Lorraine Jackson is as big a history dweeb as she is a horse-o-phile. So we’ve coerced her into writing a new series for us that combines the two. This week’s topic: horses and funerals.Top photo: The “Cap Horse” at Ronald Reagan’s funeral
It’s easy as a horse person to feel like you are in on the biggest secret of all time: Everything is better with horses. But on a few rare occasions, we share our beloved equus with our fellow men as a sign of our past, as a sign of ceremony, and as a sign of respect. Specifically, at funerals.
The practice of using horses in ceremonies of death has been occurring for thousands of years, but the origin is often debated. Tibetan Buddhists say that the symbol of a riderless horse is often used in connection to death rituals, as a symbol of young Buddha fleeing his father’s palace and thus beginning a new life journey.
But it’s debatable that the military tradition began in the Mongol Empire, and that Genghis Khan was the first to use horses to honor his fallen warriors. Someone would lead the fallen soldier’s horse unridden to the burial ground, and (you may want to cover the eyes of your young readers for the next part) the horse would be sacrificed and eaten to honor its rider. While barbaric to the modern eye, the meaning behind it was deep–a soldier and his horse were paired for the full extent of a horse’s life, and the horse was useless without his warrior companion.
Today, the practice of leading a riderless horse, also called a caparisoned horse, in a funeral procession is reserved for extraordinary individuals, and it’s a powerful sight to behold. The Cap Horse is led by the Cap Walker, and boots of the deceased are placed in the stirrups backwards. The backwards boots are intended to symbolize the rider looking back towards the living one last time before riding into the beyond.
Among those that observe the ritual of a caparisoned horse are deceased military individuals who were Colonel or above in rank, U.S. Presidents, the Secretary of Defense, and, as an American West offshoot, Cowboys. Abraham Lincoln was the first President to be officially honored by a cap horse, which was President Lincoln’s personal mount, Old Bob.
But according to White House History, George Washington’s personal horse was also led in the funeral with his saddle, holsters and pistols in place, but no boots. Black Jack, a half-morgan, was the cap horse for the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Army General Douglas MacArthur. When he died, Black Jack was buried with full U.S. Military Honors, one of only two U.S. Army horses ever to be given such an honor.
As previously mentioned, the practice of the riderless horse is also used among the good commonfolk of the West to honor cowboys who have gone to the pastures in the sky, and this tender moment was recently captured by Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman fame. Generally, the pall bearers will ride their horses from the Church to the Cemetery, behind the cap horse as an escort to beyond.
When you consider how special the people are, whether great presidents or salt of the earth cowboys, it’s hard not to be proud that the greatest way to honor their life and work is the image of a horse that must go on without them.