Why is a Riderless Horse Used at a State Funeral?

JFK Funeral
Black Jack, the riderless or "caparisoned" horse (center), followed President John F. Kennedy's flag-draped casket from the White House to the U.S. Capitol Building on November 24, 1963. Photo © Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

A "caparisoned horse" refers to the covering(s) placed over the animal, either as a decoration (in the case of a parade, for instance) or for protection (such as the armor once used in battles). These items might consist of fabric, leather and/or metal.

In the context of a state funeral held for a U.S. president, however, the caparisoned horse refers specifically to the riderless horse that accompanies the deceased during the funeral procession.

A symbolic gesture reserved for presidents or those who reached the rank of colonel or higher in the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps*, the caparisoned horse symbolically represents a "fallen warrior" or a leader who will lead no more. (*Neither the U.S. Navy nor the U.S. Air Force use caparisoned horses during funeral services.)

Similar to state funerals, strict protocols govern the appearance of these riderless horses. If the animal is black, it wears a bridle, saddle and saddle blanket; if the horse is another color, it sports these items with the addition of a cape and a hood. In all cases, these items are black in color, and all metal and leather straps, fasteners and decoration are polished to a high sheen.

In addition, particularly as seen during the televised funeral procession for President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a caparisoned horse also carries a pair of polished, spurred boots placed backward in the stirrups, and a sword or saber positioned vertically on the "off side" (the side opposite the individual leading the caparisoned horse during the funeral procession).

Again, the presence of these items signifies that the deceased has fallen and will no longer lead. The backward-facing boots might also represent the leader taking a "last look" at his family, those whom he led, the living, etc.

A Brief History of Caparisoned Horses
The use of a caparisoned horse as a symbolic gesture for a fallen leader is centuries old -- possibly dating back to the era of Genghis Kahn (12th century) or even before.

Much of this ancient tradition's trimmings, such as the animal's coverings, the sword and backward stirrups (not boots), still exists in some form in modern caparisoned horses used during state funerals, but with one key difference: back then, survivors sacrificed the animal so its spirit could join the deceased in the afterlife.

Over time, the need/desire to sacrifice these animals disappeared but the other poignant aspects endured. President Abraham Lincoln was the first U.S. president to receive this symbolic honor during his funeral procession in 1865. After President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, his wife Jacqueline specifically emulated aspects of Lincoln's funeral, including the use of a caparisoned horse during the funeral procession. Today, strict protocols govern the appearance and use of caparisoned horses during presidential state funerals, but the moving, emotional nature of this respectful gesture remains the same despite the passage of centuries.

The public often refers to a caparisoned horse as a "riderless" or "ceremonial" horse. Those in military service, especially those who work with these animals, often use the abbreviated term "cap horse."

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"The Caparisoned Horse." Retrieved August 22, 2015. http://www.usstatefuneral.mdw.army.mil/military-honors/caparisoned-horse

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