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
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,—
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
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.