Don’t Spare The Horses

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In little more than seven weeks the Rough Rider would be leaving the White House. Nine months prior to his fifty-first birthday a still contagiously energetic Theodore Roosevelt was ready to demonstrate that his recent order setting physical standards for military promotion was not unreasonable. He believed that it was not too demanding to require Army and Navy officers either to walk fifty miles or to ride a hundred miles in three consecutive days.

So strong and so widespread had been the protests that the prescribed ride was a hardship upon the officers that the President was determined to find out for himself. Almost no one knew of the President’s plan other than the White House physician, Admiral Presley M. Rixey, a Virginian who was Surgeon General of the Navy. Dr. Rixey did all he could to dissuade the President from what he feared would involve unnecessary risks. But even an appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was useless, for she knew it would not do any good whatever for her to intervene.

There had been several good days of the best of winter weather when the President decided that on the next day, Wednesday, January 13, 1909, he, Admiral Rixey, and two younger White House aides, Army Captain Archibald “Archie” Butt of Georgia, and another Navy physician, Gary T. Grayson of Virginia, would ride to Warrenton, Virginia, and back in the course of the day—a distance estimated at more than ninety miles. Despite the weather bulletins predicting a blizzard for the next day the President left word that he be called at 2:30 A.M.

In the morning, after the President breakfasted on a considerable amount of rare steak and coffee, Admiral Rixey and the other members of the party arrived, and all underwent the brief physical examination that was part of the prescribed order for the riding test. Mr. Roosevelt submitted to it in good humor as the Admiral examined his heart and thumped him here and there. It was 3:40 A.M. when the four riders mounted their horses and, without delay, rode out of the White House gates. The ground was frozen hard, and there was a cutting cold wind blowing, but there was no sign of a blizzard in the sky. They started down Pennsylvania Avenue at a trot, the President on his horse Roswell, and after ten brisk minutes they crossed the bridge over the Potomac to Virginia.

The riding party skirted Fort Myer and made good time for the next six miles to Falls Church, but from there to Fairfax the roads were cut up and frozen with deep furrows that had not thawed in some time. After two and a half hours of hard riding from the White House they reached Fairfax, some twenty miles away, at 6:10 A.M. and in another ten minutes rode into Fairfax Court House, where a first change of horses was awaiting them.

The President had expected to see his favorite bay mare, Georgia, among the four waiting horses, which were attended by a trooper from the cavalry post at Fort Myer. Through some mix-up, however, the troopers, not knowing Mr. Roosevelt was in the party, had left Georgia behind. But the President showed no sign of anger and merely commented: “I am keenly disappointed, for I wanted Georgia to be in on this ride as a matter of sentiment if for nothing else.” Actually he wanted no special favors and was determined that this ride be a test under just the conditions the average officer would be required to undergo. It was much harder, in fact, for the regular test rides were held only in the spring and fall and never in extreme heat or cold—and often with far better horses. The President had refused to let Captain Butt tell the commanding officer at Fort Myer why the horses were wanted and to what use they were going to be put. Since some of the horses were being sent to Admiral Rixey’s nearby farm, it was believed that they were probably intended for a party of naval officers, and so naturally the Army had furnished less than their best animals.

The change to the new relay of horses took about ten minutes, and, starting at a good trot, the riders headed toward Centreville. Each rider probably had the same thought—that his new mount was about as disagreeable as could be turned out from a cavalry post. After forty-five minutes of riding they reached Centreville, halfway to Warrenton, and then, two miles farther on, came to a farmhouse near Cub Run, where another change of horses was awaiting them. Unfortunately, this change was not for the better. The President’s horse seemed even rougher and slower, and the one Captain Butt was riding showed a streak of viciousness toward the others. As a result there was not much conversation, but, as they passed the Bull Run battlefield, Mr. Roosevelt kidded Admiral Rixey and Dr. Grayson about the miserable state of their native Virginia roads. He also wondered what the spirits of the Federal troops would say if they saw him riding over Bull Run with “three rebels,” as he called his three southern companions.