Caesar Rodney statue downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Holly Covey

Caesar Rodney statue downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Holly Covey

The reason we celebrate the birth of our nation is simple: we are celebrating freedom, and the birth of democracy. This notion did not come without great cost. The founding fathers traveled long miles over rough, impassable roads and paths to meet in a stifling hot house in Philadelphia to draft the new nation’s constitution and sow the seeds of revolution.

They “pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor”, literally knowing of one of the many British spies and dime-droppers around them turned them in, they would be hanged. They still left their families knowing they would never see them again. These were courageous, bold, smart men.

Horses were the major mode of transportation, other than walking, for most colonial area people. It is safe to say that horses were an instrumental part of not only the common way of life in 1776, but also during the revolutionary war and the formation of the new nation of the “United States”. So much of how our nation was formed was absolutely born in blood, sweat, tears and courage; it is nice to know horses played a part.

Patriot Caesar Rodney made an extraordinary ride in heavy thunderstorms through the night, by horseback from Dover, Delaware to an unknown spot somewhere near current day New Castle, Delaware, where he dismounted and took a carriage on to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote to ratify the Constitution. That vote changed the world and sealed the death warrants for all the founding fathers who signed the document. His horsemanship and resolve was without question and he continues to be honored to this day for his achievement. At the time he was suffering from cancer.

George Washington was also an incredibly important Revolutionary War figure. From the noted historian, David McCullogh: “He carried himself like a soldier and sat a horse like the perfect Virginia gentleman. Among the Virginia gentry who had taken up fox hunting with an exuberance no less than to be found on the country estates of England, Washington stood out. Thomas Jefferson considered him ‘the best horseman of his age.’ That Washington was known to hunt up to seven hours straight, riding as close to the hounds as possible, “leaping fences, and going extremely quick,” and always to the end, to be in on the kill, was considered not only a measure of his love of the chase and his exceptional physical stamina, but also of his uncommon, unrelenting determination.”

One of the soldiers under his command wrote about the Revolutionary war experience and called Washington, “His Excellency” in his writing. Here’s an excerpt from an account of the midnight crossing of the Delaware River, to the pivotal Battle of Trenton in a horrendous icy nor’easter storm: “I heard his Excellency as he was coming on speaking to and encouraging the soldiers. The words he spoke as he passed by where I stood and in my hearing were these: ‘Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!’ Spoke in a deep and solemn voice. While passing a slanting, slippery bank his Excellency’s horse’s hind feet both slipped from under him, and he seized his horse’s mane and the horse recovered.”

Doesn’t that sound like having your horse jump a deep bank out foxhunting?

Both Washington and Jefferson were from Virginia, a state steeped in horsemanship history. At Colonial Williamsburg, a colonial era historical site and tourist destination, they show what life is like with horsepower during the period. On their website is a lot of information about how things worked back then. From the website: “Jim Kladder, who oversees saddle and harness making in Colonial Williamsburg’s Taliaferro-Cole Shop, said, ‘Horses were not as common as people think. They were expensive. Originally, owners had to import them, as they weren’t native to this part of the world. The more horses you owned, the more the costs went up. Some Virginia planters had as many as six horses. Owners kept horses for various reasons, like riding, racing, and breeding.’

The common type of horse was actually a light draft style, a horse that could plow, pull a carriage, and be ridden. It was only landed gentlemen who could afford both riding horses, carriage horses and draft horses. The reason: forage. Hay and grain (mostly oats and corn) were expensive to grow, harvest, and store; they took up land needed for cash crops like tobacco. The more horses you had, the more feed you needed. Horses were a carefully guarded commodity; it is safe to say that horsemanship and stable management were critical skills that everyone had to some degree back in the Colonial era. Lame horses were expensive because they continued to need feed while they healed!

