"Working with a Flag"
using a flag
We don't like spooky horses so we do what we can to teach them to accept movements of unusual things near them. We consider this a significant safety issue. For example, a horse which is used to cars might easily shy into fast moving traffic when he comes upon a fluttering plastic bag. So, we try to help young horses become accustomed to non-aggressive objects and think about them rather than flee them.
Materials Needed: A plastic grocery bag tied to the end of a longe or buggy whip and a round corral. (The bag should have the bottom sliced open so that it doesn't "balloon".)
Prerequisite Training: The horse should longe calmly at liberty in the round corral with the handler using little more than hand gestures for aids.
In this exercise Sharon is in the round corral. The "flag" is nothing more than a plastic grocery bag tied to the end of a crop. The horse is free to go anywhere he wants. She is careful not to move the flag aggressively toward the horse, which would be an indication that he should move away from her. At first the horse is annoyed by the flag and avoids it. If he leaves the flag, Sharon asks him to longe from two to four laps, whereupon she lets him back into the center (near the flag) to rest. The horse is free to stay or longe, it's his decision.
Eventually he tires of the game and looks in. Sharon steps back, inviting the horse toward her and pretty soon she is stroking the horse all over with the flag, stepping away and fluttering it, then stepping back in and rubbing him with it.
Later Sharon might use the flag in lieu of a whip to send the horse away. To accomplish this, her position, body language and her movement of the flag would be more assertive and directed toward the horse. Pretty soon the horse starts to think about the situation and learns to distinguish between various stimuli such as "background noise" (random fluttering and waving), pleasure stroking and cues such as asking the horse to move away. Developing this kind of thought process has implications which range far beyond the horse learning to cope with a fluttering flag.
Does this approach work? A few minutes after this photo was taken, Sharon had a fluttering blanket tied to the top railing of the round corral and Corey was walking under it, having to lower his head and having the blanket drag over his neck and back in order to get to a carrot treat. (This is one of the few times we will use food for training, however we needed the "bait" to set up a decision point... "do I walk under the blanket to get the carrot or do I just stand here looking at it?")
In the case of horses who are violently afraid of the flag, the whip with the flag tied to the end can be propped up vertically on the outside windward edge of the round corral so the flag gently flutters toward the inside of the corral. The horse can be longed past the flag. The handler should not let the horse race blindly past the flag nor cut into the center of the round corral to avoid it. Rather than "get after" the horse to move him close to the flag, we work on transitions, etc., applying modest pressure to move the horse closer to the flag on each pass. We always longe the horse in both directions. When the horse wishes to rest, he is allowed to stand near the flag. If he walks off, then he is longed no less than two and no more than four revolutions. Before too long he'll usually decide it is better to make friends with the flag than it is to work.
Within a short time the sorrel horse (right) is following the flag and the roan horse (below) is taking a "flag bath."
(Note that neither horse is restrained in any way. Also the entire procedure took less than 20 minutes for each horse.)
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