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Zach Johnson Returns Home to Start Multi-discipline Training Facility


2011/09/14






By Pam Gamble

Zach Johnson, originally from Collierville, TN, has returned home to open a horse training facility in Hernando MS.  His wife is a recent graduate of Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the couple has been living in Starkville, MS.  She decided to take a job at Horn Lake Animal Hospital, a small-animal clinic on Goodman Road, so the pair decided to buy a house in Hernando, MS.  While looking around, Zach noticed a huge horse property with no horses on it.  Turns out, the property belongs to cutting horse legend Pat Earnheart. The ranch had been basically empty since Pat stopped training in 2008 after having a lung transplant. So, Zach called Pat and Pat said, “Come and meet me.” That was the beginning of working relationship, since Zach now has use of the huge facility which includes over a hundred acres, a 22-stall barn, a covered arena, and a big cutting pen. 

Zach is still in the unpacking stage of his move into the Earnheart’s ranch, but he has six horses in his care.  He had several more, but has already sent them home because he had reached the owners’ training objectives with those horses. 

Since he rarely “finishes” a horse for his customers, Zach modestly doesn’t consider himself a horse trainer. Trainers like Pat Earnheart, who “finish” and take the horse to the show, are the real horse trainers to Zach. Zach enthusiastically hopes to be training reined cow horses in a few years.  At that time he hopes to take the horses “all the way.”

Zach’s specialty is starting a colt.  He likes to keep them for 90 days and put a solid training foundation on them that can later be “finished” as either English or Western. Zach likes to approach each horse individually and on their own time.  “The horse will tell you when it’s ready to go on to the next stage of training,” he explained. Even though he approaches each horse according to its own needs, Zach does have a methodology that he generally follows:
“The first thirty days build the most important lasting impressions that you can impart on the horse. I will do some ground work to make sure that I can separate or isolate the hind from the front. Once I know I can do this, I will get on them. If he bucks, he bucks.  Once he knows how to disengage his hind end, you can get him out of trouble if he starts bucking.” Zach is referring to being able to move the hind end over to stop the bucking momentum. Zach continues teaching the horse to isolate the hind end from the front end while under saddle during the first month of training. He teaches the horse to bend and flex. Then Zach begins to introduce “seat aids,” even though he doesn’t make a big deal about it with the horse.

The second month, the seat aids continue. For example, while going forward, Zach will take a posting trot.  When he prepares for a stop he will sit.  The horse has not been drilled on this, but he is learning it nonetheless, because Zach approaches the horse in a laidback way that makes it easy for the horse to learn. The bending and flexion continues as Zach starts to ask the horse for a little more. The horse can already be encouraged to hold his self-carriage because Zach has isolated the body parts since the horse’s first day of training.

The third month Zach continues to ask a little more from the horse. He can collect them, do side passes and shoulder-ins. The horse should be able to reliably pick up his leads, and in some instances, he will have the horse doing flying changes if he is mature enough mentally. He also makes a point of taking the horse into as many new situations as possible, such as out into the fields. He wants to expose the horse to as many different scenes and events that he may see in his lifetime during the time that Zack has him in training. For example, like the true cowboy that he is, Zach will start working cattle with the colts from almost the beginning. Zach says giving a horse a job gives him confidence.

Zach started the Thoroughbred, Crimson Cash while he was still in Starkville. The now four-year-old chestnut is back with Zach to continue his training. Owner Amanda McGee, of Byhalia, MS, is interested mainly in foxhunting. She relies on Zach for him to ready Cash for the hunt field. Of course, Zach is no stranger to fox hunting either, as he did it quite a bit when he was young, and he knows what stresses may can be found in the hunt field. Cash’s early work with the cattle will prove to be very practical because of the number of cows to be found in the Oak Grove foxhunting territory. It’s also handy training for a whipper-in’s horse. Some horses just think of the hounds as little cattle. 

While visiting Zach on a hot summer afternoon, Zach rode Miss Mystic Pacific, a five-year-old Quarter Horse in for a “tune up.”  The mare is owned by Emma Miller from Southwind Stables and she is basically an English pleasure horse. Zach used the same bridle that he uses on all of his horses: an egg butt snaffle with Mecate reins. Zach explained that the Mecate reins give a more immediate feel of the horse’s mouth and when you release them, the horse’s mouth is immediately relieved of pressure. Zach started his ride by using the chestnut mare to open his arena gate. That’s a situation in which flexing and lateral work is put to practical use, and easy for the horse since it’s done at a walk.  Zach then trotted figure eights, encouraging her to bend around his leg.  He let her lope circles in the arena, encouraging her to use her hind end and carry herself.

Zach feels that many disciplines can benefit from a better trained horse.  “So many people just put a harsher bit on the horse, or a tie down, etc. when the horse just needs to be better educated.”  Western or English, the horse needs to know and be able to perform the basics.

Zach’s early influences include his Dad, who rode hunter/jumpers. Every year for his birthday his Dad would pay for Zach to go to Buck Brannaman’s clinic at Wildwood Farm.  At that time, Buck was his hero, and Zach wanted to leave home and travel with him.  But Buck said, “No way” because Zach was still in school.  Later Buck introduced Zach to Peter Campbell and he worked for him out west.  While Zach worked for Peter, he traveled and helped him with many clinics, always riding the most difficult of the horses.

 Zach learned quite a bit while working for different cattle ranches out west. There, horses are not a hobby. The necessary quick turn-over of the horses taught Zach timing. He gained practical knowledge of when to press the horse and when to release the horse.

 Although Zach is a real cowboy, he is also glad he finished his formal education. His degree in Animal Science and Farm/Ranch Production and Management from the University of Tennessee at Martin has helped to round out his equine education.   

To find out more information, contact Zach at 901-826-2916 or visit his website at http://www.bridlehorse.com.

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