“Black Jack has been a poignant symbol of our nation’s grief on many occasions over the years. Citizens in mourning felt dignity and purpose conveyed, a simpler yet deeper tribute to the memory of those heroic ‘riders’ who have given so much for our nation. Our people are grateful to Black Jack for helping us bear the burden of sorrow during difficult times.” — Richard Nixon.
The black riderless horse that paraded into history at JFK’s funeral kind of ended up there on accident. Because he refused to do anything else, the hot and impatient Black Jack became the caparisoned horse. He was not suitable for riding and threw rider after rider. He also couldn’t be trained to drive.
But despite his ornery attitude, he was gorgeous, with a beautiful head and black coat. He was moved to the Caisson Platoon at Fort Meyer, Va., in 1952. And frankly, after his first funeral it appeared he wasn’t suitable as the caparisoned horse either. He wouldn’t stand still. He wouldn’t walk, he pranced beside his handler instead. And when the funeral procession would stop, he’d kick out and misbehave. The military apologized for the horse’s behavior, but the family liked his spirit and said it symbolized the life of the one they were honoring. After that day, Black Jack walked (or danced) through 1,000 funerals over 24 years.
The riderless horse, or caparisoned horse, has roots back to Ghengis Khan’s time. The Mongols and Tartars believed that the spirit of a sacrificed horse would travel with its master to the afterlife. The riderless horses are no longer sacrificed, but they still represent a powerful tradition and came to symbolize a rider’s last journey, and the backward boots imply that the warrior is taking one last look at his family.
Perhaps one reason for Black Jack’s continued poor behavior was his ever-changing handlers (military roles changed every 18 months) and because of the solemnity of funeral processions his handler was unable to reprimand or talk to him during the procession. Pfc. Arthur Carlson was Black Jack’s handler for the JFK funeral. He recalled, “He had gotten spooked. He was starting to dance and starting to throw his head. Completely wet with sweat and I said ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with this horse, but I’m in big trouble.'”
Despite his poor behavior, Black Jack was the first choice for important funerals. He also served as the riderless horse forpresidents Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The coal black Morgan/Quarter Horse cross with a star was the last of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster-issued horses. Born on Jan. 19, 1947, he carried the U.S. Army brand on his left shoulder and neck.
Black Jack himself died after 29 years of military service on Feb. 6, 1976, and was laid to rest at Fort Myer, Virginia. He was buried with full military honors, only the second horse in U.S. history to receive such an honor (the other being Comanche).