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Former Estes Hills Student Returns as Guest Author

On Valentine’s Day, first grade students in Cathy Chianese’s class at Estes Hills Elementary School (EHES) received an extra surprise and holiday treat when their guest reader, Abriana Johnson, introduced them to her mini-horse, Encore. 

Twenty years ago, when Johnson was in Chianese’s first grade class at EHES, she wrote, “When I grow up I will be a vet in a Jeep.” She didn’t add writer, illustrator, equestrian, trail rider or podcaster. But her life’s journey hasn’t strayed too far from those early goals. With a degree in animal health sciences and both a Jeep and a “mini-horse” van, Johnson is honoring her dreams and expanding them, month by month.

“The children were very engaged as Abriana read her two books she had written,” Chianese said. “She participated in our school's annual African-American Read-In. What made it extra special is she is a former student of mine, a former Estes Hills Eagle, so she was able to come back and share her success with a new group of first-graders. She also brought one of her book characters, her miniature horse Encore. The children were amazed to see a horse so small.”

Johnson read her book, “Cowgirl Camryn and the Great Escape,” to Chianese’s students, and one of its main characters is Encore. Imagine the children’s delight when Encore appeared on the grass out in the courtyard behind their room.

Abriana and Encore Johnson had not been back to EHES since she was a child, so it was a special pleasure to see her old school. She laughed about the emergence of writing as a major piece of her resume. “I really have a lot of imposter syndrome when it comes to being an author,” she said. “It’s like, Wait, I did that?” But Johnson said her goal is to create more books about black cowgirls and cowboys for young children, since so few exist. She was familiar with the more complex texts like “Black Cowboys of the American West,” but she knew there are few picture books featuring black characters who are cowgirls or equestrians. She’s determined to change that.

Horses first became a passion for Johnson when she was a child, but the logistics and expense of riding lessons were challenging to sustain. When she was at East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS), she discovered East Coast Trail Rides Association, a large regional group comprised mainly of black riders who schedule frequent rides with accompanying camping events, and she was hooked. 

After graduating from ECHHS, Johnson earned a B.S. in animal science at NC State University, and she has worked at VCA Durant Animal Hospital in Raleigh, first as a vet tech and now as the kennel manager. Although she still hopes to attend veterinary school, she is increasingly interested in the field of One Health, which integrates multiple disciplines with the goal understanding how human, animal, and environmental health are all connected.

One of the numerous projects Johnson has undertaken is co-leading Happy Hooves, a 4-H Club in Wendell, near where she and Encore live in Zebulon. “I not only want to teach kids how to take care of horses,” she said. “I also teach them about health, about ticks and why we avoid them. I try to teach them how to take care of a pasture and why it’s so important to understand the animals’ environment.”

Camryn Cowgirl buttons Podcasts and YouTube series are already part of Johnson’s fledgling media network. The podcast, “Young Black Equestrians,” is a creation she is developing with her close friend, Caitlin Gooch, who founded the non-profit, Saddle Up and Read. Johnson and Gooch visit schools and other settings, in full cowgirl attire, sharing their love of reading and all things horses.

As Johnson builds her career and life, she describes herself as “a business owner, author, black cowgirl, craft hobbyist and southern girl with a distinguished palate. I aspire to be the example of a successful black equestrian, a role model I would have wanted when I was growing up.”