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By Jorene Downs

"Sacking out a horse" is another term for desensitizing. This is typically performed with a green horse as an early part of the "breaking to saddle" process, and is popular training for youngsters prior to saddle age. It can also be applied to "spooky" horses who require a more thorough desensitization than what was initially received in basic training. The process can be slow and tedious with some horses, but well worth the time invested in the long run!

Have you ever watched a loose horse investigating something new that may be a horse-eating-monster? The horse typically faces the object and approaches with caution, possibly snorting, poised for flight. Once close enough the horse will usually sniff and paw. There might even be a "taste test." He might retreat and check it out from another angle until he is satisfied that it is harmless. Once deemed harmless, some horses might even consider the object a potential toy.

I think the primary objection to the "sacking out while restrained" is that too many people neglect the introduction part of the process, and sometimes forget the real objectives. The intent should be to demonstrate that the object is harmless to the horse, not generate fear and flight. Start with small steps toward that new object with a speed that the horse can accept, and graduate gradually. If the horse backs off quickly, follow instead of attempting to restrain (which might teach the horse to pull back.) And then convince that horse to whoa, return to you, and relax.

This process shouldn't happen until after that horse has learned to trust and respond to the handler (typically accomplished in prior round pen training), and the end result of the sacking out should be building on the trust. One big benefit is that a horse can learn to "spook in place" based on trusting the handler / rider who is also established as the alpha ... and when the alpha says there is no reason to spook, that horse should listen.

The introduction phase of sacking out should encourage the green horse to "check out" that object using a similar "natural to the horse" process. This is done with patient handling, gently insisting rather than blatantly forcing the horse to face the object. It might take many minutes to convince the horse - one step at a time - to even get within sniffing distance. If you're reading the horse correctly, the handler should stop advancing toward the "bogeyman" just before that horse spooks. Stand quietly, offer praise, and don't proceed until the horse is relaxed. When you're closer, give that horse plenty of opportunity to sniff, paw, etc. Once the horse is comfortable with that object you should be able to gradually expand the situation to include the object touching the horse, moving near the horse, etc.

I use patience, reading the horse, anticipating, etc., and allowing the horse the equine method of determining bogeyman or harmless ... while still retaining control. This approach is similar in concept to teaching a horse to load in a trailer ... one step at a time. You certainly don't want the horse fleeing scared and resistant - you want that horse to trust, be relaxed and willing before proceeding to the next step.

IMO using a halter and lead effectively during sacking out teaches the horse that the flight instinct can be self-controlled, the alpha human is reinforced as the determiner of what is safe or spooky, and the horse learns that the spook isn't desired behavior. The horse also learns that the human will be persistent, and as the horse grows more experienced the human may request far more brief "introductions" to new objects ... and expect the hesitant horse to respond with trust and willingness when cued to proceed.

Sacking out is great training for any horse who has not "been there, done that" in a relaxed manner. There is a bunch you can do in the round pen (or small corral) on the ground, typically done with only halter and lead rope on the horse. The handler might plan ahead and wear gloves. ;) Sometimes the "basic" sacking out / desensitizing needs to get real creative!

Here are some examples:

Let your imagination soar while your feet remain on the ground. ;) Always allow the horse to "check out" whatever object you're using - get creative! - and give him a chance to get comfortable with it before tossing it around, etc. Then start that object moving. When the horse shies, bring that object back to him and re-introduce, or lead him over to look at it. It is kinda symbolic to return that horse to the location where he started the spook, to remind him that he should have stayed there without fussing. ;) Continue until the horse looks rather bored with it all. But until then, be careful to position yourself so that you aren't in the horse's flight path! ;)

Next session, introduce a new object. Do a periodic refresher course with old objects to reinforce. If certain locations (above, behind, etc.) seem to impact the horse most, spend extra time working those areas. But once started with any object, you can't stop until you have serious progress in reducing the shying. Preferably, don't stop until the horse simply stands there. Be heavy with the verbal communication for "relax, it isn't gonna eat you", and praise openly when he believes you. Recall also that your body language will be speaking to that horse, so make sure you're sending him the right message. ;-/

IMO basic sacking out is mandatory when first training a youngster to saddle ... as part of the ground work prior to the actual introduction of the saddle. And then the saddle (and rest of the tack) becomes part of the sacking out process by flapping stirrups around, etc. Some horses require very little desensitization training, and others would benefit from a few serious weeks of focused sacking out. Depends on the horse.

