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Integrated Horse Training


Junior Johnson has successfully integrated two fields of expertise as a trainer of both horses and ponies. As one of the few African-American trainers on the horseshow circuit, Mr. Johnson has also been a pioneer in bringing diversity into the ring.

When Mr. Johnson spoke with us, he was just getting back to his home in Goochland County outside of Richmond, Virginia. The trip had been to the IHF competition in Lexington, Kentucky where he won Best Handler in the Yearling Class and Two Year Class. "I work with the show babies-in-hand," he says in a warm voice tinged with humor, "I love the babies and handling them just comes natural to me. I work with the babies a lot at home. I have to get them used to me. It makes it easier to handle them in the ring. You stand them up and make sure their necks and heads show good. I teach them to be comfortable and look their best walking and trotting on the line."

Now, at fifty-six years old, Mr. Johnson states, "I've been working with horses all my life, basically ever since I was big enough to work with them. My dad worked with horses and that's how I first got interested. You could say that it's part of our family tradition. My son DJ, twenty-five, competes as well as teaches lessons. He's really good and doing very well." When asked if his wife, Jackie or his daughter Tonya compete, he laughs and replies, "No, neither of them ride, I guess it's a family tradition that just interests the men."

There can be no denying that Mr. Johnson has made his mark as a part of a winning tradition. Starting in the mid-seventies he worked and trained with Kenneth Wheeler for 10 years at Virginia's Cismont Manor Farm. "I worked with the best, Kenneth Wheeler. He's the person to learn from. I really respect him and he gives me a lot of respect. I stood back and watched him and I learned a lot." He adds laughingly, "But, I tell you what, he's tough to compete against."

Mr. Johnson's sense of humor and humble nature are part of his natural charm. But, there can be no denying how much he has achieved as a trainer and handler. His career really started in the early nineties while working for Amber Lake Farm. He won his first class ever at Devon with Secret Blade in 1994. That horse, and others, have won consistently on the line for Junior.

Over the last couple of years, Mr. Johnson's abilities have garnered him quite a reputation and numerous impressive wins. In 2006, he was honored as the Best Young Horse Handler thirteen times, and as the Reserve Best Young Horse Trainer eleven times. He won the Best Yearling award at Devon and at Keswick. Then he won the PHBA Yearling Futurity in Pennsylvania, and was the Leading Handler at the IHF Eastern Regional and the Sally B. Wheeler East Coast Championship.

In 2007, with an entirely new string of horses, Mr. Johnson has won Best Young Horse three times and Reserve Best Young Horse twice. Mr. Johnson also took Best Yearling at Devon and Upperville, the Reserve Best Young Horse in the MHSA Yearling Futurity in Maryland and the Leading Handler award at the IHF Finals in Kentucky.

When we asked Mr. Johnson what he attributed his success as a trainer, he shared three important parts of training winners. The first thing is you have to have a good eye for spotting what makes a horse a competitor. "I mainly work with show hunters, show-in-hand horses, and I also train ponies. People know I have good horses. You have to know what to look for, I mean, there's no such thing as a perfect horse, but you want them to be as perfect as they can be. Boarding and training horses from all around the country, I get some really top quality horses. If it weren't for the quality of the horses, I wouldn't be where I am today. This is an expensive sport; you have to have good customers and backers. I've been lucky to have great customers from all over the country. I show for myself and for my customers. Once you have good customers you have to find strong contenders if you want to be successful. You look for horses with good dispositions. Then they need to show good movement and good coordination; you can see it in the build of the horse or pony. Horses and ponies are pretty much the same, the only difference being their size. "

"The second thing a trainer needs is to be patient and willing to take the time to work with the horse or pony. When you first enter a horse into the ring they get real quiet. They're afraid. You can't just go in there and expect them to perform. The main thing I do is to put them on a longe line and teach them to walk, trot and canter. I groom them and work with them so that they get comfortable being in the public. You get them used to being around people, get them used to people handling them all the time. You handle them a lot and they work better."

"This is a very competitive sport, but I like a challenge. You have to pay your dues and eventually horse people and the judges get to know you and the quality of your work. When I first started back in the nineties, I was the only African-American trainer on the circuit. At first it was a tough row, but people are coming around. Today, there are two of us, plus a couple of jumpers, and more African-Americans are becoming interested in the sport. Things have really changed through the years and I hope that I have helped to make it easier for minorities to make their mark in the sport I love."

Laurie Pitts, Junior Johnson's business partner and stable manager, feeds their horses Legends® Sport Horse from Southern States in Goochland, Virginia. "It gives the horses and ponies lots of energy, makes their coats shine, and is a good feed for horses that compete."

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