John Barletta has had a storied life, marked by chapters that detail some of the most pivotal moments in world history. He was there, standing watch. He spent his proudest days meticulously guarding the man who would become one of the most revered world leaders of our time, his close friend, former United States President Ronald Reagan.
Left, the iconic picture of former President Ronald Reagan taken during his presidency. Right, the photo that hangs in the Secret Service Command Post at Rancho del Cielo, of a younger Agent John Barletta atop Gualianco, riding next to President Reagan astride his constant mount El Alamein.
Photos courtesy of Young America's Foundation Reagan Ranch Center
It was an unlikely kinship that the two men shared, with their paths unknowingly set to intertwine decades earlier in Boston, when John was just a boy. In his thick Boston accent, John recounts his early passion for horses that would eventually change his life. "My father was a Somerville police officer and knew the Boston Police Mounted Unit. He’d take me down there as a young boy, and they’d let me ride those big Thoroughbreds," he says. "That’s what got me hooked on horses." It was a fascination that never left him, even as he later became a member of the United States Secret Service (USSS), rising through the ranks from the Boston Field Office to the White House. "I was transferred to the White House in 1978," Barletta remembers. "Virginia is big horse country — Thoroughbreds and English riding, which I like because you feel the horse better."
Barletta would escape to Virginia, just outside the city, and ride in the sparse free time he found while serving in the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) during former President Jimmy Carter’s last months in office. "Unfortunately when you’re on the White House detail, it gives you very little time for horseback riding," he remembers. That would all change the day President Ronald Reagan emerged victorious from a hard fought election. "That was the beginning of an amazing experience for me when Ronald Reagan took office," Barletta remembers.
"The greatest challenge for the Secret Service is what the President does for recreation," says Barletta. "President Reagan did the most dangerous thing you can do. He rode horses. When he first got elected, he would go back to his beloved ranch and his beloved horses. The problem was, by no fault of their own, the agents couldn’t keep up with him. They were falling off left and right," says Barletta. "One agent finally fell off and broke his arm, and the President jumped off his horse and helped him. That’s when they said 'We’re supposed to be protecting him. He’s not supposed to be taking care of us.' " The agents stationed at the newly-elected President’s Santa Barbara ranch, Rancho del Cielo, sent out the call for help. John Barletta was in Washington, DC at the time, still protecting President Jimmy Carter as he prepared to leave office. "I was back at the White House and my boss said, ‘Does anybody know how to ride a horse’? I said ‘yeah, I do’. He said, ‘great, you’re going out to Santa Barbara tomorrow to ride with the President,’ and that was that." That day marked the beginning of a life that would shape Barletta and bring him a greater purpose than he could have ever thought possible.
“(President Reagan) had so much on his shoulders, and I was fortunate to escape on horseback with him for a few hours every day... .”
— John Barletta Former President Ronald Reagan's Secret Service Agent and Riding Partner
"I got out to Rancho del Cielo and the agent in charge said, 'the President wants to really ride — he wants to have fun on a horse, and he can’t because we can’t protect him.' Then, they introduced me to him — this wonderful, wonderful man. I could just see it in his eyes, 'oh, not another one that I’m going to have to babysit’. He didn’t say it, but I could feel it." As Barletta very soon discovered, the President was a consummate horseman and was undoubtedly at his happiest atop a horse. "We tacked up and went out that first day," says Barletta, "and he said 'John, I’d like to trot'. I said ‘Mr. President, you can do anything you want.' He was testing me. When he saw that I could do it, the President turns to me and says, 'John, I’d like to canter.' We got going at a fast clip for a while, and he raises his hand and says 'whoa.' I have no idea what he’s doing, and I run right by him," Barletta says, laughing. "His horse was going nutty because I went by him. He rides up to me and says, 'now John, when the commander of the cavalry tells his men to whoa, you stop.' I said, ‘it’ll never happen again Mr. President.' We both got a good laugh and headed on our way," Barletta says. "We’re running, we’re trotting and there was a tree down, so he jumps it. Thank God I knew how to jump, so I jump it with him," remembers Barletta. "We get on top of the hill where the helicopter pad was made — you look to one side and see the beautiful valley, and you look to the other side and see the Channel Islands. It’s just wonderful. He always swore that if it wasn’t heaven, it was in the same zip code. When we got back from our ride, he jumps off his horse and walks over to the boss, who was nervous to see how it went. He sort of touched the boss and looked over at me and said, 'you finally found me a good one.' " That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, Barletta hadn’t just proved himself as a rider but as a man in whom the President saw a likened soul.
