Equine Welfare by George: Was the Father of Our Country Also the Father of Responsible Horse Ownership?

I was thinking about George Washington over the holiday weekend, and wondering about his horsemanship. I know he bred mules. I know he could shoe his own horses. I know he liked Arabian horses. But what else could I find out? What kind of an owner was he? Would I have wanted to be one of the horses on his Mount Vernon estate?

I was surprised, and delighted to find this passage in the records of the Valley Forge Historical Society:

Mr. John Hunter, an English visitor to Mt. Vernon in 1785, in a letter to a friend made the following reference to the horses he observed there:

“When dinner was over, we visited the General’s stables, saw his magnificent horses, among them ‘Old Nelson’, now twenty-two years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war. ‘Blueskin’, another fine old horse, next to him, had that honor. They had heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. Blueskin was not the favorite on account of his not standing fire so well as venerable Old Nelson.

“The General makes no manner of use of them now. He keeps them in a nice stable, where they feed away at their ease for their past services.”

It’s a long way from the idyllic pastures of Mount Vernon in Virginia to the bustling backside of a racetrack today, but I think one of the most encouraging developments in recent years has been the willingness of some Thoroughbred owners and breeders to step forward and say that they will take responsibility for a horse they have bred or owned when its racing career is over.

This little video from Saratoga’s local television station, WNYT, highlights only the Zitos and John Hendrickson, husband of iconic breeder and owner Mary Lou Whitney. But look down the racing program, perhaps not at the graded stakes, but at the allowance or maiden ranks, and you’ll see horses owned by groups like Parting Glass Racing Partnerships, who attract investing owners to their ranks partly because they have a responsible program in place to guide their horses to new homes and careers when their racing days are through.

Pleasure horse owners have long been soft about hanging onto to an old pony or a favorite old horse. If you only have a single horse to ride, a pasture companion is a good investment and you know it’s the right thing to do.

You know that. I know that. Apparently even George knew that more than 200 years ago. If only more people knew that. Or cared that much.




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