Sacking Out
 By Beverly J Whittington
Just the other day, I had an interesting conversation with a young lady about foundation training on horses. She had no idea what the term “sacking out” meant! As a matter of fact, when I referenced the fact that we had sacked out some weanlings the previous day, she stated that “She did not use COWBOY methods on her horses!”

Desensitizing is the "politically correct" word of today over "sacking out". However I have not often striven to be "politically correct", as it takes too much time and effort to keep up with what IS "politically correct" at any given time! 

A desensitizing program can be anything from a casual daily introduction to an intense program. Horse, by their very nature are “flight or fight” in their reaction to a perceived danger. This does not work very well for the domesticated horse.  When confronted with a spooky object, the horses’ first instinct tells it to flee! Run, as far and as fast as they can from that may be a predator after them! Sounds like LOADS of fun on a trail ride, doesn't it? The undersaddle horse will be restrained by its’ rider from fleeing. Not being allowed to leave will, in some instances kick in the second instinct, fight! A plunging, bucking horse is not very enjoyable either!

In sacking out, one of the main goals is to change the way a horse will react to unfamiliar and scary objects.  I want a horse to be sensitive and responsive, not an unresponsive horse that ignores its environment and even the trainer's cues. I want the horse to remain calm, and be willing to investigate the “horse eating bogeyman”.

In order to achieve the best results you need to start while the horse is very young, we start while the foal is still damp from birth. The initial process is called imprinting, you are exposing the foal to as much as you possible can during its initial hour or so of life. There is ample volumes written on the subject of imprinting one of the best  available for your reference is:
Imprint Training the Newborn Foal by Robert Miller, DVM.

Ideally the process continues, as the horse is a suckling and weanling, exposing the horse in a non threatening manner to all forms of stimuli. If you have just acquired an older horse, it does not hurt to repeat these steps, in case he or she did not have this training in their earlier life. At this stage you are building confidence in the foal, not seeking to trigger active resistance. Begin by rubbing a soft cloth all over the foal; do not forget to manipulate the tail, ears, genitals and legs with the cloth.  After the baby accepts the cloth, switch to a brush, then curry comb. As you proceed to handle the foal all over his body, start to pat him gently but firmly with your open hand. 

A good program will address the natural defense instincts that horses have inherited from their ancestors. These defense instincts can be stimulated to “kick in” from touch, sight, hearing, and smell stimuli. In wild horses, the ones that reacted the quickest to these stimuli were the ones to survive and perpetuate. The sense of touch is the sense that will trigger fight in the horse most often. After all, in the wild horse the stimulation of touch meant that a predator “had them”, triggering the horse to fight for its life. Until they are taught differently, a strange or frightening touch can quickly activate the kicking, striking, or biting instincts.

The next portion of the program is best accomplished in a large stall, small enclosure or round pen. You will need a sturdy halter on the horse, an eight or ten foot strong cotton lead line and gloves are a good idea for the handler. The introduction phase of sacking out encourages the horse to investigate objects and the handler has to be patient, gently insisting rather than blatantly forcing the horse to face the object. If you have someone who can help, have an assistant hold the lead rope while you walk around the horse in a large circle waving a feed sack, a noisy rain slicker or a plastic bag. The handler should stop advancing with the "bogeyman" just before the horse spooks. You then stand quietly, praising, and only continue when the horse is relaxed. When you're closer, give the horse plenty of opportunity to sniff, paw, etc. As the horse becomes comfortable with each stimulus you should be able to gradually expand the situation to include the object touching the horse, moving near the horse, etc. Continue the session until the horse looks rather bored. Until then, make sure neither you nor your assistant is in the horse's flight path! 

You expand the program the next session to asking the horse to advance to the same spooky object. This time you take the lead rope, and with your assistant flapping the same object used in the previous session around, you ask the horse to approach it calmly. Remember that YOUR body language and attitude will cause response from the horse. If you are stiff and hesitant, he will KNOW he should be afraid. Many people tense in anticipation of the horse refusing or spooking away, and thus they CAUSE the spook! Another reaction humans have is they tend to breath more shallow or hold their breaths when they anticipate a horses reaction. Remember to breathe, talking to the horse or humming under your breath helps you to prevent yourself from holding your breath. Keep up a steady verbal communication for "relax, it doesn't eat horses", and be profuse with the praise when the horse believes you.

