What a beautiful post.

  2. I came across your blog after reading Dozer's....
    I must say this is the most beautiful post I have ever read. I will be sharing it with my daughter and husband and others as well.

    Have a wonderful day,
    Joan & Skippy


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