By Andrea Caudill for The American Quarter Horse Journal
On August 31, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas, Barbies Red Rooster earned a silver trophy at the Adequan® Select World Championship Show in the competitive ranch riding class.
On September 2, 2019, in Edgewood, New Mexico, the horse commonly known as “Ricky” returned to his full-time job as a therapy horse at Skyline Therapy Services.
This exceptional horse is at the top of his game in two simultaneous performance events, and his owner, Ruth Dismuke-Blakely, credits the horse’s adaptability for allowing him to master these very different events.
“This is cool,” Ruth says. “This is the versatility of our Quarter Horse, and this speaks to the discipline and training that a horse can perform two jobs at the same time.”
Ruth is a speech-language pathologist and American Hippotherapy Inc. faculty member who owns and runs Skyline Therapy Services, the longest-running full-time therapy program in the United States. In the 1970s, Ruth presented a proposal to the AQHA Equine Research Committee to fund and kick off the formal movement of using a horse as a therapy tool.
“The American Quarter Horse Association started the ball rolling with using the horse in treatment in this country,” Ruth says. “That fact has gotten forgotten, even by people in AQHA. We were at the forefront.”
Ricky is one of about a dozen professional equines employed at the facility, and he works about 20 hours per week at this therapy-horse job. Skyline currently works only with children, addressing physical and communication therapies.
It is easy to think that any gentle horse, whether totally sound or not, would be suitable as a therapy horse, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“We use equine movement to facilitate the neuro-motor systems that support function,” Ruth says. “That means a horse that is asymmetrical in its movement, that’s just bad input to the patient, it’s not going to produce anything useful.”
|Barbies Red Rooster, handled by Katie Ortiz and physical therapist Laura Hunsucker, during a physical therapy session utilizing equine movement as a therapy tool. His patient, Jacob, has a rare genetic disorder. His dad reports that Jacob’s entire quality of life is improved with the help of hippotherapy as a part of his physical and speech therapy. PHOTO: Courtesy Ruth Dismuke-Blakely|
A horse moves in multiple planes of movement: up and down, side to side, forward and back. With each step creating a movement, which translates into layered motor and sensory input to the child’s body, a horse can create a hundred sensorimotor inputs per minute that are transmitted up through the child’s core postural system. This affects everything in the body, from motor control for walking and hand use to talking. That input must be of the highest, symmetrical and even quality possible. Good-quality movement is vital, and then the horse must be willing to be manipulated by its handlers to adjust the input for what the child needs. That might be an on-command tiny walk, a lengthened walk or a jog-trot, or just standing still as a therapist works with their patient.
“Hippotherapy is a discipline for the horse,” Ruth says firmly. “The training and performance needed to be a really good therapy horse is making a difference in somebody’s life. We are adamant that therapy horses have to have that level of training and conditioning.”
The type of movement the horse provides, for example, one horse might be more up and down, while another might have a swinging side-to-side movement, will input to a child differently, and the therapists carefully select their horse based on what an individual patient needs.
“Ricky has become particularly valuable because of the way he moves,” Ruth says. “It has to be highly controlled movement for very short periods of time, like maybe four to five minutes, then we might stop and overlay another kind of therapy activity while the child is just sitting there on Ricky so that their body can absorb that movement and respond to it–a period of assimilation. Then you might introduce another four to five minutes of movement. If Ricky has to stand there for 30 minutes, he will stand there quietly. No moving around or impatience. That kind of discipline, you need that in the show arena, too.”
Ricky is able to change his behavior to fit each of these two different disciplines.
“When I show him, he’s always very bright and interested,” Ruth says. “He’s one of those horses that has expression in the show pen. With therapy, there is more calmness.
“He likes the children,” she adds. “When we approach him with a child, he’ll reach out with his nose, prick his ears forward, and stand very, very steady as they pet him.”
Ricky was bred by Martha A. Johnson of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a 2003 son of Gallo Del Cielo, commonly known as “Rooster,” and out of the mare Just Plain Barbie, a daughter of Just Plain Colonel. Just Plain Barbie is a point earner and money earner in National Reined Cow Horse Association and National Reining Horse Association events.
Of her five foals, four are performers. In addition to Ricky, her other performers include the Hollywood Dun It-sired MJ Hollywood Barbie (NRHA LTE $17,331), Barbie Dun It (NRHA LTE $43,310) and MJ Malibu Barbie (NRHA LTE $1,543).
Ruth and her husband, Stuart, found Ricky through New Mexico trainer Josh Armstrong. They saw Josh turn a steer on the horse, who was actually trained for working cow horse.
They were in the market for a head horse for Stuart, and after trying him, bought him in 2009 and sent him for rope training. Stuart spent some time heading on the horse before other things started demanding more of his time.
The ranch riding class had just started, and it greatly appealed to Ruth.
“Ricky was just so handy and such a willing participant, I jumped out and started showing him in that class,” Ruth says.
Over the past decade, the pair have found a great deal of success in the class, with two top-10 and one finalist finish in prior years. Ricky earned AQHA Superior titles in open ranch riding and amateur ranch riding and has accumulated nearly 300 AQHA points.
The pair marked a 230.5 in their 2019 Adequan® Select World ranch riding finals run, falling just a half point off the score set by world champion Whos Chocolate Whiz and his breeder/owner/exhibitor Amy Lee Liedtke of Whitesboro, Texas. The Adequan® Select World is the world’s largest, single-breed world championship horse show open exclusively to amateur exhibitors age 50 and over.
“It was such a fun pattern,” Ruth says. “There were so many transitions that had to be just spot on, and you had to end up just right – there was a lope over poles, and I was watching people not make that. You just had a very small space to set it up just right. And I remember feeling so good because Ricky was just right there for every one of those transitions. It made it so much fun to do that pattern. I was just so proud of him.
“He’s so balanced in his movements, which is part of what makes it so easy to do those clean transitions in the show pen, and he can also make those clean transitions in therapy,” she continues. “The best-quality equine movement is highly controlled and able to be manipulated. Because Ricky has that, he’s just a natural. He imparts very high-quality movement to our patients that we can then use to address their deficits.”
It is hard enough to find a horse good at one sport, and this rare gem is greatly appreciated by his owner.
“Ricky is unique right now being at the top of his game in both settings, and I really admire the horse – it’s rare to have one that can perform that way,” Ruth says.
To find out more about equine hippotherapy, visit the American Hippotherapy Association Inc.’s website at www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org.