Jackie Kennedy is most famously known as being the stylish First Lady to John F. Kennedy. She became an international icon, and her work as a cultural ambassador made her very popular around the world.
But inside that public persona was a horse girl. Just like the horse girls of today, she lived, breathed, and loved horses. Her whole life was filled with them – from a child, at the White House, and beyond. They were her friends, and her saviors. In a life filled with tragedy, controversy, and the media always watched, horses were the constant in her life.
The Young Rider
Jackie grew up riding. She had the benefit of being born to a horsewoman mother, who sat her on a horse promptly at the age of one. Jackie’s mother, Janet, was a regular competitor in the Hamptons. In her early years, Jackie spent her summers following her mother around to the horse shows, watching her compete, while learning to ride her own ponies. Jackie was immediately mesmerized with horses, and would spend the show days sitting on the rails, watching the horses compete. At five years old, she competed in the leadline, a memorable event for anyone with a small child. Unfortunately her cuteness was not enough to win, though. (Must have been some stiff leadline competition that day.)
Despite a disappointing start to her show career, she didn’t let it bother her. Her mother was her trainer, and was noted to be very stern with Jackie’s instruction. Riding together, they took 4th place in the family class.
But away from the barn, things weren’t as great. Jackie’s mother and father were having difficulties in their marriage, and eventually became legally separated. Jackie took it hard, and turned to her horses to cope.
She continued to show in the Hamptons, winning her first blue ribbon and a silver cup in an under-9 years old class. As she grew, she moved up from her pinto pony to a chestnut mare named Danseuse, showing her on the Long Island Circuit.
Her father used access to the horses to control the family. He took away his wife’s horses, but continued to allow Jackie to ride, even allowing her to travel from the city after the summer season to compete.
Year after year, Jackie continued to show up to every horse event she could. Although she wasn’t quite experienced enough for the big shows, she still attended as a spectator, with one newspaper describing her as “Long Island’s youngest horse show fan.”
Outside of showing, Jackie did the usual kid with a pony type things. Her childhood friend described how they would just ride for fun, including bareback, no bridle, and jumping without hands. On the eve of her parent’s divorce, Jackie was even taken to a ranch in Reno, where she got to try western riding for six weeks.
In 1941, Jackie rode in the prestigious ASPCA Horsemanship Championship, now known as the ASPCA Maclay. Apparently, Jackie didn’t even make it to the top 40, with William Steinkraus, the eventual winner, noting that he didn’t even remember seeing her there.
Her mother eventually remarried, and the newlyweds had a horse farm in McLean, Virginia just outside of Washington, DC. Jackie spent two years there, riding year round.
In 1944, Jackie was enrolled at the all girl’s boarding school, Miss Porter’s School. After begging her beloved grandpa, he agreed to send her horse to school with her. Jackie and Danseuse spent all their free time together, until Danseuse died at age 20.
At this point, Jackie was at debutante age, ready to begin life as an adult. She spent her college years at Vassar still riding, foxhunting in New York. Fellow students noted that she mostly talked about her horses. She finished her last year of college at George Washington University, so she could be near her horses at her mother’s farm near DC.
After graduating college, she was offered, but turned down, an internship with Vogue. Instead, she explored Europe for a bit before getting a job at a DC newspaper as the “Inquiring Photographer.” The position allowed her to interview people such as Richard Nixon, and kept her close to hunt country. She attended the Middleburg Hunter Trials, and on one occasion was out with the Piedmont Hunt when her horse stepped in a hole and she took a serious fall. She was knocked unconscious, but she seemed not to gain any fear or aversion towards horses, and continued riding as before.
It was around this time that she met John F. Kennedy. They were soon a couple, and despite his obvious flaw (he was allergic to horses) they were married in 1953. In 1960, Kennedy was elected President.
The Kennedy’s wanted a retreat away from the White House, and they found Glen Ora. They leased the property for a few years, and for Jackie, it became a sanctuary. Although she still took her role seriously, she didn’t seem to enjoy the expectations of being First Lady, and would frequently avoid meetings. It became well known that she wasn’t interested in politics. Her husband was already well known for his extramarital activities. Jackie turned a blind eye to it, spending more time with her horses and now children, eventually spending full “weekends” at Glen Ora – Thursday to Tuesday.
She spent most of her days riding. She did some shows, but she mostly enjoyed going out with the various fox hunts in the area. She just wanted to be with her horses, and when she was with the hunt, she was just another rider in the field. It was a joke in the group – “What’s Jackie’s husband do?” “Oh, he’s in politics or something.” She didn’t bring that life out to her horses.
But while Jackie might have kept out of horses, the White House was all too aware of her horse activities. It made them uncomfortable. Horses were considered an elite sport, and they were afraid it wouldn’t look good to the everyday American. After all, there was always the next election to think about.
But even so, Jackie spent most of her time out with the horses. On the day that Marilyn Monroe famously whisper/sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK, Jackie was riding at a horse show.
Ponies at the White House
Being a horsewoman, raised by a horsewoman, it only made sense that Jackie would introduce horses to her children.
