Jay Johnson on learning from his time behind bars and how he’s repaying horses for saving his life by helping to saving theirs...
Never in a million years did I imagine as a child I’d be doing this; backing horses and working with difficult ones. I was in a children’s home and, in five years, had nearly 20 foster homes; my brother and I went through a lot. Then, my last foster parents came along with horses. Everything we had was unbacked or difficult and that’s how it started.
Horses saved my life – I owe everything to them and my parents. I used to self-harm, took overdoses, but I would go and cry to the horses, and that’s what saved me. That’s why I’m so passionate about what I do.
All horses are completely different but you have to outsmart them. It’s a psychological game, but a horse is what you make it. Treat it like a brat and it will become one, treat it like a horse and it will take you to the end of the earth. I love them and am fascinated by them, and you never stop learning.
The best thing about what I do is saving horses’ lives by resetting them when they’ve been written off as dangerous. I’ve been a professional showjumper and jumped up to grand prix level, but nothing compares to riding a horse across a field when the vet’s standing there waiting to put it down because this was its last option. I don’t think anyone will understand just how that feels.
What breaks me is if there’s a horse I can’t fix and to see the client cry. My mum brought me up to do the best by any horse.
It is a very stressful job. I only have one chance. If my client gets hurt or I make the wrong decision, it’s game over. It is a fabulous job and I love the rewards, but it is hard work; I go all round the country helping horses, and now internationally too.
A lot of people have asked if they can do what I do and I say it takes endless years. It’s about feel; you have to understand the horse and the situation.
I wear my safety gear because I’ve been hurt. I’ve fractured an arm, dislocated my shoulder, broken every bone in my face, and my ribs, three or four times. I also have a plate in my jaw, but you just have to get on with it. I landed on my back once, on concrete, and thought, “I need proper gear.” People may laugh at my “body armour”, but it’s saved me; I would have smashed myself to smithereens without it.
One injury was when I forgot to tighten the girth. Even at my level, and the length of time I’ve been doing it, I didn’t tighten it, and paid the price. I got absolutely dumped. But we all make mistakes, and you learn from them.
Everything I’ve been through makes me good at my job. All the foster homes, the terrible things; one driving force has been to prove I can do it, and I never stop learning. I went to prison because I was standing up for a friend and I paid the price. I also didn’t mean to go on the run, but I’d broken the day licence and thought I wouldn’t get parole, so I did. But if I hadn’t been to prison, I wouldn’t be able to fix problems. Horses and humans learn from routine.
People say I’m good at what I do, but I want to better myself so I can help more horses, as I’ll always be in their debt.
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020
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