Horses and Presidents have been a good combination, especially since the start of the twentieth century, when dealing with horses became a choice, not a necessity. When a President is on a horse, the rest of the world stares up in awe. And, in some mysterious way, the horse’s prodigious strength and handsomeness multiplies whatever strength and handsomeness a President might claim.
Some Presidents swore by riding as a fine form of exercise (Reagan and Coolidge); some Presidents came from the mounted cavalry tradition and kept riding through their years in office (Teddy Roosevelt); some Presidents persevered with their riding despite physical impediments (Taft, who rode despite weighing between 320 and 350 pounds while President, and FDR, who kept riding even after contracting polio); and some Presidents put up with riding because their wives loved it so much (Hoover and Kennedy).
Reporter Richard Harding Davis witnessed Teddy Roosevelt rallying his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. “Roosevelt, mounted high on horseback, and charging the rifle-pits at a gallop and quite alone,” led his volunteers to the top of San Juan Hill and to victory. That one cavalry charge (and the publicity) succeeded in gaining Roosevelt the governorship of New York and possibility helped him win the Presidency, as well. “A splendid little war,” said Roosevelt.
Here is Teddy pointing to the next cavalry officer in line to jump a hurdle.
Teddy was a gung-ho rider and didn’t hesitate to jump hurdles, too. (The “forward seat,” invented by the Italian cavalry officer Caprilli, was not yet known in American cavalry circles.)
Here’s William Howard Taft, sitting comfortably on a sturdy, part-draft horse. When he was in the Philippines, he got sick, and when he recovered, he sent a telegram to his friend Elihu Root in Washington D. C., announcing that he felt better and was riding again. Root cabled back, “How is the horse?”
Here is Woodrow Wilson reviewing the troops, in the run-up to the U.S. entry into World War I. [photo: Getty Images]
Here is Warren G. Harding, riding his beloved gelding Harbel through Potomac Park, accompanied by a Secret Service agent. Harding entered Harbel in several shows in Washington D. C. while he was President. The newspapers covered Harding and Harbel’s “ribbon counts” as breaking news. Harding had a friendly rivalry at the shows with General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Harding and Pershing had plenty of time to ride and show: the big war was over and the stock market was starting to boom. Saddle up! [photo: hardinghome.org]
Calvin Coolidge rode, but he was allergic to horses.
Coolidge wanted the fitness that came from riding, though. What to do? He installed an electrically-powered mechanical horse in the White House. He rode it while sporting chaps and a big cowboy hat. Here is his White House exercise machine: [photo: Jim Steinhart]
Herbert Hoover, unlike Mrs. Hoover, did not enjoy riding for riding’s sake. He preferred trout fishing. However, both Hoovers loved the wilderness. Their extremely rustic Presidential retreat, Rapidan Camp, was the spiritual precursor to Camp David. Mrs. Hoover looked forward to mounting a horse to get through the last rocky, muddy miles to camp, but the President would have preferred to stay in the car. [photo: Getty Images]
Franklin Delano Roosevelt rode before he contracted polio as an adult…and he rode after, too.
His wife Eleanor was an excellent equestrienne and often rode in Rock Creek Park, just a couple of miles from the White House. She was the last occupant of the White House to ride for pleasure in Washington D.C. Security concerns during World War II put a stop to the practice. [photo: Corbis]
Harry Truman worked with horses, first as a farm boy in Missouri, and later as an artillery officer in World War I. Here is Truman as a cavalry officer in 1907:
Here he is examining horseflesh at the 1945 Missouri Fair [photo: Kim M, Pinterest]:
Dwight Eisenhower, Commanding General of the European Theater of Operations during World War II, retired to a farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, after he served as President. He raised Angus cattle. The American Quarter Horse Association gave him the horse Doodle De Doo. [photo: Jennifer Shepherd, Pinterest]
John F. Kennedy’s horsemanship was overshadowed by the dedication and talent of his wife Jackie. But he did ride, from time to time. He also suffered from back pain, which probably limited his embrace of the sport. [photo: rare-pinterest.com]
You can’t mention “equestrian” and “White House” without showing pictures of Jackie on a horse. Here she is, balanced perfectly in a forward seat:
And here is the most famous picture of Jackie riding…or not quite riding…in a hunt. [photo: bloomberg.com]
Lyndon Johnson grew up poor in the Texas Hill Country. He knew how to use a horse to get the job done. [photo: AP/Bill Hudson]
Here is Johnson riding and politicking, two activities he loved. Compare this photo with the previous photo of Jack Kennedy, who looks uncomfortable on a horse. [photo: UCLA Special Collections Charles E. Young Research Library]
No photo of Nixon on a horse or near a horse. No known mention of “horse” on the subpoenaed White House tapes.
Here’s Gerald Ford, going for a trail ride. He put in a lot of horseback time as a park ranger in Yellowstone in the 1930s.
Jimmy Carter described growing up in rural Georgia:
My black playmates were the ones who joined me in the field work that was suitable for younger boys. We were the ones who “toted” fresh water to the more adult workers in the field. We mopped the cotton, turned sweet potato and watermelon vines, pruned deformed young watermelons, toted the stove wood, swept the yards, carried slop to the hogs, and gathered eggs – all thankless tasks. But we also rode mules and horses through the woods, jumped out of the barn loft into huge piles of oat straw, wrestled and fought, fished and swam.
The early years of my life on the farm were full and enjoyable, isolated but not lonely. We always had enough to eat, no economic hardship, but no money to waste. We felt close to nature, close to members of our family, and close to God. – Jimmy Carter, 1975
Here he is with his horse Lady Lee. [photo and quote: jimmycarter.info]
And trail riding with his wife Rosalynn:
Ronald Reagan was as enthusiastic about horses as Teddy Roosevelt, but in a gentler way. Here he is with his mare Tar Baby and her foal. [photo: Karen Dotson, Pinterest]
Tar Baby’s breeding: [photo: hancockhorses.com]
Jumping Tar Baby in California: [photo: Geri Bauer Collection]
Here are Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II, true horse lovers.
In this photo Ronald Reagan trail rides with his V. P. and White House successor, George H. W. Bush. Bush preferred power boats, but in his social circle one learns how to ride.
Bill Clinton enjoys trail riding on Martha’s Vineyard.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama have no interest in riding.
Perhaps they should reconsider. Riding can give stature to a leader, no matter how small he or his country is. Here is Kim Jong-un of North Korea, apparently. [photo: newsrook.com]
The perfect storm of leader plus horseflesh is captured in this photo of Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation: [photo: buzzfeed.com]
So far, Hillary Clinton has shown no interest in horses. And this is as close as Donald Trump is willing to get: [photo: Nancy Jaffer]
Will either candidate have the horsepower to challenge Putin?
As a last look at a riding President, here is Teddy laughing in joy, totally relaxed in the saddle. [photo: Getty Images]