Fun With Flags

This is post should probably not be written – at least at the moment. This is because I am cranky and good sense dictates you should not write something for public consumption when you are mad. But bugger it. I’m tired of some of the nonsense I have to be polite about sometimes and there are times when stupidity and ignorance need to be called out for what they are.


Some articles written by different people about how horrible and anti-training it is to use a flag when working with horses has prompted this post. It seems there is a vendetta against flags among certain horse people who have trouble connecting two or more synapses together.


In brief, their argument goes that flags are used to create terror in a horse and therefore flags are bad. The fact that these same people use and promote the use of riding whips, lunging whips, spurs, bits, ropes etc leaves them scrambling for a dictionary to learn the meaning of the words “irony” and “hypocrisy”.


The element that is missing from the argument that flags are a problem is an understanding of the role the human plays in its use. A flag is an inanimate object that has no power to do evil or good on its own. Its function is completely controlled by the human holding it. It’s within the capacity of each person to apply the flag in a beneficial way or a harmful way. The flag itself has no say over that. This is equally true of whips and spurs and bits (provided they are a comfortable fit). Just because a trainer uses a flag to terrorize a horse into submission, does not make the flag the evil-doer.


One trainer that I read recently who espouses how evil flags are, even argued round yards are detrimental to training, but square yards are an excellent training tool. Their rationalization was that round yards encouraged horses to run more and square yards do not. It seems for this trainer blame for misuse of a round yard falls at the feet of the yard and not at the human chasing the horse in the yard.


I find it bizarre that an inanimate piece of equipment that has no innate power is criticized as the problem when it is clearly a problem with people not knowing how to use the equipment.


I see the flag not as a flag, but as a clarity stick. Like all equipment, its purpose is to bring clarity to our intent. A person should keep in mind that rather than scare a horse into doing something, it is intended to clear up any confusion for a horse. It is hard to see what is wrong with that.


The same can be said of whips, spurs, bits, ropes and whatever other gear that is under the control of a rider or handler.


There is some equipment that I believe is anti-training, such as side reins, tie downs, Pessoa etc. The reason why I feel this way is that they fall into the category of not being adjustable or controlled by a human. Once they are fitted the rider or handler can’t adjust them in a moment-to-moment manner as the horse’s thoughts and emotions alter. If a person cannot instantly influence the effect of an item of equipment to cater to the horse’s needs every moment, then I believe the value of such gear for creating softness and okay-ness rather than simple obedience, needs to be questioned.


I want to end by saying this article is about much more than whether a flag is a good or poor training tool. There is a much broader principle at stake that affects how we are as horse people.


It’s difficult for all of us to change our views regarding concepts that are strongly held. I truly believe that we should examine closely the things we believe and the things others believe. It’s only then are we justified in holding onto ideas with passion. If our efforts to understand and explore different ideas are weak, then the strength to which we hold onto our own ideas should also be weak.


Photo: This was taken at a clinic where Amanda was in the process of starting Cowboy. She is using the flag to support the feel of the lead rope to help Cowboy to not drop his shoulder toward her. Is the flag being used here to train the horse not to crowd the handler (obedience) or to provide clarity to the feel of the lead rope?

Obstacle Challenge -Breaking It Down

The idea of teaching horsemanship using man-made obstacles has always seemed problematic to me. I’ve seen a lot of people working horses over poles, tarpaulins, see-saws, bridges, gates, pedestals etc. It is definitely fun for the people and gives horses a break from the monotony of working in an arena. But I have long questioned its usefulness as a training tool.


Some people think working over and around obstacles will better prepare their horse for the varied and unexpected situations they might find on a trail. Other people use them to overcome the boredom that so many horses and people experience in their daily workout. Recently trail obstacles have even become a competitive sport, so for some negotiating obstacles is a way of being rewarded with blue ribbons and accolades for their excellent training..


Then there are the people who see obstacle training as a way to stretch a horse’s comfort zone and achieve a better connection and relationship with their horse. This is the group that I hope will come to clinics and this is the group that I want to talk about today.


Last Friday I taught my very first trail class and we were lucky enough to have available a venue that offered a wide range of obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty.


