JOHANNA ULLSTRÖM knows no such thing as a normal, stabilized life. She gave up her hobby, has no time for friends or for sport. Her only vacation is a 10-day leave during Christmas. But for that she attends 20-30 Arabian horse shows per year. She usually spends her day in the company of a vet or farrier, giving baths, clipping or training horses, assisting mares in their foaling or cleaning the stalls. The evening “relaxation” at home consists of taking care of the correspondence, phone calls, accounting… She’s one of the world’s best at her profession and cannot imagine doing anything else – here’s the life of Johanna Ullström.
Starting out with Jaguar
A horselover since childhood, although she was born and spent her first years of life in the city. Her family had no tradition of breeding horses, but she did inherit the love for equines from her mother, who used to ride when she was young. Today, thanks to her daughter, Eva returned to her former passion and has 3 pure-bred Arabian mares of her own. Even Johanna’s father – Jonny – signed up for a riding course and until this day remains involved in the sport.
The first equines to appear in Johanna’s life were competition horses, which she trained for show jumping. As a 14-year-old she had her own steed – by coincidence a gelding of Polish origin named Jaguar. Not many people probably know that today’s Johanna-the-show-horse-trainer started out as a talented rider, competing with Jaguar at events for Arabian horses: from dressage and show jumping to cross and racing.
During one of these events she presented Jaguar in hand – and that was the beginning of her present-day career. Soon after that, together with her parents, she decided to show one of the mares.
„She did not perform well,” Johanna reminisces today, “but by then we were already in love with Arabian horses and attended as many shows as it was possible”.
More and more horses
A fun activity turned into a profession, when one of the located near by breeders asked Johanna to prepare a young colt for a show. With time the number of clients grew. As an 18-year-old she had 10 horses in show training at her stable! Finally a proposition for serious work came – Ingela Gyllenkrok of Papa’s Arabians offered Johanna a job in her stud, located in the south of Sweden, where our young adept spent her first 3 years as a professional trainer.
„It was an easy decision,” says Johanna. “To do what you like, instead of “normal” work. It was something unbelievable for me!”
When asked about the benefits of working as an Arabian horse trainer, she answers:
„Everyday horses bring meaning into my life. I love building a bond with them, boosting their confidence in presenting themselves before the public and spending the next seasons in their company. The other thing that appeals to me in this business is the opportunity to be in touch with so many fantastic people – I have many friends all over the world, which I probably would have never met, if not for this job. I visit so many countries every year and everywhere I go – I have friends!”
Johanna’s favourite work partners are sensitive and intelligent horses. It doesn’t matter, if they cause problems at the beginning – with time it turned out that the most intelligent horses are the most difficult. She bonds easiest with the stallions, because they don’t have natural friends among their own kind. But she also warmly reminisces many mares – among the horses who stole her heart are Polish-bred: Olita, Emrod, Pesal, Girlan-Bey, Efemeryda, Pinga and ZT Sharuby, Ramino, as well as her first mare – Roussette.
„I had a great contact with many horses and a lot of the times it was hard for me to part with them when the show season ended,” she admits.
It’s a man’s world
Even today Johanna Ullström is one of the few women working in this profession. She believes that the Arabian show business requires one to be tough and capable of dealing with stressful situations. Of course fitness and courage are vital. What else should characterize a female candidate for show trainer?
„You have to be ready to work 7 days a week during the entire year and know how to accept criticism. A trainer cannot make mistakes! But even if you do not do them, a lot of owners will blame the trainer for their horse’s failure.
The hardest part of being a trainer is – according to Johanna – being noticed in the trade. The competition is enormous, getting good horses is difficult and without them there is no chance for working out a name for yourself.
„The first years are a fight for success. Once you achieve the top, you fight to stay on top/there. I think that a lot of girls would like to be trainers, but they already fail at the start.”
So who’s the better trainer – man or woman? According to Johanna Ullström it’s the personality that really counts, not the gender. A trainer must merge opposite features.
„A lot of women show great patience during training, but at the same time they are not hardy enough or they let themselves be dominated by difficult horses,” she explains. “Men are more tough than women, but they lack patience during everyday training. A good trainer must combine both these attributes.”
The hard work of a trainer was never any problem for Johanna – she started working while still at school, so she is not afraid of any job. Of course, there are days when she feels pressure and experiences unpleasantness (as she says – only from people), but a male trainer has to deal with exactly the same problems.
„It is only a matter of dealing with the stress, to be able to take a deep breath once in a while and quietly continue with your work,” says Johanna.
These days even the Middle Eastern countries seem to acknowledge the equality of rights in this matter. Lately more and more studs from the Arabic countries send their horses to be trained in Europe and employ European trainers, while the Middle Eastern clients spend so much time here that – according to Johanna – they have accustomed to our way of life.
Private life? What’s that?
The term „private life” does not really exist in the home of Johanna Ullström. But she is quite content with that, because she considers herself a social person – her farm is a meeting place not only for her friends, but also for the clients. For now she lacks time to stop for a moment and think whether she might be taking life a bit too actively. Asked about other passions (besides horses), she gives the same answer as to the private life question: lack of time. She used to be a keen athlete – she played soccer, badminton and immortalized horses and wild animals on paper. The latter transformed into a passion for photography. Whenever there’s some free time and good weather, Johanna can be seen with a camera in hand. Her social life has been transferred from the pubs and cinema to horse events.
„I have my favorite pubs, we frequently went out bowling or go-carting, but with this amount of work and traveling I don’t have the strength for these things anymore!”
What will Johanna Ullström be doing in several dozen years time?
“I will be far away from here and will never be showing horses again!” she says with a smile, but quickly adds, “of course I plan to own Arabian horses, but just for pure pleasure!”
Johanna Ullström was born in Gävle, Sweden. Today together with Philippem Hosay (also a trainer) she runs a breeding and training facility – the European Training Center. She resides at the Darby Farm in the Belgian town of Sint Truiden, which is home to 5 of her own horses (Michałów-bred Emiliusz, pure-Polish Nianka, SF Shaklina and two Gazal Al Shaqab fillies), 20 horses currently in training, two dogs, a cat and alpacas – Jörgen and Britt.