A passion spanning generations, a commitment to excellence, and an indefatigable love of horses.
These are the traits that have driven two mothers and their daughters—Gillian Johnston and her daughter, Gillian, of Bendabout Farm, and Bess Neil and her daughter, Anne, of Blythewood Farms—to build impressive careers in the worlds of equestrianism and horse breeding.
The thoroughbreds of Bendabout and the American Saddlebreds of Blythewood have garnered solid reputations among breeders and riders nationwide because of the work of these women. Chasing their dreams on farms bordering the same highway—in fact, only 3.5 miles apart—these women have risen to the top in their respective arenas.
By Pamela Boaz
A Passion, Passed Down: Gillian Johnston
In her native England, Gillian Johnston grew up with a mother she describes as “very horsey.” That influence, combined with easy access to ponies, gave Gillian a head start into an equestrian life. While working as a groom, she was introduced to the sport of polo. When an opportunity arose to come to the United States to work as a polo pony groom, she took it eagerly. “I wanted to travel, and it was common to do that,” she explains.
Gillian says she’s always enjoyed grooming for the close bond it creates with the horses. However, her relationship with horses has since extended far beyond that role. She has done show jumping, race riding, and even fox hunting. As a member of the British Pony Club, she was on the first team to win The Prince Philip Cup, an equestrian trophy with international prestige.
Bendabout Farm in McDonald, Tenn., became her home over 40 years ago when she married Summerfield Johnston, Jr. For years, the farm served as the site for her thoroughbred breeding and training operation. Today, the 3,000-acre Bendabout Farm continues to provide a rest stop for their polo ponies, as well as steeplechase and flat course horses.
As a lifelong polo fan, Gillian welcomes any opportunity to introduce the sport to others. So every September, Bendabout Farm plays host to an annual polo match that is free to the public. With recruiting help from her daughter, world-class polo players square off at Bendabout in a competition of the highest caliber.
Gillian says she’s grateful for the opportunity to bring a sport, typically more popular overseas, to a new place and a new audience. “I would say that we’re two lucky people to do what we’re doing,” she reflects.
She is clearly enthusiastic about anything to do with horses and is equally proud of her daughter’s accomplishments. “Gillian has always loved horses. She’s good at [polo], and she has influenced the sport.”
Making the Passion Her Own: Gillian Johnston
The younger Gillian Johnston, a premier international polo player, says that a love of horses, as well as a desire to emulate her mother, influenced her to become involved in her family’s farms. “It was a bit of both,” she says, “but I chose it.”
A fierce competitor, she excels in high-goal polo and is patron of her own team. In the United States Polo Association’s (USPA) annual polo rankings, which measure a player’s mastery of horsemanship, team play, and strategy in “goals,” she is ranked among her male counterparts at two goals.
Currently, Gillian divides her time between playing polo in Wyoming, Florida, and Argentina, a leading country in the international sport. Her many successes include being the first female patron in polo history to be on the U.S. Open championship team—a feat she achieved in 2002.
But while she excels in competition, her first love is elsewhere. “It’s the horses, of course,” she says. “That’s the best part.” At her family’s Flying H Ranch in Wyoming, where she spends a third of her time, she not only rides, but is also involved in breeding polo ponies. “Knowing the generations and planning for the babies is exciting,” she says.
She also keeps up a busy schedule as a polo advocate and educator, coaching junior riders in both Florida and Argentina. For any girl drawn to horses or to polo, Gillian offers this encouragement: “Follow your passion,” she says. “Find a way.”
Leading with Strength & Grace: Bess Neil
In the 1930s, Bess Mayfield often rode a horse with her father, Pearson Blythe Mayfield, to a small farm he had purchased at the edge of Cleveland. Years later in 1942, Bess married the man of her dreams, horseman David Neil, and used that farm to begin what is now one of the oldest and largest American Saddlebred nursery and training farms in the country. Bess and David named the farm Blythewood in honor of her father, and during the next 25 years, they continued to add to its acreage and bloodstock.
After the tragic death of her husband and business partner, Bess continued to forge ahead to maintain Blythewood’s place as an industry leader. She has long been the farm’s pillar of strength and grace, but in humility, credits much of its success to her daughter, Anne, and the wonderful help of Richard Witt, Ramon Gomez, and Pedro Martinez, whom she considers family.
Asked why she and her husband chose American Saddlebreds for their farm, Bess replies eloquently: “The American Saddlebred is the peacock of the show horse world. I think they are beautiful, stunning in stature, appearance and ability. They are primarily bred for show, but also used in jumping, dressage, endurance, trail and pleasure riding. I adore working with animals, especially show horses. I like the wonder of them, of watching what they do.”
The honorary awards Bess has received are numerous. She is in the American Saddlebred Breeders Hall of Fame and the United Professional Horseman’s Association Hall of Fame, and is a recipient of the United States Equestrian Federation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She has also served the industry she loves by “paying it forward”—sharing her knowledge on many national boards.
Both of her daughters live on the farm, as does her granddaughter, Key, and Key’s family. “It delights me to see my great grandchildren Pearson, True, and Harrison enjoying the farm,” says Bess.
The importance of family is apparent in Bess’s reflections about Anne as well. “She is like her father. We all see David in her personality, her people skills, salesmanship, and work ethic.”
Honoring the Legacy: Anne Neil
Anne Neil summarizes her childhood in one sentence: “Other kids had doll houses. The pony barn was our playhouse.”
Free access to ponies as a child made for a natural transition to horsewoman, and in her case, an extremely successful one. Today, Anne is a professional trainer, showman, and salesman. But although she has achieved success in the show ring, she says breeding, raising and developing show horses is her passion. “If you have ever done this you love it. It’s exciting to study pedigrees, to create something in your mind and then see it come to fruition.”
Anne explains that Blythewood’s legacy of breeding excellence began with her parents. “They set the bar…and it’s high. I idolized both of them growing up. My father’s integrity in business was established early and has continued to put us ‘over the top.’”
Her own breeding success is evidenced in the fact that Blythewood Farms has produced over 300 American Saddlebred World and Reserve World Champions in recent years. “We foaled 26 mares this year, and I was there for all of them,” Anne says.
Of course, breeding that many horses also means selling them; fortunately, Anne enjoys that aspect of the business as well. “I love putting a good deal together, but unless it’s a good deal for both sides, it isn’t a good deal,” she explains.
She explains that having a successful farm provides big rewards, but it sometimes demands equally large sacrifices. “Although there are great highs in the business, there are often disappointments and lows because you are dealing with a live animal. But most of the time, I think I am lucky to be living the dream!”
Bendabout Farm and Blythewood Farms are not only related by two impressive mother-daughter teams, but also by family ties, as Summerfield Johnston’s grandmother was a sister to Anne Neil’s grandmother. “Both farms are super busy, so we don’t see each other often,” says Anne, “but if you love horses, you recognize good horsemanship and respect other horsemen of any breed.”
There is much to respect about the excellence that runs throughout every aspect of these two legendary farms. The Johnston women serve as extraordinary ambassadors for Bendabout Farm, their horses, and the sport of polo. At Blythewood Farms, the devotion of Mrs. Neil and Anne to American Saddlebreds and to their family’s legacy is reflected in their special relationship with each other and to the farm. In fact, it is respect that comes through most eloquently when each of these women speak of each other and, of course, their magnificent horses.
Today their breeding and equestrian work continues, propelled by their passion for the field. Bess Neil puts it simply: “It’s so nice to do something you love.”