Describing “Buffalo Bill” Cody in The Colonel and Little Missie, Larry McMurtry makes an adept observation: “…it is hard to overestimate how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse.”
George Washington, in his lifetime, did not have the wide public audience made possible by Cody’s celebrity and churning PR machine. But by all contemporary accounts, the man looked good on a horse. His impressive stature in the saddle, combined with his aggressive riding style and stamina for the long pursuit, may have contributed to his battlefield success. It is a plausible premise that the outcome of the American Revolution, and the founding principles embodied by the nation’s first president, were influenced by Washington’s passion for his sport of choice—foxhunting.
Washington first rode to hounds at the age of 16, introduced to the pastime by his neighbor Lord Fairfax. His association with the powerful Fairfax family also influenced his appreciation for the manners and proprieties of the aristocracy. The courtly demeanor he learned under Fairfax’s tutelage, as well as his sense of stylish elegance, served him well in adulthood as leader of the Continental Army and subsequently as Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed nation.
In 1748 a young George Washington was part of a small group sent by Lord Fairfax to survey his holdings in Virginia’s uncharted Shenandoah Valley. Some historians suspect these early surveying forays were really just thinly veiled excuses to go foxhunting. 1
For the next three decades Washington took every opportunity to practice the art of chasing foxes through the Virginia countryside. His kennels served as a focal point of life at Mount Vernon. He visited his hounds morning and night, developed his own selective breeding program, and maintained detailed records of kennel activity. 2
His journals reveal the perspective of a dedicated hound man, one who rode to hunt. Entries describe the work of his pack, the course of the foxes, and the outcome of the chase. Other elements of the sport—horses, fences, fellow hunters—are ignored or, at best, given scant mention. 3
Fortunately, others recorded the boldness, energy, and focus Washington demonstrated when on the chase. Riding close behind his long-serving Huntsman, Billy Lee, Washington allowed no obstacle to impede his progress when hounds were running. While others chose cleared trails or gentle fields, Master and Huntsman made their own way through dense woods, heavy brush, or swampy terrain. Wherever hounds could go, Lee and Washington followed.
The duo must have made an impressive, if contrasting, sight: Tall, upright, elegant Washington; small, dark-skinned Lee, laying almost flat across his horse; the two of them riding hard, some days for six hours or more.
The halcyon era of Washington’s hunting activity came during the 1760s and early 1770s, before affairs of state and the spirit of rebellion called him away from his beloved Mount Vernon and his carefully bred pack of hounds. During the winter of 1768 Washington’s journal reports
When hunting fox, Washington dressed and accoutered himself for the part. He wore black boots and silver spurs, a pair of light-brown buckskin breeches, a scarlet waistcoat with gold lace and gilt buttons, a light-brown broadcloth riding coat with gilt buttons, buckskin gloves, and a black hunting cap covered with velvet and circled by a silk bank with a silver buckle.
Washington was a superb horseman, perhaps the finest of his day, and foxhunting allowed him to ride amidst the excitement and pageantry of the hunt as well as providing exercise and an outlet for his pent-up energy. GW dressed for the part. His orders from his agent in Great Britain, Robert Cary and Sons, indicate that in his attire for foxhunting, as in virtually everything he ordered, GW wanted the best and the most fashionable. The sight of a large, graceful man, splendidly attired, riding a spirited horse and following specially selected and trained hounds baying after the fox through the Virginia countryside was an impressive sight indeed.
Mr. Jorrocks, that passionate, if fictitious, follower of hounds created by Robert Surtees, described foxhunting as, “The image of war, without its guilt, and only half its danger.” 4 The British troops Washington faced, particularly the officers, were no less familiar with, and ardent about, the sport of foxhunting than was the leader of the Continental Army. The shared reference created a scenario rife with potential for metaphors.
In one early encounter (September, 1776), General Washington sent out a scouting party from the rebels’ precarious position along New York’s Harlem Heights. The scouts were confronted by British regulars and chased back toward their own fortifications. Washington and his men listened in humiliation as a bugler blew a foxhunting call to signal the Brits’ enjoyment of chasing these upstart Colonials back to their hole. 5
A few months later, Washington returned the insult to none other than Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
On January 2, 1777, Lord Cornwallis led his men toward Trenton, seeking to retake the town lost in the famous Christmas surprise attack (immortalized in the Leutze painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”). Slowed in their advance and then repulsed three times by Washington’s troops, the British camped for the night. Confident that he would flush Washington from his lair the next day, Cornwallis is said to have remarked, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” 6
But when morning came the Continental forces took the advantage and soon had the Redcoats falling back. The sound of the British bugler’s derisive horn calls four months earlier may have still rung in Washington’s ears. Or perhaps he was just recalling his many days of sport following Billy Lee when he led his troops forward into dangerous fire, calling out, “It’s a fine foxhunt, boys!” 7
As the war continued over the next several years, Washington became famous for his endurance and stoic resolve no matter the obstacles he faced. Granted, the risks were far greater than the outcome of a day of sport, for both Washington personally and the struggling new nation as a whole. But the skills honed in the hunt field proved valuable assets in armed conflict. That he cut such an impressive figure on horseback no doubt helped stir his men when despair loomed and the Cause appeared lost. A weary soldier could not help but be inspired by the sight of the General—calmly, majestically, gracefully erect—as he rode past his troops.
The General’s horses also benefited from their careers as foxhunters. To suit the Master of Mount Vernon, a horse had to be willing to go forward no matter the obstacles and fit enough to hold an aggressive pace for hours. Such traits translated well to the battlefield. Not all of Washington’s mounts came from his hunting string and some that didn’t died of exhaustion. But others, such as Nelson, one of Washington’s favorite hunters, proved equal to the task. He carried the General steadily against enemy fire and always showed a reserve of energy when needed. 8
While the British surrender ended the armed fighting, Washington’s role in crafting the new nation, and then serving as its first president, interfered with his desire to resume an active foxhunting life. His close friend Lafayette tried to help restock the Mount Vernon kennels by sending him a pack of French staghounds in 1785 (although they proved unsatisfactory for American-style foxhunting). By 1787 Washington found it necessary to break up his kennels and give away his remaining hounds.9 However, because of the careful details Washington recorded in his hunting journals, the lineage of some hounds registered with the American Kennel Club today can be traced back to those bred at Mount Vernon. 10
Beside the battlefield banter exchanged by hunter-warriors on both sides of the Revolutionary War, it’s not unreasonable to see elements of Washington’s prowess as a foxhunter in his success as a military leader. His bold riding style, physical stamina, and focused ability to see a chase through to the end, no matter the dangers, undoubtedly contributed to the successful outcome of the war. That these traits mirror his days of sport riding to hounds is likely no mere coincidence.
Whether or not Washington’s enthusiasm for foxhunting spelled the difference between victory and defeat at critical points in the conflict—and thus may have played a part in creating the United States of America as the nation exists today—can only be surmised. One conclusion does, though, stand out. McMurtry was right: A man can achieve much if he looks good on a horse.
1Chicago Sun-Times, “Fox Hunting Remains A Holiday Tradition,” 11/11/2005
2Alexander Mackay-Smith, The American Foxhound 1747-1967, (Millwood, VA, 1968), pp. 13-17.
3Mackay-Smith, p. 15.
4Robert Smith Surtees, Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities, (London, 1838).
6Military History Magazine, historynet.com
8Freedom Fields Farm, freedomfields.net
9Caroline Jones, “Fox Hunting In America,” AmericanHeritage.com
10Senator Kit Bond, “First Pets,” bond.senate.gov/services/dogs