Bill Johnson drew a mixture of puzzled stares and knowing nods when he brought up the rear of Waco’s downtown Veterans Day Parade about a decade ago, leading a spotted white and strawberry roan stallion.
The horse, an Appaloosa named Jack, was fitted with a McClellan saddle, its stirrups holding an empty pair of riding boots turned backward.
Those unfamiliar with the military tradition of the “riderless horse” honoring the war dead asked Johnson what he was doing, but he kept his eyes straight ahead as he marched down Austin Avenue.
“I walked that 13 blocks, and I had never experienced that much emotion,” said Johnson, a Robinson roof company owner and a supporter of veterans causes. “Men were saluting, talking to each other, saying, ‘Thank you for the riderless horse.’ Women were crying. Kids would say, ‘Why are you leading a horse?’ and their parents would teach them that it’s about respect, that they cared enough to give their lives.
“Then here comes this Marine in full dress who looked at me with laser eyes. He marched straight to me, stopped and looked at everything and said, ‘Good work.’ I guess I passed muster.”
Since then, Johnson’s riderless horse has become part of a tradition for Waco’s Veterans Day. But when he lines up near the front of the parade at 11 a.m. Friday, he won’t be leading his old faithful equine partner.
Just a few weeks ago, the stallion’s 27 years caught up with him. He took sick and died, and Johnson buried him on a hillside on his Robinson ranch.
On Friday, Johnson will be leading an Appaloosa mare named Honey, and he hopes she will bring the same honor to the fallen.
Still, he will feel the poignancy of a lost friend, one that had worked cattle and accompanied him to countless events for veterans.
“He was a great friend,” Johnson said. “We were close. He was gentle, trustworthy, and kids could be on him — not a kicker or a biter. … He had all the vim and vinegar of a young stud, but he could turn on a dime and give you a nickel’s worth of change. He could stick it in the ground.”
Johnson said that although he never served in the military he feels a duty to those who did. He said it was a veteran who originally asked him to enter Jack as a riderless horse in the parade, and he did so at the last minute.
Robert Carter, a McLennan County Veterans Association past commander and current parade organizer, said Johnson contributes something special to the parade.
“I think it’s awesome,” Carter said. “He also does a lot of things for veterans with events at his ranch.”
He said he has seen the parade grow over the last two decades from about 30 entrants to about 4,000.
“My understanding is that this is the largest Veterans Day parade in the nation,” said Carter, a retired Army sergeant who served in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. “When you go down the parade route and see people waving flags and showing their patriotism, it makes you feel good.”
The tradition of the riderless horse in a funeral ceremony for a fallen military officer dates back to antiquity, when the horses of warriors were buried alongside them, according to the U.S. Army website.
A riderless horse walked in the funeral procession of President Abraham Lincoln, signifying Lincoln’s position as commander-in-chief. Lincoln’s boots were placed backward in the stirrups of the president’s horse. Nearly a century later, John F. Kennedy’s funeral would feature the same ceremony.
Johnson, 76, said he remembers watching that funeral on television and being touched by the gesture.
Johnson has been a horseman all his life. His father, a native of Gatesville who dealt in horses, took the family to Montana in 1952 and came home with a trailer and three Appaloosa horses.
Appaloosas, the spotted horses descended from the stock of Spanish explorers and the Nez Perce, became a signature part of the family business, and young Bill’s job was to help train them. He lost his front teeth and broke several bones in the process.
Johnson found 18-month-old Jack at an auction in Fort Worth a quarter-century ago.
“I saw him. I was impressed with him,” he said. “He was just a handsome horse, a beautiful horse, and he seemed to have a good temperament. But don’t doubt he was a stud. He was a stud to fare you well.”
Johnson trained him to be his main working horse.
“He was pretty spirited,” Johnson said. “We had ourselves a time. But I was younger then, too, and I had some spirit, too. He was never mean, just extremely dominant, but that’s what you want in a stud.”
He recalls trying to rope a dangerous bull that ended up dragging horse and rider across a road, but Jack finally got his traction and the two were able to attach the rope to a trailer.
“A lot of people say they’re training a horse, but pretty much you’re teaching each other,” he said.
On Thursday morning he ferried a visitor to the ranch house he maintains behind Johnson Roofing and showed off a herd of speckled horses, many of which are descended from Jack. A young stallion he calls Jack Jr. approached the fence line and nuzzled his hand as a cold rain fell.
“He had the most gorgeous babies, and now grandbabies,” Johnson said of his old stallion. “Every spring you go out and see all these babies. There’s nothing like it.”