BY ANN JAMIESON
“There will probably never be a way for anyone to know just how many lives she touched,” says Jolene Laughlin, one of Barbara Johnson’s students.
These words are echoed by scores of others. Barbara Johnson was tough but fair, and molded kids into strong young women. She also molded many professionals into the knowledgeable, caring horsewomen that they are today.
Michelle Benzckowski co-authored a book on Johnson with Maeghan Kimball, Practically Impractical: The Story of Barbara Johnson and the Lives She Touched. Following in Barbara’s footsteps as a trainer, Benzckowski says there are many people, both amateurs and professionals, who can trace their start back to her. In the book, she attributes their success to Barbara’s gift for imparting “the most important part of horsemanship: how to speak and understand horse.” Barbara taught them to “listen to what the horse wanted to do, and to work with the horse’s strengths as opposed to its weaknesses.”
Two of Barbara’s kids are nationally known professionals in the horse industry today. Patty Johnson Stovel gravitated to the English world and is a top hunter/jumper rider.
She finished as the highest placed American on Mont Cenis at the 1994 World Games. Her brother, Robert, stuck with Quarter Horses and the western side, becoming a top reining trainer who earned the World Championship title in 2002 and is a five-time AQHA Congress champion in reining and trail.
Both professionals got their basics from their mom. She and their father Arthur (Buster) worked together to build their farm. While Barbara taught and cared for the horses, Buster took care of farm work, trailering, and announcing. Initially, they focused on Quarter Horses and competing at Quarter Horse shows. Patty tried western for a while, but it was never her preference.
Patty says, “My mom might have been the strongest, most determined, and independent woman I have ever known. There is no question that she loved what she did, but more importantly, she somehow managed to make others around her love it as well. Her love for all animals was amazing and her passion for teaching, especially the little kids, was mind-boggling.”
Growing up in Killingworth, Connecticut, Barbara attended one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the state, Pine Orchard School. Living amongst woods and trails, it wasn’t all that surprising when her father left home one day with $100 to buy a refrigerator, and instead came home with a spotted pony named Queenie. Barbara was about six or seven at the time and had had no formal lessons. The pony became her best friend, and she rode it until she grew so tall that her legs nearly dragged on the ground.
Barbara learned by trial and error with the help of a neighbor, a teenage boy. He rode his father’s 17 hand workhorse alongside Barbara on the pony. If he walked, she walked. If he trotted, so did she. And if he galloped, well so did Barbara.
Mostly it worked out okay, although there were times when her saddle would slip, nearly dumping her. Barbara would call for help, the boy would jump off his horse, fix her saddle, and on they would go. By the time she was ten, Barbara was driving as much as she was riding. Her parents worked the three to 11 shift, so when Barbara got out of school, she was pretty much free to do as she wanted.
Barbara’s caring side was exhibited early on when she helped younger kids at school don their boots and coats for the walk home in the winter. During World War II, Barbara collected scrap metal with her pony cart for the war effort.
As a small child, she led her neighbor’s huge draft horses to water, because they had none in the barn they were sheltered in. She helped reunite a cranky neighbor with his beloved dog. Barbara loved all living things, be they small children, horses, cats (if she was sitting down, chances were she had a cat on her lap), squirrels, goats, or raccoons.
While her pony was her best friend and constant companion, she couldn’t stop what happens to all children—growing. There came a time when she was just too big for Queenie. Her father heard of a horse that was for sale…cheap. He was apparently unaware of why a horse might be that cheap. When her family took Barbara to Meriden to see the horse, the teenage neighbor was the first to ride. Since her father preferred hot horses with a mind of their own, he deemed the mount perfect. The deal was done and Barbara had a big, bay horse.
The horse loved to rear, but, in the days of Roy Rogers and Trigger, wasn’t that what horses were supposed to do? So Barbara didn’t think anything of it, and only years later realized how dangerous it could have been.
He loved to go fast as much as rearing, and Barbara turned that into a game. Marking out a “track” around the farm and barn, Barbara and her horse would race around it, trying to beat their previous time.
While Barbara got along fine with her horse’s antics, when her father tried to ride him it all came to an end. Her father quickly discovered the horse’s less savory habits, and he was gone the next day, deemed “too much horse” for Barbara.
The next horse they purchased for Barbara was very expensive, at $500, quite a sum at that time. But, while they were willing to pay a good chunk for the horse, why pay to trailer it home? Barbara could ride him from Rocky Hill to Killingworth, about 20 miles.
Her mother accompanied her in a car through the high-traffic areas, but eventually got impatient and drove on ahead to wait for her.
It was a long way, and Barbara ran into construction, slowing her pace and leaving behind some wet hoofprints in freshly laid cement, something the workers were decidedly displeased about.
