equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

How to do flag training with your horse

Flag Training by Sandra Poppema, BSc (HippoLogic)

When I work with potentially scary objects in training I focus on safety. I like to work at liberty in a safe, enclosed environment. In this way the learner, the horse, has as much freedom as possible while being trained. The more freedom he gets, the quicker his confidence grows.

The horse can express his emotions at liberty without repercussion. At liberty it’s easier for the trainer to notice fear (hesitation to approach the flag) in the horse. And you avoid being tempted to pull the lead rope to ‘speed up’ the process. It won’t.

In positive reinforcement training the trainer wants to know how the horse feels. It’s great feedback that you can use to adjust your training approach and it contributes to a good relationship with your horse. You get to know each other really well.

Positive reinforcement to desensitize your horse

Leading your horse at liberty past the flag. You can do this by just asking him to follow you. You can use a target. When your horse is at liberty it will be very clear at exactly what point your horse starts to get nervous: he will stand still. Then he wants to investigate the flag or he will get tense.

In positive reinforcement training you have to think of ways to make the horse at ease and give him confidence that the flag is not so scary.

What most of us learned to do

If we have a horse on a lead lope and we encounter something that the horse finds scary what do we do? In most cases the first thing we do is to ‘encourage’ the horse to walk on with a gentle pull on the rope. I put encourage in quotation marks because that’s the word usually used, but often it’s coercion.

What is the most common reaction if the horse still balks? Pull a bit harder! So, on top of being near that scary flag, the handler won’t calm the horse down by pulling the horse toward the scary object. It can cause more stress and pulling hard on a lead rope can also hurt the horse. Not something you want to add to an already stressful situation, right?

Building trust

Usually if you let your horse investigate the flag as long as he likes at liberty, and not force him to come closer, his fear will decrease pretty quickly.

This is not easy for us. Allowing your horse 15 seconds to investigate the flag, seems short. In training, however it can feel like eternity!

Try this next time you practise with a flag: count the seconds your horse needs in order to decides he wants to investigate. This will give you valuable information. He probably needs less than 15 seconds before he decides to come closer of move away. It’s what I call the 15-second rule. My horse Kyra needs on average 8 seconds or less to decide.

If you connect a positive, wonderful association (click and treat) to just ‘looking’ at the flag, your horse will learn many things:

  • It’s OK to stand still, no coercion will happen (‘I can trust my handler’)
  • Looking at the flag is reinforced with an appetitive
  • Investigating the flag (sniffing, touching, pawing) is allowed and encouraged

He learns quickly that showing fear and curiosity (his natural behaviour) are OK and he can do this at his own pace. That last part is what builds trust between the two of you. He doesn’t have to worry about your reaction in scary situations!

These are the steps you can click and reinforce for:

  • looking at the flag (don’t mind the distance. Click for 30 meters distance if that’s what your horse needs)
  • looking at the flag and relaxing (that’s what happens just before he decides to walk closer)
  • approaching the flag, sniffing, touching, pawing or other ways of interacting (without destroying) the flag.

Following sessions

If your horse can relax about the flag you can take the training to the next level. The next step will be teaching your horse that a click and treat will follow if he passes the flag.

In the beginning it’s OK for your horse to look at the flag while he’s passing by. You can let him follow a target. You pass by at a certain distance and make that distance smaller every time.

Your horse might want to touch the flag because that’s what you’ve reinforced in previous sessions and now he has to learn he walks by without interaction. Looking is ok.

In later sessions you can click and reinforce if he ignores the flag altogether.

Advanced flag training

When your horse is relaxed about touching the flag in one environment you can change the context. There are many contexts that you can change, like the environment and/or circumstances. Lower your criteria temporarily and repeat clicking for looking (if necessary), approaching and touching.

Here are a few examples.

  • Change the environment: from having the flag in the indoor arena, take it outside and lower your criteria a bit to built confidence. Start on a day with only a light breeze or no wind at all.
  • Ask your horse to approach or touch or ignore a flag (click for standing still) when it’s windy. Beware: the flag will make a sound and move in unexpected ways.
  • Hold the flag when you walk around your horse
  • Move the flag more and more when you walk around your horse
  • Move the flag above him. A great preparation for riding with a flag.
  • Drape the flag over his body

Click and reinforce every new step to build confidence and to give your horse clarity about what you expect him to do.

Happy Horse training!