I have to admit I did not come to the idea of teaching this day with enthusiasm (in fact, it was more like kicking and screaming). I had to be talked into it. The reason why I approached the day with trepidation is that in the past when I have watched clinics of people working on an obstacle course, good horsemanship was a secondary thought. Even with all the best intentions of the clinician and the riders, when faced with an obstacle a horse did not want to cross, the focus quickly became doing what was necessary to get a horse to traverse to the other side of the obstacle. It just seems to be human nature. A competition is set up between successfully achieving a task and presenting the best horsemanship possible. So a lot of “making a horse do something” tends to be used in the obstacle training I have witnessed at clinics. If you see it from that point of view it is quite understandable why I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.


Nevertheless, I agreed and I realized that it was my responsibility to make sure the training did not descend into a competition between the rider’s wishes and the horse’s needs. I needed to make sure the training was a joint partnership where all views and all opinions were considered and compromises were possible. I didn’t want it to be a match of wills between riders and horses resulting in an outcome of winners and losers. I only wanted human winners and equine winners.


I developed a plan on how I would approach the teaching. The first and only priority was to ensure that the training was of benefit to the horse and rider. I wanted the both of them to come away having learned something that would benefit them in the rest of their training and education. It needed to expand their education and more importantly it needed to positively add to their relationship. If those criteria were not met, I figured the experiment was a failure.


With that in mind, I set out some strategies that I tried to impart throughout the day. Here is a short list of the mains points I wanted each rider at every obstacle to consider.


*  How to break something down into small chunks.


*. How to block what you don't want, and allow what you do want.


* How to go slow and slow down a horse's emotions.


* How to focus on the horse's thoughts and emotions and not the job and allow everything to fall into place rather than make it happen. Get the thoughts and emotions taken care of first and the rest is easy.


* How a little persistence goes a lot further than a lot of insistence.


 *How training to negotiate each obstacle was the same process as improving trot transitions or bridling problems or teaching shoulder in.


The final point is particularly important.


From a horse’s perspective, there is no difference between learning to walk over a scary object like a bridge than learning to walk into a trailer or line up next to a mounting block or bend around a circle or teach flying changes. It’s all the same and the principles underlying these things are always the same. To me, this is the pivotal point I tried to impart. If you can practice the principles of good horsemanship in the arena, then you can apply those same principles to your obstacle course, your trail ride, your jumping, your games training or your cow work – it’s all the same.


We are talking about doing another urban trail day next year. I think I will approach it with less apprehension than I did last week because I have learned the value of such a day is entirely dependent on how I teach it. I realize now that the failure of past playground training clinics that I have witnessed has really been a failure of the approach to the teaching.


But having said that, we should never forget that it behoves the rider to take seriously the idea that successively negotiating an obstacle is far less important than using it as a means to improve focus, clarity, and softness. There is nothing to be gained without those three elements being the top priority.


Video: The video is from the obstacle clinic where a horse is being taught to cross a suspension bridge. It shows the elements that culminate to help a horse deal with difficult tasks – breaking down the elements into simple tasks – slowing down the horse’s mind – being absolutely clear – giving plenty of time.


A Technique For Saddling A Horse

This video demonstrates the proper saddling technique to make it easier for a small rider to throw a heavy saddle onto a horse.



Two Methods For Tying A Rope Halter Correctly


The War Between Web and Rope Halters

Today I want to talk about halters. I read a blog from another clinician stating their view of rope halters versus web halters and I disagreed with it so much that I feel compelled to bore you with my take on the subject.


The horse world is split into three camps when it comes to having a view on which is better, rope or web halters. People get hot under the collar on this subject as if they are starting a religious war. There is the pro web collar brigade that believes that these are kinder and gentler devices that cause less stress and minimize the potential for harming a horse.


Then there is the fraternity of brothers and sisters who pray at the alter of the rope halter every day believing that any other form of head gear is anti-training.


And thirdly, there is the fellowship of non-worshippers whose motto is “who gives a damn.” I proudly belong to this brotherhood.


