Sometimes in life, all of the puzzle pieces seem to magically fall together in one wonderful moment or sequence of moments and amazing results occur. More often, however, we must polish our pearls. Pearls are created when a grain of rough sand becomes embedded in the interior mantle of an oyster, causing the oyster irritation. The oyster then deposits calcium carbonate in iridescent, concentric layers to smooth the rough edges of the grain of sand. Over time the pearl grows, with each layer creating more depth and luster, and making the end product more beautiful.
I taught my first riding lesson when I was fourteen at a Pony Club clinic. To be able to move up to my next rating in the Pony Club system, I needed to know how to teach. Richard Lamb, who is still active in the United States Pony Club (USPC) today, was the clinician. I was absolutely horrible. I don’t remember what I taught, but I do remember being nervous and having no idea what to say to the little girl I was supposed to help. I knew I was bad. In the weeks and months that followed my mom encouraged me, and the necessity of needing to learn to teach for the sake of my rating made me press on. By the time I was sixteen I was good enough that people began to pay me to teach beginner riding lessons. By the time I was seventeen, I had passed my “A” rating through Pony Club and was a certified instructor.
Both of my parents are amazing, and I am incredibly grateful for their love and support. My dad has definitely taught me some big life lessons too. I would never have wound up as a professional horseback rider had it not been for my mother though, so I wanted to write this blog about some of the things I learned from her.
Last weekend I got the opportunity to visit the beautiful Roebke’s Run Horse Trials in Area IV. There was a Town Hall meeting on Saturday night after cross country. One of the repeatedly voiced concerns was the sustainability of the sport from all perspectives. The equine industry is a tough industry. Horses are ‘the Sport of Kings’ As one of my friends says, ‘we will truly be financially successful when our barn managers can afford to buy a house from their salary.’ I am not to that point yet, but I do own my own farm, pay a monthly mortgage, and own two FEI (International Equestrian Federation) competitions horses that I pay to compete on my own dime. There is so much talk about prize money and sponsorship to help cover expenses in this sport. Frankly, that rubs me slightly the wrong way. The way that I see it, the business model at home needs to be working. I am certainly in favor of anyone who wants to be a part of my team, but I have never been one to feel that anyone else owes me something. I worked in the real world before the horse world which has helped shape the way I do business. Here are some of my thoughts.
Last weekend Tactical Maneuver (a.k.a. Gucci) and I completed our first CCI4* at Rolex Kentucky. Being a 4* rider has been on my dream list for a long time. Competing at that level to me symbolized someone who is an elite horseman, because the sport of eventing at the highest levels takes not only being a good rider but also being a good horseman — a horseman who has taken years to condition and train their horse to compete in any weather conditions at one of the most difficult equestrian sports in the world. Earlier this season I took a step back to assess some things. I doubted myself. I wasn’t sure how the Rolex weekend was going to go. Competing at Rolex was something I had been close to several times but had never been able to actualize. I didn’t want to let my horse, myself, or my team down. I realized that in my mind I thought that by the time I got to the 4* level I would be supremely confident as a competitor and feel with certainty that my horse and I would complete the weekend well. Then I thought of the old adage, “Experience is what you have after you need it.” In fact, I think I was taught that saying by Jimmy Wofford!
I thought of the years of dedication and practice that I had under my belt, and I thought of Gucci, this tremendous thoroughbred athlete and partner I have who has journeyed with me through ups and downs since I bought him and took him to his first horse trials in 2011. I remember as I was cantering towards the last few jumps on his first beginner novice course, I thought, “This is my Rolex horse.” I loved how agile and brave he was. He was my Ferrari and I trusted him. Last weekend Gucci made one of my biggest dreams come true by showing up as an athlete and a competitor every day of the weekend to finish our first Rolex Kentucky CCI4* in good style.
It was a dream weekend! I did two things every day all weekend. First, I took a moment to feel grateful for all of the people who have joined me on this journey (some for many, many years), with their love and support of all kinds. The Chronicle of the Horse noted that I possibly had the biggest cheering section of the weekend at the Kentucky Horse Park, and I don’t doubt that! It was an an unbelievable feeling to know how many people were able to come to Kentucky to watch and cheer, including my parents and many friends, clients and sponsors. Still more friends watched us compete on the live stream. Several of my friends from childhood, who know nothing about horses, even took the time to watch! Second, I told myself that every step of the way through the weekend I needed to be the best rider and horsewoman possible because I owed that to my horse. I didn’t want to let Gucci down, because he has entrusted himself to me. I couldn’t be happier with the weekend. Now, we will rest for a few weeks and see where the next leg of the journey takes us!
Check out our EN Rolex Rookie article here: http://eventingnation.com/rolex-rookies-ashley-johnson-and-tactical-maneuver/
Rolex Rookies: Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver
By Leslie Wylie on Apr 18, 2016
Welcome to EN’s third annual Rolex Rookies series! We’re thrilled to be profiling the new faces on the entry list for Rolex this year, and we couldn’t be more excited for these riders taking their first crack at Kentucky. We’ll be bringing you exclusive profiles on each Rookie pair, so keep checking back to learn more about the competitors you’ll see at Rolex.
