Riding with Theodore Roosevelt

The century-old writings of one of our most colorful Presidents offer perspectives on horsemanship that are surprisingly modern.

My first encounter with the pony named Algonquin was in the National Museum of American History during a family visit to Washington, D.C. Smithsonian craftsmen had re-created the front corridor of the White House as it appeared in 1902 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency as a space to display presidential memorabilia. Then, a particular detail of the exhibit caught my attention:

A black and white image of a young Teddy Roosevelt riding a pinto pony.
Horses were an integral part of Theodore Roosevelt’s life, from the time when he learned to ride his childhood pony,

“Why is there a pony in the elevator?” I asked. In a dimly lit elevator cage at the back of the display, barely visible in the shadows, stood roughly shaped, unpainted, life-size plaster statues of a boy and a pony.

Then I saw the explanatory plaque and read the story of how Algonquin, companion to Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest sons Archie and Quentin, was once smuggled up the White House elevator to console 8-year-old Archie, who was quarantined in his bedroom with measles.

Fifteen years later, at the age of 50, I finally got my own “first pony,” a chestnut Icelandic Horse whose registered name is resplendent and unpronounceable. Fortunately, he responds to his barn name, Blessi. While reading about Blessi’s heritage, I came across another reference to Algonquin, who probably was a Shetland pony but might have been part Icelandic.

Suddenly, I remembered those shadowy figures in the elevator at the museum. Intrigued, I began more research into the Roosevelt family, and in the course of my readings those white plaster figures were transformed into a summer-blond-haired, blue-eyed boy and his 33-inch pony. In my mind, I can almost see Algonquin’s nostrils flare as Archie raises his hand to stroke his pony’s neck.

Roosevelt became president in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. At age 43, he was the youngest man ever to assume the presidency, and his children—six in all, including Ethel, Kermit and Ted Jr., plus his adult daughter Alice from Theodore’s first marriage—brought exuberance and playfulness to the White House. Stories abound of the youngsters exploring crawlspaces, rollerskating on the marble floors, putting spitballs on the portrait of Andrew Jackson, and using stilts in the formal gardens. They also filled the White House with a zooful of pets, with assorted dogs and cats as well as Jonathan Edwards the bear, Peter the rabbit, Bill the lizard, Maude the pig, Josiah the badger, multiple guinea pigs … and the list goes on.

Reading about their antics, I spent considerable time with the works of Theodore Roosevelt. He was a prolific writer who left behind volumes of letters, speeches and memoirs. He was a fierce advocate of “the strenuous life,” and—as it turns out—he was a dedicated horseman in his own right. Horses were an integral part of his life, from the time when he learned to ride his childhood pony, General Grant, to moving cattle with his single footer, Manitou, during his ranching years in the Badlands of North Dakota, to riding Little Texas at the head of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. In fact, Roosevelt can be considered the last true horseman to inhabit the White House. After Roosevelt’s second term, his successor, William Howard Taft, purchased the first presidential cars and had the White House stables converted into a garage.

Many of Roosevelt’s writings are sprinkled with insights into his approach to training horses and his observations about the value of riding, and I was struck by how “modern” his methods seemed to be, even by current standards. The term “natural horsemanship” may not have become prominent until the 1980s, but some of the roots of the methodology extend all the way back to Xenophon in the fourth century b.c., and probably beyond.

Here’s a selection of Roosevelt’s observations and insights—drawn, unless otherwise noted, from Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography—that still have some resonance in modern times.

An advocate for “the strenuous life”

Theodore Roosevelt had been a sickly, asthmatic child. To build his strength, he took up sports like boxing, rowing and bodybuilding in addition to riding. And he continued to value physical exercise well into adulthood.

In the early 1880s, Roosevelt spent two years as a rancher in the Dakota Badlands, putting in long days herding cattle, hunting and, as a frontier sheriff, chasing outlaws. After he returned to the East and pursued his political career, he struggled with his weight. He noted: “A man whose business is sedentary should get some kind of exercise if he wishes to keep himself in as good physical trim as his brethren who do manual labor.”

To keep fit, Roosevelt recommended physical activities such as walking, tennis and riding. Roosevelt also suggested playing a modified form of polo suitable for middle-aged men owning ordinary horses: “Polo is a good game, infinitely better for vigorous men than tennis or golf or anything of that kind. There is all the fun of football with the horse thrown in.”

