A Riderless Horse and Bagpipes: Police Funeral Traditions

America first heard the soulful sound of bagpipes over one hundred and fifty years ago when Scottish immigrants brought their instruments to America.

It was the time when the great potato famine caused a massive arrival of immigrants to the East Coast of the United States. As a result of the sudden increase in population, jobs were hard to find. So the immigrants took whatever work was available, which were typically positions that were dirty and/or dangerous. Firefighting and police work were two of the professions that no one wanted.

It’s a centuries-old tradition that Celtic people play bagpipes at funerals, weddings, wakes, and other events. Therefore, it stood to reason that when one of their own was killed in the line of duty, bagpipes were played at the funeral. The haunting tones provided a comforting touch of home and familiarity. The same is true today. The solemn sounds of bagpipe music at the funeral of a fallen first responder often sets in motion a flood of emotion and remembrance.

Today, bagpipes are a part of many funerals for the men and women of law enforcement who’ve died in the line of duty.

Riderless Horses

The tradition of a riderless horse, also called a caparisoned horse, leading police and military funerals is a centuries-old practice. A pair of backward-facing boots in the stirrups represents a fallen hero looking back towards the living/his or her troops for the last time.

Abraham Lincoln was the first President to be officially honored by a caparisoned horse. The animal, Old Bob, was  President Lincoln’s personal horse. George Washington’s personal horse was led in the funeral with the president’s saddle, holsters and pistols in place, but no boots.

A Morgan/American Quarter Horse cross called Blackjack was the caparisoned horse in more than 1,000 Armed Forces Full Honor Funerals, as well as the funerals of presidents John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Army General Douglas MacArthur. When Black Jack passed away he was buried with full U.S. Military Honors, is one of only two horses in U.S. history to receive such honors in recognition of his loyal service.

Line of Duty Deaths

Since 1786, more than 22,000 U.S. law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty.

2021 – 26 line of duty deaths. 12 due to COVID.

2020 – 328 line of duty deaths. 210 due to COVID. 45 by gunfire.

2019 – 148 line of duty deaths. 50 by gunfire.

2018 – 185 line of duty deaths. 52 by gunfire.

2017 – 185 line of duty deaths. 45 by gunfire.