Feature Graduate

Mary Lew Johnston: Riding Master VI graduate of Meredith Manor International Equestrian School
Graduated: 2005
Certificates: Riding Master VI, Teaching Certification Level 1, Equine Massage Therapy
Current Position: Trainer, riding instructor and guide at Leatherwood Mountains Resort Stables
Advice: Believe in yourself so that others will believe in you. Have the confidence that what you learned works and stand behind it. Always be professional. Wear clean clothes, tuck your shirt in, keep your back straight and exude confidence.

Mary Lew Johnston

August 2006 - Mary Lew Johnston always loved horses. While she thought about attending Meredith Manor on and off through high school, graduation found her doing other things. She worked as a trail guide at a rental barn, managed some small barns, put in time as a restaurant cook, and spent a summer with a touristy carriage concession at a North Carolina beach.

When Mary Lew sat down and assessed her long-term career goals, she realized that while she wanted to work with horses, she wanted to do more than grunt work. “I was an age where I didn’t want to start out as an apprentice,” she says. “That’s OK if you’re just coming out of school at 19 or 20 and have the time to learn about riding and presenting horses. It depends on your long-term goals.”

Mary Lew saw Meredith Manor as a fast track to the type of position she wanted in the horse industry. “Before I went to Meredith Manor, all I’d ridden were trail horses and broke horses,” she says. At Meredith Manor she had the opportunity to ride upper level horses in disciplines like cutting and reining. “Those upper level things would not have been available to me elsewhere.”

From the get go, Mary Lew emphasized her studies in Western disciplines because she knew that’s where she wanted to land after graduation. “Meredith Manor is a little different from the mainstream Western industry,” she says. The “heeding” groundwork taught at the school, its emphasis on methodically working a horse up through the steps in the training tree, and the terminology she encountered were different from the standard techniques used by many Western trainers.

As graduation time neared, Meredith Manor suggested that Mary Lew post her resume on Equimax. She believes that her Meredith Manor credentials definitely helped her land that important first job at Mathis Quarter Horses in Laurel Springs, North Carolina, where the emphasis was on breeding horses for reining and cutting. She also feels that the communication skills and skills in dealing with adults that she learned on-the-job before attending Meredith Manor were also an important factor.

Mathis Quarter Horses farm stood two stallions and also used artificial insemination. Mary Lew had over 40 horses in her care. When babies were born, she imprint trained and broke them to halter. “Our vet was very impressed,” she says. “The babies are all over the place at other farms but at Mathis they were easier to catch and handle.”

Mary Lew Johnston training a horse.

Right out of school, Mary Lew began training three 2-year-olds. The following year she had six. She started them with a lot of groundwork, got them under saddle, and helped decide if they were better suited for reining or cutting. Since there were no cows on the farm, cutting prospects moved on to a trainer in Alabama. “We sent two down there and I asked him to tell my boss what he liked and what I needed to do that I hadn’t done,” she says. “He said they were the best trained horses he’d ever gotten from Mathis.” That validation gave her a big boost.

Mary Lou enjoyed another sense of accomplishment when her boss suggested they enter a particularly nice 3-year-old in a ranch horse competition. Trail riding was the biggest challenge the horse had faced up to that point, she says. In the competition, he would be required to ground tie, have his bridle removed and have it put back on. The rules called for spins, roll backs, a sliding stop, a lope with lead changes, and ride through a herd of cows to separate one out.

Mary Lew went to work. “I didn’t do a lot of maneuvers,” she said. “I just really got him working off the inside leg, did lots of transitions, lateral work, and asked him for as much contact as he was ready to give me.” The weekend before the show she took the gelding to a nearby farm, rode him through a herd of cows and moved cows from one corner of a pen to another.

They took home reserve champion. “I was so proud of that horse,” Mary Lew says. The week before the show she got a few flying changes but she knew the gelding wasn’t consistent yet. So she opted for a simple change of lead. “If he had done the flying change we would have gotten first. I’d like to think it had to do with my skill but he was a very talented horse and, thankfully, learned very quickly.”

Mary Lew Johnston guiding a trail ride.

While Mary Lew loved working with the youngsters at Mathis Quarter Horses she saw her dream job as one that involved teaching and contact with the public. So she jumped when an opportunity to work in the stables at Leatherwood Mountain Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina. “Leatherwood Mountain is a resort community centered on an equine lifestyle,” she says. “I split my time between training trail prospects, giving riding lessons, and guiding trail rides for guests,” she says. “I’m really excited about this place for several reasons. Leatherwood is where I grew up and I consider it my home. The people I work with are very passionate and compassionate about their horses. It creates a very positive working environment for me as well as a positive learning environment for the horses.

“The stables were recently purchased by a famous resort company. They have big plans for the place,” Mary Lew continues. “I’m arriving at the start of it all and I’m just thrilled about where my career is taking me right now. From the interest I have in teaching, to the challenge of training, to the relaxation of trail riding, I really feel like I have it all here. Did I mention I get paid to do this?”

Mary Lew advises those just starting out in their careers to look at the whole package they are offered. Starting salaries for those coming right out of school will vary, she says, depending on the type of job and the geographic area. In her area, for example, a starting salary of $250 is typical. A generous benefit package that includes a stall for a horse, housing, and health insurance can help balance the low salary. “A lot of horse people don’t have cash money,” she says, “but the benefits easily make up for that.” And, she mentions again, the biggest benefit of all is getting paid to do what you love to do anyway.


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I graduated in 2000 and have had incredible success in the professional world due to the skills I've learned through MM. MM showed me the way to become part of a program and learn how to see an overall picture not just its parts.
Melissa Sliwa Humke: 2000 Riding Master VI Graduate