Easy as Falling Off a Horse

The War Years (1775-1783)

April 1, 2021
by Joseph Lee Boyle Also by this Author


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Horses have been used for transportation for thousands of years, but have caused countless injuries and deaths. There is a saying that the only men who have never fallen off a horse, are the ones who never rode one. Wikipedia lists scores of famous and not-so-famous individuals who have died in or, more often, out of the saddle. One historian goes so far to claim that “We might even say that the later history of Christianity depended not on just any one person, but on one horse, the one that stumbled in 450, causing the death of the pro-Monophysite emperor Theodosius II.” The author claims that “had he lived, the history of the world would have been quite different.” There would have been no Council of Chalcedon, and there would not have been the split which resulted in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.[1]

Perhaps there would have been no Declaration of Independence had Thomas Jefferson’s 1766 trip to New York gone a bit more awry: “Twice on the first day Jefferson’s horse broke away from him, ‘greatly endanger[ing] the breaking my neck.’” The name of George Washington might be unknown had Col. Joshua Fry, “a Man of good Sense, & an able Mathematn,” not died on May 31, 1754, due to injuries from falling off his horse, and Washington succeeded to the command of the Virginia Regiment.[2]

The Revolutionary War years provide numerous incidents of equestrian accidents, from civilians to privates to general officers. A sample is presented here. On May 4, 1778 in Philadelphia, Capt. John Peebles wrote that “General Howe reviewed the Hessians stationed here . . . As the first flags passed the General in salute, his horse was so frightened that the General was thrown off, without, however, being injured.” Another officer noted “in marching past the Genls. horse started at the Colours & his Ex: came down but was not hurt, & quickly mounted again.” Peebles had his own accident during the 1780 siege of Charleston when “my horse fell coming back & I hurt my breast & shoulder a little.” Howe’s accident might have been amusing but not unique as on March 18, 1778 when “Today the English had a fox hunt during which several fell off their horses.” And on May 20, during the Barren Hill expedition, Captain Johann Ewald “I had the misfortune to turn over with my horse and severely injure two of my ribs. For a time I could neither sit, lie, nor stand, and suffered such extreme pains that I thought I would suffocate.”[3]

Less fortunate was the controversial Frenchman Maj. Gen. Philippe-Charles-Jean-Baptiste Tronson de Coudray who solved a command problem in the Continental Army by taking a ferry over the Schuylkill River. “The General being mounted in the boat, his horse became restive and jumped overboard with him, and the General was drowned.” Another account provides more detail. “The boats on the River-Schuykill, are so constructed that horses and carriages drive immediately into them, without unharnessing. The General was on a young mare full of spirits: He rode her into the boat, but not being able to stop her carrer, she went out the other end, with the General on her back into the river. He disengaged himself from her, and Major Rogers, his Aid de Camp, jumped immediately in after him, and being a good swimmer, sustained him for several minutes, but finding he could get no assistance, and the General struggling, he was obliged (in order to save his own life) to quit him. The unfortunate General then sank.”[4]

Nathanael Greene had several accidents. In November 1777, he wrote to his wife Catherine that “I had a bad fall from my horse some time since, but have got entirely over it, all except a sprain in my wrist.” Returning victorious from South Carolina in 1783, Greene suffered another mishap near Dumfries, Virginia: “I overset my carriage, broke the top and harness and bruised myself not a little, and if I had not lifted up the carriage and let it pass over me, it is probable I might have got killed or badly wounded, for the horse started upon a run and drawed the carriage after him until the harness gave way.” After the action at Rocky Mount in August 1780, Thomas Sumter was “Getting out of musket range, he looked back over his shoulder. As he did his horse thumped along under an oak limb, which hit Sumter on the head, knocking him to the ground unconscious.”[5]

Greene’s Brigade Major Daniel Box’s “service in the Continental army was cut short by a fall from a horse in December 1776, which permanently deprived him of the use of his left arm.” Pennsylvania Militia Col. Thomas Smith, later a delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote from Bedford that “my Horse threw me, and a large Snag run quite through my Right Hand, and otherwise very much bruised me, so that it almost cost me my Life and has confined me to my Bed, so that I am obliged to get this wrote for me.[6]

