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Equestrian Deception

The Mythical Capture of Emperor Hirohito’s Horse


Judi Daly



Prior to and during World War II, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was shown in photos and newsreels riding a beautiful white stallion in front of his troops.  The horse was part of his carefully cultivated image.  Japanese tradition viewed the royal family as direct descendants of the Sun God.  Pictures showing him laughing or smiling or those where he appeared shorter than the people around him were forbidden to be shown to the public.  The Japanese people never even heard the sound of his voice until the surrender broadcast on August 14, 1945.  Pictured on his white horse, Emperor Hirohito was a distant, godlike figure—a symbol of Imperialist Japan.


Though Emperor Hirohito’s white horse became a propaganda tool, the Japanese Empire’s equestrian links to the United States originated in friendship. In 1880 the Meiji Emperor graciously received President Ulysses Grant as a state guest. Upon the president's return, he ordered a magnificent stallion to be sent to the Emperor. The jet black horse was described as “the most beautiful horse that man ever laid eyes upon.” This equestrian alliance continued into the 20th century, when Shirayuki (White Snow), pictured being ridden by Hirohito, was shipped to Japan from California.


The symbol of the white horse caught the American imagination.  Early in the war, United States Admiral William (Bull) Halsey vowed that one day he would ride Hirohito’s white horse through the streets of Tokyo.  This soon became a rallying cry in the United States.  It was even used in a campaign to sell war bonds.  The United States was going to win the war and remove Emperor Hirohito from his high horse.


With his salty language and aggressive manner, Admiral Bull Halsey was the Navy’s equivalent of fighting general George Patton. In response to Halsey’s bond drive, a Portland businessman donated $5,000 to help bring the Emperor’s captured horse back to America for public displays.


At the end of the war, the public was clamoring for Admiral Halsey to ride Emperor Hirohito’s horse, as promised.  The Reno Nevada Chamber of Commerce commissioned a saddle, bridle and martingale decorated with 166 silver pieces for Admiral Halsey to use on the horse.  The members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe contributed a pair of buckskin beaded gauntlet gloves to be used with the saddle.  These items are now on display at the United States Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis.


Halsey did ride a horse, but he wasn’t Emperor Hirohito’s white stallion, who remained private property of the Emperor.  Instead, he rode another horse that was supplied by Major General William Chase, the commander of the First Calvary Regiment.  After reviewing the honor guard of the First Calvary Regiment, he mounted the horse and rode slowly around the bivouac area on the outskirts of Tokyo.  It was an unscheduled affair, so he didn’t get to use the special saddle.  “Please don’t let me alone with this animal,” the Admiral said.  Upon dismounting, he grinned and said, “I was never so scared in my life.”


On January 2, 1946 disappointed Americans read that Halsey “will never ride that white horse except by imperial invitation.” Nor was the Admiral able to redeem his pledge at a later date. After returning to the United States, Halsey was asked to participate in the famous  Rose Parade. According to news stories, when the admiral glimpsed a white Arabian horse standing beside his official car, he thought someone had brought Emperor Hirohito’s horse from Japan for him to ride. The sailor made a quick dash for the safety of his float.


The American army had their very own rodeo expert, Lt. Joseph R. “Dick” Ryan.  He had already organized two rodeos for the troops in Grafton and Brisbane, Australia, the year before.  He was to do the same in Tokyo.  While looking for horses for the rodeo, he found a white Arabian stallion in a secluded stables.  He decided that he would use the horse in the rodeo.  Newspapers jubilantly reported that Ryan was the first American to ride the Emperor’s stallion.  Ryan reported that the horse was, “pretty playful, indicating that he had not been ridden for some time.”


When discovered by Ryan, First Frost was in the care of the manager of a stable owned by the Japanese Racing Association.


The rodeo was held on Armistice Day, November 11, 1945 in Tokyo.  The star billing was given to Ryan and Emperor Hirohito’s white Arabian, Hatsushimo (First Frost).  For a half hour, Ryan walked and galloped the horse in the arena of the Japanese Horse Racing Association.  It was reported that over 50,000 people witnessed the event.  Once again, the horse became a symbol.  This time, it was to demonstrate that the Emperor was no longer divine. 


