Susie DeRouchey waves a lot.
No, really. Like a lot lot.
When she’s riding the Chiefs’ spirit horse Warpaint on the field after touchdowns, she waves to the 70,000 Arrowhead faithful. She waves to the kiddos who squeeee! when they see the horse around the Truman Sports Complex.
She even waves to the over-inebriated tailgating hoopleheads who fire high-pitched wolf-whistles her way when they see her leading the pre-game parade around the stadium.
Occasionally, she even waves when she doesn’t mean to.
“Sometimes I’ll catch myself — crossing the street I’ll give people a wave,” she said, laughing, “and I’ll be like, I don’t have to be on ‘appearance mode’ right now.”
DeRouchey has been riding Warpaint since 2009. It was the Chiefs’ 50th anniversary year, and the organization decided to bring back the Arrowhead tradition. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. The fans demanded more.
She was a Chiefs cheerleader at the time, and because her director knew she had a long history with horses, it was a no-brainer. In a way, it’s a job DeRouchey has been training for since she was a toddler. And it’s also something of an extension of her career as a counselor who specializes in equine therapy.
“I never tell people what I do with the Chiefs,” she said the other day while sitting in her outdoor “office” on a farm near Lone Jack. “One of my people had just seen me for a session two weeks ago, and then they saw me on TV riding Warpaint. And the girl said to her mom, ‘Mom, I think that’s my counselor.’ ”
And if that revelation isn’t too much of a shocker, saddle up, because this might blow your mind:
There isn’t just one Warpaint. There are two.
When she speaks, DeRouchey’s long “o’s” betray her Minnesota roots. She says folks kid her all the time about her accent.
“They’re like, ‘Where you from? Canada?” she says, laughing. “ ‘Nooo, Minnesota. But close.’ ”
She actually grew up on a farm near Walnut Grove, Minn., a childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s near the setting of “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”
DeRouchey rode her first horse when she was 3. She rode in 4-H and FFA shows as a kid. She still rides professionally.
“I used to eat, breathe and sleep horses,” she said. “Every day my family would find me down in the barn, and I would just do anything I could to be around horses or with people who had horses or reading all the horse books and collecting all the figurines. It’s always just kind of stuck with me.”
Even as a kid, she knew she wanted to find some way to use horses to help people. She didn’t know how it would all fit together until she learned about equine psychotherapy during her time as a Jackrabbit at South Dakota State University
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I need to figure out how to do that,’ ” she said. “It was just kind of a unique opportunity using horses to get people the help that they need.”
Senior and Junior
DeRouchey opened her practice, Country Crossroads Counseling, about two years ago. Her wood-paneled bunkhouse-style indoor office is in the same stable and arena where the Chiefs board Warpaint. Or Warpaints.
More than a half dozen horses have played the role over the years. There are two now because the Chiefs are preparing for the future. The horse they’ve been using is 19 and approaching the end of her career, said trainer Merle Arbo. The younger one, which they call Junior, is 5. Arbo found her online.
“We looked all over,” Arbo said. “Finally I found a little mare on Craigslist, and I thought, ‘You know, that thing’s marked a lot like Warpaint.’ ”
Before he even saw her in person, Arbo was going to buy her if the Chiefs didn’t want her. He said Junior may have had a rough start in life. She was small and malnourished, looking a little out of place among the other show horses in the stables. After Junior arrived, he had DeRouchey come see her.
“She goes down and looks at her and she says, ‘Noo! I’ll look like a giant on that thing!’ ” he said. “But we got (Junior) in here and we got her fed and she started looking like a horse. A lot of people at the games can’t even tell them apart now.”
DeRouchey said she didn’t know what to expect. The elder Warpaint has been working so long she’s essentially bomb-proof.
“The first time that we brought both of them to the game and I rode Junior for the first time, I went into the locker room and talked to my director and I cried, because I was so attached to Senior that it was sad to see her on the trailer and not be rode,” DeRouchey said. “But now I’ve formed that bond with Junior. So I love ’em both. I’m lucky. I’ve got two good horses to ride.”
DeRouchey is proud to say that, through counseling, she’s saved a few marriages and helped several people work through grief. She said depression and anxiety are big problems in rural areas.
One client who had seen limited success with past therapists found some comfort after just a couple of visits to her practice.
“She was kind of a country girl herself,” DeRouchey said. “She’s living a totally different life than she was before.”
DeRouchey has seen even the hardest or most withdrawn of teens relax after just a few visits to the farm and stables. A high school girl had lost her father and was quiet and reserved. But then DeRouchey had her brush one of the horses.
“She would open up and share just beautiful things,” DeRouchey said. “It really helped with her healing process. And I always feel like with high-schoolers, when you can get them moving, then they talk. That’s why I love these trails out here. People will talk when they’re walking.”
Getting people moving in their lives might be the key to solving several problems. When asked what she considered a major source of unhappiness in people’s lives, DeRouchey took a minute to think about it and then said, “Social media.”
“Obviously it connects people around the world and helps us communicate,” she said. “But then it also can be a really big problem, especially for high schoolers. I work with a lot of teens who will get on Snapchat or Twitter and the bullying will start.”
And before anyone reading this starts mentally wagging fingers at the “kids today on their cellphones,” they should understand that social media envy is a problem for grown-ups, too.
“I work with a lot of adults, and when they look at Facebook sometimes they compare themselves to other families and what they are doing, and it can lead to depression and self-esteem issues,” she said. “People kind of only portray the best parts of their life on social media. They never say the hard stuff. I’ve seen a lot of that this year.”
News of her practice has been getting out. She’s had to hire on staff because people have been recommending her.
“They get to feeling better and all of a sudden I’ve got their cousin coming in,” she said. “And the doctor in town is sending me a lot of people. The word of mouth in this area has really spread, and that’s really nice.”
A role model
As a counselor, DeRouchey tries to keep the Chiefs “Susie and Warpaint” thing on the down-low. But the internet makes the world a smaller place. People find out. It’s not an entirely bad thing.
“Sometimes when they do know, I feel like it’s really motivating to them to work really hard and try in school,” she said. “And I think when they can see a positive female role model, I feel like that really helps them go for their dreams.”
She definitely lives that role model thing. At a pregame meet-and-greet outside Arrowhead two weeks ago, she smiled, talked and took selfies with fans for more than an hour. Keep in mind, it was 40 degrees with a nasty wind out of the north, and the Susie the Cheerleader outfit she wore — while warmer than some of the other 10 Chiefs outfits she has for her job — wasn’t the most suitable gear for the environment.
She was super nice to everyone, though, and she really turned it on for the little girls who stopped by.
“I know growing up being a cheerleader and a dancer and somebody into horses I always looked up to other females who were positive people,” she said. “So I just kind of always go back and kind of remember how exciting it was to see people that follow their dreams and accomplish big goals in their life.”
As game time approached that Sunday, Susie got up on the horse and headed over to the southwest side of the stadium to lead the pre-game parade.
Nearly everyone along the way stopped to gawk or take pictures. A Spanish-speaking family crossed the road in front of her and Warpaint as they headed to the stadium, and the youngest of the two little girls jumped up on her tippy toes, pointed at Susie and the horse and shouted to her father, “Caballo! Caballo!”
And Susie did what Susie always does.