It doesn’t matter where you’re standing or what you’re doing—when General George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, or any interpreter in costume gallops up on horseback, chances are you’re going to pay attention! But is it because of the rider or the horse? We think… it’s a little of both.
Throughout history, horses have been symbols of wealth, power, and prestige. In 18th-century Williamsburg, they were ridden by generals and gentry but were also seen pulling wagons and farm carts up and down Duke of Gloucester Street. Horses were an intricate part of the hustle and bustle that came with living in a busy capital city. Today, whether our horses are heading to battle, pulling a carriage, or hauling materials—their presence is still a crucial part of an authentic colonial experience.
Karen Smith, supervisor of barn operations, can be spotted riding John sidesaddle—usually alongside Alexander Purdie (owner of the Virginia Gazette). She often portrays his cousin who is in town visiting for a couple of months. Karen has been around horses most of her life and has been working with our horses for 30 years. She can attest to the vital role they play in Colonial Williamsburg’s theatrical interpretations. She explained most of our riding horses actually started their CW careers as carriage horses. That means they’ve had rigorous training and can handle distractions like cap guns, screaming children, barking dogs, cannons, and the Fifes and Drums—just to name a few. For our actor-interpreters, the horses are like magnets, drawing guests closer so they can deliver their messages. The horses provide a sort of elevated stage where the drama can unfold high above the crowds and everyone nearby has a great view of all the action.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: Karen once encountered a child confined to a hospital bed on wheels. His parents actually pushed him out into the street and up to her on horseback. She was uncertain how John would respond but tells us he didn’t hesitate; almost immediately, he leaned down and rested his nose on the child’s chest so the little boy could reach up and pet him. Karen tells us John has an innate ability to recognize children with disabilities and will go out of his way to make them feel comfortable.
While the real George Washington wouldn’t have groomed his own horses, Ron Carnegie does—and with a smile to boot! Getting his horse ready is actually a requirement of our Coach and Livestock department. The goal is for each AI to become familiar with his or her horse and work to form a bond based on trust. Ron was recently paired with Thomas who has some pretty big hooves to fill. Nelson was Ron’s riding buddy for five years and he just recently retired to a farm in Northern Virginia.
Ron tells us Thomas isn’t quite the fame hog Nelson was but he’s a great horse who’s extremely responsive and well-behaved, especially in crowded settings. We witnessed it for ourselves when we met up with the two in front of the Courthouse. As soon as they came to a stop, it was amazing to watch how quickly the crowds swarmed them. It was especially impressive since I knew Ron was keeping an eye on both Thomas and the people. Despite the little bit of controlled chaos, the general didn’t miss a beat answering questions and encouraging guests to pet the horse. And never once did he break character!
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: When Rev City was brand new, it was the first day of the program and Mark Schneider introduced Ron to guests with a boisterous “Here is George Washington!” Of course the crowd broke out in cheers and applause but little did Ron know, while they were standing still, his horse Ladd had actually fallen asleep. The moment Ladd heard the clapping, he was startled awake and must have thought it was their cue to wrap because he turned around and left!
Mark Schneider is best known for his portrayal of the Marquis de Lafayette. He tells us his passions are history and horses and that’s why his job with Colonial Williamsburg doesn’t always feel like work. Mark has been with the Foundation for 18 years and actually started in the brickyard. He said it didn’t take long for someone to realize he had experience with horses and also spoke fluent French. That’s when he quickly transitioned into the role of a coachman and now works quite a bit with our riding horses. In fact, he says he’s so rarely out on foot that when he does venture out without an animal, his colleagues will joke, “What happened? Did you lose your horse?”
Mark also worked with Nelson during his time with Colonial Williamsburg but is now usually seen with either Commodore or Thomas. Although, you won’t hear him refer to Thomas that way. That’s right. According to Mark, he likes to rename his horses to add to his interpretation. That’s why he’s dubbed Thomas “Ajax”—the great warrior from Iliad’s siege of Troy. In the Bible, Thomas is known as the doubting disciple—the one who needs proof. Mark says he doesn’t want a doubting horse; he wants one that’s confident and fearless and can take orders. So far, Ajax has lived up to his new name!
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: Mark’s most memorable riding moments actually started when he served in the United States Army. As part of the Cavalry unit, he rode a lot when stationed in Germany. He says that formative training helped to prepare him for what his current job entails with Colonial Williamsburg. Combine that with his major in history and you’re bound to hear some great quotes like this one he recited to us from an 18th-century French general, “Horses have no patriotism. They’ll throw a prince just as soon as they’ll throw a pauper so you have to practice and exercise!”
And here’s proof that our horses themselves have been bitten by the acting bug. Just take look at these hilarious outtakes from our photo shoot with Commodore. He definitely wasn’t shy in front of the camera!