Reagan: Simple, Rugged and Sturdy

It is not often that a young person can connect with the personal side of the President of the United States, but John Barletta’s new book, Riding With Reagan, allowed me to do just that better than any other book I have ever read about President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was elected one year before I was born. Some of my earliest memories include watching Reagan on the evening news with my mother. Because I was so young, I had no way to understand the profound impact this man was having on our country and our world. But there was so much more to Reagan than the news conveyed: the simplicity and consistency of his character, which is well described by Barletta in Riding With Reagan.

Barletta was lucky enough to be a close friend of the President after spending many hours on horseback with him at his beloved Rancho Del Cielo. Starting as a Secret Service agent for President Jimmy Carter, Barletta was eventually assigned to the Reagan Ranch because he was one in a handful of agents who could actually ride horses. He and Reagan almost instantly became friends through their long rides in the open wilderness of the California hills.

The greatest strength of this book is the wide range of personal anecdotes that show the personal side of Reagan—“simple, rugged, and sturdy” as Barletta describes. They make Riding With Reagan hard to put down, because the reader can easily relate to Barletta and Reagan. The President did not discuss politics during his horse rides, interesting, when you’re talking about the leader of the free world. Barletta explains how he preferred to notice the beauty of nature, which he saw as a gift from God, hence the title “Rancho del Cielo” or “Ranch in Heaven.”

Some of Barletta’s stories involve world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth and Mikhail Gorbachev. Others involve the intimate details of horseback riding, including what type of saddles the President preferred and the way in which he tied them. I particularly enjoyed the stories about the KGB agents who accompanied Gorbachev and how they had never known anything other than a uniform Communist system. Barletta tells us that some of the agents were even fascinated by simple things like a gas pump and a department store.

Riding With Reagan catalogues the President’s last years on a horse and his eventual inability to ride safely. It was Barletta who was tasked with telling the former President he should no longer continue his favorite pastime of horseback riding. The book describes the President’s time before Alzheimer’s disallowed his public appearances. It also discusses how Barletta was riding a horse when he received word of the President’s death, the way he claims the President would want it.

I had the opportunity to experience the Reagan Ranch in 2004 thanks to the Young America’s Foundation, for which I now work. The Young America’s Foundation saved the property in 1998 and is preserving it as a permanent monument to educate young people about our 40th President. When I visited, I was moved by the modesty and simplicity of the ranch. From the blue “gipper” Jeep to the tack barn to the house, Reagan’s “simple, rugged, and sturdy” style is personified."