Photo: Robert Nelson
Paige Johnson: Salamander Farm's Champion
Many people outside the equestrian world know Paige Johnson as the daughter of Black Entertainment Television (BET) founders Bob and Sheila Johnson, but inside the sport she’s Paige Johnson, champion jumper. Johnson is an avid equestrian, having fallen in love with horses at age seven watching the classic cartoon, “My Little Pony.” She soon began taking lessons and has been riding ever since. After high school, she studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, but after a year her passion for horses got the best of her and she began riding full time. She competes year-round on an international level in Grand Prix, and high amateur divisions. Johnson has had the fortune of training with renowned riders and trainers such as Bill Moroney, Kent Farrington, and legendary Olympian Joe Fargis. Her career highlights include multiple wins around the world, from the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., to the Vaalkenswaard Horse Show in The Netherlands.
In August, Johnson got the call many jumpers only dream of when she was named to the U.S. Team for CSIO3* Bratislava.
While Johnson spends much of her time in the barn dedicated to her craft, she spends her little free time giving back to her community. In January, she hosted the second annual Jump for HomeSafe event at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. HomeSafe is a non-profit organization aiding victims of domestic violence and child abuse. She is also an Equine Ambassador for the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Johnson has a rescued miniature horse named Twinkletoes, as well as seven active show horses and 12 retired show horses on her family’s Salamander Farms.
Equestrian Magazine’s Helen Murray had the opportunity to sit down with Johnson while she was competing at the Kentucky National Hunter Jumper Show at the Kentucky Horse Park. Murray quickly learned that Johnson has a great sense of humor, as she laughed while discussing traveling for 11 weeks soon after her wedding on May 4, 2013. Johnson is also very humble and seriously dedicated to her craft, with high goals and a dream for her future.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment to date?
It was a long time ago, but I was second in a big semi-Grand Prix behind Royal Kaliber, who was Chris Kappler’s Olympic mount in Athens, with my horse Lancier 4. That stands out because I was really young and it was such a big deal to me. Most recently would be last year with my horse Chiron S. He won three Grand Prixes. One was a 1.50 meter in Florida ($25,000 Suncast 1.50m Championship Jumper Classic) during Nations Cup week, which is a really big week there. Nick Skelton was second, and it’s always such a huge accomplishment to beat someone more experienced than you. I love Nick, but it’s nice to know you’re in there with the top riders. Then he (Chiron S) won two Grand Prixes last summer here ($25,000 Hagyard Lexington Classic II and $25,000 Bluegrass Festival Grand Prix II), so it was a nice, consistent year for me. My new mare, Dakota, was just double-clear in fourth at the $50,000 Hermes Classic CSI 4* last week. That was a big show, so that was nice.
You’ve done a fair amount of European tours; what would you say is the biggest difference between the U.S. and Europe equestrian scenes?
I’d say the atmosphere, in some ways, and the riders. We have really good riders here, but it’s more spread out between hunters and equitation and show jumping. When you go to the shows over there, it’s really just show jumping. A lot of the shows I went to were on the Global Champions Tour and you get to see the top 20 out of 30 (riders) in the world, and that’s really amazing to watch and compete with them. I love doing that because we don’t get to do that all the time. We kind of have our same crew that we travel with, and we have amazing riders like Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, my trainer Kent Farrington, but it’s nice to also see the people you meet at finals, like the World Cup Finals, Olympics, and WEG. So it’s nice to compete and watch those people perform at the same time.
What would you say is your favorite venue, whether here in the U.S. or in Europe?
In the States, I love Kentucky. I also love Florida because we have a farm there and it’s kind of like I get to go home and show. But Kentucky is probably my favorite with the big ring. And it’s close to Virginia, so the travel time is nice. Overseas I would probably say my favorite show is Vaalkenswaard, which is in Holland. I love it. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been going there off and on for years; it’s a great atmosphere, it’s fun. I went to Spruce Meadows this year, which is a great venue for horses with amazing grass rings. It’s an amazing, top-notch facility.
You mentioned you ride with Kent, who served as Chef d’Equipe at CSIO Bratislava; what was it like to be part of that U.S. squad in Slovakia?
It was amazing. I happened to be the alternate because I had the newest horse. Leading up to it Dakota wasn’t able to do many FEI classes, but the first Grand Prix I did with her was Week 8 in Florida. So I was really proud and happy that I had consistent enough results to be put on a team. It’s such a short period of time and she (Dakota) really stepped up to the plate. She’s ten and I’ve had her since she was five, so she had to accept me as a different rider. The lady I bought her from in Europe basically broke her, trained her, everything. But we really click. She’s kind of a sassy mare, and I get it. Bratislava was a great experience. I think something that sets us up for the Nations Cup when we’re younger is the Prix des States in Harrisburg and I used to always love doing that. A lot of times I was the anchor rider, which is a lot of pressure, but I think it’s really good practice because it’s realistic. If your goal is to represent the United States and show at the top level, those are really good things to experience as a Junior.
