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Living the dream… Ann Johnson makes a comeback with help of horse




By Sadie Fowler

Ann Johnson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in August 2006 and even though that diagnosis has brought with it some challenges, she still believes she’s living the dream, partly because of the Tennessee walking horse. 

She even renamed one of the horses she bought that rekindled her love for the horse to “Living The Dream.”
Johnson, an Indiana native, rode horses as a girl and got her first horse, My Indiana Star, in 1966, but got out of them during her college years when she pursued veterinary medicine. Upon passing her boards, she met Gloria and Jack Cooley at a local horse show in her home state and credits them with reconnecting her — back in the 1980s.

Soon enough they bought some horses, and two of them enjoy life in her backyard barn still today in their late twenties.

“We bought a two-year-old from Dr. Gaw in Nashville,” she said, explaining a second horse was also added to her string at the same time. 

The mare from Dr. William Gaw was called Annie’s Pipe Dreams, and she ended in training at Formac in Union City. Her other horse Crescendo was kept at home. In 1995 and 1996 Annie was named world champion in carriage driving and also received the third plantation super horse award in 1995. 
Somehow, life remained busy and they got out of the show business again after that. 

“We’ve been out of it for 20 years,” she said. “It’s different now. It’s (the Celebration) not as crowded but the donuts are still good. When Annie won in 1995 there were 24,000 fans in the stand. Of course most got up to get donuts during her class because it was a flat shod class, but it was still fun…

“I love walking horses because of their personality, their gait, and their versatility. The fact that I could trail ride one day and show the next is cool. I’m very happy with my two horses and planning to keep going with them.” 
Ann credits the Tooleys with introducing her to Shelbyville for the first time.

 “She brought me down to Shelbyville for the first time,” Ann said. “It was the Trainers’ Show, and I was excited to be here. This was the Mecca.”

A lot has happened since that first trip to Shelbyville in the 1980s. Fast forward a few decades, Ann and her husband Wally now live in College Grove, Tennessee. Ann, under the direction of trainer Bobby Richards, recently showed two horses at this year’s Celebration. 

“We had a good show but we didn’t scratch,” she said, explaining they left the ring without a ribbon. “But someday we will … 

During the decades between her first trip to Shelbyville in the ‘80s and a couple years ago, Ann was busy as she became a full professor in small animal orthopedic surgery for the University of Illinois, traveled the world teaching others and excelling in her passion for career of choice.

“I knew I wanted (to be a veterinary surgeon) ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper,” she said. 

And excel she did. In addition to traveling the world lecturing on “how to perform surgery on animals without killing them”, the board-certified surgeon was the second woman president of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the first woman president of the Western Veterinary Conference, one of the largest of its kind in the country. 

She retired from a rewarding career in 2008, a couple year’s after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Once retired, she found another passion that’s stimulated the opposite side of her scientific brain — color pencil drawing; her subjects include dogs, cats, horses and people. 

“I always knew I could draw but didn’t know I could do that,” she said, pointing to one of her several masterful works of art hanging on her wall at home. “I took a colored pencil class at a Community College … I found out I could do it and gave me a new challenge … After that, I didn’t miss work.”

She’s drawn several well-known horses and another one that hangs on her living room wall is that of Rowdy Rev, a world grand championship contender of the past campaigned by Bill Bobo and also the pride and joy of the late Bill Harlin of Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, Tennessee. One of her drawings was even featured on the cover of the American Veterinary Medicine. 

Ann and her husband moved to College Grove about two years ago, and even though she had horses with her when she moved, she had no plans of re-entering the horse world that centered around Shelbyville. 

But trainer Bobby Richards lived just seven miles down the road and she ended up riding because she had heard and read that riding could help people suffering from Parkinson’s. 

“I started riding Crescendo last fall and found it helped,” she said. “I had a decreased frequency of meds and felt better. There is some documented evidence for this based on publications in late 1800s.”

Shortly after she began visiting Bobby’s, she learned that Rhonda Martocci was selling a horse, Titlist Dulcinea. 

“I got on her and it was like coming home,” she said. “We bought her and changed her name to Living The Dream.”

When Ann’s Parkinson’s got worse she decided to be evaluated as a candidate for a procedure known as Deep Brain Stimulation. She ended up receiving the cutting-edge procedure at Vanderbilt earlier this summer.

Coming to the Celebration again this year was a dream come true. She showed her trail pleasure horses, Amazing Gray and Living The Dream, and also enjoyed watching Bobby show them. She didn’t get a ribbon, she said, but she’ll be back next year ready to try again. 


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