Thousands of spectators thronged the race meet at Knavesmire in York on August 25, 1804. The crowd was much larger than usual and curious onlookers strained for a view of the upcoming race. The reason for all the commotion was simple: a woman was challenging a man in a horse race. It was a staggering event, both derided as a pure novelty by some and lauded as step toward equality by others. For many of the day’s spectators, it meant drama and entertainment, and they turned out in droves to see it.

The race was a family affair. Mrs. Alicia Thornton (1782-18??) of Thornville Royal had challenged her neighbor and brother-in-law, Captain Flint to a race. Her husband, Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823) was the original sporting gentleman of the 18th Century. He was an expert rider, went shooting, hawking and fishing, could leap his own height, and had a voracious appetite for gambling. Col. Thornton had placed a bet of 1,000 guineas on his wife in this contest, and both he and Flint were intent on victory.

“Celebrated Race Between Mrs. Thornton and Mr. Flint at the York August Meeting, 1804.” Published October 1804 by J. Wheble, Warwick Square. The Sporting Magazine for September 1804, National Sporting Library & Museum.

Alicia rode on her husband’s horse Old Vingarillo. Flint rode his prized horse Thornville. Mrs. Thornton’s riding prowess was well-known as she regularly rode to hounds with her husband. In fact, it appears that her equestrian skills might have pressured Flint into some less-than-gallant behavior. He insisted on barring Alicia from being accompanied to the start of the race by an attendant. When she arrived at the start, Flint claimed the side of the course that helped him most. Since Alicia rode sidesaddle, she was prevented from using her usual whip hand without fear of interfering with her opponent.

To the racegoers, Alicia was the popular wager: betting began at 5 and 6 to 4 “on the petticoat,” and over the first three miles, betting ran to 7 to 4 then 2 to 1 on a Alicia’s victory. By all accounts, she was by far the superior rider during the race before disaster struck. In the final mile of the race, Old Vingarillo’s saddle-girths loosened and Alicia’s saddle slid sideways on the horse. She pulled up immediately to avoid a dangerous fall. Flint would later receive criticism for ignoring Alicia’s plight and riding hard the whole way to the finish to win by the maximum distance.

Alicia Thornton by Mackenzie, after unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1805. NPG D8248 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It was the Thornton side’s turn for less-than-gallant behavior. Col. Thornton refused to pay his wager for the loss, claiming that the bet had been nothing more than a friendly joke. Following her loss, Mrs. Thornton wrote a scathing complaint against Flint in the newspaper and issued a challenge to repeat the race again the following year. Flint refused to race again, likely prompted in part by Col. Thornton’s failure to pay.

Alicia would go on to race again in the next two years, becoming the first woman to win a match race in 1805 against Frank Buckle (1766-1832). At that race, Flint confronted Col. Thornton in the grandstands for payment of the prior year’s bet. Upon Col. Thornton’s continued refusal, Flint beat Thornton with a horse whip and had to be restrained by the other racegoers. The incident led to arrests, lawsuits, and a deep bitterness between the Flints and the Thorntons, who before the race had been on very friendly terms.

“The Gallant and Spirited Race at Knavesmire, in Yorkshire for 500gs. and 1000gs. bye — 4 miles — between The Late Col. Thornton’s Lady and Mr. Flint.” Pierce Egan’s Book Of Sports, No. IX. National Sporting Library & Museum.

As for Alicia, her relationship with Col. Thornton began to sour in 1806 as Thornton’s fortune dried up. In the end, he was obliged to sell his massive Thornville royal estate. By the end of 1806, she and her husband parted ways and she eventually remarried a naval officer before disappearing from the pages of history. She would be remembered as the first female jockey in England, and was the only woman victor listed by the Jockey Club until 1943.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

With the official start of winter only a few days away I thought I’d share the story of Snowman.  No, not the tale of Frosty, the snowman that magically came to life, but rather that of a large grey horse whose true story is no less magical than Frosty’s.

Snowman. From Snowman by Rutherford Montgomery (1962). National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of Hedda von Goeben.

The horse that would become known as Snowman, and who would reach the pinnacle of the show jumping world, came from humble and uncertain beginnings.  Likely he was originally employed as a plow horse.  The first documented incident of his life was nearly its last.  He was at the New Holland horse auction in Pennsylvania and by the end of the day had been sold to the meat buyer and loaded onto a trailer for the ride to the slaughter pens.  At this point fate intervened in the form of a late arrival at the auction, Harry de Leyer.

Harry and Snowman.  From The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts (2011).

