The use of flags in horsemanship can cause a lot of debate. I use a flag to enhance focus and improve clarity in training. I am very careful how I use it. I discourage using it as a tool which horses move away from with anxiety. Used in the wrong way, I have seen a flag cause a lot of damage. So in this Challenge I want you to focus on how to be effective with a flag, and knowing when and when not to use it. Hopefully you will get to a stage where you don’t need it.
This is a good video to learn about the positives and negatives of flags with horsemanship.
This video shows how I use distraction to get this mare's mind back to me, and getting her thinking. Once she becomes softer and more aware, I start to use my strong intention to create small yields.
This horse was strongly disconnected. He suffers from a lot of separation anxiety. Here, I get big enough to distract him with clarity but through the lesson you will see him get closer and more accurate at following the feel softly.
Merlin has previously been trained by using a lot a drive and draw in a round yard. He gets quite frightened and flees when the flag gets bigger. He thinks he always has to move away from pressure. This may be too much for people to do just yet - but it is a good lesson to watch. In the lesson I teach Merlin to think and draw towards the worry, helping him to become more confident at making decisions as oppose to reactions. A good lesson to understand flags.
I guide you through what I want you to do in Part 2 of this Challenge. Essential viewing.
This lesson can be done at liberty and on a line. If you have a horse that is sensitive and has been driven with a flag and is quite nervous, trying to use a flag for distraction at liberty may be too much for it – it may run around too fast in a panic – so I suggest for you that you have your horse on a lead rope and skip the liberty.
Firstly, I’ll talk about liberty. Your aim: to get your horse to be more aware of you. In a useable space – a big yard or round yard, where your horse has a bit of room and let them be free. Walk in. If you see your horse blocking you out or looking away, pop the flag on the ground firm enough to cause a distraction. The flag should be short burst so that by the time your horse looks the flag has gone and you are calm. If your horse gets a little spooked by the flag, walk in the opposite direction of your horse so you are not imposing on it (this may cause some draw). Move in different positions around your horse, pop the flag when your horse is distracted from you or disconnected. Don’t do too much. Get a little interest and connection – let your horse sniff on you, stand with it, then leave the yard.
You can go away and come back in 5-10 mins and repeat.
On line: this is very similar to the liberty lesson, but this time we are trying to get your horse more aware. It is the same principle – quick and effective – not long and drawn out. Stand at a distance, maybe about 3m from your horse. Be calm, still and present. If your horse is fidgety or thinking away, pop the flag, and gain it’s awareness. Repeat this until your horses thoughts stay on you for longer. If your horse walks towards you, but you haven’t asked for it – pop the flag a few times. Stay still and calm in your body. You want your horse to be comfortable in its spot but with its thoughts on where you are.
Popping the flag works better if it is quick and firm like a little lightening strike as oppose to rhythmic and repetitive.
Don’t over do focus work. Horses will zone out and loose interest and dull to the flag. The idea with the flag is not to get your horse to look at the flag but to bring their thoughts to you. If we are too repetitive and get a strong nervous focus, we can get a problem down the track with horses not being confident to look away – so it is important we get awareness not super-obedience. So get to know your horse’s expressions – are they just looking away or zoning out?
Don’t over-reach your horse – if they are nervous – stick to having them on a line.
In using the flag for focus it is very easy to think that you just need to get your horses thoughts to think towards the flag. This is not the case. The flag is mostly used just to bring awareness to your horse to help it to search and respond to the questions we are asking.
Good balance comes from a horse thinking about the direction it is on and what it is doing and following a feel with accuracy.
Getting a horse to look at a flag might create a bend, but it does not get the horse closer to the answer.
So – I will share with you an easy task that I often do to help a horse follow a feel accurately. This lesson also teaches responsibility – your horse needs to stand on its own, thoughtfully.
You can do this lesson on a long lead (anything over 4m).
Stand at a distance. Have the rope on the ground, with one end in your hand, as if your horse was ground-tied. (If you horse wants to walk towards you, stand strong, lean towards your horse a little, and pop your flag until your horse stops thinking about walking towards you.) Once your horse is standing, gently pick up the rope until you nearly take up the slack but there is still a droop in the rope – it should just start to put poll pressure on your horse. If you don’t see your horse starting to think and search forward, pop your flag or shake it until your horse starts searching. When your horse starts searching and moving, stop the flag and see where your horse ends up.
The aim: For your horse will come forwards until the rope goes a little more slack.
If your horse goes backwards, they will find pressure and should come forward.
Keep working on this – asking your horse to go back or forwards as needed – until your horse can come forwards only as much as the feel is asking. Horses can come forward an inch at a time. Your horse will become increasingly accurate, and you won’t need the flag. That is your challenge.
Use your tool box tools from last Challenge: Listen to your horse. Stay calm and centred at all times.