Friday, March 1, 2024

Insight: The Mane Attraction

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

I was pleased to learn that in a few months, the U.S. Army will revive a tradition dating back to the 19th century of using horses under the care of the Old Guard unit at Fort Myer, Virginia to lead funeral processions for military service members being buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

A plaque at Black Jack's gravesite at Fort Myer, Virginia
tells the story of his service as the 'riderless' horse during
the funeral procession for U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
The program has been suspended for the past year when several horses died from improper nutrition and other horses were suffering from painful conditions caused by heavy and poorly designed Army saddles and harnesses in use for more than 100 years. Now with rest, a better diet and newer and safer equipment, the Old Guard expects to start using horses again for funerals by the start of summer.

When the news about this first broke last spring, it led me to reflect upon the time I spent at Fort Myer in 1980 and a visit I made to the grave of the Old Guard’s most famous horse, a Morgan and Quarterhorse cross gelding named Black Jack, who is buried near the flag pole at Summerall Field there. Black Jack is one of only four U.S. Army horses to receive full military honors upon his death and will forever be remembered as the “riderless” horse during the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.

Black Jack was born in Oklahoma on Jan. 19, 1947 and was acquired by the U.S. Army and assigned to the Old Guard in November 1953. He was a large horse at 15.1 hands tall and weighed more than 1,200 pounds. He was high spirited and temperamental and was named for his coal black appearance and after legendary Army General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. From the start of his service at Fort Myer, it was apparent that Black Jack would have trouble fitting in with the other horses on duty there.

He balked at being part of a team of Old Guard horses pulling the caissons carrying caskets to gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery. It’s a ceremonial event dating back to the days of horse-drawn Army caissons carrying artillery. Black Jack proved to be a significant challenge for even the most experienced soldiers who wanted to ride him during parades and for other ceremonial events. He repeatedly kicked his stall door in the Old Guard stables at Fort Myer, refused to wear a harness, and would hesitate at commands given to him from anyone other than his assigned handler.

But after almost a decade of service at Fort Myer, Black Jack had found his niche as the “riderless” horse trailing behind during Old Guard funeral processions. On some days the Old Guard at Fort Myer would work as many as six different funerals a day and by the time his tenth anniversary of service neared in 1963, Black Jack was a part of more than 1,000 funerals at Arlington.

The Old Guard is stationed at Fort Myer and happens to be the U.S. Army’s oldest active-duty infantry regiment, first created in 1784. Besides military funeral services, it provides sentinels for the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington National Cemetery, color guards for events across Washington, D.C., escorting presidential motorcades and handling the caskets of fallen military members who died overseas and were flown home to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, requested a public funeral for him through the streets of Washington to his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. During the first-ever televised funeral of a U.S. president, Black Jack appeared behind the caisson carrying Kennedy’s casket and the horse was decked out in full military dress tack with an empty saddle and black boots turned backwards in the stirrups.

His Old Guard handler led Black Jack through the nine miles of the procession as the horse pranced at times and was difficult to control during the two-hour event. Millions watched and came to admire Black Jack for his unwavering and unrelenting spirit.

Black Jack became an instant celebrity and later served as the “riderless” horse in the funerals of U.S. Presidents Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson and U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur. Thousands of children would write Black Jack letters and a visit to his stables at Fort Myer became a tourist destination for visitors to Washington.

Arthritis and kidney issues forced Black Jack’s retirement in 1973 and on Feb. 6, 1976, he died and was buried at Fort Myer. The beloved horse was given a dignified sendoff worthy of national figures including a ceremonial 21-gun salute.

While assigned to The Pentagon in Washington in 1980, my barracks were at Fort Myer and one day I took a walk through the grounds and met some Old Guard members who were outside grooming horses. They offered me a quick tour of the stables and then an Old Guard platoon leader guided me to the nearby grave of Black Jack and told me his own story of how he helped care for the horse when he became a member of the Old Guard.

Now some 44 years later, Old Guard horses will soon be leading funeral processions into Arlington National Cemetery once again. I believe Black Jack would certainly approve.

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