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Sacking Out and Halter Training

Training Question

I have a colt that is one year old and he is also gelded. I bought him and his mom when he was 5 months old. He was not worked with at all, just had a halter on him but he would not lead or anything. When I take his halter off him just for a few hours or for the night it was a hour session to get it back on him. I have spent hours with him now not forcing it on him but just rubbing him with it wanting him to realize it isn’t going to hurt him. Every night I see him more relaxed around the halter but he just won’t let me put it on his head. Why is he being this way and why won’t he let me put one back on him?

The other question is, am I going about it the right way. I believe if he finally lets me put it on him with no fuss then I won’t ever have this battle again with him. The guess right now I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing or not. I was told to lunge him until he is totally “exhausted” then put it on him. Is this what I should do? I don’t feel that this is the right thing to do. I hope you can help me, I refuse to give up on him but I need understanding of why he is now like this.

Sacking Out Halter Training
horse Sacking Halter Training

Trainer’s Response

There are many factors as to why he may be acting this way. If he has always had the halter forced on him, he may have decided that he does not like that process, and therefore refuses to accept it. Another possiblity is that he may have had an ill-fitting halter in the past (or present), and anticipates the possible pain of wearing an ill-fitting halter again. If he has ever been hit or struck with the halter, that could be another possible reason he is afraid of it. The list of possible reasons could go on and on…too many to list here.

I won’t go into depth here trying to figure out which reason is the one that made him change his behavior. The important thing is to teach him patiently to accept his halter and to enjoy wearing it. No matter what the reason might be, the solution is still the same. So, instead of thinking “what happened here?”, let’s change our thought process to “what can we do about it?”, and we can then move along in a more positive way with his training.

I very much agree with your idea of just rubbing him with the halter. In order for him to completely overcome any fears he may have of the halter, he needs slow, patient training that will prove to him the halter will not hurt him. And over time, he will learn to accept the halter with no problems.

I also agree with you in the fact that lunging him to exhaustion in not the solution. Although this solution does work with some horses, it does not teach the horse to accept and enjoy haltering. You should not want to teach your horse that he has to “do it – or else!”. This only teaches the horse that he cannot trust the decisions you make for him, since they are sometimes uncomfortable, exhausting or painful. What you want to teach him, is that it is rewarding to want to wear the halter, and that it is in no way frightening.

In my horse training techniques, I always allow the horse to make the decision as to whether he wants to cooperate or not. In allowing the horse to make his own decisions, his learning process speeds up and the trust he has in his trainer increases.

When I am teaching the horse to do something, I give him 2 options

1) respond as desired, or

2) respond un-desirably.

So, he has this decision to make…”do I want to do it or not?

The horse then experiments with his options. He will usually take option #2 for his first several attempts. However, he learns that this gets him no-where, and he is left in the same situation as before. So, he then attempts option #1 (yay!)…and he gets a special reward for making a good decision (such as verbal praise, petting, release of pressure or hand-fed treat). It is important to remember that he does not get any punishment for taking option #2. Instead, he soon realizes that it is fun to take option #1 because he gets rewarded pleasantly, and he begins to enjoy the training process and the work that he does.

If you’d like the horse to really have his heart in his work, this is the way to go. This type of training promotes team-work between the horse and myself, since I do not force the horse into anything. If I force the horse into doing something, he will not enjoy what he is doing…and therefore, I will not enjoy it either. The partnership that can evolve from this kind of training is amazing. The horse and rider learn to really trust and respect each other since each is making their own decisions.

The Horse’s Learning Cycles

One myth that many horse-people believe is that once you get the horse to perform a specific task 1 time, they will do it with no problem the rest of their lives. This is simply not true. Horses have “ups-and-downs” just like people do. When a school student gets an A+ on a test, that doesn’t mean he/she will get an A+ on every test and in every subject! Or, let’s say a parent asks their young child to clean his room and he agrees to do it. Does this mean that every future request the parent makes for the child to clean his room will be agreed to with no objections? I know we all hoped so, but it just doesn’t work that way does it? The same holds true for horses.

All horses learn through repetition. In order for a task or response to become almost instinct for a horse to perform, it must be repeated successfully hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of times. The process of request-response-reward needs to be repeated over and over and over, until the horse will perform 100% consistently to that request in every situation.

A very important thing to remember when teaching a horse, is that they have “ups-and-downs” in their learning cycle. The horse may perform badly for the first 50 repetitions, but then all of a sudden change and perform good for the next 10 repetitions. It is important that you do not stop the repetitions when the horse is at this stage of “good”. The reason for this is because the horse will always go on to the next stage in the learning process which is “worse”. He will then perform “worse” for 30 repetitions. Then “better” for 20 repetitions. Then “really bad” for 15 repetitions. Then “wonderful” for 30 repetitions. Then “not so bad” for 5 repetitions. And finally “wonderful” for the next 50 repetitions.

The old saying “two steps foward, one step back” holds very true when training horses. The horse will not have learned to respond correctly 100% of the time, unless you go completely through the process and maintain your patience and consistency even in the “bad” or “worse” stages of the learning cycle. Until he has come to the very last stage of performing “wonderfully”, he has not yet learned the lesson. You will know when he has learned the lesson when he will repeat the action 100% of the time, in every situation.

