Horse Training Desensitizing Your Horse

Learn how proper desensitizing or "sacking out" training will make your horse a more reliable and trusting mount.

Lots of horse owners think that desensitizing is all about waving scary objects at your horse and getting him use to things like tarps and plastic bags.

But there's much more to it than that.

You're not just out to get your horse used to scary objects, your goal should be to teach your horse how to react (or rather how to not react) in scary situations and look to you as their leader for protection.

Remember that your goal isn't to scare your horse. If you're waving a feed bag or tarp around like a mad man and your horse is standing obediently, not reacting, that's exactly what you want. Don't keep escalating until your horse snaps. If he's fine with you waving the bag all over him, no need to keep slapping him with it until he finally does spook.

If you push the horse until he snaps with each object you introduce, you will end up making the horse more fearful of the object than when you began, which will end up making him anxious and nervous in anticipation of these lessons.

To correctly go about desensitizing your horse, you will need an enclosed area. A round pen is ideal. The area should be big enough for your horse not to feel claustrophobic or threatened by an object (no stalls), but should not be big enough where he can take off and be out of range from you and the object. Never tie your horse solid during desensitizing training.

Put your horse on a lunge line or extra long lead. During this type of training, your horse is likely to pull back and bolt. You want something long enough that will allow him to distance himself from the object and not feel claustrophobic, but you still want to have control over him and not be forced to let go of the rope.

Start by introducing your first object. Stand about 15 feet away from your horse, giving him plenty of room to observe you and your scary object. For example, we'll use an empty feed bag. Relax your energy (try not to be nervous or unsure, stay calm and confident) and wave the bag around. At this time, don't wave it at your horse.

Just wave it around next to you and watch your horse's reaction. If he feels threatened and wants to step away and move to a spot he feels safer (providing he still stays about 15 feet from you and doesn't intrude your personal space), allow him to do so. Keep gently waving the bag around until he stands still. When he stands still and faces you, let the bag be still. Repeat this until your horse remains still while you wave the bag around.

If you start to wave the bag around and your horse freaks out and starts galloping or bucking across the round pen, hold him steady. Give him a jerk on the lead and tell him to stand still. After he settles down, with one hand holding the lead and one hand holding the bag, begin gently waving it again. If your horse attempts to take off again, pull him forward and steady him, still holding the bag. Repeat this until your horse stops trying to take off.

If your horse doesn't react at all, tell him he's a good pony, give him a scratch and move onto the next step. Casually approach the horse with the feed bag. Do not come head onto your horse. Come slightly from the side and approach his shoulder. If your horse gets nervous as you approach, such as trembling, snorting or fidgeting his feet, take it down a notch.

Stand still and continue moving your bag around until your horse settles. If he tries to bolt or explode, pull him forward, settle him down and reintroduce the object. When your horse is relaxed, attempt to touch the bag to his shoulder. Again, if he gets nervous, take a step back, calm him down then proceed. You want to eventually work up to rubbing the bag all over his body and to be able to wave it around near him and over him.

If you have a nervous or difficult horse, it could take lots of lessons of just you introducing an object, him spooking, and you calming him down, over and over again. Do not let this discourage you. This is just like any other kind of horse training; it takes time, repetition and patience. It's completely fine and normal for your horse to react this way.

It's part of the process. By you reassuring him and correcting spooky, nervous behavior, you will not only be helping him accept the object, but you will be showing him that you are the leader and you can assure him that he's safe and under your control and protection.

You may not be able to get your horse completely used to an object. He may always feel uneasy about certain things. That's okay, it's not your main goal. Your main goal is to teach your horse to control himself in scary situations and keep calm and composed and look to you for protection. Spooking in place or shuttering is perfectly acceptable, as long as he plants his feet, uses his head and listens to you as the leader.

Lessons like these will not only make your horse less spooky of objects like buckets, tarps and feed bags, but will also make your horse more reliable in unpredictable situations. If you're riding out on a trail and a bird flies across your path out of the bushes, your horse will remember his lessons.

Instead of bolting, bucking or taking off, your horse will be more likely to stand still and not react, or will just spook in place and look to you for guidance. Even if you're not a trail rider, the same may apply to you riding in an arena or being at a show where circumstances are still always unpredictable.

When looking for objects to desensitize your horse, the sky is the limit. Bailing twine, jackets, feed bags, grocery bags (plastic, paper and cloth), buckets, tarps, rope, blankets, lawn chairs, safety cones, saddle blankets, inflatable pool toys and noodles, water bottles, flags, stuffed animals etc.

If you can think of it, you can use it to sack your horse out. When first starting out, introduce less threatening objects at first. A feed bag or saddle blanket is a great thing to start with as it already has a familiar horsey smell. Leave the pool toys for more advanced lessons.

Remember that horse training and being around horses is dangerous. Always stay out of your horse's kick zones and be aware of your horse's body language.

If you're unsure or new to training, always have a qualified, experienced horse trainer there to supervise.