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Don’t Spare The Horses

May 2024
9min read

It’S rough to be around a rider when he’s the President

In little more than seven weeks the Rough Rider would be leaving the White House. Nine months prior to his fifty-first birthday a still contagiously energetic Theodore Roosevelt was ready to demonstrate that his recent order setting physical standards for military promotion was not unreasonable. He believed that it was not too demanding to require Army and Navy officers either to walk fifty miles or to ride a hundred miles in three consecutive days.

So strong and so widespread had been the protests that the prescribed ride was a hardship upon the officers that the President was determined to find out for himself. Almost no one knew of the President’s plan other than the White House physician, Admiral Presley M. Rixey, a Virginian who was Surgeon General of the Navy. Dr. Rixey did all he could to dissuade the President from what he feared would involve unnecessary risks. But even an appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was useless, for she knew it would not do any good whatever for her to intervene.

There had been several good days of the best of winter weather when the President decided that on the next day, Wednesday, January 13, 1909, he, Admiral Rixey, and two younger White House aides, Army Captain Archibald “Archie” Butt of Georgia, and another Navy physician, Gary T. Grayson of Virginia, would ride to Warrenton, Virginia, and back in the course of the day—a distance estimated at more than ninety miles. Despite the weather bulletins predicting a blizzard for the next day the President left word that he be called at 2:30 A.M.

In the morning, after the President breakfasted on a considerable amount of rare steak and coffee, Admiral Rixey and the other members of the party arrived, and all underwent the brief physical examination that was part of the prescribed order for the riding test. Mr. Roosevelt submitted to it in good humor as the Admiral examined his heart and thumped him here and there. It was 3:40 A.M. when the four riders mounted their horses and, without delay, rode out of the White House gates. The ground was frozen hard, and there was a cutting cold wind blowing, but there was no sign of a blizzard in the sky. They started down Pennsylvania Avenue at a trot, the President on his horse Roswell, and after ten brisk minutes they crossed the bridge over the Potomac to Virginia.

The riding party skirted Fort Myer and made good time for the next six miles to Falls Church, but from there to Fairfax the roads were cut up and frozen with deep furrows that had not thawed in some time. After two and a half hours of hard riding from the White House they reached Fairfax, some twenty miles away, at 6:10 A.M. and in another ten minutes rode into Fairfax Court House, where a first change of horses was awaiting them.

The President had expected to see his favorite bay mare, Georgia, among the four waiting horses, which were attended by a trooper from the cavalry post at Fort Myer. Through some mix-up, however, the troopers, not knowing Mr. Roosevelt was in the party, had left Georgia behind. But the President showed no sign of anger and merely commented: “I am keenly disappointed, for I wanted Georgia to be in on this ride as a matter of sentiment if for nothing else.” Actually he wanted no special favors and was determined that this ride be a test under just the conditions the average officer would be required to undergo. It was much harder, in fact, for the regular test rides were held only in the spring and fall and never in extreme heat or cold—and often with far better horses. The President had refused to let Captain Butt tell the commanding officer at Fort Myer why the horses were wanted and to what use they were going to be put. Since some of the horses were being sent to Admiral Rixey’s nearby farm, it was believed that they were probably intended for a party of naval officers, and so naturally the Army had furnished less than their best animals.

The change to the new relay of horses took about ten minutes, and, starting at a good trot, the riders headed toward Centreville. Each rider probably had the same thought—that his new mount was about as disagreeable as could be turned out from a cavalry post. After forty-five minutes of riding they reached Centreville, halfway to Warrenton, and then, two miles farther on, came to a farmhouse near Cub Run, where another change of horses was awaiting them. Unfortunately, this change was not for the better. The President’s horse seemed even rougher and slower, and the one Captain Butt was riding showed a streak of viciousness toward the others. As a result there was not much conversation, but, as they passed the Bull Run battlefield, Mr. Roosevelt kidded Admiral Rixey and Dr. Grayson about the miserable state of their native Virginia roads. He also wondered what the spirits of the Federal troops would say if they saw him riding over Bull Run with “three rebels,” as he called his three southern companions.

