A former racehorse named Sergeant York played a small but significant role in the Washington, D.C., funeral procession of President Ronald Reagan in June 2004. The black Standardbred gelding served as the riderless horse, the age-old symbol of a fallen warrior.
An honor reserved for U.S. presidents and high-ranking Army and Marine Corps officers, the riderless horse is led behing a caisson bearing the casket. The horse, wearing full regalia, carries an artillery sword and a pair of empty boots reversed in the stirrups.
Sergeant York has served as the riderless horse in thousands of ceremonies since he was donated to the U.S. Army in 1997. He soon became a highly valued member of one of the most visible units in the American military.
A soldier's story
Like his famous namesake, Sergeant York's life story is the stuff of Hollywood movies. He started out with a different name (Allaboard Jules), and he was one of thousands of Standardbred racehorses in North America, pacing his way to an undistinguished career at Freehold Raceway in Freehold, N.J. Jules won only 5 of 23 starts in three years of racing, earning a grand total of $14,881 -- not even enough to pay for his keep.
But Jules did have three factors working in his favor -- an easygoing personality, a pure black coat and a connection. Marie Dobrisky works for the state of New Jersey in the detention barn of Freehold Raceway, where she conducts pre- and post-race drug testing of horses. Her son, Sgt. Francis "Frank" Dobrisky, is a decorated member of the Army Caisson Platoon, which handles the harnessed and ridden horses who take part in the funeral ceremonies of U.S. presidents as well as high-ranking members of the Army or Marines. Ideally, caisson horses are gray or black (although very dark brown may be accepted), and the unit is regularly seeking horses.
When Allaboard Jules' trainer, Dave Brandwine, needed to find a new home for the gelding, he approached Marie Dobrisky. "Dave said he had a nice little black horse who was so friendly and tried so hard, but was just not going to make it on the track," she says. "I said to him, 'How would you like him to go into the Army?' Even though Dave said, 'He'd probably end up being a 4-F,' he said I could have him, and I took him sight unseen."
Unfortunately, her timing was a bit off. "I called my son to say I had a black horse -- and it turned out they couldn't use him. They needed grays at that time!" she says. Undeterred, Marie Dobrisky sent Allaboard Jules to a nearby farm to wait until a place opened up for a black saddle horse with the caisson platoon. After losing his last race on March 30, 1996, Allaboard Jules spent a year frolicking among a herd of cows and learning how to be a riding horse.
Finally, the Army called, and in the summer of 1997, platoon leaders headed to New Jersey to check out the new recruit. At 15 hands, the gelding was a bit on the small side, but he could probably become a suitable riding horse. With assurances of his long-term care -- military horses never go to private hands -- Marie Dobrisky sent Allaboard Jules to join the Army.
In the beginning the little pacer was clearly more Gomer Pyle than George Patton.
For one thing, his attitude is a bit "goofball," according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles Sowles, the unit's commanding officer. When visitors come through the barn, for example, the gelding sticks his head out into the aisle and shakes it in circles, trying to get the attention of anyone who passes by. With his roached mane and bright eyes, he looks like a crew-cutted young boy up to mischief. He simply will not tolerate being passed by without a pat or a stroke.
And his small stature made him look like David among the Goliaths -- the draft horse and draft crosses who pull the caisson. "He was really skinny when he got here," admits Sgt. Dobrisky. "We have 2,000-pound English shires, and everyone who looked at Jules thought he was a runt. But we got him on a heavier diet and started to beef him up, so pretty soon he looked like a different horse."
Another problem was that Jules' name didn't quite fit in with his no-nonsense Army surroundings, especially since he was sharing a barn with horses bearing names such as "Lee" and "Grant." Members of the unit decided that the new guy needed a military moniker, too, so they opted to honor him with the name of a World War I hero who single-handedly captured an enemy battalion: Sergeant York.
No one had expected great things of the compact Standardbred, but Sergeant York soon began living up to his heroic namesake. The more that was asked of him, the better he performed, and he quickly rose through the barn's ranks. "He just kept doing everything perfectly," says Sgt. Dobrisky. "He was perfect around the barn, perfect in his exercises. We ended up using him to help train new soldiers we were bringing into the unit."
Sergeant York demonstrated unusual versatility. Although the funeral processions are the Caisson Platoon's most visible role, the horses also represent the U.S. Army in other functions, such as military weddings, inaugural parades and military pageants. Sergeant York hadn't been originally intended for funeral processions, according to Sgt. Dobrisky, but he did so well at his other tasks, such as pulling carriages for weddings at Fort Myer's chapel, the unit began training him for riderless-horse duty.
The riderless horse may appear to have the easiest job in the army, but in reality, it is the rare horse who has the right combination of manners and personality to give a funeral the dignity and respect it deserves. "You can stick a halter on any horse and lead him," says Sgt. Dobrisky, "But for this job you need to pick the right horse, personality-wise. You don't want a horse who carries his head low. You want one who is very alert; not very excitable, but with a little excitement to him."
Sergeant York's happy, alert nature, combined with his steady nerves and easy trainability, made him a natural for the role, and he responded well to the schooling. "Training a horse for the job is almost like combat training," says Sgt. Dobrisky. "We have flags waving, guns going off, people making noise. The horses have to stand no matter what. Being a Standardbred from the track, Sergeant York was used to all the distractions. He never missed a beat."
Just a few weeks later, Sergeant York's first test arrived. The primary riderless came up lame just before a mission and despite his limited training, Sergeant York was the only one available who could carry the boots. "He did two missions on his first day -- one Marine Corps and one Army -- with no problems," Sgt. Dobrisky says. "The Marine Corps missions tend to line up real close, and some horses feel too crowded in. Nothing fazed him. He didn't even look back." The primary horse soon returned but died a few months later. With his passing, Sergeant York became the principal riderless horse.
Life has certainly improved for the horse who was once a mediocre racer named Allaboard Jules. "I think his story is like a Disney movie," says Sgt. Dobrisky. "He was down and out, and he had everything fall into his lap. He went from being given away as worthless to being priceless. Nobody rides him -- almost out of respect. He does such a great job, we don't want to take any chances with him. He is treated like a king here, and he deserves it."
This article originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of EQUUS Magazine.