Sacking Out the Problem Horse

Sacking out is a vital training tool. Done well, it creates perfect horses. Done poorly, it causes lifelong problems. Learn the difference here.

Your new horse seems a real charmer-until your saddle blanket slips off and he throws a classic tizzy fit. Or maybe a neighbor has put up a flagpole and your otherwise fine trail horse doesn’t respond in a patriotic manner on windy days. Or maybe he strongly objects to swinging ropes, flapping towels, your taking off your jacket, or any of a hundred other distractions.

“Ah,” will say a friend, trainer, or absolute stranger. “You need to sack him out!”

“Sacking out” is a vital training tool that’s widely misunderstood. Done well, it produces a safe, confident, and responsive partner. Done poorly, it can cause problems that haunt the horse and his subsequent owners/riders for the rest of his life.

What Is Sacking Out?
An unusual object that disturbs your horse is like a pop quiz at school. Sacking out is a way to respond to the pop quiz. We talked about this in “Meet the Monsters.” (To review this article from the October 2007 issue, go to horse, and search for “meet the monsters.”)

Sacking out gives us a way to control the pop quiz with a training exercise in which we actually plan disturbances for the horse. They help teach your horse to respond to “go right,” “go left,” “stop,” “go forward,” “back up,” “speed up,” or “slow down” cues even if there’s something that might startle him, such as a waving towel or a crackling tarp.

Think Under Fire

  • Sacking out isn’t about teaching your horse that scary objects won’t hurt him-it’s about teaching him to listen to you no matter what.
  • How well your horse listens to you under pressure tells you how solid his training is.
  • Plan disturbances for your horse so you can teach him to listen to cues even in stressful situations.
  • Don’t be in a rush to finish sacking out training. Take as much time as your horse needs.

If the horse pays more attention to the distraction than the cue, then we haven’t really taught the cue. Sacking out reinforces the teaching of that cue while it reassures the horse that-as long as he follows our directions-he’ll be safe and comfortable.

Surprise pop quizzes are unexpected things that might cause balks or spooks amidst relatively safe situations. Maybe the audience at a horse show suddenly applauds or a big truck rumbles down the road across from your arena. How well your horse listens to you rather than the distraction tells you if he’s solid in his training or if there are some holes that need filling.

Final exams are situations where if you lose control, you or your horse could get seriously hurt. Maybe an 18-wheeler goes whooshing past and blows its air horn. Maybe a dirt bike suddenly “catches air,” flying over the top of a ridge you and your horse are approaching. If your horse ignores your cues and spooks into a lane of traffic when you’ve cued him to go in the other direction, it could be a final exam for you both in all senses of the phrase.

By definition, you can’t predict these sorts of final exams, so make sure your horse will respond correctly to your cues no matter what else is out there.

Teach the Object or Teach Control?
Many people think that sacking out a horse means teaching him not to be afraid of a particular object, whether it’s a saddle blanket, a plastic sack, balloons, or anything that might cause a spook.

But because you simply can’t predict and train for everything a horse may encounter in his lifetime, producing a calm, reliable horse is not a matter of getting him used to specific objects. If he’s afraid of rubber balls, you can fill his stall with rubber balls. He’ll eventually get used to those particular balls in that particular situation, but that won’t keep him under control when a soccer ball flies over a fence onto the trail.

The Cue Is What’s Important, Not the Distraction
We control our horses in spooky situations by giving positive, specific cues that are easy to follow. We can’t tell a horse, “Don’t turn left.” We can, however, tell him to turn right. We don’t have a “don’t spook” cue, but we can tell him to lower his head with the “calm down” cue.

The problem with a spooky horse isn’t the object, the sound, or the motion. The problem is that the horse hasn’t been taught that he must follow a cue no matter what may be blowing, rolling, rattling, swinging, running, or lurking around him.

