Pitts concurred, adding that she’s noticed patterns over the past few years.
“There are some judges, several of them watched Junior grow up as a black groom in the South, and he can’t win under them no matter what he brings,” she said. “And we don’t take bums to the horse show. We only take ones we think we can win with. There are certain people we just cannot win under.”
Despite any misgivings, Junior keeps his eyes forward and puts one foot in front of the other.
“I try to do the best I can under that judge,” he said.
However, he never felt prejudice at home. “I grew up around wonderful horses and wonderful people,” said Junior, adding that his son, hunter/jumper trainer D.J. Johnson, had a different experience showing as a young man.
“He don’t pay any attention to it, and that’s the good part. He keeps going forward, and that’s what you got to do,” Junior said. “But it’s still there. As successful as I’ve been, I can tell.”
Bringing Up The Babies
Junior turns 62 on April 6, and he hasn’t been in the saddle much over the past decade.
But he still loves the training process from start to finish.
After leaving Foxwood in the late 1970s, Junior went to work for Kenny and Sallie Wheeler at Cismont Manor Farm in Keswick, Va., and stayed there for 10 years.
It was at Cismont that Junior got his introduction to the hunter breeding classes.
“I broke all the horses at Cismont,” Junior explained. “Everything was babies when we bought it. I like to look at them, and I like to see them grow up, see them be better horses as they get older and older.”
He never had formal training in showing on the line. Instead, he learned by watching Kenny, one of the most successful handlers in hunter breeding history.
“Cismont really got me into the babies, and then Karen Reed gave me the opportunity,” said Junior.
Reed owned Amber Lake Farm (Va.), where Junior worked after a short year at the Jacobs family’s Deeridge Farm in New York.
At Amber Lake, Junior dove head first into preparing young horses for the breeding classes. One of his most cherished keepsakes is the ribbon he collected in his first Devon win. He keeps it neatly framed with a photo of himself and Secret Blade, who won the non-Thoroughbred 3-year-old class in 1994.
“That was a favorite. It was something that I had wanted to do,” he said. “It started building and going forward from then.”
Over the years, Junior’s noticed the shift in breeding classes from Thoroughbreds to warmbloods, and he laments the lack of entries in the Thoroughbred classes. Yet, he doesn’t prefer one more than the other.
“I like both; I’ve been successful with both,” he said.
He thinks the shift stems more from laziness than actual quality. “A lot of people just have one breed, and that’s the warmblood. But a Thoroughbred horse is just as good,” he said. “People don’t give them a chance anymore. They don’t want to work at it. They would rather go to Europe and get those horses already going.”
Junior worked for Reed until he and Pitts started their own business in 2006. They became friends in the 1970s when Junior was still working for Rowe, and Pitts groomed for Joan Boyce. She went on to groom for Conrad Homfeld for several years before leaving the equine industry.
In 2004, Pitts started helping Junior at horse shows as a way to get back into the hands-on care.
“My passion has always been taking care of horses,” Pitts said.
The Perfect Business Arc
Unlike trainers who see the in-hand classes as the end game, Junior looks at them as the starting line for young horses.
“A lot of them, once they finish their 3-year-old year, you never see them again. A lot of [people] don’t realize [they] go do different things,” Junior said. “They might go do dressage; they might be jumpers that we don’t hear about. [Some] get hurt, and you don’t hear nothing about it. A lot them show at the little one-day shows and stuff like that.”
After the horses graduate from hunter breeding, Clem Clements breaks them, and Meg Graham shows them under saddle.
The spacious barn aisles at Junior Johnson Training and Sales are quiet. Junior and Pitts don’t take boarders. Walk in and the only sound you’re likely to hear is the soft munching of hay and the occasional snort or sigh of a contented young horse.
“I do all the grooming, all the mane pulling, braiding, trimming. Junior, he trains them,” said Pitts. “Junior’s not a kissy-face, lovey type of guy. He loves the horses and respects them. I’m the one who makes them into nice pets.
“We have a dust up every now and then, usually because either he’s telling me how to do my job, or I’m telling him how to do his job,” Pitts joked. “Once they’re trained, once they learn what he tells them—that they need to stand still and they need to stop a certain way—we don’t drill them. Their practice is in the show ring.”
While Junior is best known for his accomplishments on the line, he and Pitts are trying to grow the performance side of their business.
“Our greatest joy is taking them from showing in-hand, then breaking them, starting them over fences, and then taking them to their first horse show,” said Pitts. “To us, that’s the perfect arc for our business. Having said that, we unfortunately don’t get a lot of that.”
Instead, babies often go home with their owners during the off-season, leaving the barn light on clients. “People don’t know that I do train horses,” Junior said.
A Family Tradition
Horse fever seems to run in the Johnson blood, and every summer a member of the newest generation of Johnson horsemen joins the team.