The Army will start rotating about a dozen horses to a larger plot of land following four deaths in nine months for the military working animals that carry fallen service members at Arlington National Cemetery.
The move -- a partnership with the Bureau of Land Management that will allow the Army to rotate one-fifth of the nearly 60-horse herd to a 14-acre BLM-managed facility in Virginia over the next five years -- was announced Thursday and comes on the heels of the deaths and subsequent criticism over how the unit treats the animals.
Part of that criticism has centered around how much space the unit has allotted to the herd at Forts Myer and Belvoir, facilities that currently offer less than 20% of the area that equine experts recommend. That criticism has found a voice in Congress as provisions to improve the horses' conditions were included in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, set to pass the Senate on Thursday night.
The partnership is temporary as the unit works to find more permanent solutions to the horses' conditions, according to the press release.
"We appreciate the willingness of the Bureau of Land Management to assist in the provision of rotational rest pasturing for our equine teammates as we work toward a long-term solution that allows more appropriate recuperation facilities when our horses are not on duty," Egon F. Hawrylak, deputy commander of the Joint Task Force-National Capital Region/U.S. Army Military District of Washington, said in a press release Thursday.
The request for the additional room was last updated in August, after two horses in the unit had perished but before two more died in late fall. The press release said that the unit "is preparing the site for the arrival of its horses early next year."
The horses belong to the Caisson Platoon, a specialty unit within the Army's premier ceremonial unit known as the 3rd Infantry Regiment, or "the Old Guard." The unit is tasked with transporting the caskets of fallen service members to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, and has carried veterans like the late Sen. Bob Dole, who was laid to rest earlier this year.
The partnership entails rotating a dozen horses to the Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area in Lorton, Virginia -- a public land pasture and stable facility nestled at the head of a stubby peninsula on the Potomac River about 30 minutes from Fort Myer, where the Caisson Platoon is headquartered.
A project description listed on the BLM's website says that the unit proposed to "temporarily house 8 to 12 Caisson Platoon horses weekly for 3 to 5 years," at the facility.
The description says that the plan is intended to "allow the Caisson Platoon horses to get some rest before going back on funeral duty at Arlington National Cemetery."
Army veterinarians identified in February that -- between Forts Myer and Belvoir -- the horses were living in 18.8% of the space that the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends. Even with the added 14 acres, the herd is still short of the "generally required" 1-2 acres per horse the association says a group that size would need.
Military.com sent the Military District of Washington follow-up questions Thursday afternoon asking whether Caisson soldiers will still care for the horses when they are on the BLM-managed land and if the space is adequate for the herd size as they take their rest at the facility.
The unit was unable to answer those specific questions by deadline, but did respond to questions about the intended duration of the rotation plan.
"The BLM and Army are continuing to work together and exploring all options for a longer-term arrangement to house and pasture the Caisson horses at Meadowood beyond the right-of-way's timeframe but not in perpetuity," a spokesperson for the Military District of Washington told Military.com, referring to a BLM program that allows outside entities to use its public land.
"This partnership fulfills the U.S. Army's need to provide short-term care for the Caisson horses while ensuring Meadowood's natural resources, cultural resources and existing public access to recreation remains intact," the spokesperson said, adding that the "safety and well-being of the Caisson horses are our top priorities."
Provisions to further improve the conditions of the herd have been included in the defense policy bill that is expected to be passed by the Senate.
The bill would require Army Secretary Christine Wormuth to "implement the recommendations" outlined from an Army Public Health Command-Atlantic report in February that found that the horses were living in tiny lots with mud and excrement 18 to 20 inches deep and poor quality food.
That report came shortly after two horses died within 96 hours of each other in February, one with 44 pounds of gravel found in his gut upon necropsy.
Part of the NDAA provisions include expanding the space the horses had to live in and "immediate remedies for the unsanitary and unsafe conditions" at the facilities. The bill also specifies that the Army needs to find "adequate space at Fort Myer, Virginia, to properly care for the horses," and prioritize space at the base not otherwise used.
The Army's deadline to submit the improvement plan to Congress would be March 1, 2023.
BLM Eastern States State Director Mitchell Leverette said in the press release that the organization is "happy to help the Army provide high-quality pasture for the Caisson horses to rest and recover while not on duty at Arlington National Cemetery."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.