US army works to improve welfare of “Caisson horses” after two deaths

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Members of a joint honor guard escort the caisson bearing former President Ronald Reagan's flag-draped casket during his funeral procession on June 9, 2004. He served as the military's commander-in-chief from 1981 to 1989.
Members of a joint honor guard escort the caisson bearing former President Ronald Reagan’s flag-draped casket during his funeral procession on June 9, 2004. He served as the military’s commander-in-chief from 1981 to 1989. © Master Sgt. Mark Suban (Wikipedia)

The death of two of the US Army’s Caisson horses who carry soldiers to their final resting place at the Arlington National Cemetery has prompted an equine charity to look into establishing a fund to help with their ongoing care.

A CNN article last month reported the death of the two horses within 96 hours of each other in February at Fort Myer, in Virginia. One had an intestinal impaction and some 20kg (44 pounds) of gravel and sand in his gut. An external assessment and inspection of the Caisson stables requested by the unit’s commander found “a host of systemic problems with the living conditions of the horses in the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also called the Old Guard”, the article said.

A caisson is a two-wheeled cart designed to carry artillery ammunition; the British term is “ammunition wagon”. Caissons are also used to bear the casket of the deceased in some state and military funerals.

US horse protection charity the Equus Foundation sought the advice of the US Army as to the requirements involved with making cash donations with the intent to establish a fund designated specifically for the ongoing care of the Caisson horses.

Equus Foundation President Lynn Coakley said donors and horse lovers had gotten in touch with the foundation asking h0w they could help.

“My father is buried at Arlington Cemetery and received full honors including having his casket drawn by Caisson horses. I can’t begin to express how powerful, meaningful, and comforting the ceremony was – and how important it is that the Caisson horses receive the best care going forward,” Coakley said.

But after consulting with its legal team, the US Army told the foundation it was unable to accept cash donations.

The regiment told the Equus Foundation that the report from Public Health Command-Atlantic veterinarians was driving a “detailed and systematic approach to improving the facilities and processes surrounding our horses’ care”.

“A number of recommendations were implemented immediately. Those actions include the purchase and placement of feeding mats, purchase of hay quality testing kits, and optimization of nutrient-balanced feed. We are currently developing contracting solutions to procure better quality hay as well. In addition to rectifying many of the unit-level solutions, we are also working with an array of Army partners to develop an enduring plan to address long-term issues related to facility upgrades and grazing areas, which the Army has already approved funding for.”

The Army said it was “in the process of assessing a variety of options to improve the living conditions for our horses”, and was seeking an Equine Herd Manager in Fort Myer, Virginia. Applications for the full-time position close on May 20.

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