Horse Hooves and Myths

My friend Mike Nugent, who has written several pieces that have appeared here lately, sent me a piece he wrote concerning the old saw about what, if anything, the position of a horse’s hooves on equestrian statues might mean.  You’ve all heard the stories… all four hooves on the ground means that the rider wasn’t wounded during a particular action; two hooves in the air means he was killed, etc.  During the Gettysburg Anniversary weekend while Mike and I were doing living history presentations on the battlefield, we heard the same stories being told regarding the nearby equestrian of Gen. John Reynolds (we were set up at the Buford Statue along Rt. 30). 

Mike has written the following whether there’s any truth to the “hoof” stories – and the next time you see one of the equestrian statues at Gettysburg or anywhere else, it’ll make you think twice about attaching any significance to the position of the horse hooves.

Dispelling a Myth about Military Equestrian Statues

Mike Nugent

There is a common belief that military equestrian statues follow a “code” that indicates the fate of the rider. The most frequently heard version of the “code” maintains that if the horse has one hoof raised, the rider was wounded in battle, two raised hooves indicates the rider died in battle and all four hooves on the ground indicate that the rider survived unharmed.Like many legends, the story of this supposed “code” has taken on a life of its own, appearing in print and being repeated as fact by tour guides, park rangers etc. However, like many other myths, the “code” of equestrian statues does not stand up to scrutiny.According to Ms. Kathy George, a park historian at Gettysburg, “Any relationship between the number of raised hooves on a horse-and-rider statue and the rider’s actual experience in battle is merely a coincidence, as reflected in equestrian statues at Gettysburg National Military Park,” Research has failed to uncover any evidence supporting the existence of the “code”. Booklets from the dedication ceremonies for equestrian statues, such as the Slocum and Sedgwick statues at Gettysburg, contain nothing about the significance of the hooves. While some of the Gettysburg statues do follow the supposed “code”, others do not. For example, the Gettysburg statue of Union Major General John F. Reynolds, (who was killed in action) does show the horse with two hooves raised, however the statue of CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet shows the horse with one hoof raised although Longstreet was not wounded. Additionally a second statue of Reynolds in Philadelphia differs from his Gettysburg statue and depicts his horse with all four hooves on the ground.A cursory look at the statues around Washington, D.C. quickly disproves the “code.” Washington is probably home to more equestrian statues than any other city in the nation, and it’s significant that only 10 out of more than 30 follow the “code”. Some of the Washington D.C. statues that do coincide with the supposed tradition of the “code” include: Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s (7th and Pennsylvania NW), which shows one hoof raised. Hancock was in fact wounded in action. The statues of General U.S. Grant (Union Square) and General William T. Sherman (15th and Pennsylvania and Treasury Place NW), show all hooves on the ground, and both Grant and Sherman died in peacetime.Statues that don’t follow the “code” include those of: General Simon Bolivar (18th at C and Virginia NW), Major General Nathaniel Green (Stanton Square, Maryland and Massachusetts NE), Major General George B. McClellan (Connecticut Ave. and Columbia Road NW) and General George Washington (Washington Circle, 23rd and K and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire NW). All of these statues show the horse with one raised hoof although in each case the riders died unwounded, in peacetime. The horses of Major General Philip Kearny’s statue (Arlington National Cemetery), along with those of Brigadier General James B. McPherson (McPherson Square, 15th between K and I Streets NW) and Brigadier General Count Casimir Pulaski (13th and Pennsylvania NW) also all have only one hoof raised although each of these men was actually killed in battle.The statue of General Andrew Jackson (Lafayette Park) shows two raised hooves although Jackson died in peacetime and the statue of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (Manassas) shows all four hooves on the ground despite the fact that he was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville.Like their counterparts in Washington, the equestrian statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond that don’t follow the supposed tradition outnumber those that do. General Robert E. Lee’s statue shows the horse with all four hooves on the ground, and Lee did die in peacetime. However as with his statue at Manassas, the Richmond monument to Stonewall Jackson also shows his horse with all four hooves on the ground. Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s statue shows his horse with one raised hoof although Stuart was killed in action at Yellow Tavern.“To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the position and pose of the statue do not signify anything,” according to Frances Pollard, a curator at the Virginia Historical Society.It should also be noted that this type of legend is not unique to equestrian statues. A similar type of “code” was said to exist among statues of knights sculpted hundreds of years ago. The fate of the knight could supposedly be read by how his arms were crossed and the manner in which his sword was carried. Like the legend of the horses hooves however, an examination of a few examples quickly dispels the myth.

It would seem that any connection between statuary horses hooves’ and the deaths of their riders is not an actual tradition, but an attempt to create an interesting story by finding patterns in examples that do fit the “code” and simply ignoring the far greater number of examples that don’t follow the pattern.


Ackermann, A.S.E. Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected. London: Old Westminster Press, 1923

Cady, Steven. “High on Their Horses.” The Washington Post. 23 April 1982.

Gleason, Jerry L. “Confederate General Gets Memorial at Gettysburg.” The Plain Dealer, 13 August 1997

Johnson, Ophelia. “About-Face on Monument.” The Richmond Times Dispatch, 4 February 1997

Santangelo, Denice. “For Longstreet, It’s About Time.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 14 April 1996

Stauffer, William H. “No General Rule About Position of Feet on Equestrian Statues.” Civil War Times, July 1960

The United States Army War College Archives, 

Published in: on August 1, 2007 at 10:29 pm  Comments (17)  

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. JD,

    Good timing, I’ll be in Gettysburg this evening. And I recall that the guide I used there last time did indeed tell the monument story.

