Bob Avila’s Winning Insights: Work the Flag

Think the flag is only for working cow horses? Think again! This tool can help reining horses with rollbacks and give any horse a needed change of focus.
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You’ve probably seen cutting and working cow horses use the flag in training practice. It helps sharpen a horse’s response to cues, focuses his attention on the flag, and helps beat cheating behaviors that can develop in a seasoned horse.

[READ ABOUT: Working the Flag]

While that’s all terrific, it might not cross your mind that a horse that won’t ever see a cow could benefit from working the flag. I’m here to show you how it can help just about any horse in many different ways.

A note on the equipment: I use a CowTrac flag system. It’s easy to install, convenient to use, and it’s portable. There are other systems out there, and some innovative horsemen have even made their own with bicycle parts. The point is: Don’t let not having a flag keep you from trying this. Find someplace to work one. Ask your barn manager/owner if boarders could all pitch in to get one. Or get creative—you can even “work” your barn buddy. The only thing holding you back is your own resourcefulness.

[READ ABOUT: Corner Control Down the Fence]

Bob Avila working his horse.

Why It Works

The most obvious benefit from working the flag is for reining horses that need to tuneup their rollbacks. A correct rollback is a precise 180-degree turn. A great rollback is essentially a cutting move, and the flag teaches that. It also gives you a reference point to be sure that you have your horse in position and that your turn is precise.

For all horses, working the flag gives them something else to focus on and think about. I’ve worked pleasure horses on the flag, just to give them something else to do. Your horse must use his mind in a different way. And you control the flag’s speed, so you can go as fast or slow as you need to. It can change your horse’s attitude about work. I find that my horses have their ears up and are interested in having something to look at. It helps alleviate boredom that can set in for any horse that does the same thing, day in and day out.

[READ ABOUT: Desensitize Your Horse to Cattle]

Bob Avila working his horse.

Set It Up

A flag requires about 100 feet of straight fence. Mine is about 160 feet. The more room you have, the longer you can make your track. In most arenas, you can set it up on an end fence. I suggest installing it outside the fence if you use your arena for turnout. Otherwise curious horses can chew on it.

When working non-cow horses, I like to set up cones at either end of the track, about 15 to 20 feet parallel with the ends of the track. These give you a physical reference to face when you stop and turn a full 180 degrees to face the opposite cone. If you’re not facing the cone at the end of your turn, then you haven’t completed a full 180.

Bob Avila working his horse.

Get to Work

The first key is to start slow. Going fast before you get the fundamentals will lead to confusion and frustration for you and your horse. Line your horse up facing the direction the flag will move. As the flag slowly moves forward, go with it. Let the flag move and your horse follow; don’t move exactly when the flag goes forward. When the flag stops, stop your horse with his shoulder at the flag. Back him two or three steps and be sure his shoulders are straight and upright. Don’t let him lean toward the flag.

When the flag moves in the opposite direction, wait for it to get to your horse’s inside hip. Then turn your horse 180 degrees toward the flag. Let the flag pull your horse through the turn. The flag gives a reason for your horse to finish the turn instead of cutting it off at the end. You can tell if it worked by checking if you’re aligned with the cone you’re facing at the end of the track. Keep working back and forth at a slow, methodical pace.

Your horse might start anticipating the turn. You’ll need to address this so his behavior doesn’t progress. You want your horse to wait for your signal to turn and follow the flag. Creep the flag backward to test your horse. If he anticipates the rollback before you’re ready, he’ll turn on his front end, which is incorrect. Go back to the beginning, start slowly, and work back through the process so your horse gets back in tune with you and your cues.

You’ll notice improvement in your rollbacks, feel your horse elevate his shoulders and keep them square, and appreciate his interest and willingness to try something new. 

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Find additional rollback tips from Bob Avila here as he works with a young mare learning the maneuver. 

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