Jeff Herten

The big gray stubbornly refused the right lead and kept accelerating along the fence. Deftly, the stocky rider rolled the horse into the fence and urged him back into a lope. Furious, the horse threw his head, then stumbled forward on to his knees at the gallop. There was a gasp from the crowd as the rider somersaulted over the horse's head. Miraculously, he landed on his feet, then turned and vaulted back into the saddle. The horse struggled to his feet, wide-eyed, turning his head slightly to get the measure of this creature on his back. Without pause, the horseman kicked the gray into a lope, again on the right lead, brought him around the arena along the fence, then rolled him again. Turning the horse's head slightly right to block the shoulder, he slapped his right hip with the popper on the end of his split reins, and the horse leaped onto the left lead. Smoothly, the rider rolled the horse again into the fence taking the right, then rolled again, smartly taking the left. Again and again the horse rolled, each time taking the correct lead, then finally the rider brought the horse down the middle of the arena, performing four flying changes before stopping the horse in front of his student, the horse's owner. Jumping off, John Bozanich addressed his pupils. "If you watch horses playing together in a pasture, they already know how to do all these maneuvers. But they have to relearn with a rider on their back, and you have to learn to communicate what it is you want. That's why you are here."

I had taken clinics with John for several years. In the beginning, I didn't know what a diagonal or a lead was. But determined to progress beyond my training at the Sack of Grain School For Endurance Riders, I swallowed my pride and hid the embarrassment I felt at how little I knew and took my horse to a weekend session. John was kind and never belittled his students. Later, John taught me how to start a horse, giving me lessons over the phone from his home in Springville. I had seen John work with all kinds of horse problems, from trailer loading to charginess. I was in awe of his abilities and of his kind and gentle manner with horses. But when he told me that he was going to do at the Tulare Fairgrounds even Jeff the true believer was a bit skeptical.

"You're gonna do what?"

"I'm going to build a saddle, make a halter and reins, forge a pair of 1 spurs and a bit, build a set of leg wraps, braid a lead rope, take a totally unbroken horse, shoe him and break him to ride."

"In how long?"

"Five and a half hours."

"John, you know how much I think of your abilities, but this is almost in the category of walking on water."

"Walk, trot, and canter." That was all he said.

It was a beautiful late winter California day: Chamber of Commerce weather. The usually parched San Joaquin Valley was lush green from the abundant rains, and the Tulare Fairgrounds were scrubbed shiny bright for the Great Western Livestock Show. And there right in the middle of everything, surrounded by his sewing machine, forge, workbench, tools, and portable round pen was the innovative, young, outspoken designer and maker of the first really flexible saddle tree: A sawed-off stump of a man whose agility and athletic prowess belie his physical appearance. A man his students simply call "Boz".

As the crowd watched, John tied a knotted rope halter. Another Boz original, it has knots over the nose and at the temples and can be used alone, but it also has clips to attach the Boz training bit. Then he made a pair of split reins, braiding short sticks in the ends to serve as "motivators". Expertly, he braided a lead rope, then fired up his oven and welding torch and quickly forged a pair of Boz training spurs and a Boz training bit. The spurs have large spheres of steel instead of points or rowels: Designed simply to get the horse's attention, not to punish him. The bit is a snaffle with huge cheek rings which can be used in four different positions, allowing the attachment of two sets of reins and conversion to a gag, and a port in the mouthpiece to create some tongue relief and even pressure. It is designed to promote flexing and lateral control of the horse's head.

Quickly, John turned to the business of building the saddle. He began with his patented ABS plastic tree, praised for its ability to flex and conform to the horse's back. Boz attached the skirts, made of harness leather, riveted on the girth straps, glued on the closed-cell foam pads, and screwed and glued the sheepskin cover. Adding D-rings and steel loops for attaching packs by screwing them into the tree, in an hour John had created his swell fork endurance saddle.

Next, Boz turned his attention to the horse. A two-year-old dark bay Arabian stallion had been chosen from a nearby breeder, and she certified that the horse had no previous training. Here was the opportunity to see the master at work.

John entered the round pen with the horse and hazed him with a coiled rope, making him run around the outside of the circle. Each time the horse stopped, Boz would make him run until he turned his head toward John and allowed him to approach and pet him. After petting him, John would walk off clucking at the horse, and the animal was expected to follow OR John would make him run again. In five minutes, Boz had the stud following him around the pen. At this point, John put a halter on the horse and asked a young woman from the crowd to hold him while he was shod. In every way John interacts with a horse, he is reassuring and constantly rewarding. There is no punishment, no threat, no fear and nonverbally he communicates that there is no danger when the animal is with him. This young Arab, surrounded by a large crowd, stood calmly as John trimmed his hooves and nailed on four shoes. Boz made it look easy, but after his several years of racetrack shoeing, handling sixteen hand thoroughbreds who were getting twenty pounds of grain a day, it probably was.

Now came the part we had all been waiting for: The actual training. Ever patient and reassuring, John placed a pad on the stallion's back and buckled a surcingle over it. Attached to the surcingle was a device John calls the Equine Desensitizer, several pulleys with ropes. A hobble-like bracelet was then strapped on each front leg of the young Arab, and one of the ropes attached to each bracelet. When it is all hooked up, the Desensitizer allows the trainer to pick up each front leg individually. To one side of the horse, the trainer can pick up the off-side leg.

I had been coached by John to gentle a young standard bred, and he had taught me the round pen hazing method, taking the horse in that manner all the way to saddling and riding. He had used the Desensitizer only in the second phase when he wanted to teach the horse to hobble and to stand and not run away when his foot was entangled. So I was surprised that he had started that way and asked him about it.

