Western civilization has long esteemed heroes on horseback, those men who rode valiant steeds into battle then rode them into political power. Perhaps the first such hero on horseback was Alexander the Great who rode Bucephalus into battles that led to Alexander ruling the known world before age 33. Tales of such heroes echo down through the ages, blending history and myth, fact and fiction.
American civilization had its own fascination with heroes on horseback dating back to our first President, George Washington. As hero of the American Revolution, Washington rode several horses into battles for American independence. He is often depicted in statues and paintings as sitting astride a white horse, the hero ready to act. This mythos endured into the twentieth century, where several Presidents rode horses for exercise and relaxation.
Of course, Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt rode a horse while in the White House. Roosevelt rode his horse Bleistein through the streets of Washington and the trails of Rock Creek Park nearly every day of his Presidency. Late in January 1909, Roosevelt went on a notable ride of more than one hundred miles. He was dismayed that the Army and Navy were pushing back against his suggestion that they require soldiers and sailors be fit enough to ride one hundred miles over three days. Military leaders held this to be too high a standard. Roosevelt demonstrated that an overweight, fifty-one year-old desk jockey could ride one hundred miles if he had the grit of TR.
Calvin Coolidge also enjoyed riding but bowed to the wishes of his Secret Service security team and confined his riding to an indoor mechanical horse. This barrel-shaped electrically powered beast was given to Coolidge by John Harvey Kellogg, fitness empresario from Battle Creek, Michigan. Coolidge rode this contraption three times daily, heeding the words of Winston Churchill: ‘There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.’ Somehow Coolidge kept this riding exercise from the press. When the press found out, they made predictable jests at Coolidge’s expense.
Herbert Hoover was not a fan of horses or riding. As President Hoover rode only when necessary, usually on the rough trails of Camp Rapidan. His friend, political cartoonist Ding Darling, attributed Hoover’s distaste for horses to his early mining days when he was compelled to ride to survey distant sites in Arizona, California and Australia. Darling recounted Hoover’s comment: ‘I have often wondered if a mistake had been made when God created the horse.’
More recent American Presidents have enjoyed horseback riding. Dwight Eisenhower was competent in the saddle. Even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were comfortable riding. Doubtless the most renowned Presidential rider was Ronald Reagan. He and First Lady Nancy Reagan were often photographed riding on their Rancho Del Cielo property in California. For Reagan, part of his equestrian ability was related to his early years as a Hollywood actor. All actors of his generation had to ride, or risk not working in the principle genre of Hollywood film—the western. This brings us full circle. One of the classic Hollywood westerns was the 1927 silent film, Hero on Horseback starring Hoot Gibson.