What the crowd didn’t realize was that this was not the horse that Emperor Hirohito was seen riding most of the time.  That horse was Shirayuki (White Snow), and he wasn’t even an Arabian.  He was actually a stock horse that was purchased in the United States in California.  The International News Service reported that Emperor Hirohito made 344 appearances on Shirayuki.  He was retired in 1942 and died in 1947 at the age of 27. 


Hatsushimo wasn’t even the Arabian that the Emperor was later seen riding.  Hatsushimo had a gelded brother, Hatsuyuki (First Snow) that the Emperor preferred to ride because he was gentler.  When this horse died in 1957 at the age of 23, he was immortalized as a sacred horse at the great Isa Shrine, Japan’s leading Shinto shrine. The Emperor had one more white horse named Mineyuki (Snow Peak) that was kept at the Imperial Stables.


Japanese sources claim that Hatsushimo was too high strung for parades and military inspections and was given to another member of the Royal family and eventually ended up in the Japanese Racing Association Stables where Ryan found him.  Later, the Imperial household stated that the Emperor never even owned Hatsushimo.  Rather, he was owned by Prince Ri, whose family was given royal status when Korea was taken over by Japan.


About a month after the rodeo, it was reported that Hatsushimo was sold to Lt. Ryan.  Until this time, it was prohibited by the military for the soldiers to take animals back to the US.  The very day the change in rules was announced, it was also reported that Lt. Ryan would be taking the Emperor’s stallion, Hatsushimo home to the United States.  According to Lt. Ryan, the Japanese Racing Association originally offered the horse to General MacArthur, but he turned them down.  Hatsushimo was then sold to Lt. Ryan for 1,000 yen ($63.00).  Ryan planned to display his new horse in the United States at Veterans’ hospitals and to raise money for good causes.


Following the cessation of active hostilities, the return of millions of troops was accompanied by the threat of the greatest mass importation of dogs and troop mascots in the history of the United States. Because of fear of contamination, the Department of Agriculture expressly prohibited shipment of animals into US, especially importation of animals from the Orient. Yet an inexplicable change in Army regulations made it possible for First Frost to be transferred to the United States.  According to a news report, “How he did it, Ryan will not explain.” But the owner said he had to promise never to sell the horse. On January 8, 1946 First Frost, described as Ryan’s “trophy,” was hoisted aboard a Liberty ship. The gelding is seen receiving a good luck medallion from the daughter of a Japanese official.


The mere fact that it was the Japanese Racing Association, not the emperor, that sold Hatsushimo is proof that he didn’t belong to the Emperor.  Why were the rules about importing animals to the United States from Japan changed just as Ryan bought Hatsushimo and wanted to bring him back home?  The event received much fanfare in the US newspapers and was a great piece of propaganda.  Could General MacArthur, himself, have intervened to allow this to happen?


Hatsushimo was supposed to go through the Panama Canal and arrive in New York, but the he became seasick and quit eating.  The War Shipping Administration ordered the ship to turn around and go 400 miles out of the way to get the horse to dry land.  He wasn’t taken to a veterinarian, but to U.S. Army Station Hospital at Torrance, CA.  This is quite a thing to do merely to help an ordinary horse that was now owned by an ordinary American.  It is evident that the military put great value on the safe arrival of the “Emperor’s horse.”  He received extensive veterinary attention for a hurt leg and was held for mandatory quarantine.


According to Ryan the horse was seasick during the 14 day voyage. Yet when First Frost’s new owner replaced the Japanese medallion around the horse’s neck, “Funny thing, the horse snapped right out of it began eating.” This photo shows the horse being X rayed in California.


Soon, Ryan took his horse on the road.  He formed the International Rodeo and Thrill Circus.  He also appeared at American Legion membership drives, at veteran’s hospitals and state fairs all over the country. 


He ran into problems in Oklahoma in August of 1946.  Sheriff George Goff of Oklahoma City took custody of Hatsushimo as security on a lawsuit filed by Virgil Dixon.  Dixon claimed that Ryan owned him $782.00 in back wages for work.  The court found comfortable accommodations for Hatsushimo while the case worked its way through the courts.   Several weeks later, Ryan and Dixon settled their differences, and Ryan got his horse back.  As they were leaving Oklahoma, outside of Tulsa, the jeep that was pulling the horse trailer collided with another vehicle.  Hatsushimo was shaken but unharmed. 


