Photography: Brian Starkman

American sculptor Donald L. Reed's heroic equestrian statue of the 40th president is unveiled February 6 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Born February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Reagan would grow up to become the 40th president of the United States. It’s been years since he left office on January 20, 1989, and since his death on June 5, 2004.

Gone but not forgotten, Reagan is perhaps most alive in his legacy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, located at 40 Presidential Drive (naturally) in the horseback country he loved so much. Now, Reagan rides again with the library’s unveiling of a new equestrian sculpture called Along the Trail on what would have been the president’s 105th birthday, February 6, 2016.

Along the Trail depicts the late president astride his favorite horse, El Alamein. Standing more than 11 feet high and weighing more than 2,500 pounds, it took close to 10,000 hours to complete. For American sculptor Donald L. Reed, the heroic piece is a magnum opus in a fine art career that spans more than 50 years and demonstrates an exceptional ability to capture movement, likeness, and character in sculpture and metalwork.

C&I talked with Reed and the Reagan Library’s Joanne Drake about the new Reagan work of art.

Cowboys & Indians: Tell us about the exciting new sculpture.
Donald Reed: The Reagan Foundation commissioned me to create a portrait of President Reagan astride his favorite horse, El Alamein. The piece, which is entitled Along the Trail, is one-third of what I refer to as the Trail series. Begins the Trail is a life-size sculpture already installed in the president’s hometown in Illinois. It marks his early years and his enthusiasm for horseback riding. Along the Trail is the second piece in the series, and it captures the moment of President Reagan in his later years riding while living in California. He’s older and probably retired, just riding and enjoying himself. He rode as long as he was alive and able. The third piece in the series has not been named, but it should be a piece for Washington, D.C., commemorating his years as president, also with him on horseback.

C&I: Why did you decide to portray Reagan horseback? Did you work from a photo?
Reed: The real answer is that someone, years ago, asked me to do a proposal for a life-size portrait of President Reagan. I decided, instead, to create the threefold Trail series concept and portrayed the president in his youth on horseback. It always seemed that the president appeared happiest while riding horses. I assumed that he found great solace while riding, as well as a connection with the world around him. I am betting that he did his best thinking while riding.

I reviewed what I believe to be the entire photographic library available on the president, as well as his films and television series (Death Valley Days, etc.). I selected, perhaps, a hundred photos of the president and El Alamein to work from.

C&I: What attributes of Reagan were you hoping to portray? What emotions were you hoping to convey/elicit?
Reed: Simply his good nature, his outgoing personality, and exuberance while riding. His style, the way the horse and rider are saddled and attired — that’s all authentic. Hopefully, the viewer will sense or see the spirit of America, the West, and be inspired.

Photography: Towner Kylee Reed
Photography: Towner Kylee Reed

C&I: Tell us more about the horse, El Alamein, whose name, I imagine, comes from the town in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean where British forces under Bernard Montgomery won a decisive battle against Erwin Rommel’s German troops in November 1942.
Reed: El Alamein was a gift to President Reagan from the president of Mexico, José López Portillo. He is a Spanish Arabian stallion. President Reagan kept him as a personal gift because he was not in any official office when the gift was made. I believe El Alamein, who was not particularly friendly to any other riders apart from the president, became his favorite because of the challenge he presented. President Reagan rode with the style of a military rider, which he learned in the U.S. Cavalry as a young man. As a result, most photos show clearly that he held a very tight rein on any horse that he rode.

El Alamein was a tough horse. I only recently found the answer to a question that I have been thinking about for the past several years: What ever happened to El Alamein? My friend, Johnny Z., sent me a note confirming that he was finally buried on Boot Hill at the Reagan ranch, along with many of the Reagan family’s pets. Whereas I attempted to do a journeyman job of sculpting the president, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of sculpting his white horse. I believe that it is an acceptable and exceptional rendition.

C&I: What was the hardest thing to get right on Reagan? On El Alamein?
Reed: Such an easy question — to keep from having his portrait appear to be a caricature of what we all imagine him to have looked like. It seems that everyone knows the smile and his hair, but it was a huge challenge to make him appear as his good-natured self without over-accentuating some of the features. President Reagan’s face is at once easy to portray but, in reality, is incredibly complex. I believe the proof of whether his portrait is successful or not will be answered by the American public who knew him so well.

El Alamein was no less of a challenge. Any artist can do a portrait of a horse, but the challenge is to make it look like the horse they are attempting to portray. I took as little artistic license in fashioning the president and El Alamein as possible.