As time went on, the bond between the two men grew, with each looking forward to their trips to the ranch, and the next time they could be on horseback together. "It’s a whole different world," says Barletta, "which people who ride horses know. When you ride together and talk, it’s blissful. It’s on a different level of friendship and trust." Regardless of where they were in the world, each time the two would have a moment together, they’d talk horses. Ahead of each trip the President would take to his beloved ranch, Barletta would make the trip early to ride the horses and ensure they weren’t too fresh for the soon to arrive President.
It wasn’t just his job. It was care taken by a friend for his riding partner and the horses they both loved. "I had a great sense of responsibility to look after the horses when I was there," says Barletta. One of those responsibilities was choosing a veterinarian to care for the President’s horses. For Barletta, a lifelong fascination with veterinary medicine and an old friend made the choice clear. He had met Dr. Doug Herthel years earlier, and after touring Herthel’s nearby clinic, Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, it was decided that he would become the President’s veterinarian.
Former President Ronald Reagan's Santa Barbara, California, ranch — Ranch del Cielo — served as an escape during his presidency.
"The horses roamed 680 acres on the President’s ranch. There were a lot of opportunities for them to get hurt out in nature," says Barletta. "I remember one time,” he continues, “I was looking at the horse that I rode, Gualianco, which was one of the President’s horses. He was a gray Arabian, and he looked just like the President’s horse. That was on purpose of course, so someone couldn’t tell us apart from a distance,” says Barletta. "I’m looking at him one day, and there’s a drop of blood at the back of his mouth. I open his jaw and his jaw was loose. I called Dr. Herthel, and he was pretty sure the horse had a broken jaw," Barletta remembers. "The road to the President’s ranch is very treacherous. So Dr. Herthel said, 'instead of bringing him down, if you’ll assist me, I’ll come up, and we’ll treat him on the ranch.' I thought, 'dear Lord, me assist you? Well, OK.' I called back to the White House to get the President’s permission, and he said, ‘do whatever you have to do. Whatever the vet says.' The President had a tremendous respect for his veterinarians," says Barletta. "He always went to the experts for the care of the horses and let them do their jobs. He knew people like Dr. Herthel knew best."
It was an experience that Barletta would never forget, treating a horse with his friend Dr. Herthel. "Dr. Herthel and I put Gualianco in the pasture that day, and he laid him down, then took a drill to his jaw and wired him up while I held him down. The horse healed up perfectly, and I was so interested to have seen that process happen. Gualianco was good as new after his jaw was repaired," says Barletta, “but there was one time I remember that things didn’t work out so good, when we weren’t able to save the President’s horse, Little Man. He loved that horse," remembers Barletta. On a trip to Palm Springs with the President, Barletta got a call telling him that Little Man had fallen into a ditch on the ranch and broken his neck. "Dr. Herthel called the Secret Service, who then got a hold of me,” recalls Barletta. He said, 'we have a major problem here. The President’s horse has a broken neck, and I’m going to have to put him down.' I found the President, and I told him, 'sir, we have a problem with one of the horses. It’s Little Man'. I told him what had happened, and he said 'I don’t want my horse suffering, tell Dr. Herthel to do what he has to do.' I told the President after it was done, ‘Dr. Herthel put him down. He went very quickly and peacefully.' " Barletta later found out that the President had personally called Dr. Herthel at the clinic to thank him for putting down his horse with compassion. "I remember Doug saying, 'I’ve certainly never gotten a call like that before at the clinic. Nevermind that it was from the President, but he was thanking me for taking his horse out of pain and putting him down.' " Barletta wasn’t surprised, “the President was always concerned about the horses and wanted the best for them, and he respected the people that took care of them and had to do the sad work of putting them down when it was a necessity."
