From Olympic hopeful to Thoroughbred jockey, stallion owner and manager Scottie Johnson took an unlikely path to involvement in the barrel racing industry.
Scottie Johnson isn’t a planner. She’s a whimsical spirit who is willing to travel down whatever path lies before her. Yet, finding herself owning, standing and managing stallions in the barrel racing industry was seemingly the most unlikely of paths.
Johnson grew up with horses in Tucson, Arizona. She never competed seriously, just in a few 4-H shows, but mainly enjoyed her horses while riding to and from her friends’ houses in the desert.
“Our horses were our transportation,” Johnson said. “We were on our horses all the time.”
She always managed to have a horse to ride except for a few years of adulthood and during her time as a scholarship athlete at the University of Oregon.
“I played field hockey,” Johnson said. “I had big dreams of playing in the Olympics. I was in the top 62 in the country, but that was the year we boycotted in 1980, so they never made any final cuts.”
Her fearless and athletic nature combined with her love of horses accidentally landed her in the irons of a jockey saddle riding Thoroughbreds.
“I was watching the races and this old man goes, ‘Hey, you look like you could be a jockey.’ I said, ‘Well, I always wanted to be.’ What little girl didn’t dream of rac- ing around on the Black Stallion? He said, ‘Well, I’ll help ya’,’” Johnson chuckled, remembering her naivety.
She met the man at the track, he gave her some boots and a helmet and legged her up on a horse. Although she’d never been on a racehorse before and knew absolutely nothing about galloping and breezing, Johnson followed the man’s instructions for an exhilarating first ride.
Everything was going well until the outrider caught up with her.
“Boy, was I in trouble,” Johnson said with a laugh. “He was like, ‘What are you doing?’ Well, I’m exercising this horse. ‘Do you have a license?’ Well, no. I didn’t know you were supposed to have a license. He said, ‘You get off the track and don’t come back until you have a license.’ Mind you, I’m on cloud nine. I didn’t know any better. I thought it was awesome. Come to find out, the reason the old man recruited me was because his horse was an outlaw. He’d throw his head back and knock his jockeys out. I look back on how dangerous that all was and am grateful I didn’t kill someone.”
Another trainer offered to show her the ropes and help her get her license. She rode for about six years, mostly at tracks in the Northwest and Canada.
“Being a girl and not from the track, there weren’t many people who would give you a chance, so I rode a lot of bad horses,” Johnson said. “I was starting to get to that point you want to go—riding a full card and nice horses—when I got hurt.”
Johnson suffered an anterior dislocation of her shoulder and managed to tear the nerves in the process, which left her arm practically useless.“
I stopped riding and tried training Thoroughbreds for a while,” Johnson said with the unpleasant memory echoing in her voice. “I went back to a real job, working for Fed-Ex. I did that for 11 years until they wouldn’t renew my CDL due to health issues.”
During her time at the racetrack, Johnson cultivated a friendship with Thoroughbred owner and breeder Ken Hebard. A nicking consultant, Hebard started teaching Johnson the ins-and-outs of Thoroughbred pedigrees.
“He was instrumental in getting me addicted to bloodlines. He started me on my path to learning bloodlines and genetics when he passed. He willed me his library of books, which I really treasure.”
While working for Fed-Ex, Johnson would take her lunch breaks at Thoroughbred farms along her delivery route. One of those farms was also home to Judge Cash, a Quarter Horse son of Dash For Cash and out of Mary Mito by Mito Paint (TB).
Johnson was fascinated by the lab work behind the assisted reproduction used by the Quarter Horse industry. When the farm was in the process of dispersing, she offered to buy their lab equipment.
“I’m a lab rat at heart,” Johnson said. “I love science. I wanted to be a vet. I truly have no idea why I said it, but I said, ‘Hey, can I buy your lab equipment?’ I was so fascinated by assisted reproduction that I bought all the equipment before I had a stallion to do it with.”
She ended up buying Judge Cash for that reason.
“I literally knew nothing about Quarter Horses, and to me, they were an inferior breed because I was really into Thoroughbreds,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Scott, who managed ‘Judge,’ told me all these things he’d won—it went in one ear and out the other. Compared to Thoroughbreds, $100,000 isn’t much. I didn’t know what the All-American [Futurity] was. I didn’t know what a speed index was. I really didn’t know what a nice horse he was. I was buying a stud so I could ship semen.”
In her first breeding season with Judge Cash in 2004, Johnson bred 18 mares.
“We just picked up from there,” Johnson said. “I spent all my money building barns, buying mares and equip- ment. I even cashed out my retirement. I had zero left. It was pretty bad for a couple years, but I’m not one to give up. Thank God for Judge. He was a special horse. He proved to save us and make us into something.”
Just when things were looking bleak for Johnson’s fledging operation, Brenda Mays and Judge Buy Cash became powerhouses in the world of professional rodeo.
“People kept telling me about Brenda Mays and this horse, and if she made the NFR, we’d be set,” Johnson said. “It was so very hard to learn the barrel racing industry, and it still is. Back then, everything was entered on barn names, so even if I did learn the riders’ names, I still didn’t know what horse they were riding. It was very hard to track Judge’s progeny.”
Though still nowhere near as complete as Thoroughbred records, Judge Cash is ranked among Equi-Stat’s top 15 all-time leading barrel horses sires with $1.4 million and in the top five maternal sires with his daughters producing more than $2.2 million in earners in the arena.
When Judge reached his early 20s, Johnson knew she needed a replacement. She also decided to start managing other stallions.
“I have fabulous clients,” Johnson said. “They believe in me, and they believe in their horses. They’re in it for the long haul. I explain to people when I take on a stallion, you’re not going to make money right away. Your best hope is that your stallion pays for himself until you get some colts in the pen that can show what your stud can do.”
When it comes to pedigree, Johnson says you can only beat that drum for so long. She likes to use the Thoroughbred industry’s measurement of studs for her own business.
“In the Thoroughbred world, they say it takes six years to know if you have a sire,” Johnson said. “That’s three crops to race and evaluate your sire. In barrels, you’ve got to add a couple more years to that equation. Realistically, you’re eight or nine years in before you know if you have a [barrel] sire or not.”
While she’s well aware of what it takes to build a successful future, Johnson lives in the present. The 58-year-old cancer survivor says she’s not a planner but makes up for it in shear determination.
“I like to think I represent the little guy,” Johnson said. “If you stick to it, maybe you can get somewhere. My friends say, ‘I’m proud of you. You had a dream and you did it.’ I’m like, ‘Nope, I didn’t have a dream. There was no plan.’ I just woke up each day and put one foot in front of the other. Literally, to this day, I still do that. I feel like I’m so busy with today that I don’t have the brain cells to worry about tomorrow. I truly believe this is the path God put me on. I try to remember to pray, be thankful and believe whatever way I’m going is the way He wants me to go.”