Hooves through history: The untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s daily rides

James L. Dick copy of the second life portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.

Pen of the Revolution. Sage of Monticello. Man of the People. The third president of the United States is known for many things. What you probably didn’t know is that T.J. – as Jeffersonian scholars affectionately refer to him – was also a passionate lover of horses.

“When we think of which American president was the best horseman, most people think of George Washington,” said Carrie Douglass, Ph.D., anthropology professor at the University of Virginia, who, with a fellowship from Monticello, has researched Jefferson and 18th-century equine culture extensively. “Statues and portraits of Washington often place him on a horse to portray him in his role as the ‘Sword’ of the Revolution.

So Thomas Jefferson is less associated with horses in the popular mind – but everyone who really knew him, knew him as a consummate equestrian.”

In Jefferson’s era, horses were a daily part of life for everyone, whether for work, travel or sport. The number and variety owned was an indicator of class and social status. But at a time when most folks viewed their equine companions in a purely utilitarian sense, Jefferson’s admiration went deeper.

According to accounts from his contemporaries, he rode for about three hours every day along the winding trails of the 5,000-acre Monticello plantation, singing, thinking and talking to himself. Most of the 18th-century elite class was accustomed to taking a slave or servant along for pleasure riding. Jefferson, however, insisted on riding alone.

“He didn’t merely see the horse as a means to an end for work, or as a symbol of status or power,” Douglass said. “Thomas Jefferson rode his horse in solitude every day, whether he was in the city or the country, in Washington or Paris. Riding was his escape from the world. He seemed to consider it necessary to his physical and mental health.”

PORTRAIT OF A HORSEMAN

Jefferson first developed his equine interests as a young man, when, like many of the wealthy elite of his day, he was an avid attendee of horse races. In 1772, after inheriting stock from his father-in-law, he began his own small breeding program, which flourished throughout the time he served as governor of Virginia.

He loved Thoroughbreds (then called “blood” horses) and appreciated the quality of a well-bred horse.

As Douglass relates in her forthcoming book on Jefferson and his horses, Monticello’s longest-serving overseer, Edmund Bacon, also described Jefferson as “an uncommonly fine rider – sat easily upon his horse and always had him in the most perfect control.”

This superior horsemanship served T.J. well. During the Revolutionary War, he managed to evade capture by British forces several times by fleeing on horseback.

Tragedy struck in 1781, when the British general, Lord Cornwallis, dispatched Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and 250 mounted soldiers to Monticello to capture Gov. Jefferson and other members of the Virginia legislature. Meanwhile, Cornwallis and his troops were camped out at Jefferson’s breeding farm, Elkhill, 38 miles downriver at the confluence of the Rivanna and the James. Jefferson and his companions managed to escape the raid at Monticello, but at Elkhill, Cornwallis destroyed everything. He took the mares that were useful to him and slit the throats of their foals. “Jefferson was furious about this for the rest of his life,” Douglass said. The loss marked the end of his 10-year stint as a breeder.

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died suddenly from complications of childbirth. It was only then that Jefferson began riding daily at Monticello – and his relationship with horses took a turn from proprietary to personal.

IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH

“I believe Jefferson healed his grief by riding his horse out on the mountain,” Douglass said, referring to this as the beginning of a “jealously guarded” daily ritual. In her forthcoming book, she relates the words of a Charlottesville slave named Aunt Polly: “Mr. Jefferson would always go out in any kind of weather, never minding it in the least, winter or summer. Sometimes rain would be pouring down, or the snow would be blinding so that you couldn’t see a yard ahead, yet he would order his horse to be brought to the gate, and would mount and ride wherever he intended to go.”

Even injury and illness were not enough to keep T.J. from his rides. When he fell and broke his arm at age 82, he resumed riding his last – and some say favorite – saddle horse, Eagle, long before he was fully healed. Accounts describe him riding the stallion around Monticello with his arm still in a sling.

Eagle had a distinctly fiery personality, Douglass said, which only Jefferson seemed to be able to pacify. “This horse shied at everything and threw other riders, but with Jefferson he was calm. Responsible. There are stories of Eagle saving him when he fell off in a stream on his way into Charlottesville,” Douglass said.

Jefferson once wrote that he hoped to die on a horse, and he nearly got his wish. The man continued to ride daily until a few weeks before his death in 1826, at the age of 83.

A SHARPENED VISION

It’s a devotion many contemporary equine enthusiasts can relate to. A quiet trail ride through Virginia woods or pasture, in solitude except for the companionship of a trusted horse, is probably as therapeutic in 2017 as it was in the 18th century. Maybe that modern relevance is what’s behind the growing public interest in Jefferson’s horses.

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