Riding to a Dream
9-year-old Heath Johnson spurs a love of riding
A scary experience with a horse at a young age would keep some kids away from them for much of their life.
Austin 9-year-old Heath Johnson, however, took a scary incident and used it as motivation to try and ride faster. Now he wants to be the fastest.
Heath was on a trail ride at the age of six with some friends when a race broke out. Heath gave his horse a swift kick and it burst into full speed, running under a tree that scraped Heath’s face. When he finally pulled back on the reigns and controlled the situation, Heath had found his calling.
“We had a race and I just took off. I hit a tree, then I stopped,” Heath said. “It made me kind of scared, but I wanted to do it again. It made me want to go fast. I’ve always wanted to have the fastest horse.”
After showing horses at fairs, Heath made the transition into barrel racing last August. It’s been a wild success so far as he’s had a lot of big finishes and has taken home enough cash to pay for his entry fees and fuel costs for races. Heath will be making his first long distance trip for a race when he competes in the BBR Finals in Oklahoma City from April 21-25. There are approximately 2,000 racers competing and Heath will be going against some of the best barrel racers in the nation.
Heath’s mother Katie Johnson said the family has always owned horses, and Heath was riding ponies as a baby. He learned to ride on his own at the age of 18 months.
“We’ve always had horses, but we’ve never done barrel racing,” Katie said. “We did trail riding and we did judged events where the horses are slow. We wanted slow horses and then one day Heath said he wanted a horse that was black and white and fast for his seventh birthday.”
Heath got his wish when the family purchased Cinderella, a 23-year old black and white pinto who has already developed a strong relationship with Heath. The two spend afternoons after school together at the Monica Anderson Performance Horses at State Line Farm near Lyle and Heath will sometimes lean in and give Cinderella a kiss on the nose.
Heath has learned to lean in on turns and avoid missing the barrels during races. He’s also found a mentor in Brynn Bastyr, a 15-year old barrel racing Austin High School student who has taken Heath under her wing. After he began working with Bastyr, Heath shaved two seconds off his time.
Bastyr said there are times when Heath gets a little side tracked and wants to play around, but she has found ways to motivate him.
“I have to bribe him sometimes. I tell him he has to keep working for his dream and then he can go play with his buddies,” Bastyr said. “He’s a really good kid.”
Bastyr, who met Heath at the Mower County Fair in 2019, will be traveling to Oklahoma City to cheer on Heath next week. She sees a lot of potential in the young rider.
“He’s definitely fearless and he definitely has potential. He has amazing motivation,” she said. “He tries really, really hard to impress me and his mom in his riding skills. His riding has gotten a lot better in the last two years. We have a team of Minnesota people and we all cheer each other on. We’re all super supportive of each other and we’re all really close.”
Katie said that Heath is learning quickly how to compete and he’s already starting to ride with the best.
“He pulled a lot of checks and he pays for the gas and his entry fees,” she said. “He rides a lot after school.”
Heath, who lives in Austin, has gone out of his way to share his love of horses as he has used his winnings to purchase a pony that he can show to his friends. He also raises money to fight cancer from his winnings as he wears pink during some of his races and has a ribbon that he wears on the back of the shirt
He’s never fallen off a horse during a race and he likes the thrill of racing for cash prices. Most importantly, he knows that he has to take care of Cinderella.
“You need to feed the horse before we get fed,” Heath said.
Heath attends Neveln Elementary and he is a member of the Rough Riders 4-H Club and the Mower County Trail Blazers.
Heath’s races should be available to be viewed on live streams via youtube next week. He will race on Thursday and Saturday, and possibly Sunday if he finishes high enough.