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Horse Facts and Tips
First Posted: Mar 16, 2009
Jan 23, 2011

Bombproofing, Desensitization and Sacking Out Horses

by Debora Johnson
Bombproofing, Desensitization and Sacking Out Horses-What does this mean?

We have all heard someone say that their horse is bombproofed, babyproofed, has been desensitized, or has been sacked out. Is there really such a thing? I would like to note here that a horse is an animal that comes preprogrammed with instinctual tendencies. Since they are prey animals in the wild, the way equines protect themselves is to take flight away from danger, kick, bite, strike out, rear, etc. Some horses, like humans, have a quicker fight and flight response. They are genetically predisposed to startle, shy, spook, or are more skittish (Shying Horses) than their herd mates. There are other considerations, as well. The animal may have been mishandled or abused. There might have been a circumstance or situation that left mental scars or memory images that trigger the behavior. It is difficult to determine. However, with careful training and desensitizing techniques, horses can be made to be safer to handle and ride. The following are some suggestions that may be helpful:

  • Expose the horse, slowly, to a variety of situations.
  • Expose the horse, slowly, to a variety of sensory stimuli.
  • Build a trust bond with your horse.
  • Move slowly around your horse.
  • Be confident around your horse. They can smell fear.
  • Give gentle praise and reassurance.
  • Do not push the issue, go slowly!
  • Use a horse's buddy who you know is not afraid of what you are trying to teach. Let your horse watch.
  • Keep reintroducing the situation or object to your horse.
  • Let your horse sniff the object.
  • Let your horse see the object.
  • Let your horse touch the object.
  • When introducing an object, keep your fingers together. If you present with your fingers apart, like a claw, horses will often feel threatened.
  • Let your horse be a horse. Gently guide him to accept.
  • Eventually be able to rub the hand held object all over the horse's face and body.
  • Do NOT lose your temper!
  • Only use positive reinforcement: Reassuring, gentle voice tones, treats, gentle pets or strokes.
  • Learn patience! It is really hard!
  • Keep your sessions to under 20 minutes.
  • Always stop on a positive note. Your horse should always have a feeling of accomplishment not failure.
  • Horses are quite comfortable with repetition.
An example: I had a horse who was head shy. He had been beaten with chains around the head when he was a breeding stallion. (I bought him when he was 5 years of age and had just been gelded) This horse would not let the bridle or bit get near him. He was not trusting of people and did not like to be caught in the field. Slowly, I worked on all these issues. The catching issue took a long time and only I could catch him. He never trusted other people, but would tolerate them. He was not mean, just wary. The bitting and bridle problem was the easiest to solve. I slowly, over a period of a month, took the bridle apart and introduced each piece, individually. I let him see it, smell it, taste it, and rubbed it all over his face and body. Each session I would add a piece to the bridle until it was complete. Then, I introduced the bit, by itself. I repeated the steps above. Finally, I put the bit and bridle together. I rubbed the bit down with molasses. He was happy to let me put it in his mouth and slide the bridle over his ears. Lots of positive reinforcement in low tones, gentle pets, and a yummy sweet tasting bit did the trick. It was a slow process but worked well. Never again did I have a problem bitting him. That horse was with me for 25 years and I retired him at a friend's farm in Kentucky. He died at 31. His name was Gambler.

Use a controlled environment like a ring where you can determine the stimuli and surroundings. By using your horse's different senses, introduce your horse to a variety of items or tasks that might otherwise be scary. That can be anything: balloons, bikes, tarps, plastic bags, white objects, wind chimes, flags, large round balls such as beach balls, jumps, umbrellas, baby strollers, bells, hoses, sticks, white lines (such as on a road), loud sounds such as gun shots, sirens, horns, strong odors, etc. Do not do this all at once. Take your time and let your horse have repeated exposure to the objects. Everything can potentially scare a horse. My husband and I rode for the Park Police for 4 years, as Mounted Volunteers. We had to take our horses through a "bombproofing" clinic. We were also evaluated in that clinic. It was done in such a disorganized manner that my husband's horse refused to impel forward and started to rear. Never had we had this behavior. This particular horse had been trail ridden extensively for 10 years, had been exposed to untold numbers of situations singly, and in a large group of other people and horses. He was never the same after that bombproofing clinic. I would suggest that this be done, always under controlled circumstances, and slowly. Bill and I do this with all our horses. Our horses are well mannered and well grounded with a rider, as well. We still trail all the time and are constantly exposed to new situations and scary objects--living and inanimate.

From the beginning think about bombproofing. Remember that everything you do either teaches your horse good habits or bad habits. It is difficult to break bad habits once they are learned. As I work with my horses, I train them to accept being in cross ties. I touch them all over with my hands, tack box tools, various types of equipment, the horse vac. etc. I always have one hand on them to calm them and let them know that it is OK. I also use very low, sweet voice tones to reassure them that all is well. Move slowly-always-around the horses. There is no chaos when training. I want to try to have the horse fix on the matter at hand not be distracted or worried about outside influences. Touch your horse's legs and feet from the beginning. Teach your horse to pick up his feet on a verbal command and/or by touch. It is also important to be able to duck under your horse's neck in front of his chest, and to be able to pass close behind him, as well. It is important to be able to manipulate your horse's tail. I always do this standing to the side out of kick range. A horse can kick up to 6 feet behind him. I found that tidbit to be amazing. Horses are also able to side kick like cattle. They are not as proficient at it but they are certainly able. Always be mindful. Horses do not like to have their tails manipulated. They will try to clamp their tail down. I get them to accept me pulling gently from both sides. I also teach the horse to accept me lifting their tails straight up. Eventually they will yield and allow this without resistance.

Bombproofing a horse is really important for your safety, the safety of others, and the safety of other horses and animals that may be around your horse. It is a slow and ongoing process. It starts from the beginning. The sooner the better. The mutual respect, appreciation, trust and bond that is built will stand you both in good stead for the duration. Remember, go slowly, use only positive reinforcement, do not lose your temper, keep training sessions short, instill confidence, and be kind.


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