Patience, patience, and more patience is required. Besides desensitizing the horse, you're also building a trust relationship so when you tell the horse later that some object or obstacle is safe, he'll believe you. He'll rely on you as the herd boss.

If a horse has a tough time accepting object X, some people will then leave that object in the horse's stall. Typically this is near / at / on / over the feeder, so the horse must deal with the object and learn to accept it. But beware that in some stall situations for desensitizing that horse should
not be left unsupervised. Graduation is to lead him through an obstacle course set up with several objects / situations that originally seemed to set him off.

Next step from there is to tack up the horse and attach different things for him to "wear" ... like a slicker, tarp, saddle bags, dragging rope, etc. ... then lead him around, then lunge-line him (both directions) walk/trot/canter/whoa. Always pause and re-introduce the object as required to give him a chance to realize it isn't going to eat him. :)

Last step in the round pen is mounted. Mount / dismount from both sides. Flap those stirrups around. In the saddle do various things like flapping your arms, have objects handed to you, slapping the saddle or various parts of the horse, flick the reins around, mess with his ears, put on the slicker and off with much ado and flapping, etc. Ride to an object, collect it, carry it away with you (or drag it with a rope attached.) Toss things to the ground in various directions (hat, slicker, rope).

Once again, get creative, adjusting according to what the horse seems to need. Much of this is intended to desensitize his rear and peripheral vision, as well as to remain relaxed during any mounted rider activity. This includes putting yourself in off-balance positions on that horse's back. Or neck. Or ... ? ;-/ Then ride him through a devious obstacle course of items he didn't originally ignore as a graduation exercise.

Once all this is accomplished successfully, outside the round pen set up some potentially "spooky" situations in the form of obstacles. Much depends on what has set off the horse in the past, but again get creative with this learning experience! This might be anything from a trash can in a new location to jump / fence rails painted different colors. Go through the "new object" introduction and exposure, maybe starting on the ground, but eventually all under saddle. Use the verbal encouragement and praise that you've already established in the round pen. Make sure the horse approaches the obstacle from all directions, and continue inching him up to / past / through / over that obstacle until he is performing this in a relaxed manner.

Then move out on the trail. Perhaps pony him with a seasoned horse, or ride right behind a horse he knows and is comfortable with. Pick a lead horse that is quite reliable at staying calm and relaxed, as this will help your own horse's confidence. Don't require that your horse take the lead. But once he has taken a trail several times without incident, do a trial section with him going first. Evaluate, and continue according to the messages you're getting from your horse. Lots of patience required! :)

Also take him places. Frequently. Build your way up to more chaotic situations. Lead him around. Leave him tied to the trailer with a buddy, then alone. Ride him around. But insist on his best manners.

Bottom line is, the more the horse is exposed to in a controlled situation / environment, the more likely he'll be more accepting of new things out on the trail, off at shows, etc. And having you work through this all with him will establish a new alpha position for you with the horse. He'll learn to trust you to know when something is safe, and any future "spooky" behavior can be greatly reduced by calm rider / handler control.

I like having a single word / command to tell the horse to stop the "I'm being spooky" routine. Years ago I got into the habit of saying "Quit!" when I know that horse knows better. ;)

The key is to try and make the exposure to new things ultimately rather boring to the horse. ;) Keeping him as relaxed as possible - requiring that you must stay relaxed - will help him learn that he needn't fear everything that is new to him. You're just providing "at home" seasoning for him where it is safer for both of you ... then taking him to other locations to prove that what applies at home also applies away from home.

BTW - I've just described what I consider fundamentals for the desensitizing of any young / green broke horse, adjusted per that horse's basic training needs according to disposition and prior experience. The same concepts apply to any "spooky" horse ... which I just figure means that horse doesn't have the right kind of seasoning ... yet. ;)

Also, the entire horse situation should be taken into consideration. Perhaps some of the "spooky" behavior is caused by inadvertent rider error, like tensing up at an inappropriate moment. Another problem to watch out for is tack that fits - or is used - incorrectly. There may be a physical / health reason influencing the horse's behavior. Or it could be something in the horse's diet encouraging "hot" behavior. All worth investigating in addition to the desensitizing process.

Hope you now have a better idea of what is meant by sacking out / desensitizing a horse. It is a very useful step in training that can be applied at essentially any age.

originally posted to the rec.equestrian newsgroup in the late 1990s
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