Ryan used First Frost to promote his “combination rodeo, circus and stunt show.” In addition to “midget events,” Ryan employed “daring parachute jumpers” and hired Marjorie Bong, described as the “attractive widow” of America’s great fighter pilot, to be Queen of the rodeo. An estimated 30,000 people attended Ryan’s rodeo in Los Angeles alone.


On October 5, 1947, the Los Angeles Times reported that the 20-year-old horse was left in Detroit, MI, to rest because he was tired.  He wasn’t too tired for one more performance in San Antonio in December.  That may have been his last show.


Ryan stated that he was not able to sell the horse because of a promise he gave to his superior officers and the sons of Emperor Hirohito.  Certainly, he had no intentions of selling him, but once again, he got into legal problems.  Charles McKinley and Paul Hobrock in Fort Wayne, Indiana, purchased Hatsushimo from a Los Angeles court in March, 1948.  It was reported that Hatsushimo died in June of the same year of cancer.


Hatsushimo came back to life in the fall of 1949 looking very different.  He was still white, but lost some of his Arabian refinement during his reincarnation and a few years off his age.  Ryan toured with the new Hatsushimo at least until 1963.  In 1972, Ryan told the Albuquerque Tribune that the horse was still alive and well at an undisclosed location on the east coast in the care of a retired colonel of the First Calvary Division. If he was 20 in 1947, he would now be 45 years old.  This is not impossible, but certainly very unlikely.


Thanks to Ryan’s clever marketing, First Frost was headlined next to Lassie at public events. According to incorporation papers filed by Ryan, the horse was defined as a lawful partner and was named as “recipient of 50 per cent of all earnings which the rodeo may amass.” But in exchange for board, Ryan said the horse would donate his half to foundation for the entertainment of wounded servicemen. No trace of that foundation has been discovered.


Ryan continued to tour with his own stunt show.  He had a horse, British Wonder, who would jump almost anything, including cars, kitchen tables, beds and a 6-foot ring of fire.  British Wonder was either a Thoroughbred or an American Saddlebred.  If you arrived early to the show, your children could get a free pony ride from Admiral, a Welsh Pony that was in “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.”  He was still touring with Admiral in 1975.  This would make the pony over 40 years old.  Once again, this is possible since ponies generally live longer than horses, but not likely.  More unlikely, pictures showed Admiral with a blaze on his face, but in the movies, he had a star.


Ryan himself told many stories that are hard to verify.  A native of Canada (though his mother insisted he was from Detroit), he claimed he rode a horse across the country as a teenager, rode in rodeos, was a stuntman in over 100 movies (Including “Gone with the Wind” and “A Day at the Races”) and TV series and broke a lot of bones.  That he was a bold and courageous man is proven by the stunts he preformed on British Wonder.  In addition, it was reported by the Canberra Times in Australia that on February 16, 1944, he stood on the running board of a car for a mile, rescuing a 13-year-old boy on a runaway pony. Was Ryan an amazing man, or was he a liar?  Maybe he was a bit of both… 


Horses still have an important symbolic role in Japanese religion and even today at certain Shinto shrines a sacred white horse is stabled. Despite his promise not to sell First Frost, Ryan (right) sold the horse to two American businessmen, who in turn offered to sell the horse to Emperor Hirohito. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The Imperial household said it had received no offer to purchase Emperor Hirohito’s favorite horse. In fact, the Imperial household said the white horse Hatsushimo (First Frost) which was exhibited in the United States as the Emperor’s former mount, never belonged to him at all.”


Regardless, in photos, his horses always looked healthy, well fed and comfortable.  Never was there a negative word written about how Ryan treated his horses.  There is no doubt that he cared about them, and that speaks volumes about the man.



The White Horse remains one of the great symbols of the Second World War. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, (left) rode a white stallion imported from Yemen. British Field Marshal Montgomery (centre) took great pleasure inspecting his rival, German Field Marshal Rommel’s captured white charger. Plus, American General George Patton (right) rode the famous Lippizan stallion, Favory, who had previously been destined to be gifted to Emperor Hirohito by Adolf Hitler.  While much has been discovered about Dick Ryan’s connections to First Frost, questions remain.  Who sanctioned the sale of the horse and why? Because the event received much fanfare in the US newspapers and was a great piece of propaganda, could General MacArthur himself have intervened to allow this to happen?

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