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Jenny Johnson

1. How did you get into horses?

I have always had an interest in horses. When I was 3 I used to spend my time drawing horses. There were two horses in the fields next to the cottages where I lived. I spent lots of time watching them and when I went walking with my Mum, I was drawn to any horses that I could see in the fields. I would put pillows on chairs and steal my Dad’s ties for reins. I was good at pretending, the back of a new settee proved even better than the chairs! However, it was an interest that my parents didn’t want to encourage, due to the cost and instead I took piano lessons, which in the end proved very useful. I still spent time watching my friends ride and visiting the local riding school, watching from dawn till dusk, even when it rained, I huddled under my big yellow bicycle cape and watched. My parents hoped that I would grow out of this infatuation, but in the end, realised that it wouldn’t go away, so at the age of sixteen, they didn’t grumble when I spent all my money on riding lessons and went to work at the local riding school part time. I quickly progressed on to taking the owner’s hunters out for exercise.

At school there was a riding centre situated next to the athletics track, I was the school record holder for 800m so I often went up to the track at lunchtimes, my friend at the time knew the owner of the riding centre, so we frequently sneaked across in out PE kit of bottle green knickers and white top!

Whilst at college in York, I ran the riding club and saved every penny I had to go to my horse fund-- that meant that a night out in the college bar was just one rum and blackcurrant that lasted all evening!

I broke every rule in buying my first horse. My sister was also a partner in crime, we had seen a beautiful grey that was being sold by the riding centre that I visited near my school, the lady who owned the place was reducing her horse numbers and not doing as many riding lessons. However, after raiding my post office account of all my money, we arrived to find that someone had the first option on buying that horse. I felt disappointed, I had prepared a stable at a farm near us and the plan was to buy and take home-- no vetting, no try out! Then this cheeky ginger horse came charging into the yard and stood facing us, snorting with an air of arrogance. He had escaped from a field, his usual trick. We both were mesmerised by him and enquired as to whether he was for sale. Nora, the owner of the centre, couldn’t believe her luck, she offered to even take him to the farm where we would stable him. Little did we know that he was going to go to an unwarranted sale due to the fact that he had thrown everyone who had tried him out, he had a neat trick of rearing, spinning round, then bucking. We took him home with no knowledge of this, equipped with only a bridle for riding, we ventured out bareback, he tried his trick, but my sister wasn’t fooled, she clobbered him on the head with her crop-- he never did it again and he turned out to be a fantastic friend, winning numerous cross country events, working hunter classes and showing a good aptitude for dressage. He was a character and the tales I could tell about our years of taming the dragon are numerous.

2. Have you ever done any dressage yourself?

I always had an interest in dressage, but my first venture was an embarrassing disaster. We decided to hold our own yard competition, I knew that we had an exceptionally good chance of winning, Talisman was a good learner and we could even do tempi changes, but never really had enough money to venture out and start competing at dressage competitions, by then I was married with children, but this was a fun event, more so I was eager to show his abilities--- big mistake, the October morning heralded the feel of cross country time. Tally was his restless self in the stable, eager to get going. At the time of my test we completed it quickly, up the centre line----- rather quick, turned left at C--- losing control, then sped off at 100mph, yelling to someone to open the gate otherwise we would jump it into a crowd of people-- lost control!!

I could write a book about this horse, sadly at the age of 22 yrs we had to have him put down, a new horse in the field had kicked him and broke his leg.

I rode my sons’ welsh pony for a while, even competing locally in dressage, he got upto playing at medium level and even won the senior equitation championship with me and junior dressage championship with my eldest son. He was another character, we had him right upto the grand old age of 37 years, he would follow me like a dog, no lead rope or halter and he was the star turn at the start of a showing championships, happily being let into the arena whilst I narrated the horse’s prayer, having a roll and then walking up to me and nuzzling me in the back.

