By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Many service members wake up early to perform their duties, but very few spend their days tending to the highly trained horses that carry our nation’s fallen soldiers to their final resting places.
That’s the job of those who work in the Army’s elite Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment — the Old Guard — which is responsible for ceremonies and memorial proceedings at Arlington National Cemetery.
U.S. Army Spc. Tyler Salas, 24, works as a farrier for the platoon out of a stable at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. He grew up in the small town of Culver, Oregon, on a 100-acre farm that had several horses. They weren’t of interest to him then, though.
“I had dirt bikes and four-wheelers. The horses were my sister’s deal,” he said. “But once I got here to the Old Guard, I saw the horses in the cemetery and thought, ‘Man, I want to do that.'”
He took a horsemanship course and trained to join the Caisson Platoon, where he is one of two men who care for the dozens of horses that pull the caissons, or wagons, that were originally built in the early 1900s for carrying cannons. They’re now used to carry the caskets of fallen soldiers.
All In A Day’s Work
In the stable’s farrier shop, horseshoes hang from the walls, and welder masks and other tools can be found all over the place.
Salas’ day starts at 5:30 a.m., when he and fellow farrier Spc. Todd Kline get to work taking off the horses’ shoes, cleaning and trimming their hooves and remounting the shoes. They focus particularly on the teams of horses that will be part of ceremonies in the cemetery that day.
Once the horses are tended to, Salas and Kline turn into blacksmiths, of sorts, welding wagon limbers that need to be fixed and working on other odds and ends around the stable. A lot of their work is done on a forge, the spark-shooting tool used to shape metal.
“It’s propane-operated and gets to about 2,000 degrees. It turns the metal red-hot in minutes,” Salas said of the equipment that’s been one of his biggest challenges as farrier. “It takes a lot of time.”
Making horseshoes and fitting them correctly to the animals is an extremely important task. Since the horses are constantly on their feet on asphalt-covered cemetery lanes, their hooves can wear down pretty quickly. Because of that, they’re fitted with studded shoes – the equivalent of soccer cleats for horses.
“They’re on pavement, and there are metal rain gutters. During the winter, they’re out there on ice and snow. They need the traction to be able to pull a caisson,” Salas said.
The farriers build close ties with the prestigious animals.
“You just learn their personalities. You know what they’re going to do when you do a certain thing. You know how they’re going to react,” Salas said.
He, Kline and herd manager Robert Brown are a tight-knit group, too.
“It’s like a little family in here. We’re in here every single day working together. [Mr. Brown] shows us something new every day and tells us what we’re not doing right,” Salas said jokingly. “We’re a little bit of the glue that holds the barn together.”
Salas, who initially volunteered for the platoon, is the first to admit that being a farrier is no easy trade.
“The work is physically hard. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “But I love it.”
That appreciation began during his first ride through the cemetery.
“When I marched for Bravo Company in the cemetery, I thought, ‘This is cool. I’m really doing something. I’m proud to be doing what I’m doing.’ But then, sitting up on a horse, pulling the remains into the cemetery, it hit a lot deeper,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but there was instant love for it.”
It’s a tradition of which he and other platoon members are extremely proud.
“It’s just cool to think of how long this has been going on and what it means to the Army and the families, and that all of the soldiers in this barn are part of it,” he said. “It’s history, and I like that.”
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