Monday, May 10, 2010

Day Two: Sacking out


Sacking out is an age old tradition, with the intention of getting the horse accustomed to things that scare him (namely anything that moves or makes noise!)

There are two basic schools of though when it comes to sacking the horse out, I'll term them "traditional" and "progressive".  Traditionally, the horse would be snubbed short to a sturdy post, and sacked out until he quit fighting.  In psychological terms, this would be called "Flooding".  The horse really isn't given an option in what happens to him; his feet aren't allowed to move, and the only way that he can get relief is to quit pulling.  This method has several disadvantages.

  1. The horse is usually sacked until he stops fighting, not until he relaxes.  This results in a horse that will tolerate but not accept 'scary' things.  
  2. The horse learns to tolerate sacking only when standing still.  This doesn't necessarily transfer over to when the horse is moving.  
  3. There is potential for the horse to get injured if he fights.  Pulling back can result in damage to the ligaments, muscles and nerves of the neck.  If sturdy enough equipment is not used, the lead or the tie ring can break, causing the horse to flip over.  
That isn't to say there are not advantages.  Very little handler refinement is required.  You don't have to be able to read the horse's body language at all.

In the progressive method, stimuli are presented to the horse in an sequentially increasing fashion.  You start off at a distance the horse is comfortable with, using a stimulus that is fairly well tolerated.  By advancing at a pace that the horse accepts, you desensitize until the horse not only tolerates, but relaxes and accepts the situation.  The advantages of this method are numerous;
  1. Fear is dramatically reduced.  While you are making the horse uncomfortable to a certain degree, you aren't inciting the same degree of panic one might traditionally. 
  2. Risk of injury is nearly eliminated.  By not tying the horse, the horse will not encounter the same risks.  So long as you have one end of the lead rope, and have properly educated the horse so as to have control over his feet, you should be able to keep your horse out of trouble.  
  3. Your horse learns not only to accept scary things while standing still, but also while moving.  
The only real disadvantage to speak of is the patience and skill required from the trainer.


To start, it is really important to have a good handle on your horse.  You need to be able to keep your horse out of your personal space and be able to control where her feet are.

Second, you need to be able to read your horse's body language; know when she is relaxed, when she's freezing up, when she' s getting ready to bolt.  Things to watch for include:
  1. The eye - When the eye is relaxed, you can bet the horse is relaxed as well.  Eyes that look worried, that are showing a good deal of white, or seem to have completely tuned out are a sure sign something is up. 
  2. The ears - Where are they pointed?  Are they relaxed, and natural in position?  Are they pinned back, extremely perked forward, or continuously moving?  
  3. The mouth -  Does your horse lick, chew, or yawn.  Does he firmly clamp his lips together?  
  4. The legs- A relaxed horse tends to cock one leg, rest a hoof, basically takes a stance that he would while standing out in the pasture.  If your horse is shifting his weight, standing stiff and straight, and looks like he might jump and run... well... you may have gone a bit too far!
  5. The tail-  We've all seen a horse that is scared of something behind him... The tail clamps down, the butt drops, and the horse "gooses".  A very different position from that of a relaxed horse. 
So, on to the method:
  1. You know your horse; start at a distance you think the horse will tolerate.  Put yourself in a position that will keep yourself safe; standing at a 45 degree angle to the shoulder is a good place. 
  2. Using the end of your lead rope, toss it lightly on the ground towards your horse.
  • Judge your horse's response; if he is nervous, I turn around and walk away, still tossing my rope.  When the horse is "chasing" the thing he is afraid of, he builds confidence.  After all, he made the scary thing run away.  I do this for a bit, then stop, and, from a further distance, toss the rope again.  
  • If your horse doesn't seem too nervous, I toss the rope until one of two things happen.  One, the horse relaxes (lowers head, licks lips, cocks a hind leg, sighs... etc), or I can throw the rope 15-20 times without him moving off.  
     3.  Gradually work your way closer and closer to your horse.  Eventually, I'm able to toss the rope around my horse's legs, under the belly, over the back, etc.
  • This really shouldn't take very long.  With nearly every horse, I am able to toss the rope over the back in just a few minutes.  
     4.  Build up with stimulus as well; plastic bags, tarps, and grain sacks all make great sacking out tools.  Your imagination is the only limitation you have here!  By using the same methods, you can pretty quickly build your horse's confidence.

Please use caution and common sense.  Horses are large animals, with an exceptional amount of power and strength.  They are also concerned above all with their own personal safety, and will do whatever they feel it takes to keep themselves from harm.  Being individuals that act and react differently, the only certainty you have when working a horse is uncertainty.  I am a professional trainer with twenty plus years experience, yet even with the knowledge I possess, I still get hurt from time to time.  This blog and the accompanying media are for entertainment purposes only.  No responsibility will be assumed for injuries or damages incurred while trying to use these methods at home.  Please ride responsibly; protective gear can save your life!

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