Of the 126 volunteer docents at Tohono Chul Park, only one draws crowds, performs tricks and openly welcomes caresses from admirers.
His name is Rickie. No last name. He has a handler who deals with interview requests. He doesn’t do his own driving or sign autographs. It’s not that he’s being pretentious. It’s just that he happens to be a horse.
Once a month for an hour, the 4-year-old Wilbur-Cruce Spanish barb makes his rounds at the park, with owner Maureen Kirk-Detberner in tow.
In tours dubbed “Roving with Rickie,” he appears the third Saturday of each month at the park, at 7366 N. Paseo del Norte, which houses an art gallery, shops and bistro, as well as displays and sales of flora and fauna. Rickie will next lead a tour at 10 a.m. Dec. 21.
Jo Falls, Tohono Chul’s director of education, said Rickie brightens up the park, as well as guests’ visits. Rickie stood out during an audition of sorts.
“He was made an honorary docent this year. We did an exhibit about a year ago — ‘Horse Country: Horses in the Southwest.’ It was basically art surrounding the theme of horses in the West,” Falls said.
“Without horses, we would not have obtained the West. We had a couple of Spanish barb horses at the park, and got in touch with the owner, who asked about whether or not we would have Rickie in the park walking the grounds as she tells people information about this particular breed and how wonderful they are.”
Wilson-Cruce Spanish barbs, known for their small stature and easygoing manner, can trace their lineage back to horses used by groups led by Father Eusebio Kino in the 18th century.
Falls said Rickie usually draws crowds of up to 30, picking up more and more onlookers as he catches park visitors’ eyes.
“It’s a nice hour,” Falls said. “People just love to see animals up close like that. Spanish barbs are relatively small horses in comparison, and not overwhelming to others. Kids, in particular, seem to like him. He’s very mellow and a little frisky because he’s still a kid.”
Kirk-Detberner, a member of the Spanish Barb Horse Association, said she knew Rickie and Tohono Chul would be a fitting match. She said Spanish barbs are critically endangered. She sees Rickie’s docent gig as a way to spread awareness about the horse and its history.
Plus, Rickie really likes to do it.
“He’s just really good in public. Very nice with people,” she said. “In particular, he loves people to pet him and talk to him. He has three tricks that he does. He can bow and say yes and no by bobbing his head.”
Kirk-Detberner works with Rickie as often as four times a week, up to 30 minutes per session, on the tricks.
Although Rickie is beloved at Tohono Chul, he can cause mischief.
“When he’s out in the park, he wants to eat everything,” Kirk-Detberner said. “He sees mesquite trees and beans. That’s a natural diet for these horses. They’re from the desert and live on the desert, so that’s something they would be used to eating.”
Tohono Chul can spare the odd mouthful of mesquite beans to keep its guest of honor happy.
“I think the nice thing is he adds a little bit of history and culture,” Falls said. “He’s not plant-oriented, but he helps people learn something about the Spanish and what they brought to the Southwest. It’s just something very different. I don’t know of anybody else that has a horse docent. He’s just a great representative of Tohono Chul and what we try to do here, in connection to nature, art and culture.”