Respect and attention are words commonly heard throughout the armed forces. For most, it’s an understood concept. For the four-legged service animals of Caisson Platoon, it’s a learned habit.
Six Soldiers, ranging from private to sergeant, have spent the last seven weeks of a nine-week training course at Fort Belvoir learning horsemanship, in order to prepare for riding in Arlington National Cemetery funeral ceremonies.
Simultaneously, six horses learned the program used by the Caisson to train Soldiers in horsemanship. Sgt. Erik Weis, Caisson veterinarian technician and course instructor, explained that the horses were acquisitioned in the fall. “These are the first group of Soldiers to ride them; they aren’t really learning the program. They are teaching the horses the program. It was a good experience for everybody.”
Weis explained that as the horses progress through training classes, Soldiers will also be able to progress further into the program as they won’t have to worry so much about training the horses as the current class has.
The Soldiers and horses had to learn several techniques including diagonals, where they run the horse around the outside of the arena before cutting one corner to the opposite corner, and various forms of yielding to either get the horse to full-on stop or back-up.
Though their work is not done, those who passed the final test March 9 will spend the next two weeks learning caisson training at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. Weis, an instructor for the course, explained the riders learn postilion-style riding at JBM-HH. The style requires a rider to control two horses; generally the horse on the left is ridden while the one on the right is rider-less.
The course isn’t there to just teach caisson training, said Weis. They teach the Soldiers how to bond with the horses and gain the respect of the steed they are mounted on.
“[The course] familiarizes [the Soldiers] with horses, helps them build their confidence. A lot of times in the past, we’ve had guys graduate that were afraid — afraid to canter, afraid to trot — there was still fear there because they didn’t know the answer,” said Weis. He explained prior to the caisson using a formal training curriculum, the Soldiers would be trained only for the mission at hand, not so much for horsemanship and the ability to ride a horse in all situations.
Not being trained properly on a horse could cause problems, as most of the caisson Soldiers go into the program with no experience around horses at all. Out of the current six trainees, only one had previous experience with horses.
Pfc. Tyler Meyers, riding the training horse Corona, said he’s been riding horses since he was 12 years old. “I’d never done [ground training] before; back home we’d just get on and let it rip,” said Meyers. “I came from Bravo [Company] and I liked it there, but I’ve always loved horses. I thought why not get paid for something I like to do.”
The general consensus by those who had no prior experience riding a horse was daunting.
“It’s very intimidating the first time you go into a trot or a canter. I wouldn’t say it’s scary, but it’s a different experience,” said Pvt. Chad Braithwaite, who rode Duke, the biggest training horse for this class.
“We learned about horses in general, the way they are, the way they act and their temperaments,” said Braithwaite. “Then we went into what is ground work, we established a foundation with the horse as far as them moving off of our cues and them respecting us.”
As part of their training, the trainees had to become familiar with their horses, as the new recruits soon found — no two horses are alike.
“Corona is a very lazy horse. He doesn’t really like to do anything,” said Meyers. “He’s also very herd sour because he wants to stay around the other horses. I had to gain his respect then break him of his bad habits.”
Pvt. Alex Krieger, on Quirt, said in order to break a horse of being herd sour, the rider has to make the horse work harder to be around other horses. If the horse wants to go one way, pull the other way or yield the horse. “The goal is to get the horse to listen to you and not the other horses,” said Krieger.
“At first [Dozer was] stubborn. If he doesn’t want to do something, you really have to work him to go do it,” said Pfc. Nathan Foltz who had never even touched a horse prior to training with the caisson. “He’s a lot better now, but there are still things he doesn’t like to do, but just give him a little nudge and he goes right for it, otherwise he’s a big baby trying to lean his head on me.”
Although it’s not all training at the barn, Soldiers form a bond with the horses. As temperamental as the horses can be, the Soldiers admitted to building a relationship with their training horses and plan on coming back to ride them at some point in the future. The horses belong to the caisson, but the Soldiers are allowed to take them out on the weekends for trail rides.
The final week and throughout the riding portion of the training, the students went on various trail rides to get out in the open and learn how to control a horse in an open area. They also were given the opportunity to play soccer on the horses.
A 36-inch colorful soccer ball was placed in the arena with the horses, being the second week for most of the steeds with the ball; they were desensitized enough to approach and kick the ball around from one end of the arena to the other.
One horse however, Clinch, ridden by Weis, had no previous experience with the soccer ball. Like a cartoon horse, Clinch leaned back and spread his front legs in order to get away from the ball. Following the order to keep his hooves planted, he stayed grounded while doing everything he could to get away from the ball.
Clinch, causing a scene while becoming acquainted with the rolling monstrosity, gained the interest of the cemetery horses at Fort Belvoir on their week of rest and relaxation. The cemetery horses were in the adjacent grazing field at the facility. Covered in dirt, ears perked and standing at attention, the horses mimicked the orderliness of their riders while in the cemetery, as they watched Clinch.
It’s these same horses and the horses of three other caisson teams that will be ridden by the six candidates upon completion of the nine-week course. Once sorted into the team, they will become acquainted with their other team members as well as the horses they will be riding. Though it could be days or weeks before they actually enter the cemetery, it was a general consensus that each of them are honored to be part of the caisson paying last respects to their fallen brethren in arms.