California Riding Magazine • March, 2008

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Sacking Out At Home

Reader: What is de-spooking and how does it apply to my horse?

Charles: The interesting thing about horses is that when we are consistent with them they can appear so smart and learn so quickly, but when their flight instinct takes over they don’t care what is in front of them or where they run to. A startled or frightened horse will go through barbed wire or over a cliff—with you in the saddle. That is why it is so important to spend time and use imaginative ways to produce a horse that will not react to every little thing that comes along.

De-spooking, or sacking out, allows you to bring your horse’s emotional level down and teaches your horse to change its reaction. We can change the flight instinct (or bolting reaction) to spooking, but in place.
I think of a horse’s emotions on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest and one being somewhere near dead. A safe horse that is pleasant to ride is between the levels of two to four. You may have heard the expression, “dead-broke horse,” meaning a horse you can do anything with and anyone can ride. I am here to tell you that I have never found a dead-broke horse.

I have seen so-called “dead-broke horses” bolt and run when they are frightened. There is always something out there that will scare a horse. This makes de-spooking a very important part of training.

Think Horsemanship, Not Showmanship

I once took part in a colt-starting competition with four other trainers. Each of us had a different style of training. I did what I do at home when I get a new horse—round pen training. At the competition, I had the horse go forward in the round pen, stop and then face me. As soon as the horse did this and I felt I could approach him, I put a halter on him. I taught the horse to give to pressure on a lead line in both the right and left directions. I got him to follow his nose by putting a rope around his hindquarters and had him follow the direction of the pull. Then, I taught the horse to drag a tarp. I started putting ropes around his legs and around his belly, like a cinch, to prepare him for the saddle.

I also introduced the horse to a big soccer ball and a leaf blower to represent something noisy like a lawn mower, chainsaw or weed whacker. This allowed me to bring his emotional level up and then down. Most people work on bringing the emotions down, then when they find themselves in a situation that raises the emotional level, things can get a lot more explosive. If we bring the emotional level up in a controlled environment, not on a trail that is two feet wide and on the side of a hill, we can have a much safer experience. By introducing scary objects in an arena, we are not waiting for something to happen to cause the horse to react, but are introducing the horse to a new, scary situation on our own terms.

I did not use the soccer ball and the leaf blower exercise for showmanship; these are all the same things I do at home at the ranch. The producer of the competition was upset and thought these were gimmicks and that this was not horsemanship. Horsemanship to me is a consideration of the needs of the horse—having respect for the horse and working with him until he is comfortable and safe—and respecting the needs of the passenger, the person who is going to be riding that horse.

Since most of my clients today are in their mid-30s or older, and are either returning to the sport or new to it, they want to ride a horse that they know is safe. They don’t want to risk getting hurt. A clinician can sack out a horse with a lariat, get him comfortable with a rope around his belly, throw a saddle on and in less than an hour, be on the horse’s back. But that is only stealing a ride, which means we can get on the horse. It doesn’t mean the horse is fully trained or that he won’t suddenly bolt. We are sometimes willing to take that risk, but my clients are not.

Start Slow and Build On Your Successes

When doing a de-spooking exercise like dragging a tarp, remember to start small and build the experience in increments. Your horse will tell you where he is in his training; he is the best teacher. If you worked with your horse, but he is still excited and wild-eyed, then you did something wrong. You need to back up and go a little slower, take a little more time. By the end of the exercise, the horse should display a quiet and relaxed demeanor.

God Bless,

Charles Wilhelm
It’s Never Ever the Horse’s Fault