Local and Ready to Shine at The Event

Kalispell rider Jen Johnson prepares for The Event at Rebecca Farm

By Xavier Flory

2014 is the year of the horse and Flathead Valley will be celebrating it with The Event at Rebecca Farm, a four-day equestrian triathlon on July 24-27 that attracts riders from all over the world and is the largest of its type in the nation.

The Event is also a chance for local riders to shine, and Jen Johnson is one such local who is hoping to impress with her 4-year-old, Montana-bred horse Flash. Originally from California, Johnson moved to Kalispell after falling in love with the area while competing in The Event.

“We don’t have that much here in terms of eventing, so it’s amazing to have this world-class event right here in Kalispell,” she said. Although she loves competing in front of her friends and family, Johnson also said, “I put a lot of pressure on myself, pressure of being in the home town.”

She’s not just hoping for a good performance from herself; Johnson has 12 students competing at The Event and “when they’re competing, I feel as if I were up there on the horse with them.” She’s so focused on her students, that “making time to prepare myself is one of the greatest challenges,” she said.

Beyond her equestrian students, Johnson also teaches a fitness class and is training as a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter. Learning Jiu-Jitsu and other martial arts gives her insight into what her own students struggle with, and as with riding, it all comes back to discipline: the discipline to wake up every day and go to class or the stables, but also the discipline to execute each punch, kick, or jump and turn perfectly.

Her kickboxing students (yes, she teaches that as well) describe her as “ridiculously fit,” and Johnson believes that personal fitness is one of the most over-looked parts of being a good rider.

“If you don’t have the core strength to keep good posture, that translates immediately to the posture of your horse,” she said.

Equestrian triathlons have military origins and the three disciplines test attributes crucial for succeeding in battle. Dressage tests obedience of the horse through a series of geometrical patterns that the riders have to execute with precision. The cross-country leg is primarily to test the horse’s endurance and is most similar to traditional horse races; and the show jumping is primarily a test of mettle and agility.

It’s rare to find a horse that is naturally gifted at all three disciplines, which makes the triathlon exciting and unpredictable to the end. Last year at The Event, Kristi Nunnink jumped from fifth to first place with a flawless performance in the final show-jumping round to win the CIC 3-star division.

The multi-faceted event also creates challenges for the riders. Johnson has to balance firmness with flexibility, her own ideas about riding with the individuality of every horse. The best riders are always willing to try new things, according to her, and the best riding pairs have compatible personalities.

Her horse Flash is a “punk” when he’s done training, a bit of a problem child even, but he’s extremely obedient under saddle, Johnson said. He’s very smart, and “intelligence is the most important attribute” in a horse because the horse and rider are partners.

The key to becoming a great rider “is to make yourself practice in a perfect way.” This means taking every turn, every jump at the same level of precision and concentration as she uses on competition day.

In dressage, the keys to perfection are geometry and obedience. The horse has to get into the habit of walking perfect circles; “even in competitions, you see really uneven patterns,” Johnson said. Obedience is particularly challenging for a young horse and that is why Johnson does “basic flat work,” where she practices commands with Flash at a walking pace, every day.

Johnson compares teaching jumping to homework. The horse has to work on smaller jumps in order to progress to higher ones, and consistency is one of the keys to making the horse comfortable during a competition.

Of course, “there’s no way to really prepare the horse for the actual atmosphere of the competition,” Johnson said. The crowd can be particularly intimidating for younger horses such as Flash, who don’t have experience competing, and Johnson said it’s her role as the rider to transmit her own confidence and calm to the horse. She also takes Flash to Herron Park, where he’s exposed to strollers, bikes and more bustle than he ever gets at the farm.

Although she sets very high standards for herself, it’s not victory, but rather a love of the animals that makes her continue riding despite her grueling schedule.

“Horses are amazing, kind creatures” she said. “I’m amazed at the stuff they do for us.”

That’s why no matter how much work she puts into a competition, the needs of the horse always come first. “You spend so much time around the horse, you can just feel when things are wrong,” she said. She had to pull one of her horses from this year’s Event due to a lost horseshoe.

The Event at Rebecca Farm is more than a competition. It’s a celebration of equestrianism, and when Jen Johnson takes the field with riders from the East Coast and Europe, she will be realizing the ideal of Rebecca Farm to bring the best riders to Montana and give local riders a stage to the world.

The Event is free and open to the public. Donations will help offset operational costs and benefit the Halt Cancer at X Campaign. For more information, visit http://www.RebeccaFarm.org/.

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