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-Z- Horsemanship Clinic


By Tommy Brannon

Horse trainer Zack Johnson held a two day riding clinic November 15-16, 2013 at his new covered arena near Hernando, MS. There were both English and Western riders, as well as riders of every experience level, children and adults; seven in all.

One rider, Laura Riley, said that this was only the fourth time she had been on a horse, but she looked quite comfortable and confident. She brought her son Hunter, 17, and her daughter Briana, both of whom have a lot more experience than she.  

This range of riding experience and disciplines posed a lot of challenges in teaching a riding clinic. Zach certainly seemed up to the task. The key was to give each rider individual attention and allow the others to watch and listen.
Zach himself has diversity of experience with horses. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Martin with a degree in animal science. He competed in Intercollegiate Rodeo while at UTM and had business starting young colts and polo horses. Prior to college, he fox hunted regularly. After graduation, he went west and worked for five years as a range cowboy in Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada. Back in the mid-south, he worked at a large cattle operation in central Mississippi, trained polo horses in Rossville Tenn., and now starts and trains young horses at his facility in Hernando, Miss.   

Zach likes to work with cattle sorting flags to help desensitize a horse. This is a technique he said he picked up from trainer Peter Campbell. When correctly used, this tool gets the horse’s attention and desensitizes without harming the animal.  

He started the clinic with groundwork, each student using the 4 ½ foot flag whip. He stated, “Groundwork is not over rated.” He mentioned, however, that if you feel that that you have to longe a horse before you ride him, the amount of longing time to work the horse down will get longer and longer the more you do it. He instructed the students to always keep the whip up and visible to the horse. He said that if the flag is down below the horse’s sight or directly in front of his face, the horse cannot see it and will react as if it were a predator.

When the students started riding in the clinic, Zach kept using the flag teaching technique. He taught from horseback. Working individually with the students, he showed them how to execute a stop and keep control by turning their horse’s head far to the side and disengaging the hind quarters. The youngest of the students, of course, picked up the skill the quickest. 

Zach also used a flag hung from a rope on a pulley to teach the horses in the clinic to follow, as if following a calf. This is a teaching tool used for cattle working horses that can also be effective for other disciplines.  Once the horse “gets It,” he will respond to the flag going back and forth and follow it without the rider’s direction. It was interesting to see interaction between the horses’ natural curiosity and their wariness.

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