Washington was from boyhood passionately fond of horsemanship, and when but seventeen owned a horse. Humphreys states that "all those who have seen General Washington on horseback, at the head of his army, will doubtless bear testimony with the author that they never saw a more graceful or dignified person," and Jefferson said of him that he was "the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback." His diary shows that he rode on various occasions as much as sixty miles in a day, and Lawrence reports that he "usually rode from Rockingham to Princeton, which is five miles, in forty minutes." John Hunter, in a visit to Mount Vernon in 1785, writes that he went
"to see his famous race-horse Magnolia—a most beautiful creature. A whole length of his was taken a while ago, (mounted on Magnolia) by a famous man from Europe on copper.... I afterwards went to 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. Shaw also shewed me his old servant, that was reported to have been taken, with a number of the General's papers about him. They have heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. Blueskin was not the favorite, on account of his not standing fire so well as venerable old Nelson."
Chastellux relates, "he was so attentive as to give me the horse he rode, the day of my arrival, which I had greatly commended—I found him as good as he is handsome; but above all, perfectly well broke, and well trained, having a good mouth, easy in hand and stopping short in a gallop without bearing the bit—I mention these minute particulars, because it is the general himself who breaks all his own horses; and he is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild."
As a matter of course this liking for horses made Washington fond of racing, and he not only subscribed liberally to most of the racing purses, but ran horses at them, attending in person, and betting moderately on the results. So, too, he was fond of riding to the hounds, and when at Mount Vernon it was a favorite pastime. From his diary excerpts of runs are,—
"Went a Fox hunting with the Gentlemen who came here yesterday.... after a very early breakfast—found a Fox just back of Muddy hole Plantation and after a Chase of an hour and a quarter with my Dogs, & eight couple of Doctor Smiths (brought by Mr. Phil Alexander) we put him into a hollow tree, in which we fastened him, and in the Pincushion put up another Fox which, in an hour & 13 Minutes was killed—We then after allowing the Fox in the hole half an hour put the Dogs upon his trail & in half a Mile he took to another hollow tree and was again put out of it but he did not go 600 yards before he had recourse to the same shift—finding therefore that he was a conquered Fox we took the Dogs off, and came home to Dinner."
"After an early breakfast [my nephew] George Washington, Mr. Shaw and Myself went into the Woods back of Muddy hole Plantation a hunting and were joined by Mr. Lund Washington and Mr. William Peake. About half after ten Oclock (being first plagued with the Dogs running Hogs) we found a fox near Colo Masons Plantation on little Hunting Creek (West fork) having followed on his Drag more than half a Mile; and run him with Eight Dogs (the other 4 getting, as was supposed after a Second Fox) close and well for an hour. When the Dogs came to a fault and to cold Hunting until 20 minutes after when being joined by the missing Dogs they put him up afresh and in about 50 Minutes killed up in an open field of Colo Mason's every Rider & every Dog being present at the Death."
During the Revolution, when opportunity offered, he rode to the hounds, for Hiltzheimer wrote in 1781, "My son Robert [having] been on a Hunt at Frankfort says that His Excel'y Gen. Washington was there."
This liking made dogs an interest to him, and he took much pains to improve the breed of his hounds. On one occasion he "anointed all my Hounds (as well old Dogs as Puppies) which have the mange, with Hogs Lard & Brimstone." Mopsey, Pilot, Tartar, Jupiter, Trueman, Tipler, Truelove, Juno, Dutchess, Ragman, Countess, Lady, Searcher, Rover, Sweetlips, Vulcan, Singer, Music, Tiyal, and Forrester are some of the names he gave them. In 1794, in the fall of his horse, as already mentioned, he wrenched his back, and in consequence, when he returned to Mount Vernon, this pastime was never resumed, and his pack was given up.
Kindred to this taste for riding to the hounds was one for gunning. A few entries in his diary tell the nature of his sport. "Went a ducking between breakfast and dinner and kill'd 2 Mallards & 5 bald faces." "I went to the Creek but not across it. Kill'd 2 ducks, viz. a sprig tail and a Teal." "Rid out with my gun but kill'd nothing." In 1787 a man asked for permission to shoot over Mount Vernon, and Washington refused it because
"my fixed determination is, that no person whatever shall hunt upon my grounds or waters—To grant leave to one and refuse another would not only be drawing a line of discrimination which would be offensive, but would subject one to great inconvenience—for my strict and positive orders to all my people are if they hear a gun fired upon my Land to go immediately in pursuit of it.... Besides, as I have not lost my relish for this sport when I find time to indulge myself in it, and Gentlemen who come to the House are pleased with it, it is my wish not to have game within my jurisdiction disturbed."
Fishing was another pastime. He "went a dragging for Sturgeon" frequently, and sometimes "catch'd one" and sometimes "catch'd none." While in Philadelphia in 1787 he went up to the old camp at Valley Forge and spent a day fishing, and in 1789 at Portsmouth, "having lines, we proceeded to the Fishing Banks a little without the Harbour and fished for Cod; but it not being a proper time of tide, we only caught two." After his serious sickness in 1790 a newspaper reports that "yesterday afternoon the President of the United States returned from Sandy Hook and the fishing banks, where he had been for the benefit of the sea air, and to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of fishing. We are told he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a great number of sea-bass and black fish—the weather proved remarkably fine, which, together with the salubrity of the air and wholesome exercise, rendered this little voyage extremely agreeable, and cannot fail, we hope, of being serviceable to a speedy and complete restoration of his health."
Washington was fond of cards, and in bad weather even records "at home all day, over cards." How much time must have been spent in this way is shown by the innumerable purchases of "1 dozen packs playing cards" noted in his ledger. In 1748, when he was sixteen years old, he won two shillings and threepence from his sister-in-law at whist and five shillings at "Loo" (or, as he sometimes spells it, "Lue") from his brother, and he seems always to have played for small stakes, which sometimes mounted into fairly sizable sums. The largest gain found is three pounds, and the largest loss nine pounds fourteen shillings and ninepence. He seems to have lost oftener than he won.
Billiards was a rival of cards, and a game of which he seems to have been fond. In his seventeenth year he won one shilling and threepence by the cue, and from that time won and lost more or less money in this way. Here, too, he seems to have been out of pocket, though not for so much money, his largest winning noted being only seven shillings and sixpence, and his largest loss being one pound and ten shillings.