    • A popular belief – at least in the United States and the United Kingdom – is that if the horse is rearing (both front legs in the air), the rider died in battle; one front leg up means the rider was wounded in battle or died of battle wounds; and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died outside battle. However, there is little evidence to support this belief.

      In the United States, the alleged rule is especially held to apply to equestrian statues commemorating the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg,[3] but there is at least one instance where the rule does not hold for Gettysburg equestrian statues, and syndicated newspaper columnist Cecil Adams claims that any correlation between the positioning of hooves in a statue and the manner in which a Gettysburg soldier died is a coincidence.[4]

      For example, in Gettysburg, the statue of James Longstreet features his horse with one foot raised, even though Longstreet was not wounded in battle. Even the most cursory look at the statues around Washington, D.C. quickly disproves that the hoof code at all holds sway in that locale

  2. Just be forwarned that some of these myths die hard and trying to set the record straight will even get some folks upset.

    I got into a somewhat heated discussion with a retired Navy Officer about this. Regardless of the evidence, he insisted that this couldn’t be a “myth” because he had learned about it somewhere during his Navy training. It went down hill from there especially after I questioned (as a retired Army Cavalry Officer) what the hell the Navy knew about horses in the first place!

    (And I freely admit that I know next to nothing about boats except that the pointy part up front is called the “bow” and the back part that you lean out over to puke is called the “stern”!)

  3. LOL, Mike – your marine knowledge is every bit as technical as mine 🙂

    (Although I’ll admit to also quacking over a few bows as well, in my day.)


  4. Officer Mike,

    Nice piece! Thanks for posting JD.

    If I may ask, what is the accepted figure for horses/mules dead during the Gettysburg campaign?


  5. Hi Mike,

    Well, the figure I’ve always heard for dead horses/mules on the battlefield itself is about 5500 – but no one knows for sure. And of all the accounts for the animals I’ve read for the entire campaign over the years (especially among all the cavalry movements) my guess is perhaps 3 times that number. But that’s only a guess. If you count in Brandy Station, the valley fights, the retreat, artillery horses, wagon mules, etc, I don’t think anyone can know for sure.

    But I think if someone said 15,000 or more I wouldn’t argue with them.


  6. J.D.

    When visitors press me on this issue, my response is:

    “this may be a convention, at best loosely followed, among some sculptors”.

    Dig those crazy qualifiers.

    Ranger Mannie

  7. […] found another blog article, Horse Hooves and Myths, which also does a through […]

  8. […] two posts I’m talking about are the ones I put up on Horse Hooves and Myths (from Aug. 1, 2007), and The McClellan Saddle (from May 30, 2007).  And I didn’t even write […]

  9. does anyone know the name of the horse Nathaniel Greene rode? I work at a winery and am thinking of a commemorative wine named for his horse. I live in Greensboro and town is named for him, and anniversary is upcoming.

    Great piece, I am a horse owner, and will be able to share this one. I like the phrase Ranger Mannie used, “this may be a convention, at best loosely followed, among some sculptors”.

  10. You need to go to Pendleton, Oregon- the meaning of the various poses of the horse with a rider atop DOES have meaning. Of course, this meaning is for cowboy statues and possibly not military statues. The poses are for a person dying in a battle (gun fight etc), injured and dying at a later date from the injury received in battle and dying from natural causes. At current, I am unsure specifically which means what- I would have to run to town to check. Such answer can be found at Till Taylor Park here in Pendleton.

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  13. Dear Petruzzi,

    As a Fine Art student I remembered being told about the meaning of horses poses, as well as other meanings lost to time that could be found in paintings and sculptures.

    I resist believing this is a myth, because, as I can understand, your article sustains your arguments buy using examples of statues found only in America. It could very well be that statue makers in America did not know about this canon of knowledge or purposely decided to bypass it as they were the new world and would not do things the way the old world used to do it.

    It very possibly started as a reality, during the Romans or more recently during the renaissance. But time and attitudes have diluted the original meaning until there was no more and the once knowledge became a myth.

    I hope more research is done on this subject. Thanks for showing this rather interesting point of view, very refreshing.


  14. I agree and disagree- I agree that not all sculpters followed any code, they may have thought or felt hooves up gave the statue motion, regardless of the riders outcome. But I also believe that in some cases, some kind of design to match outcome with the simbilance of the statutes. For instance Benidict Arnolds has a statue of a horse and his boot, so it showed the leg was injured and the sacrifice the rider made, but did not want to display the man because of what he did later in the war. But, i like it when people challenge the parks department, because, at no fault of their own, they repeat the stories, told to them by the Park ranger they replaced, and so a myth is repeated over and over and gains acceptance, inspite of the facts. At Lil Bighorn, the Park ranger was telling how Crazy Horse, whooped up the other Braves, circiled around the RoseBud battle field, til he had 1500 braves, several times before attacking. Having ridden my horse around the Battle site, there is no way, it would take hours to ride around it… yet it is being repeated everyday as fact.

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  16. Hi mike, great piece very interesting I would like to know something else to how do you figure out where a statue of the person on a horse died please, thanks

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