Other men had equestrian accidents on the field of battle. At a skirmish near Monck’s Corner in South Carolina, “Lieut. Parson’s put his knee out of place in the alarm & Capt. Stith who was on Picquet, had his forehead much hurt by his horse running him against a fence.” During a skirmish in Virginia on June 26, 1781, “Major [William] McPherson’s horse threw him into the field of action, who fortunately made his escape.” Less fortunate was Capt. James Armstrong of Lee’s Legion at McQueen’s Plantation on December 31, 1781: “Capt. Armstrong, of the Ledgon was reconitering their lines a few days ago and happened to fall in with a large party of the Enemy—in making his Escape his horse fell—he was made a prisoner.” The falling horse of Isaac Hayne led to his execution in Charleston, a major controversy of the war. At a Mrs. Ford’s plantation “on Sunday morning, a company of British cavalry was seen galloping up the avenue. Colonel Hayne endeavored to escape by crossing the rice fields at the back of the plantation, but Captain Campbell, who commanded the company of cavalry, saw and pursued him . . . Colonel Hayne soon found that his horse was giving out, and coming to a fence, the horse balked; whereupon, instead of pressing him to take the leap, he dismounted and took down the fence, and thus facilitated the crossing of his pursuers. Captain Campbell, of Major Fraser’s party, seeing this, knew his success was sure, and steadily gained on his flying foe. Shortly after, in leaping a ditch, the side of it caved. Colonel Hayne’s horse fell, and he was captured.”[7]

Other general officers had accidents. Benjamin Lincoln wrote from Williamsburg, “I arrived here on the 5th which was later than I expected, having been detained on the road from the injury I received in my knee from a fall from my carriage soon after I left Port Royal; and the same cause hath protracted my stay in this city; but, I trust, will not do it beyond tomorrow or next day.” Several New England newspapers carried accounts dated September 11, that “Last week General Moultrie, in endeavouring to jump out of his chair, the horse having stumbled, unfortunately got his thigh broke, and was otherwise much hurt. We have the pleasure to inform the public that he is in a fair way of recovery.” A recent biographer presents a somewhat different account.[8]

William Stark, older brother of the “Hero of Bennington,” Gen. John Stark, accepted a commission as a colonel with the British Army, but died on Long Island in August 1776: “His service was brief, for he was soon afterwards killed by a fall from his horse.” At Newport on June 24, 1779, “This morning was buried, with the honors of war, Major Arninback of the Landgrave Regt., who broke his leg by a fall from a chaise.” In January 1782, “Lt. Steadman of the 64th company of grenadiers, fell from his horse on the road from Jamaica to Brooklyn. The corpse was interred in the church yard of Jamaica, with military honors, attended by the officers of both battalions of grenadiers.” On March 31, 1781, “A party of the Refugees . . . marched from their post at Bergen point the Evening of the 11th . . . judged it most prudent to return to Bergen point, which place they reached yesterday, having Skirmished with the Rebels the whole way. The Refugees lost one man, who was killed by his horse falling.”[9]

Frolics then as now caused problems. In Trenton “Saturday se’enight John Taylor, a Sergeant belonging to Col. Baylor’s regiment of light-dragoons, as he was riding along the street in this town, being in liquor fell from his horse, and was so much bruised, that he died in a short time after.” In Lancaster on August 2, 1780, British prisoner of war Lt. Thomas Hughes, related that “Three of our bucks got so drunk in the country that in returning to town they fell off their horses and were very near killing themselves—one of them is at present in so bad a way that his recovery is doubtful. So much for drinking and buckism.” Also in Lancaster the next year Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge William Atlee reported that “We have had some disputes between the Light Horse who are stationed here and the Militia Guards; one of the Dragoons, in attempting to force his way into the Guard House at the Barracks, was the other day killed by the Sentry on duty there, and as they seem to speak of revenge, the Inhabitants seem apprehensive of further mischief . . . A fall from my Horse which hurt my Leg badly has detained me from York Court.”[10]

The standard account of Gouverneur Morris, later called the Penman of the Constitution, is that on May 14, 1780, he was “driving a carriage, the horses ran away with it . . . he endeavoured to save himself by jumping out, but unhappily broke and shattered his leg in such a manner that the surgeons were obliged to cut it off below the knee.” There is evidence that this story is false, “concocted to cover for a dalliance with a woman, during which he jumped from a window to escape a jealous husband.” In March 1777, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Edmund Pendleton “suffered a fall from his horse . . . His hip was dislocated, and he was compelled to use crutches for the rest of his life.”[11]

Family accidents caused soldiers to leave the army. At Cambridge in 1775, 2nd Lt. David Perry resigned as “his Wife is rendered incapable of taking care thereof, by reason of having both her Arms broke by a fall from an horse; and he has a Number of small & helpless Children.” From home Ens. Nathaniel Booth lamented his own poor health and “Also the situation of my family being such that it is impossible for me to continue in service, as my wife for all the Campaign past experienced a long train of sickness, And it is doubtful whether she ever Recovers her health again as her disorder is some what similar for any of the female sex, Which was occasioned by the fall of a horse in Octr ‘79.” He resigned the following month.[12]

