Written by Juliette Beauchamp
On February 6, 1976, Black Jack, known to many as the riderless horse in President Kennedy’s funeral, died at Fort Myer (now known as Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall) in Arlington, Virginia.
Black Jack was born on January 19th, 1947 and was the last Army Quartermaster-issued horse. As such, he received an Army brand on his left shoulder and his own personal serial number on the left side of his neck. Black Jack was named in honor of General John J “Black Jack” Pershing. During his early training at Fort Reno (OK), he quickly gained a reputation for being difficult, particularly under saddle. However he was a good looking horse, true black with a white star, and very well built, weighing 1,200 pounds at 15.1 hands. He was most likely a Morgan/ Quarter Horse cross, although this is not known for sure.
Although he began his career in Oklahoma, Black Jack moved east at a young age and remained in Virginia for the remainder of his many years. He was the riderless (or caparisoned) horse in over one thousand funerals, an honor which is reserved for those who have achieved the rank of Colonel or above in the Army or Marines. Black Jack served in the funerals of presidents Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Herbert Hoover.
The first historical mention of riderless horses serving in funerals comes from the era of Ghengis Khan, when the Mongols routinely sacrificed horses in the belief that they served their riders in the afterlife. Today, the caparisoned horse is saddled and led, with empty boots facing backwards in the stirrups. The empty boots show that the deceased will not ride again and they are placed backward to symbolize the deceased’s having one last look at his family.
While Black Jack was usually good while walking, he could be very high-spirited when the funeral procession paused. During Kennedy’s funeral, his handler was reportedly worried that the horse would get away from him during the ceremony, and suffered a severely stomped toe due to the horse’s antics.
Despite his prickly personality, Black Jack developed quite a fan base. School children from all over the country came to visit and one faithful woman even regularly brought him baked goodies. Touched by Black Jack’s service in her husband’s funeral, Jacqueline Kennedy arranged to purchase the horse upon his retirement.
Retired on June 1st, 1973, Black Jack suffered from arthritis and organ failure later in life. Chronic hoof problems also plagued him, probably due to the many years he spent working on pavement. He was humanely euthanized at age 29 and buried on the parade ground at Fort Myer as one of only two American horses ever to be laid to rest with full military honors. The first horse to receive that honor was Comanche, one of the few survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. As an interesting aside, the site of Black Jack’s grave is also where Orville Wright tested the first military aircraft in 1908.