"When you use the round pen method, you encounter two problems. First you're running a horse pretty hard that may or may not be fit enough to take it and you may lame or hurt him, and the fit and stubborn horse can run around you all day long and never yield and turn toward you. Second, when you have trained a horse to come to you to get away from danger or discomfort sometimes you'll find the horse runs you over or jumps on you when he is frightened. I want a horse to stand and turn toward me, and that's what this device will do. When I release him, I have become his best friend.

Manipulating the rope, John raised the stallion's right front barely off the ground. The horse struggled a bit, trying to put the foot down, but after several minutes, he stood still and turned his head toward John. John petted the horse and talked to him, releasing the leg. Then he picked it up again, higher this time, and held it up again until the horse remained still. John repeated the sequence over and over until the offside foot was at the horse's belly and the Arab calmly looked to John for help. Then the entire sequence was repeated for the left front.

Now, John moved on to ask the horse to walk, then took the leg away. The bay learned quickly, immediately stopping and turning toward his trainer. John repeated the walking sequence on the other side, and when the horse instantly responded, he moved on to train the horse in the same manner at the trot and then at the canter.

It was easy to see the trust that had developed between the young stallion and the trainer. When John presented the blue plastic tarp to the horse, his ears were forward, he arched his neck and snorted, but he didn't run away. John rubbed him all over with the folded tarp. If the horse moved at all, he took a leg away and the horse reflexly stopped and turned. Then John unfolded the tarp, placing it over the horse's butt, then slowly pulling it up over his back, then his neck, then all the way over his head and eyes. The horse stood calmly, allowing the leg to be lifted without a protest. Each time, Boz petted the horse and lavished praise on him with a calm and soothing voice.

A burlap sack full of noisy cans was next. John shook them and tossed the sack on the ground in front of the stallion, petting him and moving the sack closer when he didn't run. Then he rubbed and shook the sack all over the horse, familiarizing him to the strange and frightening sound. Then, John tied the sack to the surcingle and had the horse walk, trot, and canter with the jangling sound of the cans. It was apparent that the horse was growing in confidence and trust in this strange environment.

It was time for the saddle. John placed it on the horse's back, buckling only the front cinch. The gelding remained calm and carried the saddle around the circle at the walk, trot, and canter, his travel interrupted by having the offside leg taken away at intervals. Each time the response was immediate: Stop and turn toward his trainer.

John buckled the back cinch all the way back into the flank like a bucking strap. This was the last major test: this would teach the horse to ignore pressure on his low abdomen, preventing a potential blow-up when a rope or errant piece of tack touches him in this very sensitive area. Then, he repeated the sequence. The importance of repetition to the horse's learning was becoming apparent.

Finally, the Desensitizer was removed and John prepared to mount. The bay Arab that one hour before had been a wild thing was about to become a riding horse. Boz put a foot in the stirrup and weighted it slightly, then removed it. Then, he stood in the stirrup but didn't mount. The horse stood calmly. Then John swung his right leg over, paused for a moment, then dismounted on the horse's right. Then, he reversed the sequence, mounting right and off left. Back and forth he went, each time pausing for three to five seconds in the saddle. The horse didn't move. Then, on a mount like any of the rest, John stayed in the saddle.

The stallion acted as if he was used to a rider. He was. Already,John had been on and off him twenty times. Now, he moved out tentatively at the walk around the pen, turned and circled the other way. Expertly, John turned the horse's head, the knotted halter clueing the horse with gentle tension, the steel balls of the spurs teaching him to move away from pressure. John had the Arab's undivided attention and within fifteen minutes, the horse was sidepassing, turning on the forehand, and backing. The trot was next, John circling the horse, turning, and alternating diagonals. And then the lope. The horse seemed remarkably well-balanced and changed leads nimbly just as he did in his home pasture, but now he was doing it with a rider on his back, and on command. Four flying changes and the horse was done.

John dismounted and patted the stallion to the applause of an appreciative crowd. They had seen a remarkable feat. They had seen a man so well-versed in his chosen avocation that he could make all the tools and aids needed to do his job. They had seen a man with such fundamental understanding of how the horse moves with and without a rider that he could design and build a revolutionary new saddle. And they had witnessed an example of communication between man and horse that allowed the horse to learn what was required of him painlessly and gently.

What's next for John Bozanich? His performance at the fairgrounds was so popular that he has been asked to repeat it, and he intends to do a number of similar one-day shows throughout the country. He wants to spread the word that training methods such as his teach horses more quickly with a finished horse that performs out of trust and not fear and is desensitized to many of the hazards that commonly make horses blow up.

Having worked with a number of top name endurance riders, John has been able to use his vast fund of knowledge and apply it to the needs of endurance horse and rider. He explains that the endlessly repetitive, straight ahead nature of endurance riding overdevelops some muscle groups and allows others to atrophy. It shortens heavily used muscles and tendons, creating tightness and making endurance athletes prone to strains, pulls, and bowing. Boz feels that the balance, flexibility, muscle strength, and development of under-used muscles his training program promotes will result in better endurance athletes. John contends that Boz trained and conditioned horses will stay sound and have longer competitive careers.

Maybe John Bozanich doesn't trot on water, or even walk on it for that matter. But he brings a lifetime of insight into training and riding horses to his work, he communicates with horses like few other people are able, and his methods may raise the quality of your riding to a new level of understanding and enjoyment.

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