It's no secret that Winston Churchill's comment, "There's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man," has been proven to be true over and over. Dean Johnson at Dry Well Ranch in Vale, SD, learned firsthand what a horse could do for a youngster when he finally talked his father into buying that first horse for him.
"My father was a mechanic," Johnson says. "I begged and pleaded for that first horse. I've always viewed working with horses as an art. I enjoy the art of communicating with horses because it's all done through intuition. You can't ask what ails them because they can't tell you. You have to feel what's happening with them."
Johnson, who didn't grow up on a ranch, has used his love for horses as a foundation to build the equine training business he and his wife Becky operate on their west-central South Dakota ranch. In addition to training performance horses, the Johnsons also breed horses, provide embryo transplant services and operate a cow-calf herd.
At the Black Hills Stock Show (BHSS), Johnson will be on the lookout for horses with the characteristics necessary to make a suitable youth performance horse.
"I'll be on the lookout for horses that suit the temperament of the youth I'm working with at the time," Johnson says. "You can't put an aggressive young person and an aggressive horse together. That could be an explosive situation. When a rider gets aggressive with an aggressive horse, you'll end up with a very upset horse. That's the kind of situation where things go in a negative direction."
Because the youth Johnson mentors are interested in performance horses, selected animals have to have a good athletic build and mind set. Their abilities will differ significantly from horses suited to equitation activities.
"Performance horses tend to be smaller, depending on what the young person's performance interests are," Johnson says. "The performance horses I work with are involved in a lot of reining activities. Size doesn't play a big role in their ability to perform. Conformation and athletic potential are more important than size."
The BHSS isn't the only place Johnson seeks out horses he needs. Over the years, he's learned that developing a network of people involved with horses aids in identifying which animal is best suited for his current need.
"You also need to know you can trust the people you're dealing with," he says. "If they tell you a horse is safe, you have to be able to trust what they're telling you. That's something that just takes time and comes from experience. There are a lot of horses out there that meet the needs of youth who want to be involved in performance activities. You just have to know where to look for them."
It can take as long as six months for Johnson to locate just the right horse. Part of that time is spent getting to know the youth who will work with the animal.
"Horses are easy to read. Reading people takes more time," he says. "There have been times when I've reviewed up to 100 horses before I find the one that best fits the needs of a youth. I don't necessarily drive to the ranch and look at them. I review their pedigree and performance record, learn who's riding them. That's another major factor to consider. If someone's riding style is completely different than mine, that won't work. I won't get along with that horse. Usually I know that the sources I'm working with do have riding styles that are similar to mine."
Once the horse has been selected, Johnson begins helping youth learn to communicate with the animal. While riding and working with the horse is at the core of the training sessions, he also requires that the youngster learn to work in the stable and take care of the horse.
"The kids aren't allowed to just show up, ride and leave," he says. "There's a certain amount of responsibility that goes with owning an animal. It's important for them to develop the work ethic that goes along with caring for animals. It's extremely important that they learn how to care for the horse."
While Johnson obtains a significant portion of income from training performance horses, his focus is on making sure he accurately matches riders and horses and sees the success of both rider and horse as the ultimate goal.
"I want people who make a $20,000 or $30,000 investment to be confident that I've made a wise choice for them," he says. "I'm completely up front with buyers. When I establish a relationship with someone who needs a performance horse, I see that as a long-term relationship. It's important to me that people are satisfied with their end result and become ongoing customers."
Part of Johnson's satisfaction in matching riders and horses stems from his own love of performance activities. He's been involved with the BHSS for many years and says he never tires of the atmosphere and the people he meets and interacts with at the event.
"Attending the show keeps me in the industry," he says. "There are a lot of horses that don't meet the requirements of the riders I work with. Not every horse is meant to work as a top show horse. There's a need for horses to help little kids get started. Those types of animals don't have to have the physical ability to meet the demands of open level competition. Youth who move on from that point and outgrow that type of horse are the ones that I love to work with. There are many benefits for kids who ride. When they start at the age of 12, their hand/eye coordination won't be nearly as good as it is at 18. I enjoy watching the youth succeed with their horse. That's why it's so important for me to be good at my part of that success. I don't mind working hard to make that all happen."