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Caissons Stop Rolling, As Army Scrambles To Reverse, Improve Conditions That Put Arlington Horses In Jeopardy

By tom On Wednesday, May 10 th, 2023 · no Comments · In And more news stories ,News stories ,Writing

By Tom Squitieri
Red Snow News
WASHINGTON — One week after the Army privately touted its steps to improve the conditions for horses working at Arlington cemetery, it decided to shut down the Army’s Caisson platoon, the ceremonial horse unit that is the centerpiece of the service to carry the bodies of fallen troops for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The suspension follows four equine deaths in the platoon over the last year and as well as deep, festering and some say negligent living conditions for the horses and a seemingly stark lack of elementary training for those who care and handle the horses, congressional aides said.

The slowness of the Army to address the problem has raised bipartisan ire from Congress, which has directed millions in funding to improve the living conditions for the horses — and has increased concerns in equine and humane organizations.

“This is a national tragedy,” Jim Gath, founder and chair of the Tierra Madre Horse and Human Sanctuary in Cave Creek, Arizona, and author of 10 books, including ‘I Hear You, Horse,” said in an interview. “These horse are being used to take heroes to the final resting place. They have been treated as if nobody is in charge of these horses and their well-being.”

The shut down is for at least 45 days to prioritize the health of the herd. The Army said the “suspension” will not impact military honors at the cemetery.

The concerns over the Army’s poor treatment of the Arlington horses is one element of growing national concerns over equine conditions – including those of race horses. Prior to the recent Kentucky Derby, five horses were scratched from the race — the most since 1936 — amid a 10-day stretch where seven horses died at Churchill Downs, including two on race day.

Asked on May 4 if Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was satisfied with the Army’s decision to stand down the Caisson unit at Arlington National Cemetery as a way to further review the treatment of the horses there, Deputy Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said, “So I know what you’re referring to. I just don’t have more information on that. I’d be happy to take that question and get back to you and provide an answer.”

For months and most likely years, the Arlington herd was living in small, unsanitary lots covered in more than a dozen inches of excrement. They were also eating low-quality hay and other materials, congressional aides said.

More than a dozen inspections conducted between 2019 and 2022 gave the horse facilities “unsatisfactory” sanitary ratings, despite supposed efforts made by the soldiers of Caisson Platoon, who train and care for the horses. A lack of space, inadequate funding and the turnover of unit commanders were noted as the primary issues. The 60-some horses were fed poor-quality feed, suffered parasite infestations and lived in excrement-filled mud lots.

Roughly half of the horses in the unit were over 20 years old — or geriatric.

“You want someone with practical experience,” Gath said. “You want someone who has dealt with these issues in the past.

“They are putting these horses in jeopardy,” he said. “The details in what they plan to do is every thing. They need to walk down every stall, teeth to tail (exam), get a permanent record going, the types of feed, the types of hay, the supplements they get, the medicine, the physical (activity) for them you do to bring them back proper health.

“It’s all about the horse,” Gath said. “I would be more than glad to come out there and help with those evaluations – just like we do here at Tierra Madre.”

Facing severe congressional criticism and the threat of civilian lawsuits – some comparing the Army’s treatment of its horses to horses broken down in some big city tourist systems — the Army said it was undertaking a significant review and upgrade of operating procedure and living conditions for the beleaguered herd.

That includes, for the first time, creating an adoption program through which certain individuals can adopt retired horses. The Army did not provide details on the program nor if individuals or organization could support the existing herd working at the cemetery.

“Raising awareness for and participating in this program is a great way to support the Caisson Platoon,” Army Col. June Jeffrey-Kim, Director of Public Affairs, Military District of Washington, said in a statement to Red Snow News.

Two horses died within 96 hours of each other in February 2022, one with 44 pounds of gravel found in his gut upon necropsy. Tony, the horse with 44 pounds of sediment in his gut, died of sand colic, the result of being fed in inappropriate feeding areas. Mickey, the other horse that died in February, died of septic colic, which was caused by an untreated gastrointestinal illness or injury. Manure and bacteria made their way into his bloodstream, causing an infection.

Rio, a 19-year-old horse, died on Oct. 24, 2022, and Rambler, a 14-year-old horse, died a month later. Both were euthanized by veterinarians as a result of their ailments. Rio died of surgical complications after he suffered a left limb fracture; he underwent three surgeries to attempt to fix the injury, but veterinarians determined he would be euthanized for quality-of-life purposes.

Ramble died of “acute abdominal distress;” it is unclear if it was caused by sediment in his gut as the unit was waiting for necropsy results at the time. Horses can die from an ailment called “colic,” a general term for abdominal pain that can vary in severity and pain for the animal.

In January of this year, the unit closed its stable to the public for a month to “minimize spreading a contagious [to other horses] upper respiratory bacterial infection that was found in” one of the horses.

Part of that criticism has centered around how much space the unit has allotted to the herd at Forts Myer and Belvoir, facilities that currently offer less than 20% of the area that equine experts recommend. Provisions to improve the horses’ conditions were included in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that passed Congress last year.

Even with the added 14 acres, the herd is still short of the “generally required” 1-2 acres per horse.

In an email response to Red Snow News, the Army outlined on background what it is doing to improve the care and status of the horses.

That includes repairing shelters, fences lines and removing hazardous objects, and repairing stalls, repairing the bar heating system; and acquired and establishing a new 14-acre pasture in Fairfax County after working jointly with the Bureau of Land Management; placing concrete pads around hay feeders and installing rubber mats in feeding areas to reduce the ingestion of sand and gravel.

It said it hired a herd manager with equine and agricultural degrees to oversee all aspects of herd health from procurement to retirement and a facilities manager with a degree in environmental biology and 16 years of professional animal care management to upgrade and improve equine equipment and facilities for the entire herd.

The Army also said it established relationships with civilian farriers to address corrective and orthopedic shoeing needs, worked with civilian saddle fitters to properly match horses to existing cavalry saddle, and established relationships with local agricultural experts like the Virginia Tech Extension Offices to consult on our pasture rotation schedule and the elimination of toxic plants.

It did not identify any of those relationships for verification.

It also said it updated the Basic Horsemanship Class to include more instruction on horse care, horsemanship, and riding skills for new soldiers.

As for horse care, it said it has “established nutritional minimums for forage and supplements; organized routine check-ins to monitor horse weight and body condition.” t also said it has updated hay, feed, and supplement contracts to provide more nutritional value for the herd and address existing health concerns.

Part of the improvements are to install commercial slow feed nets in stalls to better align with natural horse consumption habits and improve grain feed schedules and protocols “ensuring each horse receives feed based on their individual dietary needs,” the Army said.

The Army also made adjustments to what horses must wear, moving toward what horse experts say are basics that should have been done long ago.

They include procuring Western style saddle pads to address pressure, discomfort, and soreness related to poor tack fit from the existing cavalry saddles; adopting Hippo setup for wagon tack to address neck pain soreness from existing tack fit; procured English saddles for section horses to increase ergonomics for horse and ride, and ordered new girths and headstalls to improve tack fit for the cemetery herd.

The Army also promised to allow for more flexibility and time off for horses assigned to cemetery operations. It promised to expand “our mission tracking and forecasts to allow for more efficient operations and more deliberate rest cycles,” establish grooming standards to improve coat condition for the cemetery horses, and institute monthly educational classes for soldiers to learn about equine healthcare and management.




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