Why I Rein: Cindy Johnson

Cindy Johnson and her husband, Joe, live on their ranch in Topeka, Kansas.

As Told to Wendy Lind

“Once I got to spin and do a sliding stop, I never went back.” –Cindy Johnson (Photo by Waltenberry)

Cindy Johnson and her husband, Joe, live on their ranch in Topeka, Kansas. Recently retired from a successful 30-year career as a criminal defense investigator, reining served as a much-needed outlet from her high-pressure job. 

“I’ve always loved that my cellphone doesn’t get reception in our barn,” Johnson said with a laugh. “There’s just something about being in the barn or on a horse that puts things in perspective.” 

Have horses always been a part of your life?

Yes, I grew up on a ranch, and we used horses as part of our everyday lives. I also did local horse playdays, and then started showing  horses in local and 4-H events.  

What led you to reining horses?

My husband, Joe, wanted to get involved in riding and showing so we could do it together. At the time, I was showing Western pleasure horses, which he thought was about as exciting as watching paint dry. After doing some research on reining, Joe decided he wanted to meet (NRHA Hall of Famer) Smart Chic Olena. We drove down to Texas to see Smart Chic Olena at Babcock Ranch. At that time, Bryant Pace was the head trainer there, and he let me ride a really nice reining mare. I never rode my Western pleasure mare again! 

What was it about that first ride that got you hooked?

Once I got to spin and do a sliding stop, I never went back. That mare was so much more athletic than anything I’d ridden. When I was younger, I had a riding accident on a barrel racing horse and had been intimidated by any type of speed ever since. But that mare that Bryant put me on really took care of me; all I had to do was just sit there in the large, fast circles, and she slowed down right when I asked her to. It was so much fun.

How did you then progress to showing in NRHA?

Ironically, we got on the internet and started looking for a reining horse to buy. At that time, Dan Huss was heading up the training program at Findlay College, and he had a mare named Gimme A Gun (Playgun x Fanta Lena) for sale. She turned out to be the nicest horse—just perfect for what I needed at the time. I didn’t realize just how nice she was. When I got my next new horse, I quickly learned just how much that mare had helped me, and that reining wasn’t as easy as I thought it was! In hindsight, I should have shown her longer and waited before getting a new horse. Over the years, we’ve had both non pro horses and open-level horses, and I’ve learned that just because a trainer can mark +1 maneuvers on a horse doesn’t mean I can. I learned the hard way that it’s easy for a non pro to get on an open-level horse and quickly get that +1 spin down to a -1/2. It’s better to have a horse that can plus things, but that has a solid baseline and is easy to show.

What horse are you showing now?

I bought a new horse, Shes All Ruffed Up, last year. I’ve been riding with Bobby Avila Jr., which is great because he initially trained the horse. I’ve been lucky enough to ride with some great trainers over the years, including Bobby. He’s not afraid to tell me what he really thinks. That can sting sometimes, but I’m always wanting to improve, so I want to hear it all.

Do you have a favorite reining memory?

When Joe and I first got into reining, we both showed in a green class at KRHA’s futurity show in Topeka, which at the time was one of reining’s largest shows. We ended up tying, and neither of us was willing to concede to a tie. We had a run-off, and I won. After the class, the photographer was getting a picture of both of us with the awards when show management informed us there’d been a miscalculation and Joe actually had beat me by a half point on the first go. Joe looked at me and took that trophy right out of my hands!