Nov 18, 2023

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Vest: How a Group of Friends Keep Val Johnson's Spirit Alive

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
The Physician Women Equestrian crew at this year's AEC who rode in honor of Val Johnson. Photo courtesy of Erika Erlandson

One of the amazing things about the sport of eventing is how it brings people together. For a group of friends across the nation who belong to the online group Physician Women Equestrians, that couldn’t be more true. Through this group, ladies who have made their careers as doctors and who are passionate about horses can come together to share stories of triumph, encourage one another, and connect on a whole new level. And if you are a part of this group, you probably knew the positive energy that was Valerie “Val” Johnson.

Johnson was an eventer and physician from Michigan who changed the lives of many and sadly died in January of this year. Her passing, unassociated with horseback riding, sent a shockwave through not only the eventing community in Michigan but also through her strong circle of friends from Physician Women Equestrians. In celebration and honor of Johnson’s life, a group of eventers banded together to spend this season riding in Johnson’s memory.

“It's the most wonderful group of people,” shared fellow group member and North Carolina-based eventer Elena Perea of the Physician Women Equestrian group. “Not just because it's a weird set of things to have in common with each other, but because the women I have met are legitimately some of my best friends.”

Members of Physician Women Equestrians gathered together at May Daze. Val Johnson is at the far right. Photo courtesy of Erika Erlandson.

Perea first met Johnson at the 2019 USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds when Johnson recognized Perea’s horse from photos posted in their group.

“She introduced herself, and that just started it,” she said. “We talked for probably 90 minutes and agreed that we would need to meet up, and we all started going to shows together.”

When Perea suffered an injury, her son Teddy Basl took over the ride on her horse for her for a short period of time. In typical Johnson fashion, she was there to support and cheer on Basl, who Perea noted was so nervous about showing a new horse.

“That is just what she did,” she reflected. “She was just a wonderful human. She was instantly your best friend. I really enjoyed her while we had her.”

Erika Erlandson is another member of Physician Women Equestrians who was greatly influenced by Johnson.

“She posted in the group about this event in Michigan and asked if anyone was attending. I responded that I would love to meet her,” said Erlandson. “We decided to go to the event and room together. It was a blast. It was one of the most fun weekends I have ever had.”

Erika Erlandson and Johnson celebrating their victories. Photo courtesy of Erika Erlandson.

Erlandson described Johnson as “the best cheerleader,” and noted that she always went out of her way to support other eventers and to share her positive outlook on life with whoever she could. It was that infectious spirit Johnson possessed that made Erlandson love and respect her from day one.

“After that event, she and I started doing a lot more things together and became really close,” said Erlandson. “In her retirement, she was doing all things related to horses that she had always wanted to do. She had a ton of goals that she worked towards. She was willing to learn from anybody and always wanted to be better. In many ways, she was ahead of her time. She joined Pony Club before adults were welcome because she felt like she could learn from the people, so she just did it. She didn’t care about what anybody else thought. This is what her retirement was. She was living her life to the fullest.”

Johnson took her now 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding Henson (Hofrat x EM Donata) all over the country in 2021, placing in the top-3 five out of 10 times. She attended the 2021 AEC where she settled into the top-10 in her division after dressage but unfortunately had a technical elimination on cross-country, cutting her week short. Always positive, Johnson vowed to return to the AEC in Kentucky in 2023 to redeem herself.

Heartbreakingly, Johnson would not make it to this year’s AEC due to her untimely passing. But the many friends who she had made in the eventing community and through Physician Women Equestrians were determined to bring her there, even if it was just in spirit. So they gathered together to come up with many different ways that they could ride for Johnson, not only at the AEC but all year long.

Elena Perea's drawing of their horses with Val Johnson's horse, Henson, front and center. Drawing courtesy of Elena Perea

Perea drew up a beautiful design featuring Johnson’s horse Henson and all of the horses of their friend group who would be attending this year’s AEC. They printed that design on t-shirts for everyone in the friend group who was attending the AEC to wear. In addition, they brought Johnson’s cross-country vest with them so that Johnson was along for the ride.

​​“Val and I used to take a trip to Aiken [South Carolina] each year as a training trip, so after she died we took her cross-country vest to Aiken with us,” said a tearful Erlandson. “And then we took it to the AEC so that she was there with us all week. We talked about her a lot and about all the things that we wished she would have been there for. She and I had been planning for the 2023 AEC since fall of 2022, so it was really important to me that she be part of the AEC experience.”

“Cross-country was Val’s favorite phase,” she said. “One of the best things about Val is that she was unapologetically herself all the time. She wasn't afraid of anything. She loved to gallop and jump. I'm kind of a nervous rider, so I told myself that I was going to channel my inner Val on cross-country. As a result, I had the fastest cross-country outing of my career and made time for the first time at 490 mpm. I ended up finishing in the top five in my division this year, and I definitely think it was, in part, because Val was there with me.”

Val Johnson competing Henson at May Daze in Kentucky in 2022 in her vest that would later be passed around amongst her friends. Photo courtesy of Erika Erlandson

After Johnson’s passing, the Michigan eventing community started honoring her by passing her cross-country vest from rider to rider. Since the AEC, it has been passed onto Henson’s new owner, Annette Peterson, who took Johnson with her on their first off-farm schooling experience together. The vest will make its way to Perea soon who intends to channel Johnson’s fiery spirit and determination while working with her young horse.

“I just got a baby horse so I don't have to share with my son anymore,” she joked. “It's coming to me next, and I plan to make good use of it. She really is somebody that I aspire to be like. I'm a full-grown adult, and I still want to be her when I grow up. She was really a wonderful, wonderful person to learn from in my life.”

And the journey will continue as riders all across the country come together to celebrate the beautiful life that was Val Johnson.

“We just really want to honor her,” said Erlandson. “She just really embodied eventing and friendship and support.”

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Fast Facts: EA21 Regional Clinics

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