You really came up through the U.S. programs; do you think that’s something that’s helped you?
Yes, and I think that’s something they should definitely stay with. Luckily the Prix des States is still on and is still a big deal, I just wish we had more stuff like that. In Canada (for the CSIO5* Spruce Meadows ‘Continental’ Tournament) they had two U.S. Nations Cup teams, an A and B team, and I think that’s a nice idea so more people like me get chances, so it’s not just McLain, Beezie, and Kent. I’m in the process of building a string. I just got two new horses, one’s seven and one’s eight, so they’re a couple years away, but my goal is to keep building my string. Kent has me in a pretty strict program and the goal is to continue to do some Nations Cup teams and then eventually, when I have a couple more horses I can alternate in big classes, World Cup qualifiers. This year I can’t quite do that because of the younger horses, I can’t put it all on Dakota, but that’s the end goal. I really want to represent the U.S. and go as far as I can.
I think that’s something we see a lot in Europe; the riders have what seems to be a different horse every week. I don’t know if it’s because they have more access to them, but they definitely have more mounts and sponsorship. Even the riders that aren’t in the Top 30 and can’t get into those huge five star shows are still really, really good.
In America, we’re really lucky that we can basically go anywhere we want. Over there they go by computer lists and not everyone’s accepted into shows. When people come to WEF from Europe they’re like, what is this? But it’s great because it does give you so many more opportunities with young horses or horses that might not be superstars, but there’s still a division for them to show in. It’s great to have opportunities to get in the ring; we don’t have many things holding us back. With riding, I really do believe that experience is the most important thing you can have. Look at Ian Millar over the years, he can ride horses that look so hard but I think the feel and the experience over the years and riding so many different types of horses really helps. Billy (Moroney) and Chuck (Keller) were really good with me about that, they always got me so many different types of horses, and I never had two that were alike. That really taught me how to be a chameleon and adapt to different horses.
Even though you travel a lot, do you think having Salamander Farm in The Plains, Virginia, helps the horses?
I really believe it does. I skipped the [Hampton Classic] because the four horses I had in Europe had just come home the day before the Hamptons and I really think it’s valuable for the horses to have a place to go home to. They need turn out. They need to be able to be horses. So I thought, “I’m not going to be selfish, I’m not going to do the Hamptons.” If they go there and they’re tired and they don’t jump well, I know it’s on me. I try not to over-show. I’m really an advocate for that. And Billy, Chuck, and Kent are about horsemanship and doing the best you can for the horse. So I think being in Virginia is kind of a getaway for the horses, but it’s also a great place because the hills and the field that we have really can set you up for anywhere you’re going to show. It’s a great facility. I feel really lucky to have that as an option.
Riding at your level is such a huge commitment. How do you think your family and friends have helped you with your success?
I’m really lucky that my family is so supportive. They really back me up and ever since I was little, they’ve instilled in me to always give 100%. They were never the type of parents that said we can afford it so just show up and get on your pony. They said you’re going to get up early, you’re going to ride your pony in the ring, and if you don’t you’re not going to show. So I have that mentality. If anything I’m too involved sometimes. I’m not a passenger, I want to know everything. I think having Chuck and Billy and Joe Fargis and trainers that really have taught me how to be a true horsewoman and didn’t let me get away with bratty stuff has helped me get where I am today. If you’re supported by great people and have a great team…you’re only as good as your team is. I’ve learned from them, they’ve learned from me, and it’s all kind of fallen into place.
How’s married life?
I just turned 28 last week and I started dating him when I was 20, so luckily he’s used to all of this. After we got married, the honeymoon was during Spring Kentucky, so that was the first time I missed it in years. Then I was on the road for 11 weeks straight, so I don’t think I’ve really experienced married life so much. But he’s really supportive and totally understands my lifestyle, which is very helpful. I don’t have anything holding me back, so I can concentrate on riding and what I want to do with it. It’s nice to have that support from my family. There are family things I miss out on and I feel very lucky to have such an understanding team that they don’t make me feel guilty for following my passion.
What do you see for your future?
I kind of have a two-year goal. Like I said, I’m building a string, and in two years my seven-year-old will be nine. I would love to go to a World Cup Final and I’d love to go to some big Nations Cup shows. My goals are to be consistent enough, high enough in the rankings, to be chosen for the big stuff.