WARNING: FOR THE LONG OF ATTENTION SPAN ONLY. :P
Preface: This is a session recently caught on tape of flagging my horse Jack. This segment is uncut, raw footage. In the final product I'll mostly just show the highlights and voice things over but I figured I'd show this as a preview to my upcoming free DVD in which I work with 5 different horses on different things including groundwork, schooling horses under saddle and some segments doing different jobs including working other horses while mounted and an impromptu cattle drive that took place when 23 of my neighbor's cow-calf pairs escaped from their pasture and showed up in front of my corral.
You could call this the director's cut of flagging Jack. I'll provide play-by-play commentary where appropriate and take questions from anyone who has one. My objective in making these videos is to show my particular style of handling and riding horses for anyone interested and with whom my particular style resonates. I expect that there will be some who may not dig what I'm doing, but on the other hand I think there may be a few who will. In any case, enjoy! -Ian
Introduction: Why Flagging?
The purpose of flagging a horse like this isn't so much to get him used to the flag, though that also comes as an added bonus. This is where my particular way of flagging a horse differs from some conventional ideas on desensitization, or sacking out. The point of the exercise is to create a situation in which the horse is subjected to a greater amount of pressure than he's accustomed to and the benefit is twofold. First, it gives me the opportunity to see how he responds to added pressure. It's assumed that the horse will become afraid from time to time and exercise his self-preservation regardless of how careful we are to avoid those situations. I don't believe that it's possible to completely "de-spook" any horse, though of course the more broke horses are generally experienced enough to know what they should and shouldn't be apprehensive about anyway. With the green horse however, it's important for my safety to be able to get a realistic idea of what this horse is going to do when scary situations come up. So I'll deliberately be a little more abrupt than I normally would, pull on him at times to get control of his feet, and so on. It's important to note that at no time do I hurt the horse physically nor do I take a posture of trying to deliberately and directly intimidate him. He will feel some intimidation naturally because of the pressure involved but I'm not actively encouraging him to see me in that light as I would if I were continuously staring him down and especially if I were to get frustrated with him. I do however acquire and maintain control of him with whatever means are necessary, as best I can with what I judge to be just the right amount of pressure and release with the best timing and awareness I can bring to the table in this particular moment. That seems like a mouthful but there is a lot that goes into the judgments and decisions I'm making on a moment-to-moment basis. I feel that it's important to understand that situations like I'm in here can deteriorate until they fall apart and that allowing the horse to exercise his self-preservation in my presence can backfire later if this is not done well. I know this because of my own awkward early learning experiences in trying to figure this stuff out. Through my own experience I've found that the big distinction in whether I'm doing more harm or good lies in a specific indicator of the horse's response. I expect him to be afraid at first but the question that I'm continually asking myself in the moment is "is this showing signs of coming through in a positive way or is it falling apart?". If the answer is the latter I try to recognize it as it begins to go down that road and to back off and reconsider my strategy. I may just get quiet for a few minutes or I may leave the corral altogether depending on what my own judgment is telling me to do. If however I feel that the horse is moving toward settling and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel I'll persist until he comes out the other side. In this segment you'll see things 'get a little western' for the first few minutes and then begin to smooth out. In phase two there's some softness beginning to come through and things alternate between soft and controlled and reactive and uncontrolled. This is normal, so I'm not surprised when the horse seems to be settling and then suddenly spooks again. When, not if, it happens I simply go back to working it out until he's able to come through again. As the session continues there is a visible progression and that mental, emotional and physical softness begins to carry for longer and through more pressure. Finally, at the end the horse is showing acceptance of the flag and of me and is relieved to be allowed to settle. He's learned to come through the other side of the crisis safe and sound and found me there to reassure him. Though he got scared at times as a direct result of my actions his trust in me has increased rather than decreased.
Some may argue with the morality of deliberately allowing this animal that's supposed to trust me become afraid and even panic, but again I consider that occasional panic situations with green horses are inevitable. Given the choice, I would prefer to come to an understanding with the horse about the proper way to handle these situations before I place myself in a position of entrusting my life to his ability to cope with them, i.e. on his back.
By way of one final precaution I will just say that I would not do this kind of session every day. To drill on this will eventually create a situation in which the horse expects to exercise his self-preservation in my presence all the time which is something I don't want. I can't say exactly how often I'll do it except to say that I'll do it when I feel he needs it. However, if I'm able to execute properly, the need should arise less and less frequently the more broke and experienced he gets.