Junior Johnson could be getting rich in the wealthy world of Virginia's horse country. But he finds greater satisfaction in fixing problems between horse and rider, molding them into a graceful team.
The man isn't given to talking. Dowell Johnson Jr., better known as Junior, won't brag on the half-million-dollar horses he's trained in Goochland and Charlottesville for the elite hunter/jumper show circuit, or tell you about all the ribbons his students have won or how much they adore him. In fact, it's hard to get much out of him except a slow, sweet grin you can't help but give back. But the Goochland native knows how to communicate with horses. He reads the slightest flick of an ear, twitch of a nose or toss of a head. He's one of the best in the business. A horse trainer for 30-odd years now, Johnson is a man who can read horse or rider without either of them opening their mouth. "Junior Johnson is what a true horseman is all about," says Marshie Davis, a well-known and admired hunt-seat rider who rides at Lithgow Farm in Goochland and has known Johnson most of her life. "Junior has worked with some of the best people in the show world, and he's seen so much, done so much on all levels," Davis continues. "He does all the hard work. That's what a well-rounded, true horseman is like. They've done everything. And that's the way I look at Junior. The experience he has and the eye that he has for horses and riders is remarkable." After more than 25 years working for others, Johnson has earned a reputation as a respected horse trainer and started his own business some four years ago. In a world where horse-show trainers are traditionally white, Johnson has broken a significant racial barrier with his success. Today, Johnson operates his All Seasons Stable at Ann and Harry Preston's Peyton Hall farm off Shallow Well Road in Goochland. There, the unpretentious Johnson dressed in a maroon sweatshirt and ball cap sporting his All Seasons Stable logo, smilingly greets a visitor in front of the new red-and-white barn that has a chandelier hanging from the rafters. Ann and Harry Preston recently finished construction of their home and stables at Peyton Hall, and are now leasing the barn to Johnson. "You make me nervous coming here," says Johnson, half-joking. Johnson is of slight stature, compact, with an athlete's restrained agility. Every movement he makes is slow and controlled, designed to calm the young thoroughbred horses he loves working with. His voice is easy, soft almost. He sweeps his hand across the sleek neck of his favorite new colt, nicknamed Junior, as the young horse nuzzles for treats. Junior is out of luck. Johnson doesn't believe in them. "It makes them nippy, and they start looking for carrots instead of listening to me," Johnson says as he gently pushes the colt's head away. He gazes out over the green pastures that surround the place. "I guess it's in my blood," Johnson says. "I love seeing the young ones come up to be nice horses and to be able to say I had something to do with that." When Johnson was a kid, the first thing he would do when he came home from school would be to change his clothes and run to the barn where his father worked as a handler. "I did the same thing every day," he recalls. "I couldn't wait to get home from school to go to the barn." Johnson's father worked for the famous Goochland hunter/jumper horse-show trainer Frances Rowe, who coached Olympic equestrians and their horses in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. As a consequence, Dowell Johnson's five sons grew up in the company of some of the finest horses in the country. Today, three of the sons are still in the horse business. Johnson says he learned most of his training techniques from Rowe when he worked for her alongside his dad. He refined his skills at top show barns, like Anheuser-Busch's Cismont Manor in Charlottesville and Karen Reed's Amber Lake in Goochland. "Everything a horse does means something," Johnson says. "It's the little things they do. I always like for them to be happy, and you can always tell a happy horse by looking at him." Really? Just by looking? "Sure," says Johnson with a grin. "It's the spirit part of them." "Junior is a sort of horse-whisperer guy, you know?" says Wendy Dubiel, who has trained with Johnson for some three years and has been riding for 20. A year and a half ago Johnson found Dubiel a young thoroughbred gelding named Palahai fresh off the racetrack. "Junior is one of the only trainers I know who will take a promising horse off the track and spend the time it takes to turn him into a hunter," says Dubiel. [image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)As dawn breaks, Junior Johnson takes his charges out for their morning exercise.Johnson says racehorses that don't make it often can be turned into good show horses. "But some of them can't make it in the show ring," he says. "Some can't get running off their minds." Dubiel was scared to death the first time she rode the big chestnut gelding, but Johnson wasn't. "I trusted Palahai," he says. "I never would have put her on him if I couldn't trust him." Today, Dubiel pats Palahai as he stands quietly, though untied, in the barn aisle. "I fell in love," Dubiel says. "He's the best horse I ever had." Dubiel shows Palahai in the two local and statewide horse-show association circuits under Johnson's guidance. "I've had a lot of trainers over the years," says Dubiel. "Junior's just real quiet, very calm, very easy, and the horses know it. He doesn't get all hyper, all nervous, and he gives a rider confidence by not making you worry about what's going to happen next." Since Johnson started his own training business about four years ago, he's been working with problem horses and riders, attending local hunter and jumper shows just about every weekend, and watching the 17-or-so women and girls under his tutelage progress with their horses. These are the clients who trainers of Johnson's caliber normally wouldn't touch lobbying instead to train the best riders and horses they can find to bring off top performances in the show ring where people and possible high-paying clients are watching. But Johnson likes seeing his work make a difference. "I like dealing with problem horses. If I think I can work with the person and the horse together, then I take it on. And turning one around, it's a gradual thing, 'cause every horse is not the same. There are different things you've got to do to make them listen to you. I try to teach the rider to ride the horse that's the main thing I work at. And a lot of trainers don't. They train the horse and never teach the rider to ride the horse." Marshie Davis