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Sacking Out the Problem Horse

Not only is this good training for Charlie, who seems oblivious to the puppy on his back, but it helps make River a braver and smarter dog, too.

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 www.myhorse.com/perfect 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.

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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.

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