Sure, we use weird flapping and/or noisy objects when we sack out a horse. But we’re not trying to teach him that those things won’t hurt him. That’s a side effect. Just sticking a tarp in a pen and chasing him over it isn’t going to cure what’s actually a control problem. It may make it easier to teach him to cross it later, but you’ll still have to teach him to follow the cues to go forward if the wind blows or if another tarp crackles with a different sound when he steps on it. In fact, once he fully accepts the object that scared him, it’s no longer useful for teaching.

The odd things we introduce our horses to during training can be very useful, and add a lot of important fun and humor to exercises, but their main function is to develop a response in the horse that’s essentially, “Hmm. That’s a weird thing! I better listen carefully, because my person will tell me what I should do now.” This makes both of you safer, whether you’re in the saddle or on the ground.

Your Goal and Training Prerequisites
You’re going to teach the horse to respond to your bridle cues in stressful situations. You’ll start from the ground, so your horse will already know what your cues mean before you get into the saddle.

Your horse should already be familiar with responding to bit cues to move his hips over, to move his shoulders over, to lower his head (“calm down” cue), etc. If you haven’t completed this training with your horse, spend as much time as needed to be confident that he understands and will respond correctly to those cues before you add the complication of distractions.

Tools Needed
Gather an assortment of items, ranging from simple objects like a towel to more challenging items like a plastic bag filled with soda cans. Use your imagination, but remember you’ll never progress to something bigger, noisier, or more frightening until your horse has shown that he’ll always respond correctly around the simpler object.

Handy things to have would be: a small towel, a plastic grocery sack, a lariat, bubble wrap, a slicker, a plastic bottle with some stones in it, a broom, a spray bottle, a flag on a pole, etc.

Place these items in easy reach in the area where you’ll be working, but not where you or your horse might accidentally contact them. For instance, you don’t want either you or him to knock over the bottle of stones or step on the bubble wrap before he’s ready for those particular experiences.

Perform these exercises in a safe, enclosed area. A round pen is ideal. Begin with your horse bridled and saddled, as we’re working toward teaching him to respond safely when you’re riding him. But start at the point where you can safely handle him. If he’s spooking at the saddle blanket, for instance, just use the bridle without the saddle.

Work on You
As with most training, this exercise requires coordination and confidence on your part. You’re going to first shake objects at your horse and then rub them on him while asking him to respond to specific bridle cues and giving immediate release when he does.

Before preparing your horse, you might want to work on patting your head, rubbing your stomach, and counting backward at the same time-all of which you actually can do with practice!

If you’re not confident that you can control both your horse and the object, enlist the help of a friend for some of the bigger, noisier, and/or more awkward objects. A second person does complicate the situation, so make sure he or she understands what you’re doing, and has good judgment about how much intensity your horse can deal with and still remain under control.

Your attitude will also affect how scary your horse judges a situation to be. If you always “tip toe” around him, he’ll look for the thing that’s making you afraid.

What If?
Most horses take to this training quite well, and most people have a lot of fun with it. However, stop the exercise if your horse shows signs of aggression-kicking, striking, or biting-or if at any time you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Ask your horse to do something for which you can reward him, then put him up, and check out the listing of Lyons certified trainers to help you get over that particular bump in the road.

Putting Your Tools to Work
You’re going to introduce the least scary item first. Generally, this is your own hand. Remember that you’re not trying to get your horse to scoot away from you. At no time do we want any of these items or motions to accidentally become “go forward,” “go faster,” or “get the heck away from me” cues!

Stand fairly close to your horse’s left shoulder, with the reins draped evenly over his neck. Hold the left rein in your left hand, keeping it slack. Put your right hand in the air, and wave it gently back and forth. If your horse shows no reaction, praise him, switch sides, and repeat.

If your horse takes a step or two, ask him to stop by cueing “hips over.” If his head goes up, use the “calm down” cue to lower it. Continue until he stands still while you gently wave your hand about.

Go back to your horse’s left side. Keep that left rein in your left hand, and use your right hand to rub him from nose to tail. Again, work on both sides, use your rein hand to control any movement, and reward him for good behavior.