The long road to mastery

Roosevelt never claimed to be an expert horseman, and he acknowledged that it takes a lifetime of work to achieve true mastery in the saddle:

“I was fond of horseback-riding, but I took to it slowly and with difficulty, exactly as with boxing. It was a long time before I became even a respectable rider, and I never got much higher. I mean by this that I never became a first-flight man in the hunting field, and never even approached the bronco-busting class in the West. Any man, if he chooses, can gradually school himself to the requisite nerve, and gradually learn the requisite seat and hands, that will enable him to do respectably across country, or to perform the average work on a ranch.”

Roosevelt was, perhaps, overly modest about his riding abilities, at least by modern standards, given that he was known to ride 10 to 12 hours at a stretch when hunting big game in the West. And some of his anecdotes illustrate a rider who was quite skilled. Once, he completed a hunt unaware that he’d broken his arm: “On the hunt in question I got along very well until the pace winded my ex-buggy horse, and it turned a somersault over a fence. When I got on it after the fall I found I could not use my left arm. I supposed it was merely a strain. The buggy horse was a sedate animal which I rode with a snaffle. So we pounded along at the tail of the hunt, and I did not appreciate that my arm was broken for three or four fences. Then we came to a big drop, and the jar made the bones slip past one another so as to throw the hand out of position. It did not hurt me at all, and as the horse was as easy to sit as a rocking-chair, I got in at the death.”

A forerunner of natural horsemanship

Roosevelt’s accounts of his time in the Badlands read like a dime novel of the Wild West. Although he claims he never became “more than an average rider, by ranch standards,” he did show a modern sensibility that we would now call natural horsemanship: “When I had the opportunity, I broke my own horses, doing it gently and gradually and spending much time over it, and choosing the horses that seemed gentle to begin with. With these horses, I never had any difficulty. But frequently there was neither time nor opportunity to handle our mounts so elaborately.” He added, “Of course a man on a ranch has to ride a good many bad horses, and is bound to encounter a certain number of accidents, and of these I had my share, at one time cracking a rib, and on another occasion the point of my shoulder.”

But he recounts good times, too: “When we reached country that the driver thoroughly knew, we thought it safe to leave him, and we loped in one night across a distance which it took the wagon the three following days to cover. It was a beautiful moonlight night, and the ride was delightful. All day long we had plodded at a walk, weary and hot. At supper time we had rested two or three hours, and the tough little riding horses seemed as fresh as ever. It was in September. As we rode out of the circle of the firelight, the air was cool in our faces. Under the bright moonlight, and then under the starlight, we loped and cantered mile after mile over the high prairie. We passed bands of antelope and herds of long-horn Texas cattle, and at last, just as the first red beams of the sun flamed over the bluffs in front of us, we rode down into the valley of the Little Missouri, where our ranch house stood.”

The power of positive reinforcement

Renown, one of Roosevelt’s personal saddle horses, was highly reactive, and after he arrived in Washington, he was extremely frightened of the automo- bile traffic. From Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children (1919): “I am working hard to get Renown accustomed to automobiles. He is such a handful now when he meets them that I seriously mind encountering them when Mother is along.”

In another letter, Roosevelt shared details of his training approach, which relied on positive reinforcement. One day, when Renown performed better than expected, Roosevelt wrote, “he behaved so well that I leaned over and gave him a lump of sugar when he had passed the object of terror—the old boy eagerly turning his head around to get it.”

A few weeks later, he reported in a letter that “Renown is behaving better about automobiles and the like. I think the difference is largely in the way I handle him. He is a very good-natured and gentle horse, but timid and not over-wise, and when in a panic his great strength makes him well-nigh uncontrollable. Accordingly, he is a bad horse to try to force by anything. If possible, it is much better to give him a little time, and bring him up as gently as may be to the object of terror. When he behaves well I lean forward and give him a lump of sugar, and now the old boy eagerly puts around his head when I stretch out my hand.”

During his White House tenure, Roosevelt was frequently seen riding his favorite mount, a gelding named Bleistein, in the Washington, D.C., area. In Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children, he wrote, “Yesterday I tried Bleistein over the hurdles at Chevy Chase [Maryland]. The first one was new, high and stiff, and the old rascal never rose six inches, going slap through it. I took him at it again and he went over all right.” He also once famously jumped Bleistein for a group of photographers.

In a later letter, though, Roosevelt expressed a preference that many riders past a certain age would likely share: “I do not want a horse with which I have an interesting circus experience whenever we meet an automobile, or one which I cannot get to go in any particular direction without devoting an hour or two to the job.”

About the author: Pamela Nolf is currently writing a book about the adventures of the pony Algonquin and Teddy Roosevelt’s children during the White House years 1901 to 1909.

This article was originally published in EQUUS 487




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