Thomas Jefferson kept detailed records of the horse purchases he made at his estate, Monticello. They were all named, the carriage pair he called “Remus and Romulus”. He owned a stallion as well to breed, probably a horse that was likely a Thoroughbred, “Silvertail”. Thomas Jefferson and horses: he firmly believed that physical exercise ensured not only bodily health, but mental health as well. Walking was his preferred activity, although as he aged he lamented that “a single mile is too much for me,” and turned more to horseback riding as his daily exercise. (From the Thomas Jefferson website,) These entries are from journals and letters he wrote:

1786 Aug. 27. “If the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong. The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is best. A horse gives but a kind of half exercise, and a carriage is no better than a cradle.”

1811 Jan. 16. “From breakfast, or noon at latest, to dinner, I am mostly on horseback, attending to my farm or other concerns, which I find healthful to my body, mind and affairs.”

Horses were such precious commodities, as many were imported from England, they were carefully guarded. Horse stealing was a capital crime (if caught,  you were usually hanged or shot) but this punishment was reduced to 1-3 years hard labor.  After the Revolution,  laws began to be changed by the founding fathers state by state from the old British common laws which reflected the tyranny and cruelty of the British overseers.

It’s kind of funny that loose and stray horses were sort of a problem. Horses broke down fences and got out, and were found in pastures or eating on the side of the road. Because they animals were so valuable, owners needed them back to work or for transportation, and the finders really didn’t want to keep them because feed was expensive and too precious to give to someone else’s horse. Most of the time they made every effort to return found animals as soon as possible and the penalties were severe enough for horse thieves that no one wanted to keep a found animal very long and be accused of thieving. It was a problem in many regions, so the only thing they could do was advertise in the broadsides or newsletters published and passed from hand to hand. The advertisements are full of lost and found ads for horses and livestock that strayed.

 Here’s an example of such an ad:

“Strayed or stolen, a dark red MARE, about 8 Years old, middling sized, has a white Spot or two on her Shoulders, a ring Bone on each hind Foot, paces and trots. — Whoever will take up said Mare, and bring her to Lieut. Nathaniel Nichols, in Capt. Job Cushing’s Company, in General Heath’s Regiment, at Fort No. 2, in Cambridge, shall be handsomely rewarded, and all necessary Charges paid.” (Published in the New England Chronicle or Essex Gazette, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sept. 14, 1775, taken from the book “Voices of Revolutionary America: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life,” Edited by Carol Sue Humphrey available as an ebook)

Horses actually encouraged democracy: laws and ordinances concerning stray animals were some of the first collective laws and regulations each village and town developed, as the nation was built and started, mainly because of the damage loose livestock could do to land and the expense of keeping someone else’s horse.

Happy Birthday USA! photo by Cindy Lawler

Happy Birthday USA! photo by Cindy Lawler

During the Revolutionary War, Washington could not use cavalry regiments (soldiers mounted on horses) due to the cost of keeping the horses. They knew, even back then, that you can’t have a horse if you can’t pay for it. Most of his army was on foot and he could barely keep them clothed, fed, and free of sickness and disease.

Historians know that however useful cavalry units would be to the Revolutionary Army, they were also expensive. In 1776, on July 11, just after the tide-turning Trenton battle win, Connecticut governor sent 400 to 500 light cavalry soldiers to Washington’s headquarters to report for duty.

Washington “greeted them with mixed emotions.” He already had a critical problem securing forage for his draft and artillery animals. (The winter of 1775-1776 was a brutal one on the east coast.) He recommended the troop send its animals back to Connecticut, and serve as foot soldiers; the troop offered to pay for its own horse’s feed, which he accepted. But he had further problems — they considered themselves “elite” and wouldn’t do normal soldier duties, like stand picket or guard. Washington was trying to fortify New York harbor, and needed every soldier he could muster to hold the tentative land gains he had made that winter. A moral problem arose; and Washington wrote this letter to resolve it:

“To: Colonel Seymour and Other Field Officers of the Connecticut Light Horse.

New York, 16th July, 1776


In answer to yours of this date, I can only report to you what I said last night & by that is, that if your men think themselves exempt from the common duties of a soldier, will not mount guard do garrison duty or the service separate from their horses they can be no longer of use here where horses can’t be brought to action & I do not care how soon they are dismissed.

I am gentlemen,

Your Most Humble Serv’

G’ Washington

So it is also kind of funny that typical barn drama existed back then, too!

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