I lived through it, and like all Americans who were alive at the time, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I’ve seen the footage of the Kennedy assassination hundreds of times, and I always tear up a little during the funeral procession. Every time. It’s not that I had any special affinity for JFK, I mean, he was all right and all, but I was just a kid when he died. No, the part of the funeral procession that really strikes me in my heart of hearts is the footage of Black Jack.
I watched it live and I’ve watch it every year since then over fifty times on the anniversary of Kennedy’s death and other times. There are a hundred or more horses in the funeral procession, but I am always drawn to just one. The “Riderless Horse.” The grainy black and white video shows a spirited black horse prancing sideways while his rookie handler, then PFC Arthur Carlson, tries vainly to keep him in line. I always wondered if someone taught him to do that, or if someone did something to his feet to force him to do that, or if he was just dancing sideways to draw attention to himself. For many years I was curious about this horse, but it wasn’t until this year that my curiosity was satisfied. While watching the 50th Anniversary coverage of the presidential assassination and the days to follow, I again saw this horse prancing in a most unusual way. The difference between when I saw the footage at the 25 year anniversary and this year was that I had Siri with me. You know Siri, she’s that little know-it-all floosy who lives inside my iPhone. So I asked her, “Hey Siri, what’s with the prancing horse in the JFK funeral?”
I learned his name was Black Jack and his story is quite incredible. His story teaches us that some animals are lucky enough to be recognized as having the right to their own nature and personality. Black Jack was one such animal.
Born in 1947, Black Jack, a Morgan-American Quarter Horse who was, not black but a dark chestnut brown, was a member of the The Old Guard Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. He was named after General John J. (Black Jack) Pershing. He was first recruited into U.S. Military service as a military horse, but he refused to be ridden. He threw everyone who tried. His outcome could have been very grim as a result. But fate smiled on this special animal.
The Riderless Horse, also called a Caparisoned horse, is a military tradition. The horse is saddled and tacked, and a pair of boots are fitted into the stirrups facing backwards, as if the rider is saying good-bye to those who are following behind. A handler leads him by the bridle. Black Jack’s first job as a Riderless Horse was at the funeral of a slain soldier. His spirited nature caused the Army some distress. Try as they might to keep the funeral dignified for the soldier’s family, Black Jack continued to act up and prance during the entire time. When Army officials attempted to apologize to the fallen soldier’s family, they waved off the officers saying their son was a spirited, rebellious sort as well and it was their belief that he was cavorting with Black Jack during the procession. So, instead of Black Jack being shipped off somewhere (or worse) because his personality didn’t fit the job, he participated in thousands of military funerals to follow, always on his own terms.
However, a day before the Kennedy funeral procession, Black Jack was spooked by a falling metal gate. He was so nervous, he continually reared up and PFC Carlson, who had never handled a horse before, was concerned he would be unable to hold him steady. Indeed, at one point, Black Jack stepped on Carlson’s foot, but the soldier didn’t flinch. He wanted to perform his duty flawlessly, and he did his best.
After the funeral, Jackie requested Black Jack’s tack be delivered to her immediately. She didn’t want it cleaned, she wanted it directly off Black Jack’s body. The tack remains in the JFK library to this day.
Black Jack performed his duty at the funerals of presidents Herbert Hoover, (1964), and Lyndon Johnson (1973), as well as that of General Douglas MacArthur. He died in 1976 and was buried with full military honors. He was only the second horse in history to be buried with full military honors. His grave is in Ft. Myers, Virginia
When looking at this story through the lens of animal rights, it gives me hope that Black Jack’s legacy will be remembered. In another blog post I remarked that I hoped there was a special place in hell for people who hurt animals. But I also hope there is a special place in heaven for Black Jack and the person or persons responsible for giving Black Jack a chance even though he didn’t conform to military standards.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.