Folk wisdom has it that equestrian statues contain a code whereby the rider’s fate can be determined by noting how many hooves the horse has raised. The most common theory has it that if one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded in battle (possibly dying of those wounds later but not necessarily so); two raised hooves, death in battle; all four hooves on the ground, the rider survived all battles unharmed.
However, even the most cursory look at the statues around other sites, such as Washington, D.C., quickly disproves that the hoof code holds sway in general.
Washington is home to more equestrian statues than any other city in the nation, and it’s significant that perhaps only 10 out of 30 or more follow the convention. Here’s a quick look-see at various equestrian statues in Washington and how they fit or don’t fit this theory. First, some statues that follow the “rule”:
- FRANCIS ASBURY: 16th and Mount Pleasant NW (1924). All hooves on ground; died in peace.
- FIELD MARSHAL SIR JOHN DILL: Arlington National Cemetery (1950). All hooves on ground; died of leukemia.
- GEN. ULYSSES S. GRANT: Union Square, at the east end of the Mall (1922). All hooves on ground; died in peace.
- MAJ. GEN. WINFIELD SCOTT HANCOCK: Seventh and Pennsylvania NW (1896). One hoof raised; wounded in battle.
- MAJ. GEN. JOHN A. LOGAN: Logan Circle, Vermont Avenue, 13th and P Streets NW (1901). One hoof raised; died in peace, twice wounded.
- LT. GEN. WINFIELD SCOTT: Scott Circle, 16th and Massachusetts and Rhode Island NW (1874). All hooves on ground; died in peace.
- GEN. PHILIP H. SHERIDAN: Sheridan Circle, 23rd and Massachusetts NW (1908). All hooves on ground; died in peace.
- GEN. WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN: 15th and Pennsylvania and Treasury Place NW (1903). All hooves on ground; died in peace, pneumonia.
- MAJ. GEN. GEORGE H. THOMAS: Thomas Circle, 14th and Massachusetts NW (1879). All hooves on ground; died in peace.
- JOHN WESLEY: Wesley Theological Seminary (1961). All hooves on ground; died in peace.
And now some that don’t:
- GEN. SIMON BOLIVAR: 18th at C and Virginia NW (1959). One hoof raised; died in peace of tuberculosis.
- MAJ. GEN. NATHANAEL GREENE: Stanton Square, Maryland and Massachusetts NE (1877). One hoof raised; died in peace, unwounded.
- MAJ. GEN. ANDREW JACKSON: Lafayette Park (1853). Two hooves raised; died in peace.
- LT. GEN. THOMAS J. (STONEWALL) JACKSON: Manassas (1940). All hooves on ground; wounded by own men and died.
- MAJ. GEN. PHILIP KEARNY: Arlington National Cemetery (1914). One hoof raised; died in battle.
- MAJ. GEN. GEORGE B. McCLELLAN: Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road NW (1907). One hoof raised; died in peace, unwounded.
- BRIG. GEN. JAMES B. McPHERSON: McPherson Square, 15th between K and I streets NW (1876). One hoof raised; shot and killed in battle.
- BRIG. GEN. COUNT CASIMIR PULASKI: 13th and Pennsylvania NW (1910). One hoof raised; died in battle.
- LT. GEN. GEORGE WASHINGTON: Washington Circle, at 23rd and K and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire NW (1860). One hoof raised; died in peace of cynache trachealis. Washington Cathedral (1959). One hoof raised.
An additional rumored statue code is prevalent in Virginia’s Monument Avenue in Richmond. The Civil War statues honoring Gens. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis are pointed in distinct directions, according to local lore — the statues of those who died in the war face north, while the statues of those who survived the war face south.
Upon examination, we find local lore initially appears to have something going for it, but appearances are deceiving. The equestrian statues of Lee, facing south, and Jackson, facing north, do fit the formula, and the horse of Stuart, who was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern in 1864, faces north. But the heads of Stuart, Davis, and Matthew Fontaine Maury face east.
“To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the position and pose of the statue do not signify anything,” said Frances Pollard, a curator at the Virginia Historical Society.
Those who should known better continue to pass along this piece of folklore as fact, as evidenced by this July 2001 question and response in Marilyn vos Savant’s Ask Marilyn column:
Q: One often sees commemorative statues of soldiers mounted on horses with their forelegs in various positions. Is there any significance to the difference?
A: Yes, although some sculptors may be unaware of the tradition or choose to ignore it. A historian at Arlington National Cemetery explains that when both forelegs of the horse are in the air, the rider died in battle. When only one foreleg is raised, the rider died of his wounds afterward. And when all four legs are on the ground, the rider later died of unrelated causes.
Hmm … a vocational “tradition” that those who practice the trade are either complete unaware of, or choose to ignore when they do know of it. Given that the alleged statuary code consists of three poses (no hooves raised, one hoof raised, and two hooves raised), the odds that a rider’s manner of death would correspond to his horse’s pose through plain chance are one in three, which is the proportion we find when surveying the equestrian statues in our nation’s capital — that is, only about ten out of thirty statues in Washington, D.C., follow the “traditional” pattern.
(Please don’t write to tell us that the odds of a given person’s manner of death matching the “correct” statuary code are one in nine, not one in three. The latter is correct.)
The connection between statuary horses hooves’ and the manner of deaths of their riders is not “tradition,” but — like the well-known but mundane list of “coincidences” between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations — an attempt to create an interesting piece of information (in this case, something akin to a “secret code”) by finding patterns in randomness through the expedient of simply ignoring or explaining away all the cases that don’t fit the pattern. This type of statuary lore is neither new nor unique to equestrian statuary, as a similar “tradition” (i.e., fallacy) was attributed well over a century ago, in the same fashion, to sculptors who had created effigies of knights several hundred years earlier:
Claim: The crossing of the legs and/or arms of the effigies of certain Knights indicates that they were Crusaders and the number of crusades in which they took part.
Mr. Donald Gunn kindly dealt with this matter as follows:
Proof of the error lies in the following facts:
- Many knights represented in this posture are known not to have gone to the Crusades.
- Many who certainly went have their effigies with legs uncrossed.
- Several effigies exist of women shown in this position.
- Most monuments of this kind are later in date than the Crusades, in fact, they extend as late as the early part of the 15th century.
- The bulk of the Crusading knights were from Continental counties; but no cross-legged effigies exist outside England.
The Rev. C.J. Cox, who, I suppose, was one of our soundest ecclesiologists, wrote:
Surely it is time that the imaginary connection between cross-legged effigies and the Crusades should be exploded; and yet how rampant is that fiction in certain places, and how constantly it has to be contradicted!
[T]he popular fiction that cross-legged effigies are monuments of Knights Templar has evidently arisen from the fact that six out of nine effigies in the Temple Church are so represented … With the exception, however, of one effigy, which is not cross-legged, it is extremely doubtful whether any of these celebrated figures are memorials of Templars.
Once again, proof that folklore never dies — it simply gets updated in time and place to keep it relevant to modern audiences.