When I think about Memorial Day, I do think about the fallen men and women, I think about my own son, a Marine veteran who served in the Afghanistan war. I think about the families who are remembering their lost loved ones and how hard this weekend must be.
I also think about the horses that served the military. Like most who take a moment to think about it, I’m amazed and frankly, stunned when I think about what horses are willing to do for humans. They will work until their body collapses and run until their heart explodes. They will bravely forge through rivers and mud toward gunfire and cannon fire. It’s difficult to fathom.
Throughout history horses have served in war. Horses not only carried men and supplies into battle, they could also sense enemy forces before the riders could hear them. They were used as shields and gave their lives for their riders. The horses of war were literally bomb proof.
Some of the horses that found themselves in war were the true heroes and well known throughout history. Our own military has several of these amazing animals.
One of the most famous American heroes is Sergeant Reckless.
Reckless was a chestnut mare of Mongolian horse breeding. She was purchased in October 1952 for $250 from a Korean stable boy at the Seoul racetrack who needed money to buy an artificial leg for his sister. She quickly became part of the unit and was allowed to roam freely through camp, entering the Marines’ tents, where she would sleep on cold nights, and was known for her willingness to eat nearly anything, including scrambled eggs, beer, Coca-Cola and, once, about $30 worth of poker chips.
Reckless was used to carry supplies and weapons and evacuate wounded soldiers during the Korean War. She was known for her intelligence and ability to take solo trips without a handler. Most famously, during the Battle for Outpost Vegas in 1953, she made 51 solo trips in a single day.
She was given the official rank of Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, and following the war was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Marine Corps Good conduct Medal, was included in her unit’s Presidential Unit Citations from two countries, as well as other military honors.
Traveller and General Robert E. Lee
Sired by a great thoroughbred race horse, also grey, Robert E. Lee’s famous horse Traveller was a fussy guy. He jigged, he reared, he spooked. He always had to be in front. We all know this horse, and either you love them or you hate them. Traveller was well loved by General Lee, and the two made history together.
Traveller was a soldier. It’s been documented he was willing and surefooted over rough terrain and would carry Lee 40 miles a day. In fact, several accounts stated that General Lee’s men had to often grab Traveller and push him to the back of the pack because General Lee could not be on the front lines – even though the horse wanted to be there.
He was finally retired and spent years roaming the campus of Washington College in Virginia while Lee was president of the college. The students there would pluck souvenirs from his mane and tale. He followed the hearse after Lee’s death in 1870, and was well cared for until his own death in 1871.
Cincinnati was Ulysses S. Grant’s most famous horse, and well known to be his favorite, sired by a famous thoroughbred race horse, one of the fastest of the time. He 17 hands high, handsome and powerful.
Grant is pictured astride Cincinnati in most of his memorials, and rode him to the Appotomax Court House to negotiate General Lee’s surrender. Abraham Lincoln was also an admirer of Cincinnati and rode him daily.
Not all military horses served in battle, but are no less heroic. The bond between humans and horses cannot be explained, nor denied, and the caparisoned horse, the riderless horse carrying the spirit of the lost soldier, brings to mourners the spirit of the lost soldier. The image of the black horse without a rider is meant to represent the soldier’s last journey, and the boots facing backwards is meant to represent the rider having one last look at their family.
As a horse famously too hot and ornery to be a military riding horse, who wouldn’t pull anything, refused to parade, Black Jack was assigned the duty of the caparisoned horse following the casket in more than 1000 military funerals over 24 years of service. He was most famously the caparisoned horse you see following the casket in president John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession.
Born in 1947, he was a spicy gelding who did not mellow with age, and finding a suitable handler to walk with him was always a concern. He was retired in 1973 after serving in the funerals of presidents Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, as well as General Douglas MacArthur.
Over the years hordes of children came to visit Black Jack, his horse shoes were requested as souvenirs, and his caparison (saddle, bridle, saddle blanket, sword, boots and spurs) were given to Jacqueline Kennedy, one of his many admirers.
Black Jack secured his position as the ultimate caparison horse as his high spirit embodied the spirit of the loved one being buried.
Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and please remember all who have served.