Desensitization....essential or abuse? - The Horse Forum

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post #1 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 10:10 AM Thread Starter
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Desensitization....essential or abuse?

I'm posing this question because all my life, I assumed that desensitizing or "sacking out" was an acceptable facet of training. This summer I apprenticed under a trainer that said that desensitization was unacceptable. She told me that when you sack out a horse you are actually numbing them out. They do not learn to trust you and they fade back into their "survival brain." Sacking out can actually harm your relationship with your horse. She believes that your horse should trust you enough to where you can do literally ANYTHING to and around your horse, and their trust will override their wary instincts. She also says you can't desensitize your horse to EVERYTHING they could EVER encounter that would be scary, so its pretty much a waste of time to begin with.

I respect this point of view, but I still see the merit in desensitization training if done properly.

My question is: do you believe that sacking out is an acceptable outlet for getting your horse used to new and scary situations/objects/whatever?
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post #2 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 10:15 AM
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Hi what is sacking out? I've never heard of it....
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post #3 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 10:24 AM
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Well, I don't think experimenting with a young or nervous horse by showing them 'scary' things aren't so scary is necessarily going to put them in survival mode. The only thing I've ever heard of to do that would be to throw them (or tie a rope around them and throw them on the ground). And that is incredibly wrong.

Waving a plastic bag or whathaveyou? Nah. It's not harmful.

Now, it can be if you waste too much time with it, simply because you'd be concentrating on something not as important as many other things in training. Your trainer is right - you will NEVER desensitize them to everything they could ever find scary. A horse that isn't scared of a plastic bag might jump out of his skin at the littlest things you never thought about.

But I can't say that it's horribly damaging to a horse, unless they are literally terrorized with some object they are fearful of.

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post #4 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 11:39 AM
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Desensitizing is a necessary part of training. I train horses for other people who expect results in 30 or 60 days. I don't have time to spend creating a bond and it wouldn't matter if I did, because when the horse went home, they wouldn't be bonded with the owner.

I guess the best example is my Mustang Dobe. I had to sack him out for everything when he was a greenie and do it extensively. Yet, he has never had a withdrawn or numb moment. He still has just as much spirit as when we started. IMHO, sacking out not only teaches a horse that you aren't going to let anything hurt them, it also teaches them how to react to fear. I work hard to teach every horse I ride to simply freeze when they get spooked as opposed to spinning and bolting like their nature tells them to do. I couldn't do that without desensitizing them.

The most important thing is to only do as much desensitizing work as that individual horse needs. If you really overdo it, yes, it can cause them to be sullen. That is part of the problem with a lot of the big name NH trainers is that most of their program is desensitizing and it is constant and repetitive. That's why we see so many of those horses who look bored out of their minds.

Just like everything else done in training; done correctly and in moderation, it is an invaluable tool. Done wrong or excessively, it can be detrimental to the horse.
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post #5 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 12:00 PM
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Well said, as usual, smrobs.
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post #6 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 12:01 PM
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I think it depends very much on how it is done and what goals you have in mind when you do it.

If you wish to desensitize in order to show a horse that a so called 'scary' object or situation is actually not threatening and show them they will survive, it teaches them to assess the situation rather than reacting blindly with fear. If you desensitize in order to teach them to ignore stimuli then yes, there is potential for creating a zombie like creature.

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post #7 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 12:19 PM
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It can be over done.

The handler needs to realize when the horse is TRULY afraid and not simply reacting. Previous owner of my 24 year old gelding discovered he was scared of plastic bags. Instead of a give and take approach, he hopped on with a bag containing empty soda cans. The poor horse had a melt down.

It's been nearly 15 years and I still need to be cautious when someone has a plastic bag. I have been able to work him through taking my hat on and off or having someone hand me something while I am sitting on him.

Just like some folks are scared of spiders or snakes, being alone or having the power go out - to those of us not scared - it seems silly - BUT we need to be understanding to those very real fears. (horse or human)
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post #8 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 12:47 PM
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I totally agree with smrobs that its more about teaching them how to react to fear. You can't desensitize them to everything. Sure, rubbing them down with plastic bags is great...at home...in the arena...but when you get out on a trail and a plastic bag blows across...a horse that is afraid of plastic bags isn't going to have the thought process "Oh she showed me at home that plastic bags are ok...this one is plastic so its OKAY!"

With all the spookers I have dealt with, my goal is not to eliminate the spook. Its to show them that its okay to be afraid...its NOT okay to bolt-freak-spin etc. When you shed that 'im going to show him that the world isn't scary' mindset and focus on the reaction...you get further, faster.

I don't think that sacking out is abusive if done in moderation. Its actually a good tool to find out just exactly what sets a horse off.
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post #9 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 01:43 PM
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I use it to an extent but personally I like my horses to have a small spook left in them as there still aware and watching for stuff

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post #10 of 35 Old 09-01-2010, 02:29 PM
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I agree with teaching them how to react as opposed to just making them 'not scared of this, this and that'. My trainer mentioned to me that the first thing she does when she is training a young horse is to teach them to not immediately book it for the hills when something startles them, but to spook in place.

You know, basically how to keep their cool.
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