Most natural horsemanship advocates use a flag (or a swinging rope) to apply pressure to the horse, and this pressure is applied at varying levels of intensity. When the horse does what you want, the pressure is removed – that’s the horse’s reward for doing what you want (the removal of pressure).
If you’re wondering what a “flag” is, the homemade version is simply a plastic bag tied to the end of long quirt/whip and then you cut the dangling part of the bag into 1 inch wide strips – so the plastic bag becomes your fluttering flag.
When used in this way, the flag (or you can swing a rope around) is a very effective method of getting the horse to move, or run at the speed and in the direction that you want. But there are also ways you can modify this technique to reduce or eliminate the domination (force) of it and increase the connection, play, love and understanding between you and the horse.
When modified in these following ways, using the flag allows us to be SOFTER and to use less pressure to communicate our desires to our horse:
1. The horse must not be afraid of the flag. You will need to allow your horse to explore the flag; sniff it, mouth it, bite the handle of the whip, etc. In the beginning, you may need to wrap your hand around the flag to keep it still and quiet when your horse first explores it. Then slowly rub the flag over your horse’s body; maybe start with his chest and use the end of the whip as a scratching tool, rubbing and scratching as your horse likes.
Maybe that’s enough for the first day. Or maybe your horse is inviting more. Then move to the shoulder and withers. Maybe you need to stop there for a while. Then move the flag to scratch over the rump, under the belly, along the neck, and very gently around the face. At any point, perhaps you stop and let the horse explore the flag again with his lips, or sniff it.
Whenever you sense your horse has had enough, you stop for the day. Maybe you spend 5 days just getting your horse used to the flag. Everything is done by FEEL, there is no technique here, it is all unique to your horse and wherever you are at in your relationship with your horse. If your horse has been abused, you may need to go very slowly. If your horse trusts you deeply, maybe you can go faster. Maybe you need to rub the flag all over your own body first. Follow your intuition – your gut can always listen to your horse. Get out of your head and into your gut and you will know.
It is best if this entire process is done with your horse completely at liberty – no halter, nothing restraining him. A horse who submits to disturbing stimulus (the noisy, scary flag) because he feels he has no choice and he has been ruthlessly trained to submit, may appear to be moving in the right direction. But it is just one more variation of dominance; where the horse appears to willingly do what you ask, but if you removed the halter (or bridle) the horse would take off. That is not trust, or connection, or exploration, that is just dominance.
Even after you start using the flag to encourage your horse to get some exercise, or to set boundaries at feeding time, you repeatedly come back to this place of letting your horse explore the flag and rubbing him with it to make sure he does not develop a fear of it, and so that it remains a positive stimulus.
2. The flag is only used to ask or communicate. Never to force, scare, pressure, or dominate your horse. And as such, your usage of the flag (or swinging rope) must be totally geared to your unique horse! Horses are individual beings, with personalities and quirks, and history and preferences and opinions. So why would one technique work the same way for every horse, every time? It’s exactly the same thing with kids – I have to handle each of my 3 kids completely differently, because they like different levels and versions of “ask”, it’s simply a personality/preference thing.
For example, there’s no way my daughter’s pony Syrup would do anything without the flag – you could try bringing up your energy (Syrup: “Hah – bring it! I’m a master with energy!”), waving your arms, jumping up and down, running straight at him, or swinging a rope till the cows come home, and he would just ignore you and calmly eat grass. But with the flag, he would grumpily say, “Oh all right, fine.” and start moving. THEN after he understood what we wanted and that it was for HIS wellbeing, he could be asked with just a rope shake.
On the other hand, if I’m free lunging the horses, my horse Zorra can be asked with a wiggle of the fingers, or sometimes just a point of one finger, or a look in a direction, and she’s off. She doesn’t even need the flag, or a rope, or any other kind of cue. But then she was first trained by a highly sensitive cowboy whose cue to half-halt was raising his shoulder an inch (for example).
BUT at feeding time, Zorra can be incredibly pushy because her sister was a constant bully, so for 9 years she has learned to grab food fast and push to get what she wants. So when I’m giving the horses their vitamins and supplements, or filling the slow feeders, I need to use the flag to set boundaries with her.
