Stride for Stride by Ashley Johnson

The Best Lessons My Mom Taught Me

Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver

How my childhood and upbringing shaped my character and influenced my career

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.

Remember Your Dreams:

The story that I know is that my mother was always horse crazy as a little girl and wanted to learn to ride, but my grandmother felt that horses were dirty and that little girls should wear dresses and have curls in their hair and shouldn’t be dirty, so she never allowed Mom to take riding lessons.  She never forgot that dream, though.  When I was two years old, Mom came home with Kenny.  He was the brown pinto pony with a big white mane and tail that they had been using for pony rides one summer at Terhune Orchards in Princeton, New Jersey, near where I grew up.  Winter was coming and Terhune Orchards didn’t need the pony anymore, so Mom bought him and brought him to our house with just under an acre of land on Broad Street in Hopewell, New Jersey.  She put him in the garden because that was the only area that was fenced.  Sometimes we would also tie him to a tree so he could graze different areas.  On Sundays, when Dad would cook us Sunday breakfast, my older brother Chris and I would feed Kenny the leftover cream of wheat out of the pot.

Ashley Johnson & Kenny

Ashley Johnson & Kenny

Kenny was a family pony.  Chris and I rode him through the neighborhood bareback.  I went to my first horse show on him – a 4H show when I was six years old.  I rode him in a western saddle and turquoise sneakers because I didn’t have any boots.  It was the early 1980’s.  When I was in second grade Mom organized walking Kenny the back way to my elementary school on a ‘show and tell’ day and she gave every kid in my class a ride around the baseball diamond on him.  Years later, at my ten-year high school reunion, multiple former classmates came up to me and commented that they remembered riding my pony that day.  For many, it was the only time they had ever been on a horse.

Be Your Own Person and Take Pride in Your Skills:

Neither of my parents grew up in New Jersey.  My father Jim (or Jimmy or James Turner or just Turner depending on who was speaking) grew up in Memphis, Tennessee the son of an egg farmer.  He got out of the South via an academic scholarship to Brown University in the late 1950’s.  He later went on to divinity school and then got his PhD from Princeton University and took a professorship at Rutgers University in the Department of Religion.  It was while Dad was a PhD candidate that he met my mother Pam.  She grew up in Evanston, Illinois and Rochester, New York where my grandfather worked as a physicist for Kodak.  She had started at Michigan State but then left school to travel around the world as a journalist.  One of her older brothers was living in Princeton, so she made that her first stop.

Ashley Johnson

Ashley Johnson

In Princeton, she rented a room in a shared apartment above a laundromat on Witherspoon Street.  One day, my father, while doing his laundry, popped in to visit Mom’s roommate.  My mom was there and Dad took a fancy to her and asked her out.  On their first date they went sailing in dinghies on Lake Carnegie.  They both had sailing in their background.  Someone suggested a race.  Mom won.  Both of my parents are their own brand of perfectionist and both very competitive.  Even though it was a first date, there was no way Mom was going to back down just to make my Dad feel good. Mom would tell me growing up that after beating him she wasn’t sure Dad would ever call again.  He did.  They married within a year and have been married for forty-seven years.  No small feat.

Love the Chaos:

In the summers, we would go to the coast of Maine where we had a summer house and Dad would write.  Mom and Dad would pack up our two station wagons with all of our necessities for three months and pile Chris and I in with seven cats, two dogs, the goldfish, hamsters, and the bunnies.  Kenny would ride behind one of the cars on the family utility trailer that Dad had half converted into a horse trailer with a plywood compartment and wind screen.  During the twelve hour drive North, you could periodically see Kenny’s brown nose reach out to explore the air with his tufted flaxen mane flying behind him.

Our summer house was on a few acres with a pond.  There were two houses on the property.  The main house my parents had initially rented out.  One morning the tenant swept the coals from the fire in the fireplace the night before into a wooden crate.  The coals were still live and a fire ensued, burning about three quarters of the house to the ground.  Mom and Dad then had a cottage moved onto the property and began to rebuild Pond House themselves.

Foster Creativity from all Angles:

Summers were bucolic.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends would come to visit.  We would put on skits and play cards in the evenings for entertainment.  One year the adults built a tree house overlooking the pond and that became the kid’s fort.  In Pond House there was both a wood shop and a craft area in the garage.  We would often piece together little sailboats out of scraps and sail them on the pond.  We would catch frogs and have frog races.  We would swim.  We would collect fresh mussels off the beach across the street and Mom would steam them for dinner along with fresh blueberry pie.  Chris and I took sailing lessons at the local yacht club, and with the other kids in the club we would camp on the islands and play capture the flag.

Sometimes we would break out Mom’s old red convertible, The Sundowner as Mom called it, and go for a family drive to get ice cream and lobster rolls.  I would ride on trails and go down to the ocean through the boat yard and ride on the beach and swim with Kenny in the icy salt water.  Chris and I would go to the local 4H shows.  They had English classes, western classes, costume classes, and games classes.  At the end of the summer we would trek back home and return to the school year.