My mare turned up unexpectedly, a friend said she needed to home this horse as a project, since an injury had meant that the aim of producing a showing champion wasn’t going to happen. I briefly said I was interested, then when I went to the yard to do my usual jobs with the pony, I was told that a horse was there for me. Eventually I bought her and she taught me so much. I trained her beyond PSG, but competed upto PSG, mainly freestyle.Competitions were few, she was easily stressed so I brought the competitions to her and ran them from the centre where we were based. She had an operational colic when she was 10 yrs old,I gave her a very long time to recover, it was then that I began my judge training. I continued riding and training other horses and I went for numerous schoolmaster lessons to further my education and knowledge of all the grand prix movements.Lea lived to a good age of 28yrs and had a long retirement, due to some hock injuries acquired in the field I stopped competing when she was 18 years old

3. Tell us a bit about your background and qualifications.

My profession was as a trained school teacher, but I spent a great deal of time doing supply work or different types of jobs, such as civil service, post woman, avon representative to name just a few. I spent time working at the equestrian yard, but, although I enjoyed this, it gave me very little time to spend with my horse, I was riding other horses as well as the stable jobs and teaching riding plus doing dressage clinics. I returned to teaching within schools as the pay was higher, my time was still taxed, but I could afford more. I then branched out doing freestyle work along with Helen Bradley for BD, then working for some time on my own but gradually kept my involvement to just a few as family commitments took over. As my Mother’s Parkinson’s disease worsened, I eventually took her place as church organist and choir director.

Lockdown opened another door for me-- online dressage. It has kept me in touch with judging and brought me a wealth of friendships.

4. What are the most common mistakes you notice when judging dressage?

The most common mistakes I see in judging is the over-strong action of the hand, holding the head in and pushing the horse on without allowing the energy through, consequently the back hollows and the legs push out behind instead of through and under. Then there is the opposite where the contact is spasmodic and insecure, so the horse hasn’t a confident link to seek. Most are contact based and then impact on the suppleness through the back and neck.

5. Dressage used to be the Equestrian sport reserved for those at the higher levels. Why do you think it has gained so much popularity with riders of all levels over the years?

Dressage, from my point of view, has gained popularity because recently the doors have opened more for all riders to take part, secondly in theory it is safer than jumping and eventing. However, in competition, many say the scoring isn’t always understood and at least in jumping you either, clear, knock down , or refuse. In my days of competing, local clubs had begun to run dressage, affiliated still felt as though you needed to be part of a special group, it was often a mystery and the only way that you began to get the idea was to get a good dressage trainer, then the magical word of “suppleness” suddenly began to make sense.

6. In your opinion, how can Dressage improve the horse’s way of going?

Dressage is the correct form of training the horse, therefore, all horses should be trained in the correct way, following the guidelines to develop a relaxed , confident supple horse.

7. What would be your favourite school exercise and why?

My favourite schooling exercises are stretching long and low in small figures of 8s and also transition work involving lateral movements as well.

8. How have you and your yard coped with a year of lockdowns? What has been the biggest drawback?

Lockdown has made most of us take a stepback. Competition is good, but from a horse’s point of view, it can often be a pressure that they can’t understand. To me it should be a time to spend consolidating training, reflecting on each aspect of our schooling and a time to read plenty and watch as many horse youtube guides as possible.

9. What do you think are the benefits of competing with an online platform like ‘Dressage at Home & International?’

Online dressage is fabulous, it allows people that find travelling their horses stressful a way to still compete, for those that haven’t got transport an opportunity to take part. Videoing is more versatile, if something goes wrong, it can be done another day. From the judging aspect , it gives us more time to watch in detail and give productive feedback.

10. What has been your career / riding highlight?

As concerns highlights in my career with horses, there are many moments that I treasure. I haven’t stood on a podium or won some prestigious event, but I value the little occasions, winning the equitation on a riding school horse and hearing the clapping. Demonstrating a freestyle on my mare with perfect 3 time changes with the arena seats full and a wonderful applause. Then, finally, being with each one of them when it was their time to go over the rainbow bridge.

Now, in reflection, I am learning from my mistakes, how I approached training and competition and how I should have and could have done better and changed my approach. The worst thing is getting too competitive and letting it take over, we need to take that moment to consider how our feelings affect our horses, how aiming to be the best and coping with disappointments can have a negative effect on our animals and families, unless we handle these emotions well. I am a person who happily shrugs off things going wrong, but I did have a very determined competitive nature. Looking back I would have done many things differently. Judging has provided me with so much more knowledge on how horses should be moving and connecting to our riding. I have learnt to take a very open and wide view on ways in which we can learn and help our horses. Although I have always watched videos of good trainers, I never really analysed and only took in what I felt was necessary. Now I read many horse books and watch as much as I can in depth, learning will never cease for me.

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