Fayette County

Horses run from national cemetery onto highway; controversy ensues

This 2014 photograph illustrates how horses are used by the Camp Nelson Honor Guard during funeral services at Camp Nelson National Cemetery. The horses in this photo were not the animals that ran from the cemetery and onto U.S. 27 on Monday.
This 2014 photograph illustrates how horses are used by the Camp Nelson Honor Guard during funeral services at Camp Nelson National Cemetery. The horses in this photo were not the animals that ran from the cemetery and onto U.S. 27 on Monday. palcala@herald-leader.com

Motorists on U.S. 27 in Jessamine County faced some tense moments Monday when two horses ran from Camp Nelson National Cemetery and headed south in the northbound lanes of the four-lane divided highway.

There were no collisions between vehicles and the animals, and no motorists were injured, said Tracy Lucas, commander of the Camp Nelson Honor Guard. That volunteer organization provides a horse-drawn caisson and a cannon salute at the funerals for all active-duty personnel and veterans.

But witnesses Holly and Ray Willis of Sadieville described a surreal scene in which a horse jumped a concrete barrier and landed on the southbound side of the highway while still connected to the caisson on the northbound side.

The Willises had arrived about an hour early for a 1:30 p.m. funeral when they saw the two horses — a saddled white Arabian and a Standardbred pulling a limber and caisson — running from the cemetery’s front gates onto 27.

“They were headed south in the northbound lane. They were headed against traffic,” Ray Willis said. “It was like something you see in the movies.”

“The brown one, he was a sight to see,” Holly Willis said. “He was on the road weaving and then the cars were weaving.”

The horses were chased by a pickup truck and men running on foot. Hoping to help catch the animals, Willis drove his car south past a concrete barrier and then did a U-turn into the northbound lanes.

The white Arabian named Elite Treasure stopped and Ray Willis grabbed its harness. The Willises said they heard a crash. They saw a pickup truck wedge itself against a concrete barrier to stop the Standardbred pulling the limber and caisson. That animal, named Lincoln, went over the barrier but was still connected to the limber and caisson.

“My wife thought it was dead,” Ray Willis said.

“The horse hit the wall and flipped over with his feet up in the air,” Holly Willis said.

The Standardbred was able to get to its feet. The animals were walked back to a barn where they cooled off and were examined. Except for a few scrapes and scratches, they were fine, Lucas said.

But moments later, Lucas, 56, exhausted from the effort to catch the horses, collapsed face down onto the cemetery grass. Lucas wore a dark blue, wool Union uniform, the Civil War outfit he always wears for honor guard ceremonies, when the Willises came upon him.

“He was dead out,” Holly Willis said. “He was soaking wet. I poured a bottle of water over his head.”

“I pulled his boots off and we got him up and a couple of guys got him up and took off that Civil War uniform,” Ray Willis said. “It’s not really a summer uniform. It was 90-some degrees.”

An ambulance was called to the cemetery but Lucas said he refused treatment and insisted that the honor guard and the two horses perform the two Monday afternoon funerals.

“I promised the families we’d be there,” Lucas said. (Lucas said he was later diagnosed as having suffered a light heart attack.)

Cemetery Director Mike Niklarz said it is the responsibility of Lucas and the honor guard, a private group not affiliated with the cemetery, to control their animals.

“It’s not our responsibility to control the horses. It’s his,” Niklarz said. “He’s a private contractor. It is not our responsibility.”

Niklarz said Lucas has been asked numerous times to keep the horses off the cemetery turf.

Tony Cromwell, Danville Post 46 commander and Air Force Vietnam war veteran, talked about how the Memorial Day service at Camp Nelson Cemetery off Nicholasville Road affected him.

Lucas said Monday’s incident would never have happened if a cemetery foreman had not asked the honor guard to move the horses to another spot.

“If he would just leave us alone and let us do what we’ve done, there wouldn’t have been a problem,” Lucas said.

The foreman told the honor guard to move the horses out of the cemetery because it is a national shrine, Lucas said. He said it has been common practice to leave the horses in the cemetery between morning and afternoon funerals, as was the case Monday. Lucas said he and the foreman exchanged words Monday after the horses had eaten grass and defecated near the tall flag pole.

The horses were moved to another spot, but something spooked the Arabian. Elite Treasure began to run and Lincoln, the Standardbred, followed. If the horses had been left alone, the incident wouldn’t have happened, Lucas contended.

“Horses are creatures of habit,” Lucas said. “When you start taking them out of their element or taking them away from what they’re used to dealing with … it puts them out of their routine.

“If that guy had left me alone and stayed out of our business, it wouldn’t have happened,” Lucas said.

“Tracy is a good guy, don’t get me wrong,” Niklarz said. “But I back my foreman 100 percent.”