The White House sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, D.C., DC and is one of the most recognized landmarks in the world, on a par with Buckingham Palace in England and the Taj Mahal in India. And, while the current President may not be a horse fan or rider, there is a long list of Presidents who were devoted horse owners and competent riders. Recently while some digging was going on at the White House, foundations from the old stables were found which brings us to a brief history of the White House stables and the horses who lived there.
The first White House stables, never meant to be a showplace, were a simple Georgian design built in 1800 under the orders of Thomas Jefferson.
President Zachary Taylor’s war veteran horse Old Whitey helped mow the lawns by eating the grass at the White House from 1849-1850 when Taylor was in office. When Taylor died 16 months after his inauguration, it was Old Whitey who was in the procession, rider less with Taylor’s boots in the stirrups. Old Whitey was pressed into service for the Civil War and survived although his rider was shot as he rode him. Old Whitey was retired and lived another two years.
These stables burnt in 1864, sadly killing President’s Lincoln’s son Willie’s pony along with four other horses and his son Tad’s pony. Lincoln himself tried in vain to save Willie’s pony by jumping over a boxwood hedge and running to get into the stable. After the fire, aides saw Lincoln weeping at an east room window. Willie had died that year and Lincoln was distraught at the loss of one of the last ties to his son.
In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant had a mansard roofed stable built that was expanded in 1891 to accommodate stalls for 25 horses, tack and harness rooms and living quarters for stable staff. He was horse mad and kept the stables full including his favourite war horses Cincinnati, Egypt and Jeff Davis along with his trotters that he took for mad dashes along Pennsylvania Avenue. Once he got a speeding ticket when racing a delivery van and the van kept up to him. He was so impressed with the speed of the horse pulling the van that he later bought it!
Teddy Roosevelt as President from September 14, 1901 – March 4, 1909 was an outdoor aficionado and brought his image as a rugged outdoorsman who advocated the “strenuous life” to the White House. He had been a rancher in Dakota Territory and his volunteers called the Rough Riders became national heroes after the charge of San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War. The whole Roosevelt family loved animals and their menagerie included a pony, sheep, dogs, cats, a macaw, guinea pigs, rats, a snake, and many more animals. They often went for family outings in public and Roosevelt himself found time in his busy schedule to enjoy a daily ride to the Potomac and the Rock Creek parks with his aide and also excellent horseman, Archie Butt.
If you were invited to ride with the President, he had rules that were included in the invitation and were called: Rules of The Road.
First: The President will notify whom he wishes to ride with him. The one notified will take position on the left of the President and keep his right stirrup back of the President’s left stirrup.
Second: Those following will keep not less than ten yards in the rear of the President.
Third: When the President asks anyone in the party to ride with him the one at his side should at once retire to the rear. Salutes should be returned only by the President, except by those in the rear. Anyone unable to control his horse should withdraw to the rear.
Roosevelt and his sons enjoyed horses to the hilt and once his son Quinton and his pal Charlie Taft (son of the next President) brought his pony upstairs in the White house elevator to cheer up his brother Archie who was sick. Roosevelt was the last President to fully use the horses and stables at the White House. He was offered a car but claimed, “The Roosevelts are horse people.”
Following Roosevelt was President Taft, a mountain of a man who never had much luck with horses. First of all his weight required that any horse he rode be part draft to accommodate his bulk, and second, he and horses always seemed to part company or run into trouble. His riding forays were frowned upon by his staff and once after an outing near the White House, he sent a message to his Secretary of War, Elihu Root saying how he had enjoyed his ride. Root replied in a telegram asking, “How is the horse?”
In 1909 President Taft fell under the influence of horsepower of a different kind and actually had the stables converted to accommodate his giant steam cars. A few years later, the stables were demolished completely, and afterwards, horses and carriages were only used for ceremonies and state occasions being provided by the Old Guard Caisson Platoon. Today, the horses from this platoon are still part of presidential funerals, the most famous being Black Jack, an American Quarter Horse who was the rider less horse in more than 1,000 Armed Forces Full Honour funerals, and the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson. With boots reversed in the stirrups, he was the symbol of a fallen leader. He died in 1976, was cremated and his remains put to rest with full military honours at Fort Myer, Virginia near another recognized war hero, Comanche.
Calvin Coolidge who was President from 1923–1929 had an allergy to horses, so to get some exercise while in office, he had a mechanical horse built that he “rode” at the White House complete with his cowboy hat, boots and chaps. The “horse” was built in 1923, ran on electricity and was similar to the one in the exercise room on the ill fated Titanic.
With White House horses long gone, President Lyndon Johnson, a western rider all the way, enjoyed his horses with his wife Lady Bird at their Texas ranch, and when Reagan couldn’t get to his California ranch, he would ride at Camp David in the Maryland mountains, sometimes even getting George H.W Bush astride a horse though Bush and his wife preferred boats.
President Regan was a well known horse lover and enjoyed both western and English; his riding skills often tipping him in favour over other actors for movie roles. He and Queen Elizabeth enjoyed a ride together at Windsor Castle during his visit to England in 1982. Bill Clinton, though perhaps not a polished rider, enjoyed beach rides at Martha’s Vineyard and his cowboy boots carry the Presidential seal.
Jacqueline Kennedy brought arts, culture and glamour to office like no other First Lady had ever done, and she also welcomed Macaroni to the White House. The Kennedy children Caroline and John, like many previous young White House residents, had a plethora of pets including hamsters, canaries, cats and many dogs. Perhaps the most famous pet was Macaroni the pony who was given to Caroline by Vice President Johnson, followed by Leprechaun, given to her by the Irish Prime Minister.
In times past, notable leaders were often painted, sculpted, drawn and photographed riding a horse – think of the famous Jacques – Louis David painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on his horse Marengo! Not only were these men of elevated status to be shown rising above the mere mortals looking up at them, but nothing says noble, commanding, powerful and authoritative more clearly than when one is paired with a horse.
The White House Stable Timeline
1800: A simple Georgian building just off the White House grounds was built
1806: Thomas Jefferson had a stable and carriage house built.
1814: The British burned the White House and a frame stable was added to the end of the west wing when it was rebuilt.
1834: Andrew Jackson ordered the construction of a freestanding brick stable to the east of the White house. This was levelled in 1857 to enable construction of the present south wing of the Treasury department. A new stable was built on the east grounds south of the Treasury. This stable burnt in 1864 killing many of the Lincoln family horses; a replacement stable was built on the west grounds.
1871: What is known today as Eisenhower’s Executive Office Building was built on the site of the replacement stables. A high Victorian mansard roofed stable was built during the Grant administration in 1871 and expanded for Benjamin Harrison in 1891.
1911: The White House stables were demolished as cars became the new horsepower.