Harry de Leyer was the riding instructor at the Knox School for Girls on Long Island.  He had made the drive to New Holland hoping to add a horse or two to his stable but bad weather and car trouble had conspired against him and caused him to miss the auction.  As he walked by the trailer headed for the slaughterhouse, he noticed the grey horse and asked to see him.  Despite the horse’s poor condition, there was something in his eyes and the cock of his ears that Harry liked the look of.  He thought the horse might be turned into a decent lesson horse for his heavier students.  He offered the meat buyer $80 for the horse, including delivery to his farm in Long Island.  The offer was quickly accepted and instead of a trailer ride to the end of his life, the horse embarked on a second chance life, and he would make the most of it.

When the horse arrived at the de Leyer farm the whole family turned out to see him.  Snow had started to fall and the children promptly named the horse Snowman.  He was in a sorry state but the family was up to the challenge of rehabilitating the horse and it wasn’t too long before he was cleaned up and filled out.  Once he was healthy again, Snowman began learning to be a riding horse.  He took to the training well and displayed an excellent temperament for a lesson horse.  He was deliberate and even tempered with riders.  Ideal for beginners who were nervous around high strung Thoroughbreds.  Eventually Harry judged him ready to work at the Knox School and Snowman moved from the family farm to the school’s stable.  There Harry hoped he would eventually be able to sell the horse to one of the girls.  When it became apparent that there would be no buyer Harry decided to return to New Holland and sell Snowman there, but once again fate had other plans.

A local doctor showed up at the farm looking to buy a placid horse for his son.  Harry offered to sell him Snowman for $160 and the agreement that if the doctor should ever want to sell the horse, he would bring him back to de Leyer who would pay him $160.  All seemed settled until one morning de Leyer discovered Snowman back inside the paddock.  He called the doctor who informed him that Snowman had repeatedly  jumped over the fence and trampled his neighbor’s garden, despite the doctor raising the height of the fence by a foot.  Jumping high obstacles is something that horses generally have to be trained to do, and Harry was intrigued.  He had trained many jumpers and wondered at the prospects of an animal that was naturally inclined to the activity.  Could he make a show jumper out of him?  Harry bought Snowman back from the doctor and got to work.

From The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts, (2011).

After a lot of hard work and training, Harry and Snowman began competing on the show jumping circuit.  Initially the chunky former plow horse was mocked as he paraded out along with the elegant Thoroughbred jumpers, but laughter soon turned to astonishment and then to enthusiastic support as Snowman let his jumping do the talking for him.  Harry and Snowman continued to succeed as they progressed through the jumping circuit and eventually they arrived at Madison Square Garden for the championship meet at the National Horse Show.

From The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts, (2011).

Americans love an underdog and by now the Cinderella story of the plow horse turned show jumper had gripped the public’s imagination.  Harry and Snowman even appeared on the Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson retold their story for a national audience.  The competition lasts a week and by the final contest Snowman was one point behind the leader.  As if in a scripted movie, Harry and Snowman flew to victory!  Snowman was the 1958 Champion.  And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he repeated his victory the following year and was Champion of 1959 as well.  Snowman toured Europe and the United States and officially retired in 1969 at a ceremony at Madison Square Garden.  He lived the rest of his life at the de Leyer farm where his fans continued to visit him.  Snowman died in 1974.

Snowman’s story has been chronicled in numerous books, one of which, The Eighty-Dollar Champion, was written by John H. Daniels Fellow, Elizabeth Letts here at the NSLM.   In this trailer for the documentary, Harry & Snowman, you can see the pair in action.  In 1992 Snowman was inducted into the Show Jumper Hall of Fame, and he has been commemorated as a Breyer Horse figurine.

Snowman as a Breyer Horse figurine.  From

If you would like to read more about this amazing horse and his partnership with Harry de Leyer drop into the Main Reading Room and I can show you a couple of books.

SONY DSCErica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

For some centuries, Christmas time in East Kent was marked with a curious tradition. Sometimes on Christmas Eve or on Boxing Day, houses in certain villages would be visited by the hooden horse.

The hooden horse tradition is strikingly strange to modern sensibilities. The usual arrangement appears to have included a “waggoner,” who would carry a whip and lead the “hoodener,” a man draped in sackcloth and bent over, carrying a wooden horse head on a staff. In the 19th Century, a popular accomplice of these two was “Mollie,” usually a young man dressed in women’s clothes who would sweep the lane in the wake of the hooden horse. Sometimes, a “rider” would accompany this trio. Often, the hooden horse group would be accompanied by musicians playing tunes on a concertina, accordion, cymbals, or tambourine.

Walmer 29th March 1907
A troupe of hoodeners from Walmer Court Farm in Walmer, Kent, 1907. Accessed via Wikipedia.