says Johnson looks at the horse and rider as a team. "I'm at the age where I get scared," Davis adds. "I've had some bad falls. I've broken my back. I tell you, if it weren't for Junior, I wouldn't be out here today. He also has the horse's best interest at heart. He doesn't let a rider say, 'Oh well, I really want to enter this class 'cause I want to win something.' He's going to make it depend on what the right thing is for the horse. And if the horse is ready, that instills my confidence that I'm ready." But there is something else remarkable, but perhaps not quite as obvious, about this soft-spoken man who has spent his life lifting the spirits of horses and riders. Nine-year-old Maya Pendleton takes lessons from Johnson, and she spotted it right away. Says her mother Debbie Pendleton, "Maya likes to ride, but she really loves the animals, so she's always watching how Junior trains them. She will say to me, 'Mom, Junior doesn't talk to horses a lot. He makes these sounds, like, uunh.' The next day I'll see Maya at the barn trying to move her pony. Instead of saying 'Buttons, move!,' she'll go 'Uuuunh'." Pendleton laughs. "He's just wonderful and Maya loves him." She pauses thoughtfully, then smiles. "I think he's magical." Johnson has handled, trained and ridden some of the top hunters and jumpers in the country. "I've dealt with horses worth $500,000 and $600,000," Johnson says matter-of-factly. "I treat them like I do the rest of them. Some of them are special. And some are priced too high, but they're still nice horses." [image-2](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Johnson helps Wendy Dubiel work with Palahai, a former racehorse.A nice horse to Johnson is an athlete one that moves beautifully and responds intelligently and willingly to a rider. Still, Johnson acknowledges that any horse can be spoiled. "I see it right much," he says. "They'll take advantage of a rider. They'll try you if they think they can get away with it. And then some are just as sweet as can be, no matter who rides them. They're just that type of horse." He pauses and smiles. "It goes all kinds of ways. There are so many different kinds of horses and people, too." Johnson doesn't just whisper to horses, he seems to speak their language. "Horses are just like people," he says. "They have good days and they have bad days. Sometimes a horse might feel like going out here and running a mile, and then again he might feel lazy that day. You can always cut a lesson short and come back the next day and try again. Especially with the young horses the babies. They only have a mind that might last maybe 20 minutes or so. So you do what you have to do in 30 minutes, because, after that, his mind has gone off somewhere else. Now the older a horse gets, he starts thinking more." Does Johnson ever get angry at a horse? So frustrated that even he doesn't know what to do next? "Sometimes," he admits. So? What happens then? "I get on and ride him. I try to figure the horse out. You've got to outthink a horse, and you've got to think like them. But if I think I can't fight to win, I come back the next day. If that doesn't work, I try to get close enough that it might not be perfect, but it's different. Then I'll quit for the day, come back the next day and try again." Says Wendy Dubiel, "There's never a deadline with Junior. There's always tomorrow." Married for 24 years, Junior has a 23-year-old daughter and a son, D.J., with the same horse fever in his blood that has been passed down through three generations. D.J. is 18, tall, lanky and handsome. "I always wanted to be a horse trainer," he says. D.J. started showing when he was 11 or 12 years old, and rode some "rough ponies." "After he got off those ponies, he started riding better and better," Johnson says with a laugh. D.J. isn't making a living training horses, yet. Both Johnson and his brother Johnny, who works with horses at a nearby farm after spending years handling horses on the racetrack, agree this is a tough business that requires staying power. You've got to put in the time to establish a reputation, "to prove yourself to people," as Johnson puts it. "It's a hard business to make a living at," says Johnny Johnson. Nevertheless, D.J. dreams of training and showing jumpers, and loves working with his father. "I'm always learning," D.J. says. "I always ask questions 'Why did you do that?' I'm always wondering 'What's going to happen next?'" No doubt Johnson sometimes wonders the same thing, especially when he nervously paces the fence line watching one of his proteges jump 3-foot fences in the show ring. It's a challenge to train hunters, a sport in which jumping is turned into an art form as horse and rider strive to move effortlessly and elegantly over fences. "Hunters are tough, really tough," Johnson says. "They have to be perfect." At a horse show, Johnson may have a reputation for getting nervous ("That's why I don't like to show myself," he says), but except for his silent pacing ringside, you'd never know it. Follow him around at a horse show and it's the same low-key Junior. You have to strain to hear his words as he instructs a rider in a final warm-up over a jump in a practice ring. Johnson stands quietly by the jump, mostly watching and waiting to see what happens. His words are encouraging, never harsh or critical. When it's all over, he doesn't talk much about a horse's performance or a judge's decision. You'll see him walk up to one of his students who just completed a lovely round but may have been passed over with the ribbons. Johnson simply pats the horse and stands there like he's got all day. "She looked good," he'll smile and nod his head thoughtfully. "Really nice." What Johnson is really thinking or planning to do in the next training session he keeps inside. After all, training horses and riders is a process, and Johnson takes it one step at a time, acknowledging each step of progress with a smile or on a blue-ribbon day with one of his famous grins. "I look and see what's going on," Johnson says with his arms leaning easily on a fence with the rest of the spectators watching the next horse canter toward a jump. "A lot of time, I learn by just looking. I like to see the riders and horse I work with do well. It's like your work paid off." The horses under Johnson's care may not get many carrots, but they get a lot of attention. "I can call the horses from two fields over and they'll come to me just 'cause I handle them all the time. They know me. The more you handle a horse, the better he'll be." But does he baby them? Johnson laughs, embarrassed, and looks away. Then he grins. "Yeah, I baby 'em," he says. "But nobody knows I