Both web and rope halters have their pros and cons and to argue that one is better than the other as a training device is ludicrous.


Let’s look at the differences.


The best thing about a web halter is they will break when under a lot of strain. Every buckle and clip is a weak point in the structure and if a horse pulls back hard, the halter comes apart. This is a huge advantage if a horse is tied to something solid and puts all its effort into pulling. It’s much better to have a horse on the loose than a one with spinal damage.


In this regard, rope halters don’t break. There are no weak spots in their structure because the entire halter is one continuous piece of rope. If I knew a horse was likely to pull back when tied up and it was wearing a rope halter, I would loop the lead rope around the post or use a sliding clip (like a Blocker tie) to ensure the rope gave if the horse pulled. I would never tie a horse with a known propensity to pull back to something solid, using a rope halter.


Web halters tend to be less abrasive, but rope halters can rub the skin and cause abrasions. Again, the weak spot on a web halter are the buckles and these can create skin rashes if badly fitted or used violently. But most rope halters are made of rope that is pretty abrasive and it doesn’t take a lot of friction to peel a few layer of epidermis off a horse’s face.


For the fashion conscious, both web and rope halters can be bought in a huge range of colours and designs. I’ve got rope halters in red/white/blue, green/red, purple, black/white, yellow/black and I even have a rainbow coloured halter. The rainbow halter was a gift from Ben and Sari in England. It doesn’t get used much because I’m waiting for when I have a rainbow coloured unicorn to match. So as far as choosing a pretty halter, there is as much choice in the rope halter range as there is in the web halter.


Web halters perish. They will break down in the sun and from use. Rope halters last forever. I still have the same rope halter that I used when I rode across the Red Sea after Moses parted it. They last forever!


Everybody can make a rope halter. There are a million sites on the internet showing, with diagrams, how to turn 22 feet of rope into a halter. It just takes a little practice to get the dimensions right. But web halters are not so easy. They require some hardware and sewing skills.


I prefer to not use clips on my lead ropes because they are heavy and can whack horses quite severely during moments of high activity. Instead, I choose to either tie a lead rope to a halter or buy a lead rope with a spliced loop on one end that can be attached. Web halters are designed so that the lead rope is attached with a metal clip. A person can use a rope with a spliced loop instead, but most people use clips. On the other hand, rope halters often come with lead ropes and no clip, which I believe is a better option.


Finally, we come to the crux of the argument between the web halter loonies and the rope halter nutters. The debate is which is more effective in getting a change in a horse.


Those that hate rope halters argue that because the rope is small in diameter, the forced exerted by a feel on the lead rope create inordinately stronger pressure on the horse’s head. The wider strapping of a web halter means that for the same force on the lead rope, the horse experiences less pressure. Remember, pressure is the force divided by area. Therefore, if the force is the same, then the area of the halter that is in contact with the horse determines the pressure. The larger area of the web halter produces less pressure than the smaller area of the rope halter.


Fans of web halters think this is a good reason not to use a rope halter and rope halter zealots believe it is the best reason to use them. But for me and my fellow brethren from the “who gives a damn”, camp, we understand that the pressure the horse experiences is actually in the hands of the primate holding the lead rope.


A halter sits on a horse’s head and does nothing. It offers no feel or gives no intention as to what is expected of a horse. It just sits there. Whatever communication a horse receives via the halter is the result of somebody putting a feel in the lead rope. Therefore, irrespective of what type of halter a horse is wearing the pressure it experiences can be adjusted at the behest of the handler. If you are afraid that a rope halter is capable of applying too much pressure, then don’t apply so much force on the lead rope. It’s that simple.


And for those people who like the idea that a rope halter gives them more control, I suggest you stop using them because no good horse person relies on out muscling a horse to control it.


Lastly, this is to anyone who believes that either a web or rope halter is the only choice (including the trainer whose blog I read). You don’t get it.


If you believe a piece of flimsy material sitting on a horse’s head will make the difference between your horse going well or going poorly, then you’re an idiot.


Photo: Until I get my rainbow coloured unicorn, Riley is lucky fellow who gets to wear the rainbow halter and lead rope.