It is difficult to imagine that just one hundred years ago horses were still the primary means of transportation. For some presidents, horses were not just a necessity but also a part of their image. Before photographs, the military presidents, especially, were often portrayed in paintings on horseback. Numerous portraits of George Washington in his role as general during the American Revolution depict him on a horse. Andrew Jackson’s equestrian statue climaxes Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Other presidents known for their military exploits include William Henry Harrison, who rode on horseback to his inauguration.
Horses that belonged to the presidents often achieved fame in their own right. The public was interested in knowing what horses and what style of carriage the president had. Zachary Taylor’s horse from the Mexican War, Old Whitey, accompanied him to Washington and enjoyed a pampered retirement on the White House grounds. Ulysses S. Grant, well known for his interest in horses, visited the White House stables daily. Cincinnati, Jeff Davis, and Egypt were three of the horses that had served with him during the Civil War and also traveled to the capital with the president. Newspapers and magazines fueled the public’s fascination with the president’s horses and carriages. An article from an 1887 issue of the Magazine of American History detailed the equestrian interests of the presidents and passed judgment on their abilities as horsemen. In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt and his horse Bleistein were featured in a full-page spread in the Washington Times, with photographs of the president and the jumper fearlessly going over a course at Chevy Chase.
Some of the earlier presidents were interested in horses for sport. George Washington, an avid foxhunter and a founding member of the Alexandria Jockey Club, was admired for his horsemanship. Thomas Jefferson also frequently attended horse races at the National Race Course, which was established at the new capital even before the White House was completed. Andrew Jackson was passionately involved in horse racing and even kept some racehorses at the White House stables for a time.
Later presidents were more interested in pleasure riding. Theodore Roosevelt and his family frequently went out riding together. William Howard Taft was the first president to make the transition to automobiles, although he and many presidents after him kept horses for exercise. It was common for residents of Washington, D.C., to see the president riding down the street. Even after the White House stables were demolished, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge took up horseback riding in an effort to escape the pressures of the Oval Office. While John Kennedy was in office, a temporary stable was erected on the South Lawn for family pony Macaroni as well as Tex, who was given to the Kennedy children by Lyndon Johnson. Most recently, Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan enjoyed horseback riding at their ranch in California.