One horse was most important in the making of Cesar de la Cruz. The world-class heeler from Arizona honed his skills on Johnny Ringo, nicknamed after one of Tombstone’s most notorious outlaws.
Johnny was instrumental in the early years of de la Cruz’s career, during which he’s earned a million dollars and been to eight straight NFRs. The whole time, fans couldn’t get enough of the fire-breathing little bay with smarts and a mile-wide proud streak. Johnny sports Doc O’Lena and Two Eyed Jack blood and came from de la Cruz’ uncle, George Aros.
“He was the best horse I’ve ever had,” said de la Cruz. “He took me to the final level in my roping. He loved to rope more than me. He’s why I got there.”
A few years ago, de la Cruz used Johnny Ringo at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for what he figured was the last time.
“By 2009, Johnny had sore feet and bad knees and was just kind of an old wore-out rope horse, even though he was only 12,” said de la Cruz. “Because his feet were sore, I couldn’t hardly exercise him, so it was hard to keep muscle mass on him. And he’s a cribber, so he was hard to keep fat anyway, especially if you can’t exercise him.”
His soundness and score continued declining until he was basically written off for the arena. Vets weren’t optimistic, and de la Cruz used Johnny very sparingly and less and less over the past five years.
The woman who owns Tucson (Arizona) Equestrian Center isn’t just into horse rehabilitation. Linda Colica began gleaning horse-training knowledge from the Nez Perce who migrated through her grandparents’ Texas trading post, and added to that over the years working for Buster Welch at the King Ranch and during stints with Ray Hunt and Tommy Manion.
She went to town on Johnny Ringo using common sense and old-school healing—and the results were dramatic.
“I had Johnny for basically a year before he was ready to go back to work,” she said. “And when Cesar picked him up, his vet asked him, ‘What horse is this?’”
That was last summer. With no drugs or injections, Johnny was completely sound. De la Cruz took him straight to Salinas where Johnny blew out of the box so hard that de la Cruz blew a stirrup. They won Salinas and just kept winning. Miraculously, de la Cruz used Johnny through the entire 2013 Wrangler NFR except the night he pulled a shoe.
Colica started by putting Johnny on a twice-daily complete feed called Lakin Lite. A lot of performance horses have compromised teeth from age or processed-food diets or aggressive dentistry, and they can’t chew their hay well. Pellets, then, deliver the nutrients even if a horse can’t chew hay efficiently.
“A horse has to have hay, and this is the baby-food version of hay,” she said of the pellets. “So it has a higher rate of digestion.”
Besides diet and going barefoot with a balanced trim, Johnny flourished with hydrotherapy. Rather than swim, he would power-walk through water up to his withers five days a week in the AquaStride. It’s basically a water-filled track, 150 feet long, eight feet wide and five feet deep. Horses can touch the bottom, so there’s no risk of over-extending body parts or drowning. Plus, going in a straight line works both sides of the body at once.
“To move forward, they really have to displace a lot of water,” Colica said. “It’s resistance training without tearing the body up.”
De la Cruz says it’s like she’s training fighters; getting horses in fighting shape.
“Mohammad Ali used to work out by throwing punches and moving around underwater,” he said. “The resistance really builds muscle with no pounding the ground.”
Each workout is dictated by heart monitors, while ultraviolet lights oxidize the water, accelerating healing and conditioning. But Colica believes that, more than anything, wellness happens when you keep a horse moving. Just doing something every day. That’s the simple key.
Now 17, Johnny has never looked so good, or been so athletically superb. Look for him to get the call at the Reno Rodeo and during the lucrative July run.
“He gets so excited to go to the rodeos,” said de la Cruz, who is pretty sure he could heel on Johnny with no bridle. “He gets more excited than I do. I’m kind of in his way. I mostly just put my hand on his neck and kick.”
Truly, nothing could describe the feeling when de la Cruz reared back on two feet in 4.4 seconds last December on little Johnny Ringo to split the 10th round.
“I was pumped up,” he said. “And Johnny kind of knows when he wins—he perked his little chest out. I can’t thank Miss Linda enough. If not for her, I wouldn’t even be able to ride this horse.”