AMERICAN PRESIDENTS ON THE TRAIL

U.S. Presidents’ relationships with their horses and their approach to the natural world reveal much about their personal philosophies. Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum, “Under or over but never around” referred to more than just trail obstacles.

“White House Horses,” an exhibition currently on view at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, provokes reflection on how horses have played an integral part in many American presidents’ lives. The exhibit, organized by the White House Curator’s Office with the National Park Service, features a variety of historical photographs, as well as saddles, clothes and other riding accoutrements.

Virtually all American presidents dealt with horses in one way or another, but some had a special affinity for the animal that transcended utilitarian use. Before the age of motorized vehicles, horses were vital for transportation and communication. But the American presidents who also viewed horseback riding as a recreational activity go all the way back to “The Father of Our Country.”

Along with winning the Revolutionary War, George Washington knew the value of projecting a winning personal impression. He was always seen on a magnificent steed, and the image of him triumphantly riding his horse, “Nelson,” posthumously painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1859, is one that is familiar to many Americans. While Washington’s peers considered him the finest horseman of his era, his contribution to recreational horseback riding goes well beyond his personal pursuits of fox hunting and horse racing. Few remember that it was Washington who introduced mules to America, except perhaps the mule aficionados who swear they make better trail animals than horses.

Even before cars became the norm and horses became recreational vehicles, some presidents rode for the sheer enjoyment of it. Thomas Jefferson rode almost daily for exercise. According to his diary, John Quincy Adams rode every morning before breakfast, covering approximately 12 miles in two hours.

A few presidential horses also became celebrities. “Old Whitey” carried Zachary Taylor through many a battle in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Upon winning the presidency in 1859, Taylor brought his old warhorse with him to the capital. The poor horse’s tail was nearly denuded from visitors requesting souvenir strands.

The Civil War mounts of President Ulysses S. Grant also were retired to the White House stables. “Cincinnati,” “Egypt” and “Jeff Davis” were the president’s favorite horses, and he visited them every day during his term in office.

The most colorful presidential trail rider was Theodore Roosevelt, who, while he was born in New York City, spent time as a rancher in the Dakota Territory. An advocate of “the strenuous life,” Teddy Roosevelt’s daily schedule when president always included a trail ride to Potomac and Rock Creek Parks.

Horseback riding was so much a part of Roosevelt’s life that the White House produced a typewritten sheet for those who had been invited to ride with the president. The document was called “Rules of the Road for Those Invited to Accompany the President on Horseback Rides,” and included explicit instructions as to distances to be maintained, etc.

When the equine-loving president was offered an auto in which to ride, his reply was, “The Roosevelts are horse people.”

Most surprising is that the Roosevelt fondness of horses extended to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who most of us remember as wheelchair-bound after his bout with polio. Yet, FDR continued to horseback ride in spite of his paralyzed legs. A 1938 photograph of Franklin Roosevelt starting out on a trail ride from the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia, indicates that he may have shared more of Teddy Roosevelt’s grit than one may think, even if they didn’t share the same political party.

While Calvin Coolidge’s presidency was well within the automobile age, he still enjoyed morning rides on his horse, “General.” He even went so far as to install a mechanical horse in the White House, so that he could still “ride” during bad weather or when his schedule didn’t permit a trail outing.

In the modern era, Ronald Reagan was unquestionably the most avid presidential horseman. His Santa Barbara county ranch, Rancho del Cielo, served as the “Western White House” while Reagan was in office. Now owned and maintained by the Young America’s Foundation as a priceless piece of American history, the ranch is where Reagan was happiest and spent many enjoyable hours horseback riding. Reagan often quoted the old saw, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”

Reagan was a member of the prestigious Santa Barbara riding group, Rancheros Visitadores. He rode several favorite mounts over the years, including his American Quarter Horse, “Sergeant Murphy,” and a Thoroughbred named “Little Man.” His white Anglo-Arab stallion, “El Alamein,” was a 1980 gift to President-elect Reagan from President Jose Lopez Portillo of Mexico.

While Reagan only received one live horse as a presidential gift, he did receive several saddles as “Gifts of State” during his term in office. These include a French saddle given by François Mitterrand, a Spanish saddle given by King Juan Carlos, a stock saddle given by the Prime Minister of Australia, and elaborate tribal saddles given by King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan II of Morocco.

Nowadays, the most commonly seen equines in the nation’s capital are the huge draft horses that ceremoniously deliver the annual White House Christmas tree. In what may be a sign of the times, it’s worth noting that in spite of his Texas twang and cowboy boots, our current President, George W. Bush, is a mountain biker.

Mark Your Calendar

Through Sunday, August 6

Exhibit: “White House Horses”

Richard Nixon Presidential

Library and Museum

18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard

Yorba Linda

(714) 993-5075

www.nixonlibrary.org