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Military horses at Arlington Cemetery to take 45-day health break

U.S. military working horses will not serve as escorts during funerals at Arlington National Cemetery for 45 days because of concerns about their health, according to Army officials.

The Army’s Caisson Platoon provides horses during the cemetery’s funeral honors, but recent reports have highlighted problems related to the horses’ health and how they are cared for. As of May 1, the cemetery said in a statement last month, the horses will not appear at memorials “to prioritize the health of the herd.”

In an email, Army spokesperson Junel R. Jeffrey-Kim said the 45-day pause was not the result of a specific sickness, but “provides a more deliberate and adequate herd rest and rehabilitation cycle for horses with foot, joint or muscle issues, to procure additional youthful horses, and to modernize equipment needed to decrease potential future injuries.”

“We’re taking this time for a dedicated, focused effort to improve the health of our herd — in an effort to allow them time for rest/therapy to properly heal from the aforementioned issues,” Jeffrey-Kim said in the email.

The Army in its statement last month said the cemetery would contact families with funerals already scheduled that were expected to include horses from the Caisson Platoon. The cemetery is working on alternatives such as other horse-drawn conveyances and outside contractors, according to the statement.

“This temporary pause will be conditions-based, and will not impact military honors, dependent honors services or any other military funeral honors elements,” it said. “We look forward to the return of U.S. Army caisson horses performing their sacred duty of escorting our nation’s heroes to their final resting place.”

Problems with their care and housing surfaced in an Army report last year that said the horses were living in unsatisfactory conditions and suffering from parasites, CNN reported.

Four horses in the platoon have died in the past two years, CBS News reported, including two with gravel and sand in their digestive systems. Some were relocated to 14 acres in Virginia managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Virginia in December.

In a statement, Maj. Gen. Allan Pepin, commander of the military district of Washington, said the safety of the horses is a “top priority.” The decision to sideline them was based on health assessments from veterinarians, according to the statement.

“The service and dedication of our Soldiers and Military Working Equines in support of interment is unwavering and this risk mitigation action is essential to ensure we can sustain future operations for our Nation’s veterans,” Pepin said in the statement.

Updates on the status of the horses will be provided on the cemetery website, officials said.

During military funerals, caissons — wheeled vehicles originally designed to carry artillery, but used since the 19th century to remove dead soldiers from battlefields — drawn by horses carry caskets to gravesites.

Horse-drawn caissons were a familiar site at Arlington and have been part of many state funerals, including President John F. Kennedy’s service in 1963.

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