Although the plan had been to reach Warrenton by eleven o’clock, for some time the badly cut-up condition of the roads made it seem hopeless. Nevertheless, by the time they reached Gainesville, the riding party was gaining confidence that despite the difficult going the trip would be a success. Upon arriving at Buckland, less than ten miles from Warrenton, everyone seemed in fine humor as he changed horses for a third time and started on to Warrenton. As the riders became accustomed to their last relay of horses they kept off the side of the furrowed roads wherever possible, galloping whenever they could. Just as the town clock struck eleven, they entered Warrenton—seven hours and twenty minutes after their departure from the White House.

At this hour almost no one in Washington knew that the President had already ridden more than fifty miles and was now in Warrenton. It had been of little interest to anyone that a party of Navy officers apparently was going out on a day’s jaunt, and relays of horses had been ordered for them from Fort Myer. Later the press was told that the chief executive had gone to Admiral Rixey’s Virginia farm for a day’s riding about the country, giving the President a midweek holiday of fresh air and exercise. There seemed to be no special news in that.

About six miles before the Presidential party reached Warrenton, a merchant in New Baltimore had recognized T. R. and after the riders had passed, had telephoned ahead to announce that the President of the United States was on horseback on his way to Warrenton, where he would have lunch. A group of doubters in Warrenton went to the Warren Green Hotel, where they found several Secret Service men present and learned it was true that the President would have lunch there. Soon the cavalcade, headed by the President, appeared. Despite the cold, gray day a sizable crowd had gathered by the time the distinguished guest reached the old hotel. The grapevine news had spread quickly, and even the public schools had closed in honor of the Presidential visit.

At the Warren Green the President dismounted and made a short address to the assembled crowd of several hundred people, who gave him a rousing cheer. In a few moments Dr. John Wise, a retired Navy physician who was a personal friend of the Roosevelts and who now lived in Warrenton, joined Captain Butt in presenting the citizens of Warrenton to the President. A receiving line was formed just as it would have been at the White House, and Dr. Wise and Captain Butt presented each Warrentonian by name. For each, Mr. Roosevelt had some special words, but the result, unfortunately, was that the President had only about ten minutes in which to eat his lunch, as it was already nearly time to start back to Washington. He hurriedly drank two cups of tea and had some thick soup. Despite the chilly day and the hospitality offered them, no one in the riding party accepted anything in the way of alcoholic drink.

At 12:15 the riders were back in their saddles and soon were on their way, accompanied for a few miles by the master of the Warrenton Hunt and several other local riders. The ride back to Buckland, however, proved more difficult than the trip over the same terrain earlier in the day. Captain Butt was on a particularly fractious animal who “fought the bit the entire way. …” Once when his rider dismounted to check the girth on the President’s saddle, the horse reared and kicked, narrowly missing Dr. Grayson and his mount. The horse continued to rear and plunge, and it was fifteen minutes before the captain managed to get back on again. They did not reach Buckland until 1:35 P.M.

Here they changed to the same troop horses from Fort Myer that they had ridden to Buckland in the morning, but these animals seemed even worse than they had on their way out. Admiral Rixey led all the way back to Cub Run, but it was harder for the others who followed him to keep their horses at any kind of even pace. At Cub Run they changed horses for the next to last time, and the President ordered Captain Butt to set a good pace back to Fairfax. For some time they took advantage of the better stretches of road by galloping as long as possible; when they encountered poor road, they walked. On the whole the four men were somewhat exhilarated by their relatively good going and the knowledge that they were about halfway on their return journey to Washington. But just before Centreville the predicted storm struck, and a blizzard of blinding sleet descended from the north. As gale winds whipped and ice lacerated their faces the riders urged their horses at as fast a gait as possible, for it began to look doubtful that with darkness falling and increasingly heavy sleet they would be able to reach Washington.

