Thoughts on Using a Flag

Written by Martin Black

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.50

There are probably as many ways to use a flag on a horse as there are different types, shapes and sizes of flags. The way I flag a colt for the first time may be different from most. I like to implement the fire drill concept (refer to previous article in EH #49). Whether it is an older horse that doesn’t trust certain situations or a young horse that hasn’t had much experience, we can help him learn to handle panic situations. With this method, he learns to become softer to the halter or bridle, to position himself so we can be safer and to accept and trust what we are asking of him in uncertain circumstances.

I don’t like to see a horse pull away from a person or run into a person when he panics. Often people have trouble with a horse and lose control when he panics, so they just avoid the situations instead of dealing with it. This may be the safest way out of the present circumstance, but it will escalate to a point that a person becomes afraid to do anything with their horse for fear of him getting out of control. This flagging process can help the horse learn to handle situations that would have otherwise ended up as a bad experience for the person and the horse.

When flagging, one of the main things I look for is if the horse is relaxed and breathing deeply, or if the horse is tight and taking shorter breaths. The timing and regulation of this factor is what helps the horse learn how to handle stressful situations. As we approach the horse with the flag, I don’t expect or want him to accept it. I may evaluate or shake it to create some intimidation, to the point that he moves his feet and tightens his rib cage so he can’t breathe deeply. If we maintain this for a half a minute or a minute, he generally gets short enough of oxygen to start getting desperate and begin responding differently. If we back off the pressure of the flag at this point and let him slow down or stop his feet for a few seconds, the horse can learn that he doesn’t have to move away from his fear. He can learn that he can control his own destiny, if we are consistent in our presentation.

The motion of the feet controls the motion of the flag. The lack of motion in the feet creates lack of motion in the flag. Pausing will build the horse’s confidence to stop. Then a softer presentation will help desensitize him. We can increase the commotion and he will start to move his feet again and he can go through the process some more. Or the horse can accept the commotion and we can desensitize the areas we need to. Then we repeat the process, rotating sides and being more aggressive with the flag until the horse has accepted a reasonable level of commotion.

I like to work on the right side first then go to the left. This will help to balance the horse so he is not so “left sided.” We will usually get more reaction on the right side because most horses will have had their left side developed more.

The position of the flag and the direction of the pull on the halter is another key to being successful with this process.  These two have to work in harmony with each other. Too much pressure or improper position of the flag can cause an improper position of the pull on the rope or vice versa.

We want the rope to maintain an angle perpendicular with the jaw or poll and not the neck or body. The poll is where the horse will brace, and when those muscles get stressed and tired, he will soften. This is where the lack of oxygen in the blood affects him also. If he gets the halter rope at an angle he can pull back or drive forward, then he can use other stronger muscles and not work the poll.

When the poll softens, the loin will soften, and then we have control of the hindquarters. The poll and the loin almost always work together. If we can position one, we will have positioned the other in most cases.

Understanding The Flag with Joe Wolter

We don’t want to start with the flag low. The horse can learn to kick or strike at it. We want him to exercise the defensive instinct of running away. Once we defuse that properly, rarely will the horse have any defense left so the feet won’t be an issue. When we start with the flag above eye level, they will move away—flight—and not fight. Generally with the rope pulling perpendicular with the jaw, the flag needs to be pointed somewhere between and above the loin and the poll, depending on how much forward motion he has. If we move the flag towards the loin, and the horse steps sideways, that’s fine. If he is stepping forward too much, move towards the poll. If the horse learns to come forward instead of moving away from the flag or run through the pressure, we will need to put the flag at the eye or face, and maybe even bump him if necessary to stop the forward motion. This position may also move the hip away, so pause for a few seconds to see what he does. If the hindquarters step away, and he stops, wait a little longer. If he starts to move forward again, move the flag back into the effective position.

We don’t want to have the flag where the horse can see it with the outside eye. Keep the flag above and to the inside of him as he is moving. This should keep him moving away if he is truly intimidated by the flag. If not, shaking it or a quick bump may create some intimidation.

Again this is an exercise to teach the horse how to handle a panic situation, not a desensitization drill. Getting desensitized will be a by-product.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.50

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