California Riding Magazine • September, 2014

Artisan Dressage
Elizabeth Johnson brings lessons learned from many sources to her mobile training business in San Diego.

Elizabeth explains dressage theory to Harmony Farms' working student Molly Kaster riding Albert E. Photo by Erpelding Photography

Elizabeth Johnson brings an unusually broad perspective to her work as a dressage trainer in San Diego. She's ridden all her life, including early dressage indoctrination from the sport's best, Olympian Hilda Gurney, and later, years of close observation of Debbie McDonald's coaching methods.

Watching Hilda work with her Olympic bronze medal partner, Keen, exposed Elizabeth to terrific training in action, and lessons with Hilda's protégé, Laurie Falvo-Doyle, contributed to a great early education. The Pony Club partners began their professional careers together in San Diego and continue a lifelong friendship.

After the clinic, Shelley Devine and her mare brought home blue ribbons
the following day. Photo by Erpelding Photography

But Elizabeth's best teachers may have been her daughters, Katie and Jessica. Well aware that coaching and parenting often don't mix, Elizabeth approached the task thoughtfully and the results speak for themselves. Based in Colorado now, Katie went on to her own training career and is on track for international competition. Jessica is pursuing other interests, but her passion for horses remains. To this day Elizabeth can't articulate why coaching her own kids worked in her family, but its rewards are clear and relevant in her daily efforts as a mobile dressage coach working with riders and horses of all abilities and ambitions.

"Mistakes happen and every one is a training opportunity," says Elizabeth of one of the lessons she learned. Another is that "free time to learn on one's own is so important to be able to try new ideas and make those necessary mistakes."

Elizabeth and Artisan.

Other valuable lessons include: "Remember that you are working with an animal that does not speak your language, they will get frustrated sometimes! There is a horse at the end of those reins! Be compassionate and ask the horse why they reacted 'wrong' (confusion, pain, fear, intimidation). Keep your goals obtainable and, if you want to go all the way, be ready to be pushed! And, keep your riding a mix of serious and fun."

Elizabeth didn't know what path would emerge when she began her life's journey with horses. "I had ambition for an international riding career and in another time and financial state it might have happened. But I would not trade the ability to share the riding and love of horses with my daughters." The intent behind keeping her horses at home was to enable her daughters to "really be able to love them and to understand my passion," Elizabeth clarifies. Show ring successes weren't part of the intent – it was icing on the cake.

Elizabeth and Katie at 2008 NAJYRC with Mellinium. Photo by Jessica Johnson.

A highlight of the parent/coach journey was helping Katie get to the North American Young Riders Championships in 2008, when she earned individual and team gold for Region 7. Observing Debbie McDonald coach Katie, Adrienne Lyle and others was an influential highlight of the three years Katie spent as a working student for Debbie. Debbie and Adrienne are big influences on Elizabeth's teaching.

Along with coaching her daughters, Elizabeth kept advancing her own riding and horsemanship. She brought an ex-racehorse and a young Dutch Warmblood to Prix St. Georges, and bred a few horses during her peak parenting years. Her current homebred, the Oldenberg gelding Artisan, is showing Prix St. Georges and Elizabeth plans to move him to Intermediaire 1 soon. She's also starting a 3-year-old under saddle.

As a coach, Elizabeth admits to a soft spot for young riders but she enjoys working with students of all ages and levels. "I want to make my lessons positive and I like the goal orientation of competition, but I know that's not for everyone." She works with a few students and horses who board at her small home stable, Artisan Farms, in El Cajon, but most of Elizabeth's coaching is as a mobile trainer available throughout San Diego County.

Along with building her clientele, Elizabeth is eyeing Grand Prix for Artisan as a long-term goal. Toward that end, she's enjoyed being a student herself, currently working with up-and-coming star, Sarah Lockman, who "has a fresh attitude and a keen eye and isn't afraid to push a 'senior' rider!" Elizabeth says. She also hopes to earn her judging card.

Elizabeth with 2 students, Samantha and Ellie, with mascot Tinker.

Elizabeth has a passion for dressage and an appreciation for the equestrian community that shines through in her gracious way with people and horses. "We often take for granted our lifelong friends and experiences," she reflects. The Southern California dressage community, especially in San Diego, has been a major part of Elizabeth's life for over 35 years and giving back to it is priority. That was most recently reflected in the super successful clinic she offered to benefit California Riding Magazine founder Cheryl Erpelding's efforts to raise funds for much-needed lymphedema surgery.

Cheryl was a big fan of Elizabeth's long before the clinic. "We first met about 25 years ago when I competed my event horse Trader Jack at a dressage show she was judging," Cheryl recounts. "Over the years I have ridden with her and really appreciate her good eye, her constant interest in continuing her education, and her wonderful ability to share her knowledge with all of her students. She's a super asset to our San Diego dressage community." 

For more information on Elizabeth Johnson and Artisan Dressage, visit or call 619-561-7366 (home) or 619-508-0661 (cell).

Get Smart: Elizabeth on the Benefits of Observing Others

As a trainer, learning through observation is two-fold. As I watch others teach, I ask, "How can I apply this to my own riding? And, how can I better use this to communicate to my students?" Observing my own daughter's outside lessons, which started at about Fourth Level, was especially educational as I was so familiar with Katie's riding and abilities. When issues were seen and approached in a different way, it allowed me to see any holes in my coaching. Listening to top riders coach and correct mistakes or praise a reaction in real time allows the observer to really see concise results. Timing is everything. Rewarding the horse with rider relaxation and reaction at the proper moment is paramount to communication. Also, each instructor has a style and way of presenting tasks to the rider. Gleaning different ways of saying things or presenting exercises helps well round a trainer's abilities.