Using a flag is an important part of any training program and allows you to work on your horse’s movement and form without having to put him on a live cow every time. With the help of a flag, you can work on developing a consistent, repetitious pattern for your horse while controlling the speed at which he travels. A flag can also help address any weak spots he might have prior to doing any cow work.
Flag work can be a useful tool even if you don’t necessarily work cattle with your horse, as it teaches him to listen for your cues. However, it’s important to properly introduce him to it so he doesn’t become afraid of the flag.
Give Yourself Distance
When you approach the flag for the first time, let your horse have some distance from it so that when it begins to move it doesn’t startle him too much. Face the flag and move it with your remote. Don’t worry too much about moving him yet, just let him stand still and observe what’s happening. If your horse feels nervous and doesn’t want to stand still, you can move parallel to the flag rather than trying to force him to stand still.
His reaction to the flag will dictate what you do next. If he’s curious about it, but not scared, you can start to work the flag from a distance.
Begin working the flag by traveling parallel to it in a straight line. When the flag stops, your horse should stop.
As the flag begins to travel in the opposite direction, back your horse a few steps, so he starts to think about the draw, and then turn him and go back to trotting parallel with it.
Once he gets more comfortable from that distance, gradually start creeping closer to the flag as you continue to go back and forth with it. If he starts to get nervous when the flag stops and goes the other direction, or tries to turn without you, let the flag go past you and back him in a straight line until his attention is back on you. Then turn him and go back to the flag, not making a big deal out of staying exactly in sync with it every time.
Continue working your way closer to the flag. When the flag stops, your horse should stop. Sit and wait for a minute, and let him watch. Then ask for the draw and back a few steps. When you start to move the flag again, he can follow it through the turn.
You’ll keep gradually getting closer to the flag with each turn, until you’re finally within 10 to 20 feet from it.
If you find that your horse is so concerned with what the flag is doing that he can’t focus on the task at hand, stop him and ride him straight up to the flag to let him smell it and observe it. At this point, it’s best to not move the flag when you’re this close to it. While your horse checks it out, reassure him that there’s nothing to be afraid of to help build his confidence.
Being direct in your body cues will also help your horse start to understand the purpose of the flag. As he’s trotting parallel to the flag, you should be using your feet to push him forward while on a loose rein. When it comes time to stop, release your feet, so he starts relating the release of your feet to when the flag stops.
You don’t want to pull your horse into the stop every time. Instead, stop the flag, take your feet away, and then if he hasn't stopped, softly pick up your reins and reinforce the stop by backing a few steps.
When it’s time to turn, use your direct rein and encourage your horse to follow his nose. Then go back to using your feet and traveling on a loose rein until you ask for the stop again.