Ashley Johnson: Polishing Your Pearl

Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver, clear around their first four-star at Rolex 2016. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

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.

Developing a skill, such as becoming a better rider or training a better horse, requires the same type of perseverance, grit, and long-term outlook as forming a pearl. Often times I see students not understanding or becoming frustrated by this process. Take cross country schooling, for example. In the Ocala area we are extremely lucky. We have at least half a dozen excellent places to go school cross country. Because of this, students often overlook that the real education is developed not by how many different venues we can visit, but in the baby phases of skill work.

Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

I call it learning the alphabet. What is most important is to take a horse or a rider and teach them the basic principles of different types of jumps, i.e. what is water, what is a bank, what is a ditch, how do you jump a narrow face, how do you ride up and down hills, what types of jumps might surprise a horse, when will a rider need a slipped rein, what is the correct pace, balance and line for different types of jumps, how does a rider maintain a balanced position and then stay out of the horse’s way in the air over a jump, the timing of how to apply leg pressure for support in the correct moment, and of course being able to assess if your horse is looking at and seeing what you are asking it to jump.

All of these skills are far more important to become comfortable with than merely going and blindly jumping different jumps at different venues, but they take more time, thought, and accountability as well. At the end of the day, the challenge of the sport is to replicate correct performance in any venue, on any course, including courses we have never jumped before. In order to do this, the foundation of the types of questions and the types of rides that a rider needs to produce must be the most solid element.

Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

All of this education takes time. Sometimes it takes more time, sometimes it takes less time, sometimes there are setbacks. In 2011 I formed a partnership with a 6-year-old off-track Thoroughbred and took him to his first horse trials. Today, after six years of partnership with my now 4* partner Tactical Maneuver, a.k.a. Gucci, I can still say we have not reached the best performance that I believe we both could produce. In 2016 we jumped clean around the 4* in Kentucky. Last spring we had a fall jumping into water which derailed our spring season. This fall we jumped confidently around the 3* at Fair Hill. Each season brings new education. On the days we have to walk away, I still gain new insight and skills, and each time we complete a major event, I am incredibly grateful for the combined foundation and trust we share, and of course our mutual love of the game.

In a larger sense, both the horse world and life in general requires us to polish our pearls. One proverb states, “In every life some rain must fall.” No matter how lucky we are, there will be moments of hardship and growth in life. Any true horseman understands that mastering our own skills will always be our hardest challenge. In these moments, remember that sometimes it is that tiny grain of sand that gets under our skin and irritates us that will in the end produce our most beautiful product.

Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.