When they arrived at Fairfax Court House, it was 5:10 P.M. Word by now was about that the President was on a hundred-mile ride, and despite the weather a small crowd had gathered to cheer him on. Here the riders remounted the horses that had begun the ride. Roswell, the President’s trusted mount, was in good condition, and it was just as well, because from Centreville on, ice had begun to cake on Mr. Roosevelt’s glasses so that he could hardly see where he was going. The President had expected to be back at the White House by seven o’clock, but now there was no such possibility, for twenty miles remained and the going was extremely bad.

From Fairfax the pitch darkness would have made for difficult riding in better weather, but with the sleet frozen on his glasses the President could see virtually nothing. He simply trusted Roswell to follow Captain Butt on the latter’s faithful Larry. From Fairfax to Falls Church they had to walk practically the whole way. Once when they attempted to trot, the President’s horse went into a ditch but luckily recovered without injury to himself or to his rider. Dr. Grayson, who had been following behind the President, tried to lead the President’s horse whenever he could, but he was having difficulties of his own, as his smooth-shod horse was slipping every few steps. The President warned him repeatedly to take no additional risks.

After Falls Church the roads were somewhat better, and although the sleet continued, the worst of the storm seemed to have passed. They were encouraged when they saw the reflected lights of Washington nine miles away. By now enough snow had fallen along with the sleet so that despite the difficulty caused by his glasses the President decided to try to make better time by trotting whenever possible. The footing proved far superior to what the horses had just been through, and they continued at a trot almost all the way to the Aqueduct Bridge over the Potomac. As the riders turned into the lighted approach to the bridge they could see a carriage from the White House waiting. Captain Butt had taken the precaution to send a telephone message from Fairfax to the White House to have them met because he did not believe it would be safe to ride across the bridge and then traverse the frozen streets to the White House. But the President brushed aside any thought of abandoning their horses short of the official terminus of the ride: “By George, we will make it to the White House with our horses if we have to lead them.”

With the President in the forefront the riders crossed the bridge. The streets of Washington were “as slick as glass,” and grass, shrubbery, and tree limbs glistened with clinging ice particles. The riders, followed by two mounted policemen and the empty carriage, made their way gingerly over ice-coated Pennsylvania Avenue. As they entered the grounds of the White House the four riders broke into a gallop. Mrs. Roosevelt was watching from a window. By the time they dismounted it was 8:40 P.M. , and she was at the White House door to welcome them. All four were matted with snow and sleet, and the President was an especially striking figure in his broadbrim hat, black boots, and riding jacket with fur collar, all fringed with ice. He admitted he was a little tired from being so much in the saddle and said he was sorry to be late for dinner. There was a brief physical examination, just as required of the military officers, and all were pronounced sound of wind and limb. Mrs. Roosevelt then gave each of them a julep, their first drop of liquor during the entire seventeen-hour ride. The President observed: “What has surprised me more than anything on this ride is the fact that no one has said a cross word, that we have had a good time, and that we returned laughing. … if we had not met this sleet storm, it would have been like taking candy from a child.”

At his customary hour the next morning the President went to his office. Despite the ride the day before, which he now learned had been 104 miles, there was no sign that he had done anything unusual by way of physical exercise. The landscape for miles around Washington was covered with brittle ice particles that had fallen the previous afternoon and continued into the night. A newspaper headline proclaimed SLIPPERY DAY IN TOWN / SLEET STORM MAKES SKATING RINK OF CITY STREETS / MANY ARE HURT BY FALLS and went on to say that “old citizens described the conditions as the nastiest spell of weather Washington has been inflicted with for many years.”

When queried by newsmen, the President said that the object of his long day in the saddle was “to prove to critics, who have found fault with the recent order requiring all army and navy officers to take a physical test, that if a President who is not in training, can ride 100 miles plus in one day without being laid up in bed thereby, it should not be too much to ask of men who are supposed to be in the best of physical training all the time to ride 100 miles in three days.” The order would stand, and he expected that President Taft, when he came into office, would want to continue it. And, indeed, the policy was continued until World War I.

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