3. Use the flag in a peaceful, playful manner. When you have the flag in your hands, it’s super easy to default to an energy (feeling) of control and dominance. So you may have to actively, consciously control your energy (feeling) and intention until you’ve burned some new neural pathways in your brain!
Remember, using the flag should never be scary, it should be playful. It is simply a cue that can be used at a greater distance and in a softer manner than if we had to bring up our own energy and then use our physical body at the strength of cue necessary to transmit understanding. And used this way, it allows us to be calmer and have more fun! Which of course is more enjoyable for the horse. A friend of mine sums this up nicely:
“I didn’t use a whip or flag for a year, because a trainer I admire insists they just can’t be used ethically, due to horses knowing them as tools of oppression etc etc. Plus I wanted to be able to function without tools. And, I got over-flagged at my last trainer’s place, holy shit, all that waving of plastic bags sure got obnoxious! AND all that justification of “pressure” and all the technical gradients thereof…phew, way too much.
BUT…I like that I don’t have to get angry if I have a tool that works at a longer distance. If I have to run or step forward to make my point (eg. Don’t bite your sister to get her to move over!), I lose all that time and then I confuse Spero with all that dispersed energy/overblown intensity because I’m trying to be “big”. With the flag I can just say firmly, “No, Spero, not like that,” while keeping my energy steady and adding the tiniest consequence (“see this plastic bag???”). So much less stress for both of us. Also I do my best to make it totally not a tool of intimidation the rest of the time (i.e. encouraging him to come near while I hold it still, letting him touch it, etc).
I think Spero needs help in both directions – clearer, firmer, more explicit NOs, when he’s bad, and big juicy lovey hoorays when he’s good. So I was working with the flag and treats/voice/love/scratches, mostly all the latter and using the flag just to make boundaries nice and clear. Strangely enough, everything we had been trying to do using our other style of training, but he just wasn’t getting for months, he could do with a little help from the flag.
Yesterday I found the other edge with Amalia – I tried to use the flag on her (just had it in my hand and sort of absentmindedly started using it to hurry her up) and she gave me a withering look and slowly walked away to a corner. I had to apologize and spend some no-expectation time with her to bring myself out of the subtly bossy place I’d defaulted to before she wanted to connect again. She is not a space invader (hehe) and she also has a certain brand of dignity. Having things waved at her has always pissed her off, and I can see why! Again, so different for each horse!“
4. Explain WHY you are using the flag, and why it’s in your horse’s best interest. And if you can’t explain why, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it! Saying, “My trainer said we should do this.” is not a good reason why and your horse knows it. So you need to get clear first, on exactly why and how what you’re asking for is beneficial to your horse.
During the summer, my daughter Zara and I free lunged the horses every other day, using first the flag, and then as they understood our cues, only a rope shake was needed, then only a hand signal for Zorra. But we always explained to them why we were asking them to trot and run around the field: “Come on guys, let’s go get some exercise, so you can keep having free access to all this lovely grass. And remember how good you feel afterwards? Your blood is flowing, your joints move easily, your back feels good. Just like we have to exercise to stay in good, healthy condition, so do you, let’s do this thing!”
So you see, when you explain to your horse WHY what you’re asking for is a good thing, your intention shifts from control (“See what I can make this other being do!”) to help, positivity and usually playfulness. Now your horse is free to experience the flag and what you’re using it to ask for, with lightness and fun. Your horse has instant, visceral knowledge of the energy (or feeling) you are coming to him with, and so even if he doesn’t feel like exercising, he can feel that you’re on his side; you’ve got his back. When he feels better after exercising, you’ll have just built a piece of trust with him, and deepened the intimacy of your relationship.
Remember that true intimacy, a real friendship with a horse (or human) is never clear-cut! It is always going to be messy in places, along with frustrating, hurtful and confusing and difficult. But at other times it will also be magnificent and glorious, amazing, rewarding, joyous and fun! And the crappy, difficult times are okay, because you are both aware that you have an unshakeable commitment to each other, and your end goal of deep love and connection is the same.
As long as you stay connected to your gut – above all else – and use that feeling, sensing part of your gut to listen to your horse, you will get there!