C&I: With all that went into it, it must have been a nerve-racking adventure getting the finished sculpture installed. …
Reed: Actually, I was rather calm. It was my family who were far more concerned, mostly on my behalf. I’ve been in a foundry setting for over 40 years — not much phases me.

We began preparations for packing and shipping mid-January and loaded the sculpture on a snowy day in southern Wisconsin. The statue went inside of a crate that took two and a half days to engineer and build for its trip across the country.

It was shipped by tractor trailer and was driven by two gentlemen —both proud military veterans. They knew they were carrying a cargo worth $1.75 million — that was the insurance value of the shipment. They were careful, needless to say. I was told that there were maybe two small potholes along the way and the rest of the ride was smooth. It’s just been perfect — like someone was watching over everything. It was two days’ worth of continuous driving. They never pulled over, except for necessities.

Once in Simi Valley, we began the process of unpacking. There was so much wind, probably 40 to 60 miles an hour at times up on the hill, 30 to 40 continuously. We were concerned about the sides of the box collapsing on the piece. The biggest challenge was picking up the casting out of the box and moving it to the actual installation site about 60 feet away. We are talking about 1.5 tons of bronze and stainless steel. The horse and rider are cast out of bronze and the armature is made of stainless. The armature runs all the way through the piece, down through the legs into the footings, which are anchored underground and are secured by tons of sand and concrete. There’s no sub-base — it looks just like the horse and rider are walking across the field.

During the installation process, I slept about 20 hours, maybe 15, from Sunday to Thursday waiting on the elements. In the end, it was approximately no more than a micro-fraction of an inch off of what I anticipated from shop to location — almost perfect. Mr. Reagan saw to the rest. In a few months or a year, it will sit right up in perfect position. He’ll be there from here to eternity.

C&I: It all sounds very sturdy. Any concern about people monkeying around on the reins? And it’s in earthquake-country. …
Reed: They were a little worried about the reins, worried someone would jump up and hang off of them. I assured them of two things, the first being that the piece is made from the sturdiest materials and the second is what I would like to call the California Guarantee. Air Force One and its pavilion sit about 300 feet away. Should there be an earthquake significant enough to do anything and if Air Force One is still standing, so will Along the Trail. If Air Force One is 1,000 feet down in the arroyo after an earthquake, Along the Trail will probably be a hood ornament.

C&I: Assuming that doesn’t ever happen and that it’s there for all of posterity ...
Reed: What you wouldn’t know by looking at it — all 11 feet tall and 11 to 12 feet long from tip to tail — is that inside of the piece is a securely placed container. Its contents include a piece of the Berlin Wall and one of President Reagan’s cowboy belt buckles with his R.R. insignia. For all of the pieces in my Great American series, I try to put a small eagle head somewhere, an Easter egg if you will. On this piece, it’s woven into El Alamein’s tail. The belt buckle that the president is wearing is styled after the one that he wore at the Santa Barbara ranch during Gorbachev’s visit.

C&I: You speak with reverence about President Reagan. This piece was obviously both a personal and professional highlight. ...
Reed: Growing up in northern Illinois, paddling canoes in the Rock River in the same region where Reagan spent his summers, and having ridden horses in the mountains in the Ojai Valley, it feels like our paths ran parallel at pivotal points in both of our lives. In Malibu, I once saw him out on the sand all by himself, hand over heart, watching the colors withdrawn, while he was governor of California. He was a real patriot. I hope that Americans take to this portrait of President Reagan and that Along the Trail will become emblematic of the spirit of one of our greatest presidents and the spirit of America.

long the Trail." Photography: Towner Kylee Reed
Photography: Towner Kylee Reed

Cowboys & Indians: Joanne, as the Chief Administrative Officer of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library, can you tell us where the statue was installed and why the particular site was selected?
Joanne Drake: Along the Trail is installed in front of the Air Force One Pavilion, with the pristine undeveloped landscape of rolling hills as the backdrop. It sits in a location that appears as if Ronald Reagan has just come up over the horizon and is riding along the trail heading west. This magnificent statue will be a highlight for visitors as they tour the museum grounds.

C&I: I imagine Ronald Reagan has been commemorated in bronze numerous times by now. What’s special about Donald L. Reed’s sculpture?
Drake: Along the Trail is different from any other bronze that has been done to date of Ronald Reagan, due in part to its size at almost 2,500 pounds and in part to his natural incorporation of the horse. Don was able to capture movement and character in both the horse and body of our nation’s 40th president, making it appear as if he is riding along the trails of his beloved ranch just north of Santa Barbara.