As any horseman will tell you, there’s a lot about a man you can learn by the way he handles a horse. President Reagan’s approach to horses was direct, commanding respect but with earnest humility. He admired their power and soul. It was on the back of a horse that he felt centered, and perhaps that’s why his friendship with Barletta ran as deep as it did. Barletta knew the man away from the rest of the world. There’s a picture that still hangs in the Secret Service Command Post at Rancho del Cielo, of a younger Agent John Barletta atop Gualianco, riding next to President Reagan astride his constant mount El Alamein. The two horses look remarkably similar, both white grays and walking side-by-side. In President Reagan’s handwriting across the corner it reads, "Dear John. Looks like a matched pair — or 2 matched pairs. Ronald Reagan" "I learned patience from the President from our time riding together," says Barletta. “The way he handled El Alamein, who was always acting up, was a lesson in patience. He’d school him, then pat him on the neck. I never liked that horse because he was a lot of horse to handle, but every time I said something the President would pat him and say, 'oh John, he’s not that bad'. He didn’t have an ego," Barletta remembers with reverence. "That shocked me. Most people in politics have unbelievable egos, and if they don’t have one when they get there, they have one soon after. But President Reagan put everything else in front of him." Everything and everyone else, amongst those, the horses he loved and escaped to. "He taught me that if something didn’t work with a horse or in life, try it a different way," says Barletta. "He wasn’t someone who walked away from a tough situation, he stood firm, had compassion in his heart and a will that amazed me.” His compassion for the animals he loved was remarkable and evident from the private seclusion of Rancho del Cielo to his rides alongside Queen Elizabeth for all the world to see.
“The President appreciated his veterinarians’ bedside manner. He liked to be told in straight talk what the best decision was for the animal, but he appreciated the kindness and empathy that his veterinarians had.”
— John Barletta Former President Ronald Reagan's Secret Service Agent and Riding Partner
It wasn’t all the best of times for Barletta while protecting the President. "Our days at Rancho del Cielo were happy. They were days we both treasured," says Barletta. "But there was a bigger world beyond the ranch and real, pivotal, historic happenings that the President shaped for our future. He had so much on his shoulders, and I was fortunate to escape on horseback with him for a few hours every day while we were at the ranch. Here was this man that I was tasked to protect, and who I cared greatly for, and I had such an appreciation for the seriousness of what he was faced with." Serious it was, and Barletta was there for the moments that are forever marked in history. More grave still on the day that Barletta and the rest of the world nearly lost the man affectionately known as The Gipper. "I remember the assassination attempt, and after it happened, the first thing the President wanted to do was come back to his beloved ranch," remembers Barletta. "Mrs. Reagan was not keen on the idea of him riding while he was still recovering. She was chewing on him that first day back at the ranch. She was so protective of the President. If you messed with him, you got it from her. She is an incredible lady, and they had a love that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. That was as real as it gets," he says fondly of the lady he greatly admires. "She told him, 'there’s no running, there’s no jumping, you walk.' " Then, Mrs. Reagan looks at me and says, ‘do you have that John?’ You bet I did. She was dead serious. In typical fashion, President Reagan looks at me a ways down the trail and says, 'This would be a good spot for a nice trot.' I said 'Mr. President, you know what Mrs. Reagan said.' He looked back at me and said, 'Yeah but who’s going to tell her,' " Barletta remembers with a laugh. "So trot we did, and it was the best medicine for him."
Known for his love of the great Churchill quote, President Reagan would often repeat, "There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse." It was the epitome of his feeling for the animals that gave him freedom from the weights of the world.
by Jessie Bengoa,