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George Washington’s Horse

The Kellogg Foundation has given Mount Vernon a horse much like Washington's favorite mount. "Magnolia" joins a host of heritage breeds that occupy the barns and pastures of the historic Virginia plantation.

In 1788 George Washington traded his prize Arabian, Magnolia, to Light Horse Harry Lee for 5,000 acres of land in the Kentucky territory. Some 200 years later, Magnolia has, in a sense, returned to gallop across the fields of the Mount Vernon Plantation. He's no ghost, but rather the proverbial gift horse. Thanks to the Kellogg Foundation, a near likeness to Washington's favorite plantation horse is delighting visitors to America's favorite house. The chestnut Arabian stands 15 hands high, slightly smaller than the original.

"He's a real crowd- pleaser," says livestock handler Dahl Drenning, one of seven staff members who care for the array of heritage breeds at Mount Vernon. Dahl, attired in eighteenth-century garb, frequently rides Magnolia around the plantation, tipping his hat to visitors strolling the grounds.

Magnolia at Mount Vernon. © Sharon Cavileer

To give visitors a better understanding of Colonial and Revolutionary history, Mount Vernon has recently expanded its facilities to include a complete pioneer farm site, an operating gristmill, and a threshing barn. The farm site includes four acres near the Potomac River, an area so swampy that Washington himself referred to it as the "hell hole". Here visitors can taste a hoe cake, construct a split rail fence, hoe a field, or witness horses threshing wheat in a unique 16 -sided barn designed by Washington himself. The daily rhythms of agriculture reveal the life of the slaves and staff who worked Washington's farmland. The picture is further authenticated by the presence of animals like those Washington owned -- Hog Island sheep, mules, donkeys, milking Devon cattle, oxen, Ossabaw Island hogs, black turkeys and Dominique chickens.

Washington was known as one of the finest horsemen of his time and had an abiding affection for horses. When he died, he had 21 horses at Mount Vernon. He was an active participant in all facets of horsemanship from breeding to racing, dressage and hunting, and a savvy horse trader. A sturdy man who was comfortable in the saddle, Washington once rode his Chincoteague pony, "Chinky," 147 miles from Mount Vernon to Williamsburg in a single day.

Heritage breeds of draft horses are used for plowing at Mount Vernon. © Sharon Cavileer
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So few breeds were known to the colonists that the horses were often simply described by their function, gender, color and size. A typical entry in Washington's records read: plow horse mare, age 9, brown. However, he does mention several specific breeds: Narragansett, Andalusian, Chincoteague ponies and Arabians. Draft breeds were generally not thought to have been present in the Colonies before l800, but Washington mentions owning draft horses in his diaries.

Although he was deeply pragmatic, Washington kept his war-horses Nelson and Blueskin in comfort at Mount Vernon. They were described by Robert Hunter, Jr., in his Early Descriptions Notebook, vol., 1, in 1785: "I afterwards went into his stables where among an amazing number of horses I saw old Nelson, now 22 years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war. Blueskin, another fine old horse next to him, now and then had that honor. . . They have heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. The General makes no manner of use of them now. He keeps them in a nice stable where they feed away at their ease for their past services."

Washington purchased two Arabians -- Leonides and Magnolia -- from the estate of his step-son, John Parke Custis, after the British surrender at Yorktown. The Arabians had bloodlines from the famed Godolphin Arabians, one of the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breeds through Selima, the famous American mare. Washington paid dearly for them -- 300 pounds for Leonides and 500 pounds for Magnolia.

Magnolia's sire was a horse named Ranger who had come from the North African coast. Ranger was severely injured but was put in a sling and nursed back to health. Owned by a Captain Lindsey of Maryland, the horse brought a pure North African Arabian bloodline to enrich the American breeds.

Magnolia was known as one of the most beautiful horses in the colonies, "a chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, 16 hands tall, and thought by all who saw him to be perfect," according to the Virginia Journal. Washington tried racing Magnolia without much success, then put him to work as a stud.

Jean Le Mayer wrote: "I am at a loss for words to express my gratitude for the new offer of the services of your horse Magnolia. I think him an elegant horse and would prefer my mares going to him rather than any one I have seen in America."

Pigs reside in the pioneer farm at Mount Vernon. © Sharon Cavileer

Praise aside, Washington's breeding operation obviously encountered the same problems that modern breeders do, as evidenced by instructions to his farm manager to collect boarding and stud fees in advance.

A savvy politician who believed that America's future lay in the land -- in becoming the breadbasket to the world ? Washington experimented with crop rotation and harvesting techniques.

He also believed that mules, hardier than horses and cheaper to keep, would be the key to more profitable farming. The King of Spain provided Washington with a stud donkey called "Royal Gift. " The Marquis de La Fayette shipped "The Knight of Malta," another stud donkey. Washington bred his best mares to these jacks and sent them on a tour of the South to start a selective breeding program. The experiment worked. Mules were soon working the land across the continent and served the Armed Forces until the Korean War. For his efforts, Washington is sometimes called the "Father of the American Mule."

The mule program was such a success that it took Washington's full attention, and he had little need for his stallions. In a letter to Light Horse Harry Lee, Washington wrote: "I am willing to confirm the bargain because it is my intention to breed mules only. . . and I wish to avoid the expense of keeping Magnolia. He is in high health, spirits and flesh and can be delivered in good order." Lee was happy to acquire the stallion.

Ironically, the modern day Magnolia has become the boon companion of a donkey much like Royal Gift.

"Magnolia is on exhibit on an irregular basis," explains Dahl. "He appears under saddle and in hand. The horse has adjusted very well, considering he came from a show background, and has probably never been in any circumstances resembling a farm such as this."

The same cannot be said for Dahl Drenning. He's a seventh generation Maryland farmer. After retiring from teaching, he joined the staff of the Mount Vernon livestock department and combined his dual loves: education and animals.

Magnolia has also had to adjust to a new name. His certificate of registration with the Arabian Horse Registry lists him as Tu Remember, sired by Baske-Tue; his owner California State Polytechnic.

The presence of the magnificent Arabian at Mount Vernon would have pleased Mr. Washington. And Magnolia certainly pleases the visitors.

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens is located in Fairfax County, Virginia, about 15 miles south of Washington, DC. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (with extended hours during the warm weather months). The admission price includes tours of the house, grounds and farm. Admission to the gristmill is additional. Phone 703-780-2000, www.mountvernon.org.

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