The strength and beauty of the piece are really quite dramatic when you see it from a distance but more intense when you walk up to it. The detailed work on the horse, especially its physique, the president’s boots, the reins and medallion, the clothing, his watch and belt buckle, the warm tones of the “leather” pieces, all make it feel realistic. And when you walk around the statue, you get a different feeling from every angle. At one point, you honestly feel as if the president is about to tell you a story, and from a different standpoint, if you’re close to the horse (and I know that not many were willing to be close to El Alamein, as he was a “spirited” creature), you get the impression that he’s anxiously awaiting orders from the president to get moving.

C&I: Tell us a little about Simi Valley, the home of the presidential library and the site of the sculpture.
Drake: Simi Valley has served as the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum since the official groundbreaking in 1988. The site was chosen by Ronald and Nancy Reagan because of its unique location, about halfway between their home in Los Angeles and [their] Rancho del Cielo just north of Santa Barbara. Upon seeing the property for the first time, President Reagan commented that he thought it reminded him of the ranch, with the rolling hills, the California live oak trees, and the view of the Pacific Ocean.

C&I: What was the presidential library’s role in bringing this to fruition?
Drake: We were fortunate to partner with Diane Hendricks, the CEO of Hendricks Holding Company, in Beloit, Wisconsin, to raise funds for the Along the Trail statue campaign. As President Reagan would have wanted, no taxpayer dollars are used for any of the projects or programs at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, including this statue campaign, so it was important that all the money be gifted by private donors. Diane was a great chair for the campaign and we are thrilled to be unveiling the statute on February 6, 2016, the day that would have been President Reagan’s 105th birthday. This extraordinary piece commemorates the life of one of the most influential men of the 20th century, who truly embodied American values and the spirit of the West.

Along the Trail was a project of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which is the nonprofit 501(c)3, nonpartisan organization founded by President Ronald Reagan to preserve and promote his legacy. It sustains the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, the Reagan Center for Public Affairs, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center, and the Air Force One Pavilion. The library houses 63 million pages of gubernatorial, presidential, and personal papers, and over 60,000 gifts and artifacts chronicling the lives of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The library also serves as the final resting place of America’s 40th president.

The library has hosted more than 2 million visitors to date and we expect upwards of half a million people from across the country and around the world to visit this year, including the more than 60,000 students who visit as part of educational programming and field trips. The Air Force One Discovery Center provides a very unique experiential learning opportunity for students to role-play historic figures from the Reagan administration and develop a greater understanding of government. The Center for Public Affairs provides a forum of ideas where influential leaders from government, business, the media, and academia apply the lessons learned during Ronald Reagan’s remarkable presidency. The public is also invited to observe national holidays through performance and interactive learning activities for President’s Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. Each of these programs, provided at no charge, attracts thousands of visitors and teaches children lessons of American history in fun and memorable ways.

Finally, the Reagan Library has become a destination spot in Southern California because, in addition to the permanent exhibition, it hosts two to four temporary exhibits each year. In fact, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is the exclusive West Coast destination for Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art, one of the rarest collections of Vatican art and objects to ever visit North America. This 12,000-square-foot exhibition will be on view from March 6 through August 28.

About Donald L. Reed

Donald Reed grew up in Oregon, Illinois, a stone’s throw away from Lowell Park, where Ronald Reagan was once a lifeguard. “I started studying sculpture when I was 12,” Reed says. “I had great mentors along the way. I am joined by the fourth generation in my craft as a sculptor and foundry expert by my daughter, Towner Kylee Reed, and my wife, Linda, who has been working with me in the art world of sculpture for 35 years. We are a tremendous family and are currently still engaged in casting metals — bronze, silver, and others — on a daily basis. I have been fortunate enough to have worked alongside and directed several gifted foundry crews over the course of my career.”

Reed went to high school in Ojai, California, at the Thacher School and college at UC-Berkeley. He also attended the Sorbonne in Paris. After apprenticing at the Berkeley Art Foundry, he returned to Illinois. There, he began an art casting facility, Rivers Edge Foundry, in the mid-1970s, putting to artistic use his extensive experience working in his family’s iron foundries, which have more than a century’s worth of rich industrial history.

Photography: Towner Kylee Reed
Photography: Towner Kylee Reed