Horseback Riding

The Quarter Horse Who Protected Reagan

June 18, 2012

If Reagan rode, the Secret Service rode.

John Barletta on Monta Doc Rydburg. Courtesy of John Barletta.

By Tom Moates in America’s Horse

Most people think of our presidents spending the majority of their time behind mysteriously tinted windows, surrounded by Secret Service agents in dark suits and sunglasses. But in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan liked to spend his time a little differently, and his Secret Service agents realized they were in a tight spot.

President Reagan rode horses frequently, and protecting the president on his trail rides would prove to be a daunting task for his security staff. An agent needed to be horseback right by his side at all times, along with others mounted and close at hand, but there was no established equestrian expertise in the Secret Service.

Several early attempts failed to find agents capable of riding at Reagan’s very proficient level. This peculiar circumstance led John Barletta to undertake one of the most unusual horseback jobs ever. A very capable rider from a young age and an experienced agent in the Presidential Protective Division during the Carter administration, John was assigned to protect the incoming president – and his job description included riding stirrup to stirrup with Reagan whenever and wherever he rode a horse. During their time spent protecting the president at Rancho del Cielo, John and his fellow horseback agents kept their tack and other equipment in the hay barn, a rustic wooden structure adjacent to the Secret Service building.

Now, as part of preserving the Reagan Ranch for generations to come, efforts are being made to re-create the hay barn. Currently, the ranch only owns one original saddle from the period for use in this project. The assistant curator of the Rancho del Cielo, Danielle Fowler, is seeking three to four used Wofford saddles from the 1980s period in the hopes of replicating the saddles used by the horseback agents. If you have a Wofford saddle you’d like to donate, contact Danielle at daniellef@reaganranch.org. All donors will be recognized for their gifts at the Reagan Ranch.

Making Time to Ride

President Reagan managed to ride a surprising amount, John remembers. Many days, even work days at the White House, he managed to go to Camp David and get in a ride.

“He wanted to do his riding,” John says. “He’d look at the schedule and tell his chief of staff, ‘You know, I don’t have any time here for riding,’ and they’d change his schedule.”

And if his schedule included riding, so did John’s.

That eventually resulted in John acquiring his own American Quarter Horse.

“I rode English,” John says. “I rode big Thoroughbreds, and when I transferred out here (to California after Reagan had left office), I brought my Thoroughbred with me. I did some fox hunting with him, but to go on a trail ride and work cattle, a big Thoroughbred just doesn’t fit. So a friend of mine (a cutting horse trainer) said, ‘John, I got a horse for you.’ I said, ‘I don’t like cutting horses. They’re not good on the trail, they’re this… they’re that.’ He says, ‘Not this one.’ I went down to his ranch and rode this little guy. He was 14.3 – I went from 17 hands to 14.3 – and he was just a magnificent animal. I said, ‘I’ll take him!’ I wasn’t used to a small horse that can move like a cat. We put in a lot of wet blankets together. He’s just amazing. He has won me a lot of prizes and goes down the road. In my work capacity, sometimes he’d be in the pasture three or four months before I could ride him. You’d go up to get him, stick his head in the halter, and off we’d go without a spit or a buck in him. Just a great, great horse.”

That horse, Monta Doc Rydburg, or “Monty,” is a 1989 son of Montana Doc, who earned more than $5,000 in National Cutting Horse Association events. Montana Doc was an NCHA world champion.

The last horse Reagan rode was a ranch-bred Quarter Horse he called “Sergeant Murphy,” who became a pasture mate to Monty.

Do you love learning about historic horses? Then check out Quarter Paths: Anecdotes of the Fastest Horse On Earth and learn more about great Quarter Horses of the past. The American Quarter Horse Racing Journal‘s Richard Chamberlain colorfully profiles the lives of seven historic Quarter Horses, including Peter McCue, Dash for Cash, and Beduino.