Once you have the horse looking to you for guidance when it comes to the "spooky stuff" begin to use your imagination and expand on the range of objects. Remember to include things that stimulate each of the senses, including touch, sight, hearing, and smell stimuli. 

Many people object to the next portion of the desensitizing process, "sacking out while restrained". I believe this is an important part of the desensitizing program that cannot be skipped. I think that in many cases the problem is that too many people neglect the introduction part of the process, and sometimes forget the real objectives. My objective is for a horse to “re-learn” what to do when frightened. I want him to learn to turn and face his fears and place his confidence in his handler to “protect him” from the boogie man! 

This part of the program should not be introduced until the horse has learned to trust and respond to the handler. Previous lessons of introducing stimuli and triggering the horses’ instincts should have established that there was nothing to fear in a soothing manner. The next step of the sacking out should be building on the trust. Here is where many folks spend the time desensitizing their horses up to this point and then they stop. You see the next step requires that the horse is frightened, in order to experience how to overcome that fear and stand and face the “danger”. I feel that if you do not progress to and through this step, you cannot reasonably expect a horse to react in a safe manner when spooked.  One big benefit is that a horse can learn to "spook in place" through this process. After a horse has been taught to trust the handler / rider, no matter HOW weird or objectionable the actions or surroundings, when the handler says there is no reason to spook that horse should listen.

Of utmost importance is the equipment in the tying stage of the sacking out. A stout pole, well set in the ground and of at least 6 foot in height is a must. You should have a solid halter and strong cotton lead line which should be tied to an inter tube which has been attached to the post at about the height the horse naturally holds its head, with a quick release knot. Even with a correct knot, be sure to have a good sharp knife at hand in the event of emergencies. A helmet would be an EXCELLENT idea!

We usually begin the tied sessions with the familiar objects, giving the horse the reinforcement of the previous accomplishments to overcome any hesitance in their choice to trust you that the object will not hurt them. After a brief review, you add new and "spookier" stimuli. I have found that rattling rocks in a coffee can will usually do the trick. YOU WANT THE HORSE TO SPOOK. He has to begin to run to LEARN to turn and face his fears. You begin by rattling the rocks LOUDLY from a distance. Continue your talking in a calm reassuring manner to the horse as you advance towards his shoulder. Unless the horse completely panics, you continue the racket. Move closer, than farther away, then back again until he accepts the rattling can touching his shoulder. Praise him profusely and be sure to work BOTH sides. 

When the horse has accepted the racket and touch of this "monster" he will have begun the journey of placing complete confidence in his handler. EVEN THOUGH what you were doing scared the bejesus out of him, it didn't hurt. Sooner or later this translates to him being able to be confidant that NOTHING you would do would hurt him, no matter HOW BAZAAR. Horses who have made this leap of faith will be more likely to step into that running stream that "looks dangerous to them", for you the handler has requested that they do so, and you would not ask them to do something that would harm them. That rabbit that just jumped out of the bush? Well it must be OK, because you said so. And instead of jumping and running half way down the trail before they even reach that conclusion, they have "spooked in place" (if at all) when the horse eating bunny appeared.

Extreme care must be used while doing a tied sacking out. Of course the potential for injury is evident. You must be careful of yourself and the horse. BUT most training has an element of danger. The benefit of a horse that has learned to overcome his instincts to flee or fight in a situation that scares them dramatically reduces the chances of future injury. I have always felt that if I KNEW there was an element of danger in a situation, I could prepare to offset that with procedures. The unexpected spook can kill you. Reducing the chances of that happening is well worth the effort and risk during a controlled situation. Use common sense, do NOT perform a tied sacking out by yourself. Have someone present to aid you in the event things go awry.
If you do not feel comfortable doing the sacking out yourself, find a qualified person to do this for you with your horse. When sacking out is done correctly, you and your horse can reap years of benifit from the process. 

© Beverly J Whittington 2001


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