Your next tool is the small towel. As you progress to this tool and then noisier, scarier objects, your horse may jump off to one side or try to move forward quickly. Continue the distraction as long as you can maintain good position and control. This teaches him that nothing awful will happen if something startles him, but he does still have to listen and respond to your cues.

Ask your horse to lower his head. Move his shoulders for a couple of steps. Then move his hips over to stop. If he doesn’t stand, ask him to work some more, quietly insisting that he respond to your cues as you continue shaking, rattling, rubbing, or whatever.

Keep working on your horse’s “calm down,” “shoulders over,” and “hips over” cues until he’s willing to stand quietly. Praise him, then switch to the other side and repeat this exercise.

Your horse may need lots of time and repetition with any given object. That’s fine. It just gives you more time to perfect his cue response. However, any movement he makes must be in response to your cue. If he moves left and that’s not where you want him to be going, ask him to go right. If he backs up, ask him to go forward. Counter any unwanted move with a different one.

What Not to Do

Not knowing the “why,” much less the “how,” of this vital training technique can lead people to do things with their horses that at best don’t solve the core problem and at worst can produce very weird, harmful, and dangerous practices.

Some people think that they’ll somehow teach a horse to accept an object by creating a spook when there wasn’t one there originally. A handler brings out a blanket. The horse has no problem with it and doesn’t respond.

The handler wants a response, so he swats the horse with the blanket. The horse jumps. The handler keeps swatting the horse with the blanket until he stops responding-usually because the horse is either exhausted or literally scared stiff. Now the handler has actually taught him to be scared of the blanket-and of people’s actions.

Sacking out a horse that’s tied to a solid, immovable hitching post is a great way to get you and/or your horse badly hurt. Head and neck injuries can result from horses frantically trying to pull back from a hitching post when they feel trapped.

Even if no one gets hurt, if you scare your horse and he can’t move away from it, you have now taught him to be afraid of the object, to be afraid of being tied, and to pull back.

To prevent this, always introduce new objects when your horse can move around. This prevents injuries, damage, and the possibility of creating a whole new set of problems.

Work your way through your collection of objects. First shake it, then rub your horse with it. Work equally on both sides. If he moves because of the shaking or rubbing, you must control those movements and keep working on the cues until he’ll stand still.

If your horse responds too strongly to an object, you have done too much too soon. You don’t want to teach him that he can respond incorrectly, so don’t keep repeating the situation that spooked him.

Instead, immediately drop the object, and go back to whatever your horse was comfortable with before he became fearful. If necessary, eliminate all the objects with which you’ve been working, and review working on just the cue. Then slowly reintroduce the objects, starting with the least upsetting one. If a tarp scares him, go back to a wash rag. If a wash rag scares him, go back to your hand.

When your horse will stand still no matter what you’re shaking or rubbing on him, you’re ready to repeat the exercise with him walking in small circles around you.

As you work through your collection of objects yet again, keep asking for responsiveness to the bridle with your left hand on the left rein when your horse is going to the left-and your right hand on the right rein when he’s going to the right.

Give instant release when your horse drops his head, moves his shoulder, or moves his hip, if that’s what you asked him to do.

Sacking-Out Time Frames
It isn’t necessary to go through your entire collection in one session. It isn’t even necessary to finish working with a single object in one session. No matter how far you progress, just remember that you must not get hurt, your horse must not get hurt, and your horse must be calmer when he finishes than when he started. Any time you’ve achieved that, it is okay to call it a day.

Depending on your horse’s fear level, you may need hundreds of repetitions with something he sees as a horse-eating monster before he truly pays attention to you rather than to the distraction.

That’s okay. Sacking out is some of the most valuable training you’ll do with your horse, and at the end, he’s going to be fabulous. It may take a day, a week, a month, or six months to reach your goal. Once reached, if someone, say, throws a chair, your horse will still continue paying attention to you and not hurt himself or anyone around him.

You can get there, and you’ll be pleased and proud of your perfect horse when you do.

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