Sacking Out

The first thing I would do, is to teach him to stand still and accept me petting him all over his body with my hands. This is sometimes called “sacking out”. Pay extra attention to his head. He’ll need to learn to enjoy you petting him on his head in order for him to learn to accept a halter on his head.

To continue the “sacking out” process, get a large garbage bag and fill it up with all kinds of items from around the barn or house. Just make sure that none of these items could hurt him if you rubbed him with it. Some good examples of these items are: a sponge, a brush, clippers, plastic bag, his halter, saddle pad, riding crop, wash cloth, spray bottle, lead rope. Remember that these items don’t necessarily have to be items that you would “normally” sack a horse out with. I would suggest you throw some strange things in there such as a small cooking pot from your house, maybe a rain poncho, cereal bowl, or any other item you think he might be afraid of. Get silly and throw as many items into the bag as you can.

Next, put your horse into a small paddock or round pen. Make sure the paddock is not so huge that you’d have to trek across a hundred feet from the gate just to pet him. Start by emptying your bag of items on the ground in the paddock. Now, one-by-one, pick up each item and lay them out in a row in order. On the left, you will put the items that you think will be easiest to touch the horse with, and to the far right, will be the items that you think will be the most difficult or (scarriest) items to the horse.

Now, leave the pile and walk directly up to the horse and pet him. Then immediately, turn and walk away, back to the organized line of items. This process is called “approach-and-retreat”. If at any time, the horse tenses up, acts like he is frightened, or shifts his weight as if to walk away from, stop immediately, and turn and walk away. Then, try again.

Soon, you will be able to walk all the way up to the horse and pet him. Once you can do this without him moving or turning away from you, walk back to the pile and pick up the very first item in the pile, (the item you chose to be the easiest thing to touch him with). Walk up to him with the item, do not touch him with it, then walk away. When he will accept you walking up to him with it, you can then touch him with it and rub it all over his body.

When you walk away from the horse

When you walk away from the horse, make sure you walk a minimum of 15 feet away. When you are approaching him, never pass the point where you know he will become frightened, tense, or attempt to walk away from you. If, at any time, you sense that he is even “thinking” that you or the object you are holding is scarry, immediately turn and walk away. The reason you do this, is because you want him to learn that the object, in fact, is not scarry. You want to teach him that standing still and accepting it does not hurt him.

Never skip any item in the line, even if you think it is not necessary. The reason you want to use many, many items in your line of “sack out” items, is not because you are trying to get him used to the individual items, instead, it’s because you are teaching him to accept the process of you walking to him with a strange object and walking away. When you have repeated this process enough times with the less scarry objects, he will accept the more scarry objects much easier and faster. This is because he will be used to the enjoyable process of you walking up to him with something he thinks will be scarry, then, the instant you walk away, he realizes “It wasn’t that bad at all…and it didn’t hurt me”.

If, for any of the items, he decides he really doesn’t like it and runs away from you, just turn and walk away. Go back a step (to the item before the one he was scared of), and repeat the process with that item. You may even want to re-organize the line so that the item he ran away from is now near the end of the line.

Soon enough, you will get to the part in the line where his halter is laying. Repeat the entire process of approach-and-retreat with his halter. Do not touch him with the halter until he accepts you walking up to him 100% of the time with the halter in your hand. He should stand still and not act afraid. Once you can do this, walk up to him with the halter and rub him briefly on the shoulder with it, then walk away. Then, walk up to him again, rub him on the shoulder with it, then rub him on the back with it, then walk away. Continue this until you can rub him all over his body (including his legs) with no objections from him.

The next time you walk up

Now, when you are teaching him to accept the halter on his head, don’t actually put it on him just yet. Walk up to him with the halter, pet him on the muzzle with it, then walk away. The next time you walk up to him with the halter, pet him near his ears with it. The next time, place the noseband of the halter on his nose, then walk away. Eventually, you will be able to walk up, put the halter all the way on him, take it off and walk away.

Once he allows you to do this, don’t stop there! Repeat it many, many times over. Remember the horse’s learning process from above? He may just be accepting it during his “good” stage! You’ll want to repeat this until he has gone through the entire learning process of accepting the halter. Also, if the halter was not the last item in your “sack out” line of items, don’t forget to finish with the rest of the items!

When you have completed all the items in the line, and he will accept each one of them 100% of the time and with no objections, move him to a different area or paddock. Then, start all over again. The reason you should do this, is because horses are very good at learning a specific task under “specific” conditions. For example, if you always put a halter on him when he is in a paddock, he may refuse to accept the halter in a different situation where he has not been trained to accept it, such as a larger pasture, a box stall, an indoor arena, etc.

You want to repeat the process in as many areas that you can think of. This will prepare him to accept the halter anytime and anywhere. By being patient and consistent in your training, your horse will soon learn that the halter isn’t really “that bad”. He will soon learn to enjoy your approaching him and haltering him.

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