Anyone who has ever watched television or attended a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery has to be impressed by the precision and beauty of the Caisson Platoon of the Old Guard at Fort Meyer in Arlington.
It is a ritual that is memorable as well as breathtaking.
What is not apparent, however, is the grueling behind-the-scenes training of the heavy horses and the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry soldiers that takes place at Oak Leaf Stables in Nokesville.
That job falls into the hands of retired Major Jim Barrett, USMC, who takes the raw horse riding recruits and molds them into complete horsemen during a seven-week course at his stables, located off Parkgate Drive.
He trains 10 riders at a time at the stable he opened 20 years ago.
“By the time the soldiers graduate they will be excellent riders and their horses will be trained to handle any strange noises or unusual circumstances that might startle them,” Barrett said.
Learning to ride the horses is only part of the training. The soldiers are at Oak Leaf five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. They get in their morning exercise at 6 a.m. at Valley View Park before coming to the stable.
Barrett and head instructor Jennie Dierbert not only teach the recruits how to ride their animals but also hold classroom lectures about what is required for the horses and riders to attain the level of perfection needed for the funerals at Arlington or other special occasions.
Even before mounting the horses, the soldiers are given tips on working with the horses on the ground.
Dierbert, who says her main job at the stables is to “keep things organized,” said the safety of the horse and rider is paramount. Soldiers are instructed to never become complacent around the horses. They learn how to properly tie and saddle the horses in both Western and English tack and get them ready for the day's training exercises. The riders also perform the normal duties of taking care of a horse such as feeding, grooming and cleaning the stalls.
Sgt. Jared Bolton, who oversees the training program for the Caisson Platoon, said the training given at Oak Leaf is excellent and when the soldiers complete the course they are ready to begin their duties as part of the six-horse hitch used in parades and other ceremonies.
He said there are about 50 soldiers in the platoon and classes are ongoing to replace those soldiers being discharged from service.
“Just as the men volunteer to be in the Old Guard, they also volunteer to become riders,” he said.
While many of the soldiers are green hands as riders, some, such as Pfc. Joshua Smith of Santa Fe, Texas, are rather seasoned.
“I've been around horses and riding all my life, but I'm enjoying the training I'm getting here,” Smith said. “It's almost like I'm back home.”
Barrett, who tries to match the past experience of the riders and horses when they first arrive, has just finished his fourth training class. He said he was recommended for the position by Pete Cote who recently retired after 35 years as a farrier at Fort Meyer.
“I guess my long background when I started working with horses at a young age and my career as a Marine, made me a natural for the position,” he said, adding he has also done training for horsemen in national parks. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam conflict.
At the conclusion of each training class, a graduation ceremony is conducted at which time the riders demonstrate their newly discovered riding ability and receive a certificate. The most recent graduation was June 4 and another class is due to start in August.
In addition to training the elite riders, the stable is used as a boarding and training facility for area horse owners.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard