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When Maureen and Allen Aulson purchased the property that would become Black Prong in 2002, they invited course designer Marc Johnson to help re-imagine the then empty property on the edge of the Goethe Forest, into a carriage driving destination.

Marc Johnson

Johnson is one of the few carriage driving course designers based in the U.S. and has recently become an FEI level three Driving/Para-Driving Course Designer so that he can design 3* competitions, World Cup qualifiers, and be Assistant Course Designer at a World Championship. Black Prong has been incredibly lucky to have been able to utilize Johnson as our course designer for the last 20 years. All of the marathon obstacles at Black Prong were designed by Johnson and his mentor Christian Iseli in 2002, and were built by our Groundskeeper, Wayne Winters.

Diedre Pirie four in hand team with Marc Johnson

Pirie at the 1979 Royal Windsor Horse Show, with Johnson standing with the leaders.

Though Johnson had a background in the equine industry through hunter/jumper discipline, he was first introduced to the sport of driving in 1978 when he started working for Dierdre Pirie as a groom to earn some extra cash for senior prom. Pirie was a prominent member of the driving community and one of the only women competing at the international level at the time. Working for Pirie, Johnson learned more about the driving sport and found he had a passion for it.  He began driving himself, all the while navigating and setting cones courses for Pirie at home. As a competitor, Johnson drove both pair and four-in-hand in the U.S. and in Europe, including representing the U.S. in the 1993 World Pair Driving Championship.

By the mid-90s, Marc switched from competing as a driver to working as a professional course designer. For over 25 years, Marc has made a name for himself designing courses across the country, including the Tamworth CDE in New South Wales, Australia, and assisting Richard Nicoll with the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

Johnson driving Falsterau and Apache at the World Championships 1993 with Chip Cheston navigating

Johnson met the Aulsons through the Myopia Driving Club as part of the driving community in Massachusetts. When Alan Aulson brought Johnson to see the Black Prong property for the first time, it was a blank slate for the two of them to imagine how they wanted future competitors and spectators to enjoy the property.

“I was brought to Black Prong by my good friend Alan Aulson. It was his desire to build Black Prong to a high standard for Training and Preliminary levels and to have most of the Obstacles near a central viewing area,” Johnson said. “I remember Alan and I, measuring the empty acreage with a wheel, making initial plans for the course and the surrounding facility, in the 100 degree August heat.”

Of the many marathon obstacles at Black Prong, Johnson says that the Lightning Bolt is his favorite. He drew out the initial sketch of the obstacle while on his flight back to Boston after visiting the property, and it was the first one completed.

Having been able to watch Black Prong grow over the years, Johnson has seen the community of drivers of all levels come together year after year to enjoy the courses he and Aulson envisioned. He says many local drivers have gotten their first taste of competition at Black Prong. Looking back, Johnson is proud that Black Prong has continued to adapt to the changing needs of the driving community.

Lightning Bolt obstacle behind the Main Pavilion at Black Prong

“We made upgrades to the course when another advanced qualifier was needed in 2006 for the FEI Four-in-Hands,” Johnson said. “Since then, continuous smaller changes have been made to keep things fresh. As the expansion plans go forward, I hope we will have the opportunity to upgrade the obstacles and construct a new water obstacle complex to better suit everyone’s needs.”

With the expanded show schedule this season, there are more opportunities than ever for drivers to utilize the courses Johnson designed, both marathon and cones. Johnson is excited about the extra competition dates at Black Prong and believes they will complement the other area shows and further grow the Florida driving community.

According to Johnson, the most rewarding part of his career as a course designer is applying his competitive experience as a Four-in-hand and Pair driver to create interesting, challenging courses. He also enjoys the satisfaction of constructing some obstacles himself, as he did for the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, NC. Johnson also holds clinics and private lessons with clients, when he is not working at competitions. Read about some of his recommendations for building a safe and challenging DIY cones course at home.