One did not have to be on a horse to suffer damaging consequences. In Danbury on September 24, 1778, a “Young Fellow Bellong to the militia got Run over by a Horse and allmost Killed.” The next month at Fredericksburg, New York, John Lovejoy of the commander-in-chief’s guard was killed: “At night some of the Guard was a going to the park Col. Harrison’s waiter was a coming from there under swift way run over one of them which hurt him so that he died the same Night.” Soldiers were not safe even after peace was at hand. Capt. Theodor Hartert of the Prinz Carl Regiment “went for a walk not far from his quarters in Bloomingdale at New York, in the course of which he was knocked down quite unexpectedly by a horse which had bolted with its rider, and died on the spot.”[13]

Being close to a horse could cause serious damage. Col. Charles Harrison, commanding the artillery in the Southern Army, was lost to the army just before the Battle of Camden. “Colonel Harrison of the Artillery has been severely wounded in the Leg by a kick from a Horse, which splintered the Bone; he was left at Buffalo Ford on Deep River, and I am this day informed, is worse than when I parted from him.” Junior Surgeon Isaac Foster wrote from the Cambridge hospital in May 1775 that “Having examined William Parke Junr. of your regiment, who was kicked by a horse some time ago, he is, in my opinion, absolutely unfit for service at present, and should he continue in the army it would greatly endanger his life, without the least prospect of his doing any good.” Political leaders had problems as well. Gov. Richard Caswell of Virginia told his brother, “I had mentioned my intention of going with him to Virginia, but my Leg was, when he set out, in such a State Occasioned by the Kick of a Horse that I could not Venture to Travel so far. It is not quite well yet.” Moving towards the Siege of Yorktown, Gen. Antoine Charles de Houx Viomenil, Rochambeau’s second in command in America, who died in 1792 as a result of defending King Louis XVI, had been “kicked by a horse and so forced to travel in a carriage.” Maj. Andrew Williamson of South Carolina “received a kick from Major Downes’ stallion the evening of the day I left you, which cut my leg, and my being careless of it, has brought on a fever for these two days past, which confined me to my chamber.” Capt. Edmund Brigham of the Massachusetts Militia was allowed to resign “on account of injuries received by a kick from a horse; granted in Council, Feb. 11, 1779.”[14]

Men of religion were not immune from such accidents. After a service in 1777 Henry Melchior Muhlenberg “prepared to set out for home. In spite of the help which the deacons and elders rendered in getting me onto the horse the stirrup broke [hd: unexpectedly] and I fell down on my side. As a result I injured [hd: bruised] the short ribs on my left side, and this caused severe pain.” In 1779, Rev. Ezra Stiles, President of Yale University, suffered several accidents. On May 8 he was returning from North Haven and “the Horse fell with me & hurt my Leg.” In October he was riding for Hartford and “my Horse fell with me in Coventry in crossing a . . . Bridge—By the fall I was exceedingly bruised in my Face , one of my foreteeth beat out & my Life greatly endangered: But by God’ s gracious Preservation no Bone broken . . . very ill all night.” The next day he was “Ill of my Fall & Wounds . . . At Dr . Waldo’s for dressing my face.”[15]

The end of active hostilities did not mean the end of sad accidents. Col. John Stewart of Maryland (the name often appears as Stuart and sometimes as Steward) had been awarded a Congressional silver medal for his leadership at the capture of Stony Point. In March 1783, “in a frolic in South Carolina rode down a hill that it was thought impossible he could have done, without killing both himself and his horse, without receiving the least injury. On the day after, he was riding slowly on a level piece of ground and good road, when his horse stumbled and he fell with such violence that he fractured his skull and died instantly.” Another account says he was “on an excursion in the country, was cast from his horse into the ditch and broke his neck. Officers of the army (those on duty excepted) attended his funeral in Charleston.” A third account, dated March 25 records, “his horse fell, and the Colonel pitching on his head in a ditch, dislocated his neck. He lived till Sunday morning about 7 o’clock, and then died. His remains were yesterday interred with every military honor, in the burial ground of the old Church. This gentleman, whose untimely death is much to be lamented, had served with great reputation during the war, and was much beloved by the army.[16]

