The mechanical horse came quietly to the White House. President Calvin Coolidge had confided in an old friend that he was sad that the Secret Service made him give up riding real horses, according to news reports at the time. So the friend, a financier who had used a man-made horse for exercise, gave one to Coolidge.
The horse looked like a barrel with a neck, and it was made of wood, metal and leather. The rider used a saddle, and electricity powered the horse. You pushed a button to vary gaits, from a trot to a gallop. It was not unlike a Jazz Age exercise bike: something users kept at home and hopped on when they found time to work out. The machine stood in Coolidge’s dressing room and was pretty much a secret until 1925, when the news leaked after the White House had to call mechanics, the Boston Globe reported.
Newspaper readers soon learned that Coolidge rode three times a day — first thing in the morning, just after lunch, and when his work was finished. The electric horse was good for the liver and could help its rider lose weight, Coolidge’s doctor asserted. A friend said that the famously solemn “Silent Cal” took his riding very seriously. “I don’t think the hobby horse will make the President any more cheerful,” she told the Globe.
The White House horse was the brainchild of health — and breakfast cereal — innovator John Harvey Kellogg, who designed the model that was ridden by Coolidge and other fitness-minded folks. Kellogg used mechanical horses in his own sanitarium, according to Don Scherencel, director of the Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek, Mich. The village has a Kellogg exhibit that includes one — as well as a Kellogg-designed mechanical camel, for riders who preferred a side-to-side motion.
Nevertheless, jokes about Coolidge’s hobby horse — nicknamed “Thunderbolt” — killed. Democrats asked whether it was Coolidge’s “dark horse.” One senator said the contraption should be called “Foreign Policy,” because it had no head or tail. If a woman ever became president, the Boston Globe quipped, the mechanical horse would need a sidesaddle. Some commentators surmised that former president and horse fanatic Theodore Roosevelt, who had galloped all over Washington, would be appalled.
Coolidge’s passion even caused a scene in the House of Representatives, where Kentucky Democrat Fred Vinson read a mocking poem that he wrote about the mechanical horse. Two lines in, a Massachusetts congressman jumped up to object that his colleague was ridiculing the president, but his opposition was shouted down. Vinson read on:
“The ‘hobbyhorse.’ ’tis easily seen/Is as silent as its master/ It trots and canters in one spot/The ‘jockey’ urging it faster,” went one verse, which was reprinted in the New York Times. The poem also referred to a horse’s role in bringing about the fall of Troy: “‘Twould not be very strange, indeed/If history should repeat,’/And discovery of the White House steed/Should encompass Cal’s defeat.”
The teasing soon went international.
“Somehow or other the picture of the President of the United States being bucked and jolted and kicked by a vicious hobbyhorse of wood and steel isn’t just the proper caper,” wrote one Canadian commentator. “It will be difficult for the people of the United States to think of their President as ‘a 100 percent he-man’ when they know he takes his exercise on a hobby horse.”
Even if some considered the horses risibly effete, they weren’t unusual, especially for the upper classes. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon acknowledged having ridden one, The Washington Post reported that populist politician William Jennings Bryan owned one, and the Boston Globe said that an Illinois congressman had one, too. High-end ocean liners, including the Titanic, kept mechanical horses in their gyms.
Silent Cal’s mechanical horse now sits motionless at the Calvin Coolidge Library and Museum in Northampton, Mass.
“We now think of things like Pilates and yoga working our core, so this was really way ahead of its time for exercise like that,” said Julie Bartlett Nelson, an archivist at the library. It’s no longer operational, she added, and visitors can’t sit on it, but they do love to photograph it. “We’ve seen it tagged in all kinds of places. It’s definitely a conversation piece.”
In 1927, a couple of years after the hubbub over Coolidge’s horse, the president appeared in public in chaps. Cowboy humorist Will Rogers approved.
“If he keeps taking on all these mannish ways,” Rogers wrote in his syndicated column, “why, it looks like the old mechanical horse is liable to be up for sale.”
That prediction wasn’t far off base. Coolidge soon began to favor another kind of exercise equipment, one that the Hartford Courant described as an “electrical vibration machine claimed to reduce the waistline.” Thunderbolt was relegated to storage under a blanket.
Coolidge may have tired of it, but the idea of the mechanical horse is far from gone. Retired jockey Frankie Lovato owns a company that makes the Equicizer, a horse-shaped balancing apparatus that he designed and calls the exercise bike for equestrians. Jockeys, therapeutic riding centers and riders in rehabilitation all use Equicizers as training tools. Actor Tobey Maguire used one when he played jockey Red Pollard in the movie “Seabiscuit.”
But even now, Lovato said, people mock the whole idea.
“I still deal with that,” he said. “Outside of racing, it’s an uphill battle, because you’ll get people who totally get it, and you’ll get people that will look at it and just laugh, like: ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ ”