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Groundwork Exercises for Gentling (Part 1 of 3)

Gentling exercises encourage your horse to be safe and dependable in any situation, especially scary ones! These exercises can literally be lifesavers for both you and your horse because they train your horse to respond rather than react with panic in new situations. They also teach your horse to look to and depend on you for cues as to how to respond under pressure. The exercises covered in this Groundwork Exercises for Gentling section include:

  • Flag Work
  • Sacking Out
  • Rope Work
  • Yielding to a Rope on the Leg


This exercise teaches your horse to remain calm around fluttering objects like jackets, tarps and even butterflies! I wish I had known about this exercise before I rode my mule mare Tess for the first time with a wind breaker—when we came around a corner the wind caught my jacket and we were off! As you can imagine, the faster Tess ran the more my jacket flapped. To get her back under control I finally had to take the wind breaker off (with Tess still at a dead run) and toss it away. Now that I know about flagwork I look forward to never having another experience like that again!

You can easily make your own flag by attaching a plastic bag to the end of a dressage whip. Before you begin flagging make sure you and your horse are in a safe and enclosed area, like a round pen. Begin by standing a good distance away from your horse (4-6 feet) while holding his lead rope and moving the flag briskly up and down. This may startle him so don’t be surprised if he moves away from you. If you’ve already practiced the groundwork exercises outlined in last month’s newsletter you’ll easily be able to roll his hind end if he moves away from you too quickly. Keep moving the flag up and down and rolling your horse’s hind until he stops moving away from you, then stop moving the flag, walk up to him, and pet him. If you find that your horse does not stop moving away from the flag within a short period of time, slow your movements with the flag and stop at the first sign that your horse is slowing down and trying to stop.

Continue with this exercise until your horse is totally unconcerned with the flag. If you stop before this point (i.e., when he tolerates the flag but is still concerned about it) your horse won’t get as much benefit out of this lesson and you may have to repeat it several times in the future. Once your horse is totally relaxed around the flag, start moving it closer and closer to his body. Continue until you can flutter the flag all around and over his body including his face and legs (be careful to avoid his eyes).

About the Author

Madalyn Ward, DVM, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic in Austin, Texas. She is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy and Equine Osteopathy. Memberships include American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Veterinay Medical Association and the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. She has authored several books and publishes the monthly newsletter, “Holistic Horsekeeping.”

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