After the war, former soldiers filed for pensions due to accidents. Joseph Dunbar, formerly a corporal in the 2nd Light Dragoons was granted a pension on October 4, 1792, as he was “Disabled by leaping on his horse.” Jacob Frisbie, once a private under Colonel Silliman was “Disabled by a fall from his horse on Aug 30, 1776, on Long Island, New York.” In 1782, Pvt. Ebenezer Carlton of the 1st New Hampshire was pensioned as he was “Injured in a fall from a horse while acting as a purveyor to General Washington’s family.” John Fitler or Fetter of the 10th Pennsylvania was given a pension of three dollars a month as he had been “drafted as a Blacksmith of the Artificers . . . Bruised in the breast in Shoeing a Continantal Horse.”[17]

In 1833, James Crawford of Tipton County, Tennessee, claimed he enlisted in 1780 in the Carolina State Troops under Col. Wade Hampton to serve a tour of ten months. He and twenty or so other men were ordered to retake Orangeburg. But they discovered the enemy force to be about 500 men and were ordered to retreat, “in doing which this declarant was thrown from his horse against a small tree where he was left for dead.” Richard Ballew of Knox County, Kentucky claimed that in 1779 he had signed up for a three month tour under Col. Joseph McDowell to pursue hostile Indians. The column went “on to Swannanoa and crossed it above where Buncombe Court house now stands—thence to the old Cowetowns [Cowee towns?]—where we had a battle with the Indians. In the heat of this engagement under an order to charge my horse ran against an old peach tree or rather in passing through the forks of the peach tree my ankle was twisted out of place, which has rendered me a cripple to this day.” In 1834, Jacob Buzbee of St. Clair County, Alabama applied for a pension, claiming that some time after the Battle of Eutaw Springs, he “joined one Capt. James Turner, with whom he remained four months; then being disabled by his horse dashing him against a tree & breaking his leg which caused both it and his thigh to perish away, he was compelled to abandon the Service.”[18]


[1]“List of Horse Accidents,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_horse_accidents. Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 17.

[2]Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), 38.

[3]John Peebles Journal, Cuninghame of Thorton Papers, Mss. 489-98, Scottish Records Office, Edinburgh, Scotland; Friedrich von Muenchhausen, At General Howe’s Side, 1776-1778, trans. Ernst Kipping, annot. Samuel Smith (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1974), 49, 51; Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, Captain Johann Ewald, Field Jaeger Corps, trans. and ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 130.

[4]Jacob Cox, ed., Extracts from the Diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer (Philadelphia: Wm. F. Fell, 1893), 35. “Extracts of a Letter from a Gentlemen of Distinction in Philadelphia, to his friend in this Town,” The Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser (Boston), October 2, 1777.

[5]Richard K. Showman, et al., ed. The Papers of Nathanael Greene, Volume II: 1 January 1777-16 October 1778 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press,2015), 200. Dennis M. Conrad, et al. eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Volume XIII: 22 May 1783 – 13 June 1786, with Additions to the Series (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015), 122. Robert D. Bass, Gamecock, cited in Charles Bracelen Flood, Rise, and Fight Again: Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence(New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976), 340-41.

[6]W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: UVA Press, 1985), 1: 310n.Thomas Smith to John Davis, June 13, 1779, Peter Force Collection, Mss. 17,137, Series 8D, Item 32, John Davis Papers, Roll 81, Volume 5, Library of Congress.

[7]William Feltman, “Diary of the Pennsylvania Line. May 26, 1781-April 25, 1782,” John Blair Linn and William H. Egle, eds., Pennsylvania in the War of the Revolution, Battalions and Line, 1775-1783, (Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart, 1888), 1: 680.John T. Hayes, ed. A Gentleman of Fortune: The Diary of Baylor Hill, First Continental Light Dragoons, 1777-1781, ed. John T. Hayes (Fort Lauderdale: Saddlebag Press, 1995), 3: 75. John Armstrong to Jethro Sumner, January 3, 1782, Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North CarolinaVolume 16, 1782-1783 (Goldsboro, 1899; reprint, New York, AMS Press, 1970), 473-74. Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina In the Revolution, 1780-1783 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 320.

[8]Benjamin Lincoln to Henry Laurens, November 9, 1778, in David R. Chesnutt, C. James Taylor, and Peggy G. Clark, eds., The Papers of Henry Laurens, Vol. 14, July 7, 1778 – December 9, 1778 (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1994), 477. The Providence Gazette; and Country Journal, October 18, 1777.

[9]Otis G. Hammond, ed., Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army (Concord: New Hampshire Historical Society), 1: 180. “Newport in the Hands of the British, A Diary of the Revolution,” The Historical Magazine 4, no. 6 (June 1860): 173. Henry Onderdonk, Jr. Documents and Letters Intended to Illustrate the Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County (New York: Leavitt, Trow and Company, 1846), 162. Frederick Mackenzie, Diary of Frederick Mackenzie: Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service As an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers During the Years 1775-1781 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1930), 2: 483.

