Written by Juliette Beauchamp
As we celebrate Independence Day this week, it seems fitting that we also celebrate one of the best-loved figures of American Independence. George Washington was born on February 22nd, 1732 in the Northern Neck of Virginia, and would go on to lead the Continental Army during the American Revolution and later serve as our first President. He was the only President of the United States to be unanimously elected to both his terms (at that time, only the votes of the Electoral College were used to select the President; there was no popular vote). He was also an accomplished horseman, according to Thomas Jefferson, “…the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.” The Marquis de Chastellux was even more lavish in his praise, stating that Washington “…is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild.”
Washington began working as a surveyor when he was only seventeen years old, a job that, at the time, would have involved many hours in the saddle. As an adult, he was an avid foxhunter and kept a pack of hounds, mainly of imported English and French bloodlines, for his personal use. He had an active breeding program as well, and crossed the imported hounds with local stock. Washington is credited by the American Kennel Club as being one of the creators of the American Foxhound. Foxhunting was a common pastime of the gentry class, and Washington’s friends and neighbors spent many weeks enjoying his hospitality, often hunting three times a week in the fall and winter seasons.
Washington had many horses, but two in particular were his favorite mounts during the Revolution. Nelson, a bright chestnut born sometime between 1763 and 1769, was a gift from Thomas Nelson of Virginia and thus named for him. Nelson (the horse) was reputedly calm in battle and was Washington’s mount for Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in 1781. After the war, Nelson was retired to Mount Vernon. His death was reported to Washington (then serving his first presidential term) around Christmas of 1790.
Blueskin, a gray half-Arab, was a gift from Benjamin and Elizabeth Dulany of Maryland, and was a favorite in the hunt field prior to the war. Given his striking color and regal bearing, Blueskin was the mount most often portrayed in artwork of Washington. He also survived the war and lived out his days at Mount Vernon.
Washington also had a locally well-known racehorse, an Arabian stallion named Magnolia who was offered at public stud. Washington traded Magnolia to “Light Horse Harry” Lee (the father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee) in 1788 in exchange for 5,000 acres of land in the Kentucky territory. With large tracts of land in Virginia (8,000 acres at Mount Vernon alone), what is now West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and Ohio, Washington was one of the largest land owners of his time.
Horses weren’t the only equines at Mount Vernon. In 1785, Washington was given a donkey jack, named “Royal Gift”, by the King of Spain. He also received a jack and two jennies the following year from the Marquis de Lafayette and began a mule-breeding program, convinced that mules were better adapted to farm work than horses. The animal inventory from Mount Vernon from 1785 reports 130 horses and no mules; by 1799 there were only 25 horses and 58 mules.
After serving as President, Washington returned to Mount Vernon. A throat infection sadly abbreviated his retirement and he passed away on December 14th, 1799. He had an enormous role in the founding of our country; as Virginians, we should all be especially proud of such a great thinker, leader, and horseman.