From the very first time Ashley Johnson galloped Tactical Maneuver around a cross-country course, she had a feeling she might have four-star partner on her hands.
“When I bought him I thought I would re-sell him as a project,” she recalls of “Gucci,” her now 11-year-old OTTB gelding. “But at our first horse trials together at Rocking Horse he was so athletic and balanced and fun I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be my Rolex horse.’ I thought of him as my Ferrari.”
And now here they are, counting down the days until the biggest event of their lives: Rolex 2016.
“Am I on Cloud 9 or ready to puke? Definitely ready to puke — probably every day from here on in!,” Ashley says. “I get horrible state fright. I keep telling myself I have to keep focused for Gucci. He is a fantastic athlete and he deserves this!”
The event will be the apex of a relationship that began in 2011 when Ashley purchased the horse from Ciaran Thompson, an Irish eventer who was working for Bruce Davidson. As noted in Allie Conrad’s “Meet the Thoroughbreds Going to Rolex” earlier this month, Gucci is an OTTB who raced under the name Shykees Thunder. By Thunder Gulch, out of Chelle Spendabuck, he was pulled off the track by Katie Ruppel after a milquetoast run of 12 career starts. He placed in the top three only once, in a maiden claiming race at Penn National, and collected a grand total of $4,500 in earnings.
“The interesting thing is that he was racing up north, but when I got him to Prelim level I decided to investigate his pedigree more and find out where he was bred,” Ashley says. “It was 2011 and I had bought a farm (Ashland Equestrian) and moved to Ocala, Florida full-time. It turned out that he was bred about four miles from my farm at a place called Runnin’ Horse Farm!”
Their paths were clearly meant to cross. The pair has been steadily climbing their way up the levels ever since, culminating in several solid finishes at the three-star level.
“The build as far as our training has really been a multi-year process,” Ashley says. Ashley has been training with Bruce Davidson, whom she calls “the Godfather of eventing,” for almost a decade. “He has an unbelievable feel for producing a horse,” she says. “The amount of knowledge cached away in his brain is unbelievable and I always call him when I have questions. One of my all-time favorite Bruce quotes is, ‘You’re not out there to look pretty, just ride the horse!’”
She has supplemented that training with help from other top professionals: “Two summers ago I worked a lot on show jumping with Scott Keach during the off-season. In the winter months I try to take full advantage of the fact that Linda Zang comes to Ocala. This year she helped me practice about five million flying changes! She is a saint!
“This past year I have started working with Clayton Fredericks because he is in Ocala full-time. Clayton has done a great job adding more polish to our ride and I look forward to working with him more.”
Getting inside Gucci’s brain has been half the battle. As his barn name would imply, he is a striking horse — burnished bay with a long, flowing forelock and beautiful face that is set off by a double swirl — considered by many horsemen to be an earmark of equine sensitivity.
“Gucci has always been an exceptionally clever and brave cross country horse, but he can also get extremely hot, which has come into play more with dressage and show jumping, but also with cross country,” Ashley says. “As with most hot horses, the better I ride him, the calmer he stays. He likes to know that I know what I’m doing, which will be a challenge for both of us at Rolex since we are both four-star rookies!”
She recalls a story from when he was a two-star horse. At the time they had been sitting out shows to work on their skills and get stronger at home.
“He got really calm,” she says. “One day some of the other horses were going to a show so I threw him on the trailer to do flat work at the show. When he got there he was extremely offended and difficult to ride. He always lets you know his opinion about things. I realized it wasn’t just that we were at a show, it was that I hadn’t TOLD him in any way that we were going to a show.
“That was when I realized that he has a process and he likes to know what to expect. He is almost like a girl who likes to do her hair and makeup before she goes out. I am not that kind of girl, so I had to learn how to think like that for him.”
This spring Ashley has done her best to prepare Gucci for the task that lies ahead: Rolex. Their most recent FEI run was the CIC2* at Poplar Place in March, where they placed 4th.
“As far as conditioning, I do a lot of trotting with Gucci and save the wind work for horse trials and closer to big competitions,” she says. “He is generally a horse with a lot of stamina and if I get him too fit too early he just gets totally wild, so it is always a balancing act.”
Other cornerstones of Ashley’s management program are good shoeing, well-fitted saddles, and regular bodywork. “Those three things are as important as anything else in producing a strong, sound, fit horse,” she explains.
Here’s wishing Ashley and Gucci all the best in their final Rolex preparations. Go Eventing!
Peter Grey graciously organized six of us to do a Level III/IV USEA ICP Co-Teaching workshop this past week at Longwood Farm so that we could stay current in our teaching methodology. It was a beautiful day and there were lots of great perspectives. The co-instructors were Peter Grey, Leslie Law, Joe Meyer, Kyle Carter, Jon Holling, and me. We each taught a brief lesson about a specific cross country element and then we all did a critique and discussion of the lesson. I took something away from the perspective of every instructor there. A few of my students came to audit and Kat Richards and Jet represented Ashland as a demo horse/rider combo for the first two lessons.