[10]The New-Jersey Gazette, May 6, 1778.Thomas Hughes, A Journal by Thos: Hughes, ed. E. A. Benians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), 92. William Atlee to Joseph Reed, May 25, 1781, in J. J. Mombert, An Authentic History of Lancaster County, in the State of Pennsylvania (Lancaster: J. E. Barr & Co., 1869), 289. The Pennsylvania Evening Post, May 16, 1780. www.gouverneurmuseum.org/articles/people/morris/morris.html.

[11]“Extracts From the Diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer, of Philadelphia, 1768-1798,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 16 (1892), 101.www.gouverneurmuseum.org/articles/people/morris/morris.html. David John Mays, ed., The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, 1734-1803 (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1967), 1: 207.

[12]W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: UVA Press, 1985), 1: 422. Nathaniel Booth to Samuel Blachley Webb, in Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb (New York, 1893; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969), 2: 337-38.

[13] Rebecca D. Symmes, ed., A Citizen-Soldier in the American Revolution: The Diary of Benjamin Gilbert in Massachusetts and New York (Cooperstown: The New York State Historical Association, 1980), 37. Elijah Fisher Diary in Carlos E. Godfrey, The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard(Washington: Stevenson-Smith, 1904), 284-85. Tustin, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, 350.

[14]Horatio Gates to Thomas Jefferson, August 3, 1780, in Julian P. Boyd, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 3, 18 June 1779 to 30 September 1780 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951) 524-25.Wilson Waters, History of Chelmsford (Lowell, MA: The Courier-Citizen Company, 1917), 289.Richard Caswell to William Caswell, February 6, 1776, in Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North CarolinaVolume 15, 1780-’81 (Goldsboro, 1898; reprint, New York, AMS Press, 1970), 685. Thomas Willing Balch, trans. The French in America During the War of Independence of the United States, 1777-1783 (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1891), 1: 173. “I received a kick from Major Downes’ stallion the evening of the day I left you, which cut my leg, and my being careless of it, has brought on a fever for these two days past, which confined me to my chamber.” Major Andrew Williamson to William Henry Drayton, June 27, 1776, in Robert Wilson Gibbes, Documentary History of the American Revolution Consisting of Letters and Papers . . . 1776-1782 (New-York: D. Appleton & Co., 1857), 23. Massachusetts Soldiers And Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation From the Archives (Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Co., State Printers, 1896), 2: 528.

[15]Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, trans.The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (Philadelphia: Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States, 1958), 3: 13; the square bracketed insertions are in the publication, and indicate variants and additions in the original manuscripts. Franklin Bowditch Dexter, The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles: Edited Under the Authority of the Corporation of Yale University (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 2: 333, 379.

[16]Autobiography of Charles Biddle, Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. 1745-1821 (Philadelphia: E. Claxton and Company, 1883), 145. The Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny(Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co. for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1859), 51-52.The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, April 22, 1783.

[17]Murtie June Clark, The Pension Lists of 1792-1795 With Other Revolutionary War Pension Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1991), 10, 20, 65. Mrs. Harry Rogers and Mrs. A. H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 41 (1918), 268.

[18]James Crawford S3227; Richard Ballew S15305; Jacob Buzbee S32149, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, revwarapps.org).



  • That’s quite a list of horse related injuries. More modern armies aren’t immune from the same kind of thing – Gen. Patton’s car crash springs to mind. It’d be interesting to compare the number of injuries of commanders from car and plane accidents vs horses.

  • The Baron Glaubeck (spelled many different ways) who was at Cowpens and other places during the war died after the war in Savannah from falling off his horse.

  • Fascinating story. How many things have hinged on the unforseen! Although a different time, an ancestor, Sir Robert Peel died of injuries when thrown from his horse, the horse also stumbling and falling on him. Enjoyable and informative read.

  • These are certainly interesting and make the case that not every Horseman was equal, not were there mounts. With 40 years under my belt as a military Horseman though, I can assure you that just like driving a car these days and getting into an accident, horse accidents were common occurances before rhe 20th century. But getting a 1200lb beast used to gunfire, flags, drums, etc can be quite a challenge! But the result of a steady mount in any conditions is worth its weight in gold or our life! A good horse can hit 30mph in 8 to 12 strides when prompted or scared…a great way to get you out of trouble or into it! GW was known for being a very effective yet gentle horse trainer.

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