Ashley Johnson at Rolex Three Day Event

Ashley Johnson at Rolex Three Day Event

Be Independent:

When I was nine, Mom had Chris and I join the local Pony Club – Amwell Valley Hounds Pony Club based at the time out of Meadowberry Farm in Ringoes, New Jersey.  Our very first rally was a D level eventing event.  By this time I had moved on from Kenny to another, slightly bigger pony named Cherokee Shay.  One of the beauties of Pony Club is that when you compete at rallies, your parents are not allowed to help you.  You are put on a four-person team with a stable manager.  The adults come around to supervise and grade your performances in the competition and in the stable area, but you and your team have to be self-reliant during the competition.

Our stable area was two side by side trailers with our tack area in between.  As the rally was getting started and the adults had been shooed away, I confidently loaded Cherokee onto my teammate’s two horse trailer.  All of the doors were open and all of the bars were down.  Cherokee walked right on in and kept walking, letting himself out the front door of the trailer, getting loose, and merrily running around the show grounds until we could catch him.  We then secured the front chest bar and loaded him the proper way.  Later that day on cross country -my first official cross country attempt, which was in a large field with hay bales for jump – I was going so fast that as I rounded a turn I fell off.  I remember flying through the air in my green AVHPC polo shirt and laughing because I was having so much fun.  I got back on and finished the course.  Basically the day had the typical level of Pony Club chaos, and I loved it.  I also loved the thrill of going cross country.  I was hooked on eventing, and I loved being able to compete with my peers, independent from our parents.

Learn Discipline:

As I progressed through my teen years, my brother gave up riding and I became more enamored with it.  In New Jersey we moved to a three-acre property the next town over that had a small barn and we bought a few more horses.  All were young or green.  One was a 15.2 hand high Quarter Horse that Mom named Mr. Piebald.  He was my main Pony Club horse and also the first horse I competed at the preliminary level on when I was fourteen.  Mom found me good coaches to train with in our area and trailered me to weekly lessons.  I was also an honor roll student and very involved in school activities including theater and sports.  Until I was thirteen I played soccer and basketball in the fall and winter and competed horses in the spring.  As high school approached I decided to just play basketball in the winter so that I could compete horses in both the fall and the spring.  By my mid-teens my parents decided to sell the summer house and I was able to spend the summers competing as well.  Although I was always a self-starter, it was my mother who taught me how to find a direction and be disciplined about it.

Never Stop Growing, and Find Something that Creates Value in your Life and the Lives of Others

As I was growing up, Mom worked first as a local journalist and then as the editor of two of our local papers.  She then moved into the nonprofit sector, doing fundraising for the June Opera Festival of New Jersey and also finishing her college degree at Thomas Edison State College.  During this time she became the District Commissioner (DC) of Amwell Valley Hounds Pony Club.

Ashley and Pony Club team with her mother behind

Ashley and Pony Club team with her mother behind.

She ruled with an iron fist and I was known as “Pam’s daughter,” but she got things done and influenced the lives of many kids.  The core values of Pony Club really struck a chord with her.  Pony Club is an international youth organization created to promote horsemanship both on and off the horse. There are a series of ratings beginning with ‘D’ level and progressing through the ‘A’ level. The ‘A’ rating is considered to be a professional level rating and less than one percent of Pony Clubbers each year in the U.S. obtain it.  Mom’s goal oriented dedication to my riding and incredible organizational skills helped me to pass my Pony Club A rating at the age of 17.  Even after I graduated from Pony Club, mom stayed on.  Over twenty years later she is still at it, influencing the next generation of girls and boys through her role as one of Pony Club’s Florida Region’s best mounted games coaches.  This year she and her team competed at the Prince Phillip’s Cup at Rolex Kentucky while I was there to compete at the CCI4*.  Coach Pam is someone these kids will remember for the rest of their lives.

All of these attributes have helped me time and again in my career as a professional athlete. Having a strong mother as a role model (I often think of her as a force of nature) allowed me to make choices with conviction from an early age. Once I decided to become a professional rider in my early twenties, I never looked back. Knowing that Mom spent the first thirty years of her life with no horses in it and now she and my dad have a farm peppered with twenty-five ponies is a constant reminder to me to pursue your dreams. When I watch her teach her Pony Club kids I see a person who has created something incredibly valuable with her talents, and her generosity for the good of her children is endless. As I write this she is preparing to have sixteen of them stay over at her house for four days to prepare for Pony Club National Championships. My father also deserves a medal for going with the flow and hosting all of these young people, but it is spearheaded by my Mom’s desire for them to do well when they compete, and she will make sure they have everything ready.

On my end, discipline, independence and creativity also all play a daily role in training horses and running the barn. And anyone in the horse industry knows that chaos comes with the territory. There is always a plan A, plan B, and plan C. Sometimes even a plan D. With a living animal as your partner, and a sport that takes you out into the elements every day, you never know what is going to change and how fast. You have to be ready to react instantly and not get ruffled. Growing up the way I did definitely taught me that skill.

 

Ashleigh Johnson_XC_3

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