The formality and haunting beauty of a funeral where a riderless horse, with the backwards facing boots in the stirrups, is being led along as part of the procession is always a striking image. I am often intrigued about the sources of these many traditions and find this one, in particular, very touching if not a bit eerie.
So what is the root of this tradition? After looking into this custom it is believed to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a riderless horse was led to the burial site of his rider and sacrificed alongside his deceased equestrian. Presumably the reasoning behind killing the horse was to carry the fallen warrior into the next world. Sometimes, the horse was not only killed but also consumed graveside by mourners. After the feast, what was left of the remains of the equine were buried with the owner. This practice of horse sacrificing so the animal may accompany their owners into the afterlife continued well on into the 14th century.
In more recent history, a very different version of that same Middle ages one is much more typical. That tradition – which is frankly much less foreboding for the trusty steed – is the riderless horse, with the boots reversed in the stirrups. This practice is upheld to symbolize the image of a fallen leader looking back on his troops for the last time. These days, the riderless horse is most typically used to honor fallen police officers but it is also used for military officers whose rank is that of a colonel or above, as well as state and presidential funerals. The riderless horse is sometimes also referred to as a caparisoned horse meaning decorated with ornamental and protective coverings.
Looking back, I found that the first notable person to be officially honored in the United States with the riderless horse in his funeral procession was George Washington. The Pennsylvania Gazette describing the funeral procession said, “the general’s saddle, holsters, pistols and boots reversed in the stirrups.” The Gazette went on to say that his riderless horse was “trimmed with black – the head festooned with elegant black and white feathers – the American Eagle displayed in a rose upon the breast, and in a feather upon the head.” Five years after Washington’s death, Alexander Hamilton’s gray horse followed his casket in another notable example of this custom in America. Hamilton’s boots and spurs were reversed in the stirrups during the procession.
Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession also had a riderless horse however, Lincoln’s horse was caparisoned only and did not feature his boots backward in the stirrups. It seems the tradition remained popular throughout the years as Presidents Hoover, Johnson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan all featured riderless horses in their funeral processions. Today, riderless horses are most commonly seen at the funerals of police officers and military leaders. So there you have it, a brief history of the riderless horse with the backward in the stirrups, the symbol of a leader who would ride no more. Always an emotional sight to behold.