For Gillian Johnston ’95, riding horses and playing polo, an avocation from her Baylor days, has become her vocation as an adult. It has kept her very much on the move as well, even when she is not on a horse.
“Right now, I do play polo full-time. I also breed and sell polo ponies,” she said. “I have a large breeding operation in Wyoming, where we produce some of the top polo ponies in the United States. These horses either play under me or my teammates or are sold to other polo players. This breeding operation is a huge passion of mine. I love the horses, and I love watching them from birth to excelling on the polo field.”
Gillian has also excelled on the polo field. In 2002, her “Coca-Cola” Team won the U.S. Open Polo Championship, and she became the first amateur woman patron/player on a team ever to win what is considered the Super Bowl of polo. She is only the second woman in the history of the sport to do so. Last winter she was recognized for having the “Best Playing” pony, as well as the “Best String” of ponies during the Florida season. “Many of the horses I played were horses I
raised,” she proudly said.
Gillian was raised to play polo. Her family has owned farmland in the McDonald, Tenn., area of Bradley County since before the Civil War. Now called Bendabout Farm, which is also operated as a commercial hunting and fishing retreat, it has long been used for raising horses, and even hosts a polo exhibition each year in the fall to increase public interest.
Her late grandfather, Summerfield K. Johnston, Sr. ’18, also played polo, as did her father, Summerfield K. Johnston, Jr. ’50. Summerfield Johnston, Jr. retired as CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., the world’s largest bottler, in 2001. He began his career with Johnston Coca-Cola Bottling Company, an outgrowth of the first franchised Coca-Cola bottler in the world. It was established by Gillian’s great- grandfather, James F. Johnston, in 1899. James Johnston was also one of the founders of Baylor School and was on Baylor’s first Board of Trustees. Gillian’s mother, Gillian Solomon Johnston, also grew up with horse sports, including polo, in her native England. She has continued her career with horses as well.
“I definitely enjoy the horses the most,” she said. “I have always been interested in anything involving horses, and that now includes the breeding operation. Also, polo is your passport to see the world. It’s played all over the world, and I have had opportunities to play in many different countries.”
An average week for her consists of playing or practicing four days a week and riding about every other day. She says she usually takes Mondays off. In addition to her time at Bendabout Farm, she usually spends her summers in Wyoming, where her family owns a horse and cattle ranch, and her winters in Florida, where her family has a polo operation.
While polo is considered an exciting sport to play and watch – with four players on horseback hitting a ball with mallets, all the while on the back of horses racing downfield at 30 to 40 mph – the dangers are very real to Gillian. In 2007, her older brother, Summerfield “Skeeter” Johnston, III ’72, a former executive with Coca-Cola Enterprises, died tragically from injuries suffered in a practice game in Florida after a horse accidentally rolled on him during a fall. She says that tragedy has not stopped her from playing, and she does not think her brother would want her to stop. “My brother died doing what he loved,” she said. “I take comfort in that. He loved polo and horses as much as I do. He was very well respected in the sport and was a great competitive player. Yes, polo is dangerous, but if you have a true
passion for the sport, it outweighs the risks.”
Gillian also added that Baylor helped her develop a positive attitude about her unusual life’s work. She candidly admitted that she did not realize how meaningful her education was at the time. “I never appreciated Baylor School until I left,” she said. “Then, I realized what an outstanding school I had attended. It definitely prepared me for the real world.”