Grant's skills in horsemanship made him a legend in his early years, long before he became a national hero. From his earliest days Grant had a special gift for relating to horses. As a toddler, he was permitted to play alone in his father's horse stall s under the bellies of the horses. Teams parked outside his father's tannery posed no threat to little Ulysses who was spotted by the neighbors blissfully swinging on the horses' tails and crawling among their feet. Hannah, his mother, who ignored the exc ited warnings by the neighbors, simply stated, "Horses seem to understand Ulysses." Indeed, horses fascinated Ulysses. He would stand in the dust of the Georgetown, Ohio streets and look up into the patient faces of the animals, establishing at an early a ge a special bond with them that would serve him well in the path his unusual life would follow.
As he grew older, he amused the townsfolk with his exploits when the circus came to Georgetown. He could outmaneuver any trick pony presented by the ringmaster. Ponies were trained to unseat a rider with sudden stops, starts, bucks, and wheelings. Ulysses could not be thrown from these wild animals, even when a frustrated ringmaster tossed a monkey upon Grant's neck where it pulled his hair and scratched him. Another time he won $5.00 when he could not be thrown from the back of a fat, round, "slick as an apple pony."
Farmers often brought him unruly horses to break, which he did with crowds looking on. "The quietest boy in town" could be seen riding a horse at a breakneck speed, through the village. Seeing that his son had a marketable talent, Jesse Root Grant allowed him to use the family teams to earn his own spending money. Ulysses was entrusted to transport passengers as far away as Cincinnati, about 40 miles from Georgetown. When passengers objected that this could be dangerous for such a young boy, Jesse's attit ude was similar to Hannah's: "He'll take care of himself," he told the skeptical riders.
In May of 1839 Ulysses left Georgetown bound for West Point, or the United States Military Academy. Having little expectation of succeeding at this venture, he was quite surprised to finish his first year in 27th place among the 60 boys who survived the first year. Curriculum reform was underway and horsemanship became part of the program as Grant entered his second year.
Grant's future battlefield foe, Cadet James Longstreet, observed that Grant was "the most daring horseman at the Academy." Tiny, but resolute, dressed in old clothes for the dusty duty of ordinary riding exercises, Grant would stride to the stables to fac e what he excelled at. A fellow cadet said that it was as good as any circus to see Grant ride. Grant had taken a liking to a horse named York, a dark bay so fractious he was slated to be condemned. Grant commanded this horse with seeming effortlessness. The class would stand around admiring his control of the animal and the graceful evolutions he put it through.
At his graduation exercises in the riding hall, in front of hundreds of spectators, Grant was singled out to give a riding demonstration on York. Sergeant Herschberger lifted the jumping bar higher than his head, faced the class, all on horseback, and bar ked, "Cadet Grant!" The slender cadet dashed from the ranks on York and galloped to the end of the riding hall. He turned the horse toward to the front and the two of them, seemingly welded together, thundered toward the bar, faster, faster, then up into the air and sailed over it to the breathless astonishment of the onlookers. The silence was broken by Herschberger who growled, "Very well done sir!" The record jump stood for 25 years.
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