By Amy Bower-Doucette
Special to The Post
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
It’s only natural that a horse belonging to a physical education teacher would play soccer.
Ringo is a 4-year-old Swedish warmblood owned by 24-year- old Stephanie Spray, a P.E. teacher at H.L. Johnson Elementary in Royal Palm Beach. The fact that he kicks a soccer ball back to whomever kicks it to him is amazing enough.
“Sometimes he’ll kick it with his back legs which is really funny,” Spray said. “Horses aren’t that coordinated. He gets it 40 to 50 percent of the time.”
The more notable fact about Ringo is that he is deaf.
Spray thinks an injury Ringo suffered when he was about a year old caused the deafness.
“He reared up and flipped backwards,” she said. “For a long time I thought I was going to have to put him down. He would stand in his stall and just fall over. He couldn’t stand on his own. The vets seem to think that when he went backwards, he bumped his head.”
His hearing problem wasn’t noticed until it came time to train him. Spray was out at the barn one day and noticed that Ringo was lying down flat in his stall.
“Most horses have their head up when they are lying down,” she said. “He was sprawled on the floor, head down, legs flat out. It’s rare for a horse to sleep like that because they’re considered prey. I opened the door and walked into the stall and he didn’t even flinch. Most horses will jump up when they hear the door open. I walked over and he still didn’t move. I was clapping my hands and wondering what was happening. I finally touched him and he jumped up like he just noticed me. My trainer said we should stand behind him and make some noise. He never responded to any noises.”
Spray, who lives in Wellington, used natural horsemanship to train Ringo. Natural horsemanship is a way of training a horse that works with its instincts. It uses a lot of hand gestures and body language, so it works well for horses that can’t hear. Spray hired an expert in the technique to work with Ringo after he recovered from his injury.
“It got to the point where he could just point to where he wanted him to move and the horse would move,” she said. “I was blown away.”
Spray thinks there are a lot of advantages to owning a deaf horse.
“When we’re on the trails, dog barks and cars and the big dump trucks don’t affect him,” she said.
On July Fourth, when a lot of horse owners have to worry about their horses stressing out and making themselves sick from the noise of fireworks, Spray can rest easy.
“I know a lot of people had a really hard time with their horses. That was great. I didn’t have to worry about him. I went out to check on him. I thought, well, maybe he can hear. The fireworks were going off and he was sleeping in his stall.”
Being deaf has never slowed Ringo down. He is the favorite at the barn where Spray boards him.
“When you walk by, he cranes his whole head around upside down to get you to come over,” she said.
“When he’s out in the pasture he’ll chase you around the paddock if you go out to play with him. I’ve never had a horse with that much personality before.”
Ringo’s curious personality led to his soccer hobby.
“My friends and I were out at the barn kicking a soccer ball back and forth,” Spray said.
“He was so intent on watching it. I wondered what he would do if I kicked it at him. The first time he completely jumped over it. He took his foot and walked through it and kicked it. He followed it around the paddock.”
Ringo and his big personality provide endless entertainment to everyone around him.
“We can sit in the paddock and just watch him,” Spray said.