When the veterinarian's at a loss, calls go out to Ron Barker
Chris Conboy, 52, was worried. Crackerjack, her 18-year-old quarter horse, could barely walk. Conboy turned to the stable owner where she boarded her horse, but even with his 40 years of experience with horses, Crackerjack kept getting worse. Conboy tried icing his leg, wrapping it and using every type of ointment she could find. Nothing helped. In fact, he now dragged his foot when he hobbled along.
It was time to call in the veterinarian. Canby's Dr. Michael Harms examined Crackerjack, shook his head, and gave Conboy bad news: Crackerjack's hips weren't lined up, and there was nothing he could do.
But he knew somebody who might be able to help - Ron Barker, 58, a Canby High School biology teacher and football coach who also treated horses. While Barker's methods using acupressure, massage therapy and chiropractic treatments were nontraditional for horses, rodeo people swore by him, and Harms had seen Barker work his brand of magic numerous times.
So Conboy gave Barker a call.
'It was incredible,' Conboy says. 'Ron has a true gift with horses. He got Crackerjack to relax almost immediately. When Ron began working on him, I could see the relief in Crackerjack's face and eyes. Every once in a while Crackerjack would get a quizzical look in his eyes while Ron was working on his hips. He'd turn to look at Ron as if to say, 'What are you doing back there?' But Crackerjack never resisted. The whole thing took no more than 45 minutes.'
After the treatment, Barker told Conboy she should see results within two weeks.
'But five days later,' she says, 'Crackerjack was running around the corral like a young colt. The other horses didn't know quite what to make of him, he was so frisky.'
Barker, a big man with a soft voice and easy laugh, is humble about his work with horses.
'It's just another tool we have to help animals,' he says. 'Like all animals, horses have energy paths that can get blocked. Acupressure, massage therapy and chiropractic treatment helps get that energy flowing right again. Getting the chi flowing through the meridians correctly solves a lot of ailments.'
He shakes his head and grins. 'Twenty years ago, I would have thought this was a bunch of hocus-pocus, but it works. It doesn't take the place of what vets do, but it complements traditional treatment methods and can sometimes help where conventional medicine can't quite do the trick.'
Harms agrees: 'Ron's methods definitely have a place. He's a good horseman to begin with and does an excellent job relieving pain and soreness in animals. I've referred many clients to him knowing he'll help them out.'
Rodeo, science skills combine
Barker has always been interested in horses, and they have always been a part of his life. His father, sister, wife and children - now adults - all own and ride horses.
'Rodeo is a family tradition,' he says. 'My daughter, her husband and I all compete. My son did, too, until he suffered a serious injury riding a while back and had to give it up.'
Barker himself started competing in rodeos when he was in high school and has done almost everything from roping to steer wrestling, which he says is an incredible rush.
Science also fascinates Barker. He has been a biology teacher for 26 years.
'Taking classes to learn how to treat sore and injured horses was a logical thing to do,' he says. He credits his sister, Jeannie Cassell, 57, a horsewoman and former physical therapist, for introducing him to acupressure and massage therapy for horses.
'She had begun working on horses using these techniques, and I went down to California, which is where she lives, to take a class she recommended to find out what it was all about,' he says.
Impressed with the possibilities the alternative treatments offered, Barker continued studying acupressure. He added massage therapy and chiropractic classes to his studies and about six years ago became a certified equine adjuster, recognized by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
Pressure needs no needles
Acupressure is not a new practice. It originated in China about 5,000 years ago. It is similar to acupuncture, but instead of using needles, practitioners use their fingers, hands and elbows to achieve results.
'Acupressure is based on energy flowing through meridians,' Barker explains. 'Horses have meridians for all organs in their bodies. By using touch points, I try to create a homeostatic situation to relieve tension on muscles.'
Barker says a few other people in the area also use these techniques on horses, but he acknowledges there aren't many of them.
'A lot of people are still skeptical about this. One of my friends is a horse trainer. When his horse bucked him I told him maybe he needed to get into a new line of work and suggested he study acupressure. He told me he didn't believe in that stuff at all, but a year later, one of his horses developed a neck problem and he asked me to take a look. After one treatment, his horse was fine. He's rethinking his position now.'
Many others are eager for Barker's services. In fact, he can't keep up with the demand, and unless it's an emergency clients have to schedule a week or so in advance. On a typical month, he treats 30 to 60 horses, working evenings and weekends. He's particularly busy during the rodeo season.
'Horses are athletes,' he says, 'and if they aren't feeling well, they can't compete to their full potential.'
'He was one happy horse'
One of Barker's first successes was with a horse with a bad stomachache. Since horses can't vomit, a buildup of fluid in a horse's stomach can be life-threatening.
'It was winter, and the ground was frozen,' Barker recalls. 'The horse was out in the field without any shoes, and he didn't drink anything because he didn't want to walk across the ground to the water barefooted. So the first chance he had to drink, he drank way too much and way too fast. He was just in agony. I worked on him to help him urinate. I tell you, when the treatment worked, he was one happy horse.'
Horses in general are responsive to acupressure, Barker says.
'When I first see a horse with a problem, I introduce myself and then work a couple of meridians to help them relax. They'll tell you they like it - you can read their body language and watch their ears. If a horse has his ears pinned back, you know he's not a happy camper, so I wait until he's more relaxed. Once that happens, I work on the problem.'
While the primary problems Barker sees are in the neck or hip areas, his techniques can also help other parts of a horse's anatomy.
'Sometimes horses take bad steps or slip. They pull muscles when they're competing,' Barker says. 'I can't solve every problem; some areas are not friendly to chiropractic healing.
'When I don't think I can help or I'm leery of a problem, I call a vet, just like vets sometimes call me if they think what I do is the best option for treating a horse,' he says. 'I have tremendous respect for vets and their expertise. I just bring another approach that can help keep a horse healthy.'
Many calls means no days off
Barker travels as far south as Roseburg and as far as north as Longview, Wash. He works on barrel horses, roping horses, hunt and jumper horses and trail horses, and he's even treated Clydesdales, which are driving horses. He can't remember the last time he had a day off, but he isn't one to complain.
'I love horses. I love being around people who have horses,' he says. 'I get to meet a lot of good people in my line of work, so it doesn't seem like work at all.'
In addition to healing horses, Barker also runs rodeo clinics, teaching kids and adults how to rope. He was one of the people instrumental in reviving a rodeo club in Molalla High School about 18 years ago that still exists today.
Of course, he also makes time to ride and tend to his own three horses and spends time with his four dogs. In fact, he even uses acupressure and massage therapy on dogs.
'Pain isn't good for any living thing,' he says. 'I do what I can to relieve it. My sister says it's almost like the pain flows from the animal through her. I don't want to sound too weird about it or anything, but healing gives you that sense sometimes.'