At 4 in the morning, in the darkness, Army Spec. Stephen Cava and other members of the Old Guard's elite Caisson Platoon begin their work in the nearly century-old stable at Fort Myer in Arlington. They wash the horses, rub oil into the black leather saddles, muck out the stalls, rinse the worn brick floors, clean the gutters.
All those chores translate into the details that make a military tradition evocative and powerful: six horses, all alike, drawing a caisson laden with the body of a soldier in a coffin -- a ritual repeated hundreds of times a year.
And once in a great while, the ritual is lifted into something extraordinary, and the members of the Old Guard become a part of history.
When Cava saw on television Saturday that former president Ronald Reagan had died, his wife immediately asked him, "Are you going to ride in that?"
Cava wasn't sure, but he hoped he would be picked. He called his squad leader that night and came in on Sunday to make sure everything was ready at the barn. On Monday it was official: He will be one of the five riders to lead the caisson today, from 16th Street and Constitution Avenue NW to the Capitol, where Reagan's body will lie in state.
"I'm very honored," Cava said.
According to tradition, three soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Army's oldest active unit, ride in blue wool dress uniforms. Three horses walk riderless next to them, all six pulling the caisson.
Caissons are rich in American history as well. Originally designed to carry artillery, they began being used in the 1800s to bring dead soldiers off the battlefield. Another soldier rides on a horse alongside them, leading the way.
For Reagan's funeral procession, a single horse without a rider, known as a caparisoned horse, will march to the same cadence. A pair of boots, set backward in the stirrups, represents the warrior who will not return.
"This is something that's very symbolic," said Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University. "It's a part of the nation's history that is dying with Reagan's body. It puts an era to closure."
It's important to have the full ritual of military ceremony, he said, because the tradition provides a structure that pulls people together. "It's a tribute to him and a moment in the history of our nation," Wayne said.
That moment is particularly meaningful now because of the ongoing conflict over U.S. military involvement in Iraq, said Claire Potter, associate professor of history at Wesleyan University. "A state funeral gives us a view of the military that we want to see," Potter said, with tall, young soldiers in crisp uniforms. "One thing any good funeral does is give order to a community temporarily thrown into disarray by a death. For such a funeral to be structured by a military procession and guards of honor, that sort of reincorporates the military into our sense of honor. . . . I think it's a soothing thing."
She remembered, as a small girl, watching president John F. Kennedy's funeral on TV, hearing the steady beat of the drums, seeing the caisson roll through the streets of Washington.
Yesterday, some Caisson Platoon members practiced on the Capitol grounds, and others took care of chores back at the Fort Myer barn. A farrier had been working until 11 p.m. Monday, tapping special shoes onto the horses' hooves to protect them from the rough asphalt of city streets and to keep their steps steady. He was back in at 4 a.m. yesterday, Cava said.
Horses chewed hay in their stalls yesterday morning or nosed plastic apples tied in the corners. A pug, looking tiny next to the big animals, trotted out to the sunlight, past a wool uniform hanging along one wall. The barn cat, Samson, was hiding somewhere. Army Spec. Corey Newton blew dust off a black saddle.
Cava, from Medford, N.J., said he always loved horses but hadn't ridden much prior to joining the Army. "Large animals, riding fast, open fields -- I love that stuff," he said. In 10 weeks of Old Guard Caisson Platoon training, he learned to ride bareback, to jump, to control the animals with all the rigor and discipline needed for such precise military ceremonies.
"They beat the heck out of you," he said.
The horses are big; some have thick shoulders six feet off the ground, rippling with muscles. One horse weighed 2,000 pounds until it was put on a diet; now it's a slimmed-down 1,800.
"We check the horses' weight every day," Cava said. "We can tell if they're getting too scrawny or chubby."
He walked over to Peter, a white Percheron-quarter horse mix from Oklahoma who was lying in the stall with legs folded underneath, nosing through the woodchips for grain. "Hey, Peter, what's up?" Cava asked, leaning against the shiny varnished wood.
The horse looked over at him, snorted, rolled over. Then he pushed up off the floor, sending a spray of chips flying with a shake of his tail.
Peter is Cava's favorite. "He's just a big, gentle oaf."
Cava loves the job; he likes the day-to-day routine, and the theme to the work: "Paying tribute to soldiers who have fallen for the country."
Sometimes a family will thank them at Arlington National Cemetery, he said. Sometimes someone will send homemade cookies for the men and women or apples for the horses.
Today, as heads of state, family and strangers alike converge on Washington to mourn, Cava and the other members of the Caisson Platoon will get up early, as always, to take care of all the details.
"We have so much going on, we can't be nervous," Cava said yesterday, hurrying off to the next chore to finish before riding into history today. "We haven't got the time."