D.J. Johnson, a professional rider and trainer, steps from the bright outdoors into the cool half-light of his stable, Sappony Creek Farms in southwestern Chesterfield County. He crosses the aisle to check on one his favorite horses, a tall heavy-boned bay owned by Kimmee Gottwald, the 13-year-old daughter of a prominent Richmond family and a known competitor in the equestrian world.
Johnson and his partner, the nationally known trainer Bob Crandall, searched for months for a horse for her. One of their agents in Europe finally found the right one in Hungary. Beaver, whose show name is Arena, is a warmblood — a trendy breed now because warmbloods combine the athleticism of thoroughbreds with the strong bodies and easy-going temperaments of draft horses. Beaver arrived at Sappony Creek months ago, and Johnson says he's already showing the talent needed to go all the way. "He just settled in, and he's already winning the fences classes," the 28-year-old says, referring to the competitive national shows approved by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). In April, Beaver and Kimmee Gottwald took the championship prize in a series of youth hunter shows, known as the Raleigh Circuit.
Leaning against a stall, Johnson watches as a young woman passes a magna wave — it looks like a pulsating ring — over Beaver's back, giving him a deep muscle massage. "Europeans treat their horses like horses," Johnson says. "They don't pamper them like we do. So he had to get used to that. He took a breath one day, and he was a pet." Johnson gives Beaver a long look. "Now it's like he's a big person to me."
Beaver has a chiropractor, who's flown in from California to work on him and other Sappony Creek horses being trained for show jumping. The chiropractor pushes the horses' bones and muscles back into place; their legs are iced regularly to prevent swelling.
Johnson walks through the stable — his long-legged stride carries him quickly from one end to the other — pointing out more tall, big-boned horses; most are warmbloods imported from various European countries, notably Holland and Germany. Some owners are investors, who buy relatively green horses from Europe. Then, after Johnson and Crandall train and show the horses at USEF competitions, exposing them to buyers, the animals may sell for several times their original cost. It's the equestrian version of flipping a house.
But most of the warmbloods are owned by Johnson's students, who usually have a few things in common — unusual talent and access to lots of money. None of the horses at Sappony Creek cost less than $30,000, Johnson says, and a few "are in the six figures."
"We don't want people who just want to come and ride once a week," says Johnson, who leases the barn with Crandall. "We want people who want to compete."
Addicted To Horses
Sappony Creek is emblematic of Chesterfield County's growing recognition as a serious equestrian community. It doesn't yet have as many barns as Goochland County, known as central Virginia's horse country. And Chesterfield is no Middleburg — the Virginia town nicknamed the "Nation's Horse and Hunt Capital" because it hosts world-class foxhunting and steeplechase events.
But in recent years, big commercial stables and private barns have cropped up all over Chesterfield's green zone, tens of thousands of acres that are completely off limits to development or open to only limited building. "It's phenomenal how much [the horse industry has] grown," says Deb Dentler, who recently built a private barn for the horses she and her daughter ride.
Outside the green zone, a building boom has attracted affluent families to Chesterfield, where they've bought big houses off River and Winterpock roads or in pricey subdivisions. Put the two together — wealthy people and open land — and you get horse country, which is not only a place but an attitude: Horses are not a hobby but an obsession. Real riders are not scared off by serious injuries, including concussions, broken bones and backs, that accompany the sport.
Chesterfield county planners don't know how much revenue the horse industry generates. But the business accounts for $1.2 billion of Virginia's economic activity, says a recent UVA study.
"We're addicted to our horses," says Deb Farrish, who finished building her 40-horse stable, dubbed the River Road Riding Club, in October 2009. She and Kelly Hopkins, her friend of 15 years, boarded their horses in regional stables. But Farrish couldn't find one that would care for her horse as meticulously as she wanted. Hopkins explains, grinning: "She built the barn because she wanted to spoil her horse. She wanted him to be treated like a good show horse."
The two women cleared fields for paddocks; Farrish's construction company did the actual building. The result is a postcard-perfect scene with a bright red barn, gently rising hills and a long driveway that leads to River Road.
"We've tried to do something different," Farrish says. "This isn't a training barn; it's not a lessons barn, so it's not filled with kids." Instead, they filled the barn with people who get along and ride together. It's a country club with horses, Hopkins says.
In the Saddle
Chesterfield's first ambitious riding facility started out as a single barn built in 1993 by resident Wayne Campbell for the neighborhood kids. Since then, Campbell's operation has grown into a substantial business, boarding horses at two big barns and offering lessons from three different trainers. Now there are show and schooling rings, several paddocks, a cross-country course and clientele that includes not just the neighborhood kids but families from several of the county's upscale developments, among them Barksdale, Chesdin and Summer Lake.
