There’s already one former service member in the Whittaker household, but soon there will be two veterans: one human, and one horse.
Quincy completed his service to the Army on July 8, and met Sean Sutton and Kristen Whittaker, the veteran and his wife who will take the horse home with them.
“He’s an honored member of the military,” Whittaker said, stroking Quincy. “We can provide a life for him where we can hopefully make him comfortable.”
Quincy had a rigorous job – he served as a caisson horse at Arlington National Cemetery, where he participated in the funerals of military members. Then navicular disease crippled him, and the Army put him up for adoption.
Dozens of people all over the country put in applications, eager to acquire a beautiful Army-trained horse free of charge. Thousands more shared Quincy’s story online, expressing their hopes that a horse who has served his country with dignity would go to a good home for his retirement.
Now he will: Whit Acres Farm, a 40-acre Massachusetts ranch with all the latest in horse luxuries. Quincy will enjoy a heated barn in the winter. Automatic fly spraying in the summer. A padded stall. And an adoring new family, including seven other permanent horse residents, five or more horses boarding while they receive veterinary care, and 7- and 10-year-old humans eager to meet him.
His journey (in an air-conditioned horse trailer) to Massachusetts began on July 8, as did that of Kennedy, another caisson horse who was put up for adoption at the same time.
While Quincy had to leave the Army for medical reasons, Kennedy was dismissed because of discipline problems. His new owner will be someone who knows how to handle him: Carroll Urzendowski, a former caisson soldier himself.
The man and the horse reunited on Friday. Urzendowski left his solemn job at Arlington National Cemetery about a year ago; now he’s a sergeant first class at Fort Polk in Louisiana. He, his wife and their 3- and 4-year-old children now live on an 85-acre ranch in Roganville, Texas, about an hour away. When the family heard Kennedy was up for adoption, they instantly wanted to make him the first horse on their expansive property.
“Kennedy is interesting. Let’s just say he’ll take advantage of his handler if the handler allows him to,” said Urzendowski, 40. “It’s like raising a child. They’ll try to get away with what they can.”
He felt confident he could manage Kennedy; after all, he worked with him before. After a year apart, Urzendowski says, he’s going to have to teach Kennedy to trust him again.
Stroking Kennedy’s neck and back, Urzendowski points out signs that the horse is feeling relaxed and comfortable. His head is down. His lip is jiggling loose. He lifts his back leg, carefree.
Then Kennedy sticks his foot out of the fence. “Get your foot back in there,” Urzendowski says. Kennedy obeys. For a moment. As soon as Urzendowski glances away, Kennedy starts pawing the ground, which Urzendowski knows can damage the horse’s foot. “That’s a no-no,” he says, redirecting the horse. Kennedy stops, then starts again. Urzendowski distracts him again. A moment later, again. And again. Urzendowski remains patient.
“Start moving him, start petting him. You just have to give him something else to think about,” he says, unperturbed that the horse is again pawing away.
The platoon leader of Arlington’s caisson soldiers, Lt. Austin Hatch, said about 25 people applied to adopt Quincy and about 25 more applied to adopt Kennedy. A committee of five people, including Hatch, narrowed each pool to about five applicants, then flew around the country checking out possible homes for the horses in person. On those site visits, they selected the Whittakers and Urzendowskis as the lucky new owners of the retiring caisson horses.
“We want to make sure they go to the right homes, because they’ve done their work for the Army, and they’ve served the country at Arlington,” Hatch said.
Both families are keenly aware of the unique role the horses have played, and eager to honor them with a happy retirement. Urzendowski has seen the horses’ preternaturally dignified behavior at funerals – eight funerals a day, in every sort of weather – over and over as a participant himself.
To see a horse honor a service member like that, Urzendowski said, “It’ll put tears in your eyes.”
But the day the horses embarked on their next phase, was a happy day.
When the Whittakers arrived, Quincy greeted them right away and let Kristen rub his face. She caressed him, and told this newly minted veteran: “You’ve got your forever family now.”