For over half the existence of the United States, horses were ubiquitous. They served as the main source of transportation, and were essential to the military and to speedy communication. They labored in agriculture, and as freight haulers. Horses were common in everyday life. It wasn’t until 1909 that President Taft replaced the Presidential horses and carriages with cars, and transformed the White House stable into a garage. It is natural therefore, that many of our Presidents have been horsemen. Some were indifferent or reluctant equestrians, but quite a few were true aficionados, obsessed with their horses, riding, racing, and driving them in every spare moment. While there have been too many Presidents to cover in a short blog post, I’d like to highlight a few.
George Washington was a highly accomplished horseman, and a founding member of the Alexandria Jockey Club. As a general he relied on his mounts and his skill as a rider to lead his men. His favorite horse during the American Revolution was called Nelson. Washington was an avid fox hunter and before the war Nelson was his primary mount in this activity. Nelson survived the war and eventually retired to Mount Vernon with the former President (Horses of the Presidents by Leah C. Taylor (2006), the gift of Leah Taylor).
Another Presidential fox hunter was Teddy Roosevelt. The Library holds an original, handwritten manuscript of “Riding to Hounds on Long Island,” an essay written by Theodore Roosevelt in July 1886 for the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. The sport was under attack for being “too English” for Americans to participate in, but Roosevelt advocates for fox hunting as excellent exercise and military training. He also points out that George Washington, an iconic American, was a fox hunter. If it was good enough for Washington, why wouldn’t it be good enough for average Americans?
Andrew Jackson’s favorite horses were race horses. While his passion for racing horses is not unique among Presidents, he is the only President to have run a racing stable out of the White House grounds. His thoroughbreds raced at courses in Washington and Baltimore. To avoid the possible scandal of the President participating in a sport that much of the public viewed negatively, his horses were raced under the name of his nephew and private secretary, Andrew Jackson Donelson. One of his most successful horses, Bolivia, was painted by Edward Troye (Presidential Horses, White House History No. 19, Fall 2006).
As yet another military President, Ulysses S. Grant was also an accomplished rider. It turns out, he was also a bit of a speed demon. He was actually arrested for exceeding the speed limit while driving his team through the streets of Washington. He paid a $20 fine on the spot and commended the police officer, but it doesn’t seem that he changed his ways. There are several more stories of him racing in the streets, including one about a race with a butcher’s delivery wagon. The butcher’s horse won and Grant eventually purchased the horse for his own stable (Presidents on Wheels by Herbert Ridgeway Collins, 1971).
Even after the great age of the horse had been replaced by the automobile, and horses had been relegated to ceremonial and leisure roles, the occupants of the White House and their families continued to ride. To learn more about Presidents, both historical and modern, and their relationships with horses I encourage you come visit the Main Reading Room and look through our books on the topic.
Erica 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