The first pony was Macaroni. Jackie was seeking a push button, completely safe, baby sitter of a horse, for her daughter, Caroline. He was a fat little teddy bear of a pony, and he was a perfect pony for a little girl. Carolina took Macaroni to shows, and Jackie was thrilled to be a pony club mom.
Macaroni didn’t just spend his time at Glen Ora, though. Macaroni traveled back and forth from the White House. A potting shed was converted into a barn for him, and chicken wire had to be installed on the fencing to prevent tourists from feeding him treats.
The next pony was a gift from Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a yearling Galiceno horse named Tex, probably not the most appropriate aged horse for children. But Johnson wrote to Jackie, telling her, “Finally, with time, patience and continual work, the pony will be ready for the children.”
Next came a Connemara pony, a gift from Ireland’s President Eamon De Valera. Ireland had originally offered to send 2 ponies over, but the offer was refused, as they couldn’t accept the ponies without an official visit. But, the Kennedy’s did soon visit, and received one (1) Connemara pony, fresh from Ireland. Unclear why the gift was downgraded, but the pony was still well loved by the White House children.
Sardar, a Gift From Pakistan
In 1962, Jackie took a trip to Pakistan. She toured the country, went for a ride with President Mohammad Ayub Kahn, and watched Pakistan’s annual horse and cattle show in Lahore. Following the show, the President gave Jackie a horse, the horse she had ridden earlier. Jackie accepted.
But this was a controversial move. Far from just being a simple gift, accepting Sardar would violate the Foreign Gifts Act, which limited the value of gifts that federal employees could accept to under $10,000. Jackie pleaded with the White House, and eventually, they relented and allowed her to take the horse, under the condition that Sardar’s travel and upkeep expenses would be paid for the family. Jackie even convinced John to allow Sardar to skip the 30 day quarantine upon arrival to the United States. Instead, Sardar got blasted with disinfectant, which naturally, he was very unhappy with.
Sardar was a 10 year old, bay gelding. Jackie fell in love with him, and called him her “favorite treasure,” in her personal memoirs.
He became her main riding horse and she was photographed on him quite a bit.
Eventually, the Pakistani president came to visit Jackie at Glen Ora, where they rode together.
Sardar presumably lived out his entire life with Jackie, moving with her after they vacated Glen Ora.
Finally, a point of contention that I have: After JFK’s assassination, there was a funeral procession which contained a horse. Contrary to many random internet sources, this horse was not Sardar, but a completely different horse named Black Jack. To be completely clear, Black Jack and Sardar were two completely different horses. Black Jack was an army horse with his own story, and remained with the military after his famous walk. It’s confusing to me why I still see this everywhere, as you can clearly see in photos that they are two completely different horses. However, this seems to be a frequent mistake everywhere – but now you know the truth.
Horses After the White House
The lease at Glen Ora was running out, but Jackie still wanted to live in Virginia hunt country. They found a new estate and built a new house and stable. Compared to other properties that the Kennedy’s had lived in, the new house was relatively humble, a ranch style. They called it Wexford.
Unfortunately they were only able to enjoy it for three weekends together before JFK was assassinated. Although Jackie continued to live there for a short time, there was too much sadness there to continue on. She moved to New York City in 1964.
She begin riding regularly at Claremont, the famous riding stable in New York City. She took riding trips, traveling to Ireland and Spain. She eventually settled her horses in New Jersey, on a small farm an hour’s drive from her home in the city.
She continued fox hunting, and reportedly acted like just another normal rider out on the hunt. She was kind and respectful, staying humble to the love of horses. She continued riding with her children, entering the family classes with them, just as her mother had done with her.
She eventually married her longtime friend Aristotle Onassis. There were many who were very unhappy with her about this decision, but she continued on with her horses. Aristotle, brought horses to her in Greece, but she still preferred to ride from her farm in New Jersey.
Eventually, tragedy struck again, and her second husband died. After that, she spent all of her free time with horses. She continued to fox hunt, and took lessons out in the field, seeking to perfect her form. One of her trainers even corrected the “chair seat” she’d been riding in most of her life. In photos, you can see there’s a noticeable shift in her seat.
The media followed her her whole life, reporting on what she was doing. She hated being photographed – except when she was riding. She loved photos of her riding. Just like many other horse girls, she’d examine her own photos and figure out how she could become an even more effective rider.
She begin splitting her time between New Jersey and Middleburg, continuing to ride with her old Middleburg friends, and show in the local events. Her friends said she never spoke of the Kennedy’s or of Onassis, as she didn’t like to dwell in the past. She was said to be down to earth, humble and kind. She just wanted to be out in the countryside, riding her horses.
The Lifelong Horse Girl
Jackie Kennedy was bitten by the horse bug early, and it stayed with her her whole life.. Although she had a life filled with tragedy, the horses remained constant in her life. They were important to her, and she kept them as a high priority. Like riders today, she kept on riding, sought opportunities to improve, went to shows, and just continued to fill as much of her life as possible with horses. She was a true horsewoman.
Hopefully, all of us horse girls will be able to keep horses with us our whole lives, too.