History, Horses & Hunt Racing

Fall is one of the most beautiful seasons at Montpelier. Since we are looking forward to the 83rd running of the Montpelier Steeple Chase on November 3rd, it seems timely to share a little more Montpelier’s equestrian history.

Early references to horses at Montpelier include the “10 horses & Mares” listed in Ambrose Madison’s (James Madison’s grandfather) 1732 estate inventory (and the “Horseshoe Nails ... for Draft Horses” ordered by James Madison Sr. from a Liverpool in 1769.

Perhaps the most fully-described Montpelier horse was James Madison Jr.’s “strayed or stolen” saddle horse, advertised in the Virginia Gazette in 1779: “a sorrel horse, about 12 years old, and upward of 14 hands high, with a hanging mane and switch tail; he is of a strong make, his hind feet are white and he has a few saddle spots.”

Horses were synonymous with country life then, and the care and breeding of riding, carriage, and draught horses were separate and well-developed worlds within the plantation.

A letter from Madison in January of 1795 mentions of his horse Tamerlane and offers some insight to the distinction between horses used for riding or for plowing: “I do not wish Tamerlane to be plowed if it can be avoided, as I must use him for the saddle on my return. If both the Mares be not with foal one of them if really wanted may be used.” On a trip to Philadelphia in November 1795, Madison preferred Tamerlane to his brother William’s horse, which “proved utterly unmanageable & unsafe to be relied on for the Journey.” Madison left his brother’s. William's horse with a bridle and saddle in Fredericksburg with James Monroe's uncle Joseph Jones, who would bring the horse back to Orange on his way to Albemarle in a week or so.

Like other planters, horse breeding was also a focus for Madison. His correspondence suggests an explanation for the sharp increase in the number of horses appearing on his tax records; he seems to have developed a particular interest in breeding horses in the early years of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1803, Madison was in correspondence with William Thornton on exchanging and breeding horses.

The Barbour Family account book shows stud fees paid by James Madison for a “season of Mare to Highflyer.” In 1805 Madison thanked Isaac Winston for procuring the mare Clio, writing “I shall put her with some others to the best horse to be found,” which Madison suggested was Thornton’s horse Cliffden. Madison continued, “I have long regretted that in rearing horses I have so long made use of inferior brood mares, particularly those not thorough-bred, to which fancy & fashion attach so much value: and shall in future endeavor to repair the error.”

There’s more to know about horses in relationship to agriculture, and our archaeology team is always unearthing new artifacts that fill out that picture, but Montpelier’s equestrian traditions are still very much tied as well (or even more so) to the property’s duPont legacy.

Dolley Madison sold Montpelier in 1844, eight years after her husband’s death, and the property changed hands five more times until William duPont purchased it in 1900.

As horses were part of the "country life" or "sporting life" associated with the British upper class (and, to some extent), with the American upper class, their presence at Montpelier grew signifantly during the duPont era. In fact, the land was nearly entirely devoted to equestrian pursuits. The family trained race horses on the flat track, hunted the land, and organized steeplechase races.

Montpelier’s steeplechase course was constructed in 1927, the flat track, designed by William, was added in 1929, which was also the year of the first jump race, billed the “Foxcatcher Hounds and Montpelier Hunt Races.”

The duPont’s owned the property through the 1980s, when ownership was transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in accordance with the wishes of Marion duPont Scott.

There are so many rich stories from this period, but more significantly, we also still have the landscape they left us largely intact. In 1934 the Montpelier Hunt Races was sanctioned by the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, which is the date we use for anniversaries of the event. Last year, we had around 18,000 people on a glorious day.

We hope you will consider visiting us one day!

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