In this monthly series leading up to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September and October, we watch a different competitor prepare for competition each month.
Tucker Johnson competed in his first international competition in 1987, and now he’s preparing for what he said will be his last—the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
After the WEG, in October, Johnson, a 46-year-old from Hobe Sound, Fla., will be retiring from international four-in-hand competition.
Johnson has started preparing for the WEG in much the same manner as he has prepared for previous international competitions, with careful planning.
“The trick is trying to strike a balance that will have the horses sound, fit and ready in September but will keep me in enough practice to be successful,” Johnson said.
In order to keep himself and his horses in top form, Johnson has sent a team to Europe as well as keeping a team at home. His team in Europe competed in Donaueschingen (Germany) in September 2009; two weeks before he took his U.S.-based team to the Lexington Combined Driving Classic (Ky.) in October, which also served as a test event for the WEG. He took third in both competitions.
His long-time coach, Michael Freund, also competed a couple of Johnson’s horses, along with a few of fellow driver Chester Weber’s horses, at Little Everglades International (Fla.) in January to complete their qualifications—and won. “It was good preparation to see where the horses were and which horses could do which jobs,” Johnson said.
Foremost on Johnson’s mind is the fact that the WEG is still seven months away. “One of the challenges is how much work do you want to be doing over the winter for a World Equestrian Games in October?” he said.
Most of his horses are in light work now, working on the treadmill and continuing to train during the winter months.
The competition phase of his preparation will start in spring. “The horses that we think will best work for the WEG will go over to join the horses in Germany in enough time in late spring to prepare for Windsor [England],” he said. “We have great international events here in the spring and fall but not very many during the summer.”
Johnson isn’t sure if he’ll compete the horses in June, but he does plan to compete in Aachen (Germany) in the middle of July and Reisenbeck (Germany) at the end of the month.
Directly after, the horses will return to his family farm in Oldwick, N.J. There he has a large property with miles of marathon trails and obstacles, and the weather in New Jersey is more similar to Kentucky than the weather in Florida.
“They will have a little break with light work for a couple weeks, then we’ll start building back up to the peak of soundness and preparation,” he said.
Even with the WEG being in the United States, Johnson doubts that they will have much of a home-field advantage. “I think you’ll find the top American drivers will be competing in Europe over the summer,” he said. “The international group of equestrian competitors is pretty sophisticated. No matter where you throw them, the best rise to the top.”
For the past two years, Johnson’s focus has not only been on his own preparation for the WEG. As chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s High Performance Driving Committee, he has had a hand developing the team as a whole.
“I can’t say enough thanks to Jim Wolf and the Federation for making it possible to put the training in place a solid two years before the WEG,” he said.
The preparation started last year when Freund, who had been working with Johnson and Weber for more than five years, expanded his instruction to include the other possible members of the team. Also in 2009, Peter Tischner, a former member of the German four-in-hand driving team, started traveling to the United States to do developing clinics.
“When it’s called a developing clinic, Chester, a silver medalist, was participating. So developing the program would be a better description,” Johnson said.
The U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation has also made a big investment in the developing programs that have allowed Tischner to work with some of the newer drivers for the team and some drivers who have been successful in pairs and want to move up to four-in-hand.
Closer to the WEG, the training will intensify. “We normally have a training camp that we all enter, mandatory or not, and we do have something planned for a couple of weeks in Kentucky close to the WEG grounds,” he said.
There will be two groups—one that will likely be the team and one that will likely be competing as individuals. “We might not be able to be at the same place, but we will be close to each other,” he said.
The Johnson Team
With two teams to choose from, Johnson doesn’t know which five horses he will take onto the grounds in Kentucky. But he has a few ideas.
“Williams will probably be team leader. He is sound and going well and has been doing some work in the lead,” Johnson said.
Along with Williams, Johnson named Spotlight 14, who, in his first young horse competition, jumped the bank in the cones phase at Aachen (Germany) and got the whole team airborne. But that was five years ago, and he hasn’t made the same mistake again.
Johnson was also hoping to use Speedy, a horse of Freund’s whom Johnson leases, in the marathon because of his speed and endurance. Dexter 154, who was a staple on his team a few years ago, had an injury from being cast. He is now recovered and working well, so he will most likely step back into his spot.
Anastasia 127, a mare he used in Donaueschingen, is another likely to be on his team, along with Avalon, an 8-year-old who was on the team in Kentucky. And Johnson has other horses as back up.
Like all drivers, Johnson wouldn’t be successful without his support staff. That starts with Freund, who has been coaching Johnson for more than five years and is responsible for the training structure for his teams. Melissa Warner has been with Johnson for years and organizes the stables. Alan Freitag, who came from a draft horse background, helps with the driving and will be on the back of the carriage during the marathon.
The number of grooms to be allowed on the grounds for each driver is yet to be decided. At most international driving competitions, each driver is allowed five grooms for five horses and two carriages, but the FEI only requires that they allow two.
After 23 years on the international competition scene, Johnson plans to retire. “I have obligations to my family and my work that make it unrealistic to do this forever,” he said.
Johnson is an investor and helps in his family’s offices. He and his wife, Charlotte, have three children: Sam, Freddy and Emma.
“They are all hoping I win,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’m not sure if that is supportive or threatening.”
His children will be allowed to miss school in order to support their father at the WEG. “I think they will learn more from attending an international competition like the WEG than they would in those four days of school,” he said.
Johnson praised for the whole U.S. driving team and credited them for helping him succeed. “I want to thank Chester and all the other drivers for the amount of work they put in getting their teams ready and inspiring me to keep at it and be at the top of my game toward the end of my game,” he said. “Both of the coaches, Michael and Peter, for the amount of work they’ve thrown in. They have just put their heart into it. And Elizabeth Staller, the director of driving for the Federation, who coordinates all of this and makes it possible for us to concentrate on our horses and our own preparation.
“It’s a very strong team with a very good group of support people behind us,” he noted.
Tucker Johnson’s Career Highlights
2008—fifth-placed team & 16th individually, World Four-In-Hand Driving Championship, Beesd, the Netherlands
2006—eighth-placed team & 14th individually, World Equestrian Games, Aachen, Germany
2004—12th, World Four-In-Hand Driving Championships, Kecskemét, Hungary
2002—team silver & fourth individually, World Equestrian Games, Jerez, Spain
2000—sixth-placed team & seventh individually, World Four-In-Hand Championship, Wolfsburg, Germany first-USEF Four-In-Hand Championship (Md.)
1999—first, USEF Four-In-Hand Championship (Md.)
1998—fifth, World Equestrian Games, Rome, Italy first—USEF Four-In-Hand Championship (Md.)
1997—first, USEF Four-In-Hand Championship (Md.)
1994—Member, USET World Four-In-Hand Championship Team, The Hague, the Netherlands
1992—second, USET National Pairs Championship (N.J.)
1991—gold-medal team, World Pairs Championship, Zwettl, Austria