Don’t Spare The Horses

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From Fairfax the pitch darkness would have made for difficult riding in better weather, but with the sleet frozen on his glasses the President could see virtually nothing. He simply trusted Roswell to follow Captain Butt on the latter’s faithful Larry. From Fairfax to Falls Church they had to walk practically the whole way. Once when they attempted to trot, the President’s horse went into a ditch but luckily recovered without injury to himself or to his rider. Dr. Grayson, who had been following behind the President, tried to lead the President’s horse whenever he could, but he was having difficulties of his own, as his smooth-shod horse was slipping every few steps. The President warned him repeatedly to take no additional risks.

After Falls Church the roads were somewhat better, and although the sleet continued, the worst of the storm seemed to have passed. They were encouraged when they saw the reflected lights of Washington nine miles away. By now enough snow had fallen along with the sleet so that despite the difficulty caused by his glasses the President decided to try to make better time by trotting whenever possible. The footing proved far superior to what the horses had just been through, and they continued at a trot almost all the way to the Aqueduct Bridge over the Potomac. As the riders turned into the lighted approach to the bridge they could see a carriage from the White House waiting. Captain Butt had taken the precaution to send a telephone message from Fairfax to the White House to have them met because he did not believe it would be safe to ride across the bridge and then traverse the frozen streets to the White House. But the President brushed aside any thought of abandoning their horses short of the official terminus of the ride: “By George, we will make it to the White House with our horses if we have to lead them.”

With the President in the forefront the riders crossed the bridge. The streets of Washington were “as slick as glass,” and grass, shrubbery, and tree limbs glistened with clinging ice particles. The riders, followed by two mounted policemen and the empty carriage, made their way gingerly over ice-coated Pennsylvania Avenue. As they entered the grounds of the White House the four riders broke into a gallop. Mrs. Roosevelt was watching from a window. By the time they dismounted it was 8:40 P.M. , and she was at the White House door to welcome them. All four were matted with snow and sleet, and the President was an especially striking figure in his broadbrim hat, black boots, and riding jacket with fur collar, all fringed with ice. He admitted he was a little tired from being so much in the saddle and said he was sorry to be late for dinner. There was a brief physical examination, just as required of the military officers, and all were pronounced sound of wind and limb. Mrs. Roosevelt then gave each of them a julep, their first drop of liquor during the entire seventeen-hour ride. The President observed: “What has surprised me more than anything on this ride is the fact that no one has said a cross word, that we have had a good time, and that we returned laughing. … if we had not met this sleet storm, it would have been like taking candy from a child.”

At his customary hour the next morning the President went to his office. Despite the ride the day before, which he now learned had been 104 miles, there was no sign that he had done anything unusual by way of physical exercise. The landscape for miles around Washington was covered with brittle ice particles that had fallen the previous afternoon and continued into the night. A newspaper headline proclaimed SLIPPERY DAY IN TOWN / SLEET STORM MAKES SKATING RINK OF CITY STREETS / MANY ARE HURT BY FALLS and went on to say that “old citizens described the conditions as the nastiest spell of weather Washington has been inflicted with for many years.”

When queried by newsmen, the President said that the object of his long day in the saddle was “to prove to critics, who have found fault with the recent order requiring all army and navy officers to take a physical test, that if a President who is not in training, can ride 100 miles plus in one day without being laid up in bed thereby, it should not be too much to ask of men who are supposed to be in the best of physical training all the time to ride 100 miles in three days.” The order would stand, and he expected that President Taft, when he came into office, would want to continue it. And, indeed, the policy was continued until World War I.