Yelling and profanity rang out from the front stretch of Oaklawn Park one morning last month. The shouts weren’t over a loose horse running around the track, rather something more terrifying.
Chya Johnstone, riding her barrel prospect Leonard who she also outrode races on in Iowa last year, found herself in the center of a scary incident when a horse she was loose ponying savaged her, grabbing onto the pony girl’s leg and trying to pull her out of the saddle. Johnstone had ponied the Brad Cox trainee the morning before without any issues. She’d been warned he could be a little naughty, but Johnstone never turns down a new challenge.
The incident started when the would-be savage horse lunged at Leonard’s head. Johnstone’s mount took off at full speed to keep up and keep her in a safe position. The savage horse continued to bite Leopard and Johnstone as they ran full speed down the stretch, leaving a bruise that wrapped from the back of Johnstone’s knee, to the front with teeth marks on either side.
Johnstone worried about her safety, her horse’s safety and fellow riders and horses on the track.
“There were too many horses on the outside rail so I had to stay where I was,” she said. “I thought the outside rail would slow him down if I pointed him at it.”
After a quarter-mile run down the front stretch there was an opening for Johnstone to get to the outside rail.
“He chickened out when he saw it and sucked behind me,” Johnstone said.
The horse broke away and Oaklawn’s two outriders, Darren Cain and Chisum Ewing, were able to catch the horse but not without him trying to bite Cain as well.
Onlookers and fellow horsemen at Oaklawn remarked in the days after the incident about how calm Johnstone looked while being run down the racetrack on her pony and a horse trying to pull her out of the saddle. Johnstone said she’s used to difficult situations and when you’ve been on the racetrack as long as she has, you have to be prepared for anything. She added that she would have let the savage horse go but since he had a hold on her leg she didn’t think it would be much benefit.
This event was the latest chapter in Johnstone’s career at the racetrack. When Johnstone was 16 she went to the racetrack for the first time but her father was anti-racetrack, as many parents are because it can be a gypsy lifestyle, requiring you to move every few months. However, Johnstone had already conquered the show jumping world and craved a new challenge.
When she turned 19 she disregarded her dad’s wishes and started galloping Quarter Horses in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for trainer Larry Chavez. She rode her first race two years later. She rode Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, and became an outrider after leaving the jocks’ room in 2019, all while keeping a foot in the show jumping world.
Johnstone has competed in the Retired Racehorse Project for four years in the show jumping and barrel division. She finds prospects on the track that need a new career, spending weeks evaluating their movement and mindset before deciding on their next discipline.
“He’s (Leonard) is a nice enough trotter I could do dressage on him, but with outriding, the barrels go together to put the handle on him so he will work even better as a catch horse,” Johnstone said. “He’ll have that high-speed rate, turn, stop.”
Johnstone has a love of horses and new challenges, so the racetrack just makes sense. One never knows what kind of horse you will be dealt that day and quick thinking helps in a dangerous situation.
Johnstone’s first catch as an outrider came in a 1-mile race at Prairie Meadows Racetrack in Iowa. The jockey stepped off right before Johnstone arrived to help and the horse sucked back out of the jockey’s hands. The horse started running the wrong way on the inside rail. The horses in the race were at the quarter pole. If the horse wasn’t caught in time there could be a disastrous head-on collision.
Johnstone said all she could think was, “it’s now or never.”
Fortunately, she caught the horse in time and likely saved lives.
Horses are like humans, they have good days and bad days, the main difference is that a horse outweighs its rider by 10 times.
When Johnstone was asked if she had any new challenges in mind, she laughed. She has already tackled almost every job on the racetrack.
“I said I would pony that horse again,” she chuckled.
Jade Cunningham, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma who grew up in racing in the Southwest, is an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and a regular contributor to This Is Horse Racing.