Working a Flag: 10 Fundamentals for Horse Training

Working a Flag: 10 Fundamentals for Horse Training

Cutting and cow horse trainers use this tool to train horses and riders. Here are 10 tips for using the “mechanical cow” effectively.

amateur cutting competitor Jennifer Horton works a flag on the gray mare Pistolpackin Barmaid (Credit: Bill Horton)

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By Jennifer Horton

Cutting and cow horse trainers commonly use flags, aka “mechanical cows,” to teach their horse and human students to respond to a moving object. The idea is to simulate the experience of working a real cow by stopping, starting and changing directions. Riders don’t always have cattle available to work – and sometimes it’s not even ideal – so having a flag for schooling and pre-show tune-ups can be an advantage. Riders can speed things up, slow things down, and take time to correct and reposition themselves and their horses without the stress of working live cattle that don’t always follow the script.

AQHA Professional Horseman Rick Chayer and AQHA and NCHA trainer Greg Beutenmiller have put together tips for using a flag effectively. Both men are judges and they know flag work can improve scores. 

Here are 10 ideas to get you started.

1.    It’s a Tool

“You are not showing,” emphasizes Rick. “Even though it’s not as fun as working cattle, the flag is a useful tool. Use your hands and your legs as necessary to keep your horse in the correct position as that flag moves and stops.” 

Work the flag to teach the horse to track, stop, draw back on his haunches and turn correctly along a straight line. The flag should be 3-4 feet above the ground to simulate the cow.

2.    Position is Key

“When working the flag, keep your horse in the position he needs to be in to stay accurate on a cow,” says Greg.

On a trained horse, you’ll begin the session by approaching the flag in the center, just as you would ride to the head of a cow. You’ll stop and set the horse up by dropping your rein hand to the horse’s neck. While working the line back and forth, the horse should stay even with the flag. When the flag stops, the horse stops. When the flag switches direction, the horse turns to stay with it, just like he would when working a cow.

Starting a colt on the flag is different from working a finished horse. You move the flag and simply get the young horse to follow it.

3.    Timing

Working the flag gives you the controlled environment you need to build confidence. You control the speed, direction and timing of the moves. Horse and rider learn to work in time with the flag, which translates later to the movements of the cow, with the ability of being able to repeat starts, stops and changes in direction.

4.    Speed Control

“When you cut a cow, you have to go where  the cow goes, and you can’t always control the direction or speed. But you can control all of that with a flag,” says Greg.

The flag is a great place to start a beginning cutter and provides a trainer a positive environment to evaluate the rider’s horsemanship level and skills. It allows the rider to feel the movement of the horse, and for both horse and rider to acquire timing, increasing speed incrementally as a rider’s balance and reaction times improve during practice sessions. “When they squeal, you can stop it,” Rick jokes. He uses the flag to introduce riders to the sport and provide a thrill. As the speed increases and changes of direction happen with greater frequency, the flag provides a real sense of working a cow.

When tracking the flag, the horse should maintain a position parallel to and in line with the flag, traveling a straight line just as she would be if she were in step with a cow going across the pen. The rider’s eyes should be on the flag, too.

Pistol tends to want to be “long” to the left, tracking slightly past the flag, so Jennifer stops her and draws her back a couple of steps to reposition her on the flag.

5.    Reasonable Limits

There’s no set length of time to work a horse on a flag, but common sense should prevail. It’s easy to overwork a horse on the flag, and each horse is a little different.

“Never work a horse until the good is gone,” says Greg. “Don’t bore your horse to death,” recommends Rick.

“Work until the horse hooks up, then quit.”

After the stop, Jennifer releases the rein and the flag pulls Pistol through the turn without correction from Jennifer. They are working 10 feet or so from the flag, which is suspended 3-4 feet from the ground. Green horses benefit from being close to the flag. A greater distance challenges the horse’s attention.

6.    Warm Up

Warm up the horse by trotting and loping sufficiently to make sure the muscles are ready for the physical exertion. Don’t just go directly to working your horse on the flag. If the horse isn’t ready to work, you risk injury.

7.    Flag Operator

Electrically operated flags are designed with remote controls that attach to the rider’s hand so the person can oper- ate it himself while working. However, novice riders benefit from having an experienced professional operate the flag for them. A trainer can coach the rider through the session and make sure the person is schooling the horse correctly.

“Amateurs can’t afford to ruin their horses, so professional help is important when you are starting out,” advises Greg.

“Horses are not motorcycles. If you work them incorrectly you can imbed issues that can’t be fixed. Some horses develop bad habits easier than others,” he cautions.

8. Room Required

Flag can be positioned on any rail where there is good footing, but you’ll need at least 60-90 feet of level arena space to run the pulley and cord. And again, the flag should be 3-4 feet above the ground to simulate the cow.

How close should your horse be to the flag when working? If either the horse or rider are beginners, you should work between 5 to 10 feet from the flag, says Greg.

“You need to work that close to refine your skills,” he explains. Close proximity also helps the horse focus its attention.

“Once you and your horse are comfortable and accurate at 5-10 feet, you can periodically increase your distance. Working farther away from the flag challenges the horse and your timing,” he says.

9. Draw

Draw refers to backing the horse a few steps after a stop, right before the turn.

Backing shifts the horse’s balance rearward onto his hocks and prepares him to change directions more efficiently and effectively.

10. Keep It Positive

Always  quit  on  a  positive  note,”  advises  greg. “Whether you are practicing on the flag or showing on cattle, try to leave a positive impression on your horse. A good endpoint to the work gives your horse – and you – confidence.”