“You start off bareback and you fall a lot,” he says. “But you learn how to ride horses and how to take care of them. There’s a lot of honor that goes through everything that you do here. It’s a lot of hard work but it pays off.”
On the caisson, the most experienced rider is the wheel man. He has the most important job of controlling the wheel horses, which do all the braking, since caissons are brakeless. In fact, the wheel horses, which are the largest horses, are outfitted with a specially designed tack to protect them when a caisson touches them during braking.
The swing rider on the caisson has the least experience, and the lead rider at the front is more experienced and knows how to get around the cemetery well. All of the soldiers also ride at stiff military attention.
New members of the platoon work in the stable first. After they learn how to clean the tack, they gradually work their way up. The first job on the caisson is the swing position. After gaining seniority, a soldier gets the privilege of serving on details in parades and pageants like the Twilight Tattoo, performed on the Ellipse in warm weather.
Down the street from the Old Guard Stables is the Old Guard Museum. The museum, which was built in 1903 and reconfigured in the late 1980s, details the history of the Old Guard regiment from its inception in 1784. Its displays include mannequins wearing uniforms from various historical eras. Weapons that the Old Guard has used — from muskets to machine guns — are also on show, as well as flags that have been associated with the Old Guard since its beginning.
One of oldest artifacts of the Old Guard on display is the Chapultepec Baton. During the Mexican War in 1848, Brig. Gen. Persifer F. Smith, the commander of the 3rd Infantry, presented the baton to the division to commemorate the role it played in the capture of Mexico City and its successful attack upon the Chapultepec Fortress, the Mexican military academy.
Other notable items include a steel casing fired in salute at President Kennedy’s funeral. The museum also has the uniform of Sgt. Jeffrey Hojnacke, who holds the record for the most turns at guard duty (1,500) at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Also on display is the uniform of Sgt. Heather Lynn Johnsen, who in 1996 became the first woman to earn the Tomb Guard Badge. The coveted award requires six months of training and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and lore of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Hanging on the walls of the museum are oil paintings by military artists depicting Old Guard scenes, including the colors — the flags — used in Gen. Omar Bradley’s funeral. Streamers from the Old Guard’s 51 battles are on display as well. In addition, numerous documents and photographs give a history of the unit. There are also displays of four Medal of Honor winners who were in the Old Guard, three from the Indian Wars and one from Vietnam.
Visitors find that the mannequins exhibiting various uniforms that the Old Guard wore from Colonial times, to the Indian Wars, to the Civil War, and to Vietnam are among the more interesting items in the museum. Weapons and equipment from each era are also on display, including rifles, handguns and sabers.
WHAT: The Old Guard Stables