On the first warm Sunday in March, the farm is awash in riders dressed in show clothes, khaki breeches and black boots, and horses — many of them thoroughbreds, known for speed, physical talent and skittishness. The farm is hosting one of the first horse shows of central Virginia's 2011 season. People have come from Charlottesville, Fredericksburg and Ashland, as well as the Richmond metro area.
Notes Susan Donovan, a Goochland equestrian, "Chesterfield went ballistic with horses." Donovan is watching Richmond resident Louis Rogers take his horse, Joey, over obstacles in an event called stadium jumping. Joey clears most fences easily, tapping only one with a back hoof. After the round, Rogers and Joey emerge from the ring to applause, and their trainer, Chris Hitchcock, discreetly critiques the performance. A relative novice, Rogers looks less happy than relieved and drained. Without a hint of a smile, he says show jumping is stressful "because it's life-threatening."
Professional riders like Johnson make jumping look easy, as they move their horses at a steady, relaxed canter around the ring. Using the pressure of their heels and legs, they urge their horses over fences even though jumping, unlike running, is not natural for the animals. "Horses weren't built to jump," Johnson says, because when they land, their weight comes pounding down on their slender legs.
Horses may refuse a jump, planting their hooves in a lurching halt that sometimes sends riders over their heads and crashing into the obstacles. Or horses may catch their hooves on the jumps and fall, trapping their riders underneath them. Actor Christopher Reeve took the spill that paralyzed him from the neck down because his horse, Buck, refused an easy 3-foot jump during a 1994 show in Culpeper County.
The most intense competitions are cross-country races — also known as "eventing" — in which horse and rider leap over stone and brick fences or over water obstacles. Riders and horses are often seriously injured or killed in the toughest of these cross-country races. In the spring of 2008, the New York Times, in its coverage of cross-country races that left two people in critical condition and injured their horses so badly they had to be euthanized, reported that 12 people had been killed in eventing accidents in the past year-and-a-half.
In response, USEF President David O'Connor, of Middleburg, Va., wrote that the "spate of accidents has raised troubling questions… Why are so many riders and horses having accidents? Is there more that can be done to make cross-country safer? Is the sport just too dangerous?"
Johnson says that it is, at least for him. "I'm not really a very brave person," he says, when asked if he competes in eventing. "It takes a courageous person and horse."
Horses In His Blood
Johnson, aka Dowell Johnson III, comes from a long line of horsemen. His father, Dowell Johnson Jr., or Junior Johnson, is known nationally for breeding thoroughbred hunter/jumpers. His grandfather, the first Dowell Johnson, worked his way from groom to manager of Foxwood Farm, a Crozier stable famous for training champion jumpers in the same way that Secretariat's barn was known for producing winning racehorses.
As a child, Johnson tagged along after his father and grandfather. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't around horses," he says. By the time he was at Henrico's Godwin High School, he played football — at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he's relatively small for football, relatively big for riding — and showed horses. "The only thing that could get me away from football was riding," he says.
Johnson's opportunity arose in Chesterfield when developer Vernon McClure, president of Main Street Homes, decided he could sell upscale houses by building them within walking distance of a barn. McClure built an entire development — a barn with $400,000-plus houses nearby, all of it crisscrossed by riding trails — and called it Sappony Creek Farms. Despite the recession of the past few years, most of the homes have been bought. "I thought there was a market, and it worked out," McClure says.
But not exactly as he planned, since Johnson's barn is not for families with hobbyhorses. Says River Road Riding Club owner Farrish, "Sappony Creek is the place you go if you want to show. The horses there are high, high quality."
On a Saturday in March, Johnson is giving a lesson to one of his students, Becca Barr, who's trotting her horse around the ring. To strengthen her legs, he's making her post without stirrups. She's using only the muscles in her knees and thighs to lift her body out of saddle to the tempo of the horse's rocky gait.
"My legs hurt," she says.
He shoots back, "You've only been riding a few minutes," even though it's been a lot longer than that. "I'm gonna hide your stirrups." For the next 15 minutes, she wails and he tells her to suck it up, and when the lesson is over, she slides gratefully off the horse's back.
Then a groom brings Beaver out, and Johnson mounts, putting one foot in a stirrup and swinging his other leg over the horse's back in a single graceful movement. With an unnoticeable cue, Johnson moves Beaver from a standstill into a canter.
As they near a fence, Beaver collects his powerful hind legs underneath him and jumps, soaring over it. They come down with a heavy thud, and Johnson reaches down to rub Beaver's neck. "He's won some really big international classes, so these little jumps are nothing to him," Johnson calls out, as they resume cantering, moving in sync like one creature, toward another fence..