The troupe would travel from house to house, where the “rider” would attempt to clamber onto the back of the hooden horse, and the “waggoner” would snatch at the hooden horse’s bridle, shouting “whoa!” “Mollie” would caper about the yard, and if the group was invited into the house, “Mollie” would reliably chase any girls and frighten any children within. The comedic antics of the hooden horse will proceed for some time, before the troupe moves off to another house.

Deal 1909
A hoodener in Deal, Kent, 1909. Accessed via Wikipedia.

The history of the hooden horse is shrouded in mystery. Percy Maylam wrote a 1909 book (The Hooden Horse) to memorialize and record what was a vanishing tradition during his time. Of the hooden horses he observed in the 1880s and 1890s, none of the operators could speak to the historicity of the tradition. Written accounts of the practice date back to 1807, and speculation as to its origins has come in many forms. Early 20th Century writers guessed that it might be connected to pre-Christian sacrifices to Odin, but subsequent writings have dismissed that idea. It is likely an independent mid-winter tradition, but nobody knows when it began.

Sare (Thanet) June 1905 WIth improvised broom
A troupe of hoodeners from Hale Farm in St. Nicholas-at-Wade, Kent, 1905. Accessed via Wikipedia. The photo, taken at the request of historian Percy Maylam, includes the “Mollie” character.

The practice of hoodening essentially went extinct following the turmoil of World War I. After World War II, a modernized revival of some hoodening practices was incorporated into cultural festivals in Kent, in order to preserve some of the lost tradition. Although it’s no longer a Christmas tradition, the hooden horse lives on in several communities in Kent.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

If you are at all familiar with the village of Middleburg, you have likely seen iconic images of the Middleburg Hunt and hound parade in the snow. It just doesn’t feel like the holiday season has begun in this region until Christmas in Middleburg takes place on the first Saturday every December. The celebration brings people from far and wide to enjoy this spectacle as well as the traditional afternoon Christmas parade with brightly-colored floats, a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, and other animals. Even Santa Claus arrives on a four-in-hand.

Although we did not experience a magical snow this past Saturday, there was no shortage of holiday cheer for the festivities. Partnering with the National Sporting Library & Museum, Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Coach and Livestock Paul Bennett brought and drove the historic city’s Wythe Chariot, a highlight of the parade.

Partnering with the NSLM, Colonial Williamsburg made a special appearance in the Middleburg Christmas Parade on December 2, 2017, with the recently-restored Wythe Chariot driven by Director of Coach and Livestock Paul Bennett.

The royal blue livery brought to mind a wintry, 19th-century French print in the NSLM’s collection…

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859), La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (one of a set of four), hand-colored aquatint, 21 ½ x 30 ¾ inches, engraved by Jazet, Paris; published by Goupil et Vibert, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman R. Bobins, 2012

Subtitled Hiver (Winter), the hand-colored aquatint is one of a set of four in the series, La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons (The Life of a Gentleman in All Seasons). First published in 1846, each print depicts a different season of carriage driving in France. The original paintings from which the engravings were made were by Henri Auguste d’ Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat, a French sporting and animal artist.

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859) La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (Detail)

The snowy scene shows two postilions, each riding the near post-horse of a double team at a fast pace. (It is typical to ride the left horse of a pair since horses are trained to be mounted from the near side.) The riders are wearing the unmistakable rigid boots of their profession to protect their legs from being injured. Posting was a common mode of transit in England and on the Continent before trains. Postilions were hired through postmasters and traveled from post house to post house, on successive legs of a journey. Tired riders and horses were replaced as needed along the way.

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859), La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (Detail)

The carriage depicted is a shooting phaeton, a four-wheel open carriage with room for four passengers, game, and a compartment with ventilation under the seat to transport gun dogs.  Snow flies up from the wheels as the sportsmen return from a successful day afield. The gamekeeper, bundled up in a fur coat with a powder flask at his side, points to a village in the distance. A huntsman and the gentleman holding a shotgun enjoy a cigar while the fourth companion wearing a buttoned-up frock coat and a brimmed cap, crosses his arms, bracing himself against the cold. A gun dog peeks out from the gentleman’s lap blanket while another alert dog is at the front of the carriage. The vehicle is filled with a mixed bag  – a plentiful variety of hare, pheasant, duck, partridge, snipe, and stag – and game bags hang from the back.

Although it’s not a one-horse open sleigh, the scene conjures a line from the classic American melody, Jingle Bells. “Dashing through the snow…”  Carriages, wheeled and sleighs alike, are icons of a long-gone era, but still strongly resonate with the sentiment of the season. Thank you to our friends at Colonial Williamsburg for journeying to Middleburg and “making spirits bright.”

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at