Event rider and coach Ashley Johnson reflects on the message of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s victory to act in the moment in sport
In 1973, as the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, Ruth Bader Ginsburg won the first gender equality case that she argued in front of the Supreme Court. Her historic career, which has spanned six decades and an appointment to the United States Supreme Court in 1993, is outlined in the new documentary RBG. Ginsberg attended Harvard Law School in the 1950’s in the first year that Harvard admitted women into the program. That year, women comprised less than 1% of her class. When Ginsberg was asked later in her life when she knew that she wanted to become a judge, she merely answered that she knew she had a talent for the law, and that she felt that pursuing a career in law could promote concrete changes in policy in the area of gender equality. From the beginning, her strategy was not to open a floodgate, but to produce a step by step foundation of carefully chosen legal precedence on which future cases could stand. Ginsberg has chosen, repeatedly in her career, to act in the moment.
I have always thought of myself as the daughter of a feminist, but in fact I am the daughter of many feminists.
This spring, as a professional female athlete in one of only a few mixed gender Olympic level sports. Tactical Maneuver (Gucci) and I completed our second CCI4* at the Land Rover Kentucky CCI4* in Lexington. The weekend was gorgeous. We had rain early in the week, but then the sun came out and the springtime Kentucky grass drank up the water to provide some of the nicest footing we ever get to run on. This time at Kentucky the weekend had a different feel than our debut at the level in 2016. Gucci has matured, and our partnership has solidified even more after seven cumulative years together. We both knew what we needed to do.
I am academic about the way that I learn and improve. I need to own an idea before I can implement it. My goals for the weekend were to have a quiet dressage test, jump clean on cross country, and try to stay in the flow in show jumping even though I knew Gucci would want to become electric. Given how emotional Gucci can sometimes be in the dressage and show jumping, I felt satisfied with what we produced. It was the cross country, however, that was the interesting part of the weekend. I had planned to take one or two long routes and several direct routes. As we went out early on the eleven minute course, Gucci was not the focused cross country tiger that he usually is. He slightly hung going over the vertical on the mound before the water at jump four. Then, two jumps later, he really scrambled over a similar vertical jumping into the coffin. I had to dig in.
When I was living up north and first competing at the FEI levels, I would regularly get help from Olympian and eventing legend Jimmy Wofford. Jimmy’s academic approach made sense to my developing brain. Jimmy used to say that each jump was like an item on a list with a box next to it. When jumping cross country you had to make sure you checked off each box. At Kentucky a few weeks ago, I went back to that advice, and after a few sticky jumps early on, I decided that I needed to work my way around with Gucci and take more long routes. I had to say to myself, “this is what is happening now” and I had to ride in the moment. In the end Gucci’s innate cross country ability shone through and we jumped around clean.
A few weeks before Kentucky, I was helping one of my kids at a horse trials in Ocala, FL. She is a teenager and I have taught her for about five years. She was nervous before going out on cross country. She asked me if I ever got nervous and if so, what I thought about before I left the start box. I was surprised that we had never talked about this before. I told her that I used to get very nervous. Then I said that what we learn as we become better riders, is that producing a good result is not a floodgate, but a progression of steps, laid in a foundation upon which we can rely. I trusted my horse, I trusted our education and our partnership, and I knew that I was going to ride the best that I knew how to every jump. When I figured this out as a rider I then became able, each time I walked to the start box at a big competition, to watch Gucci’s ears flopping side to side, to put a hand on his neck and pet him, and to enjoy the moment.
I watched RBG with my mom as a Mother’s Day activity. The documentary itself was excellent, but it was also moving to sit through the film knowing that my intelligent, outspoken, action-oriented, independent mother lived through this same period as a young woman. I realized that the quality of my own life is greatly influenced not only by my mom’s experiences and views, but also by Ginsberg’s work. I have always thought of myself as the daughter of a feminist, but in fact I am the daughter of many feminists. In my own competing and in my work as a trainer, I hope I am able to pass these qualities on to those whose lives I touch.
Ashley Johnson is a four star (CCI4*) three day event rider based in Ocala, Florida. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Rutgers University with a degree in English and theater. She is a board member of the Professional Riders Organization (PRO) as well as being the PRO Junior Coordinator. She has competed in a wide range of sports including soccer, basketball, sailing, marathon running, triathlons, and most recently Crossfit. Ashley is Equestrian Coach to the University of Florida Eventing Team.