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February 6, 2011

Driving Horseman Of The Year: Tucker Johnson

Amy Dragoo Photo.

When Tucker Johnson drove his horses through the final gate at the final obstacle in the final marathon of his career at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, he stood up in his carriage and saluted the crowd. After 25 years of competing at the highest levels of combined driving, Johnson was finally hanging up his whip.

“Tucker has been a real showman and a real promoter of the sport, and there’s something
in his personality that really attracts and appeals to the crowd,” said Edward Young, the chef
d’equipe of the U.S. combined driving team.

“He really excites the crowd and gets them involved. The conclusion of the marathon was very emotional for a bunch of us. It’s been a real pleasure to work with Tucker, and he’s been a superb representative of the sport of driving for the United States.”

Johnson originally planned to retire after the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, but when Kentucky won the bid for the 2010 WEG he decided to give it one more shot and support the U.S. team on their own turf.

The decision proved fruitful for Johnson, who won individual bronze and team silver along with his longtime teammates Chester Weber and James Fairclough.

“He’d never won an individual medal, but he was always sort of there,” said Weber. “It was such an acknowledgement of all his hard work and everything he’s given to the sport. He’s one of my dearest friends in the world, and it’s sort of sad to see him retiring from the FEI sport. He’s always been a great cheerleader and team member and always a pleasure to work with.”

Johnson began this year’s WEG preparation in April, traveling to Germany and training with the horses he had based there before competing at Windsor (England), Aachen and Riesenbeck (Germany). He had good showings in Europe before the horses shipped to his family’s Cedar Lane Farm in Oldwick, N.J.

“The preparation was pretty all-encompassing from April to the WEG,” said Johnson. “Most of it was spent getting to know the horses and getting the performances unified. I also had no soundness problems this year that prevented me from using the horses I wanted to use.”

In the last two world championships nothing seemed to go right for Johnson. He ended up borrowing or leasing horses in order to compete, which made driving competitively difficult. This year, however, he had the advantage of using the horses he competed all year, in addition to one dressage horse borrowed from Australia’s Boyd Exell, the individual gold medalist, that he felt would improve his scores.

“Competing with horses is always an opportunity for humility, and if you can face the disappointments and keep yourself on track, that can be enough to find success,” said Johnson.

“For me, finding that composure and driving at the limit of what I could do without risking an accident was enough to carry me into the medal. That’s the biggest lesson I take away from the sport: Do what you can do yourself and the horses can handle, but don’t try to be something you’re not. Being satisfied with your own ability and putting your best foot forward is enough of a success.”

The constant travel to Europe played a role in Johnson’s decision to retire. “My family doesn’t want to spend summers living in Europe while I compete,” he said.

“If you want to be competing successfully, you have to go to Europe. For me, the back and forth life of keeping a team in Europe and competing there while living and working in America was too much. I’m happy with the choice and the experience, and it’s time for a new thing for me.”

Johnson doesn’t plan to give up the sport entirely. He’s fond of coaching and hunting and hopes to remain involved in the sport’s governance and fundraising efforts.

“I’ll miss the camaraderie at the events,” said Johnson.

“I’ll miss going into a stadium and having thousands of people clapping when they announce your name—carrying the American flag with Karen O’Connor and having that many people cheer for you. Those types of feelings will be difficult to replicate in my life. When I do well at the office, 10,000 people don’t stand up and applaud! That’s an unusual opportunity to have in life. Not everyone gets that chance, and it’s been a special treat.”

Johnson is a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s High Performance Four-in-Hand Driving Committee and has worked to help raise funds for the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation.

“For me, being involved in sport governance and fund raising to help other athletes reach their potential was one of the most rewarding parts of my career,” said Johnson.

“We all need to find a way to support each other. Even if your sport isn’t an Olympic sport, we can all support the international effort of horse sports.”

Young said that Johnson’s ability to wear different hats in his career has made him invaluable.

“One of my chores now is that we keep him involved in other capacities because he has a great deal to offer. He has a great mind and a great deal of knowledge of the sport, and he’s very pragmatic in what’s going to be the best for the sport,” said Young.

“I would hate to lose his expertise.”

The sport will most likely continue to have Johnson as a proponent, at least for the foreseeable future.

“People need heroes, and he’s certainly been a role model in terms of driving,” said Weber. “If he ever decides he wants to come out of retirement that’d be just fine with me.”

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