As she tired, Barbara began to lose focus, and soon she was lost. She found her way home well after dark, with a worried mother looking out the door for her arrival. But the horse turned out to be well worth it. He knew what he was supposed to do and did it willingly and well. No Trigger impressions from him.
Barbara enrolled in a horse training correspondence course, and each month they practiced the lesson that was sent to them. The two of them learned rapidly.
As country kids, horses were equivalent to bikes while the kids grew up, getting them where they needed to be. But they were so much more as well. They were friends, entertainment, teachers. And for Barbara, it was the beginning of a career that would last a lifetime.
Merrie-Land Stables was born in 1961, when the Johnson family moved to Portland, Connecticut. Most likely Buster had no idea what was about to hit him when Barbara convinced him to put four stalls in the garage. Barbara did it all, teaching lessons, going to shows and parades, and giving pony rides. Ponies didn’t go to pony rides in a van—instead, they were hoisted up into the bed of the pick-up truck. Many children got their first taste of riding when riding a pony that showed up at Valley View Elementary School for a pony ride.
Both parents became more involved in shows as their kids grew older. Barbara coached and groomed for Patty while Buster drove the trailer and announced at shows. Both were very active in both the Connecticut Horse Shows Association and the Connecticut Quarter Horse Association. They also renamed “Merrie-Land” as Quarry Town Stables, perhaps considering it too childish a name as their children grew, and also in deference to the many quarries in the area.
Watching Patty compete at the horse shows on the wide-open hunt courses, Barbara had an epiphany. Barbara had always loved the little ones, and she felt that a hunt course was no place for a young child to compete. It was hard for a kid to maintain control in such an open space. They needed something smaller, more confined. And so the seeds for the Short Stirrup Division were sown. Barbara presented the idea to the American Horse Shows Association (at the time the governing body for horse shows) and the classes, now one of the most popular divisions in a show, were implemented.
Barbara passed the teaching torch for her daughter Patty on to George Morris, who coached Patty to a second in the AHSA Medal class on a four-year-old Thoroughbred she trained herself. Patty says, “It was always like her to push me to do my very best.”
The success both Patty and Robert have enjoyed is a testimony to the excellent foundation laid by their mother.
While Robert and his then wife Carolyn showed Quarter Horses out of Quarry Town Farm in Portland, Connecticut, Barbara ran the lesson program, her favorite part of the business. She was always happiest when working with the little kids, teaching them the love and respect for horses that she herself displayed.
Perhaps it was because Barbara remembered being a child herself in love with horses, or the fact that she loved horses so much that she wanted to instill in others the knowledge and will to train and treat them properly.
Becky Degraw (Johnson), Barbara’s first granddaughter, spent her summers from age five through 18 with her grandmother. “I can’t put words to how those summers shaped me. She was up before dawn carrying two five-gallon water buckets, to a huge barn for 40 horses. Mucking stalls, halfway done before I was up at all. My work ethic and tenacity can be attributed to Barbara. I learned horsemanship as well as how to care for all creatures great and small.”
Quarry Town was what Barbara and Arthur had been able to afford when they started out, but the rock strewn paddocks were never the grassy fields that Barbara dreamed of. While the Johnson’s creativity made it work, Barbara wanted to move on to the place of her dreams. Passing the farm on to Robert and Carolyn, in 1989 Barbara picked up and moved to a new farm, a “retirement farm” in Woodstock, Connecticut.
Woodstock Acres was the farm she had always envisioned. She tended the horses, taught riders, and ran a summer camp until Arthur passed away in 2007. She continued to run the farm until 2014 when she sold it to a student, Rebecca Koss Barrett, who trains horses and riders following in Barbara’s footsteps.
After selling the farm, Barbara moved to Missouri to help Robert at his barn. She died peacefully in her sleep with her cats and children by her side. Her kids, grandkids, and scores of students continue to ride, train and care for horses as taught by Barbara.
Barbara’s grandchildren as well are successful professionals, and many of Barbara’s students such as Gina Gates, Michelle Mogulnicki, Rachel Miller, Rebecca Koss Barrette, and Joie Racicot, have also become professionals.
Darcie Lehman, a student who went on to a degree in Equine Science and Management, remembers when a horse got loose at a show. “Mrs. J” was 80 at the time. She caught the horse, and reprimanded it “like it was nothing.”
Holly Long says, “She definitely taught us all what hard work is and how much you can accomplish if you just believe in yourself. She didn’t just make us all riders, she made us all horsewomen and you don’t see that much anymore. She taught us all that it starts at the bottom, from cleaning stalls to sweeping the barn. She was an amazing mentor and made us all see what a strong, confident woman was, and shaped us into the women we are.”
**Practically Impractical: The Story of Barbara Johnson and the Lives She Touched is available as an e-book and in print. All proceeds from print copies support Patty Stovel’s cancer fund.
About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years.
She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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