Many people believe in the practice of desensitizing a horse through a process known as “sacking out”, which involves the repeated or continual application of a pressure, usually until the horse stops visibly reacting to the pressure and often even beyond that point. While the goal is to teach the horse to be less reactive, this form of desensitizing puts the horse in a state that psychologists and animal behaviorists call “learned helplessness.” What this means is that an animal forced to endure a stressful pressure essentially gives up after a while, then doesn’t try to flee or fight a similar pressure in the future because they have learned that they have no control over what happens to them.


While there is no doubt that you can teach a horse to put up with just about any form of pressure through such techniques, I have found that horses trained in this way will often either shut down mentally (to varying degrees), or maintain a measure of internalized worry that is likely to manifest in some other way. When that unresolved worry does show up, it can come out when least expected and maybe why some horses that are supposedly calm and well-trained appear to suddenly blow up “out of the blue”.


This young gelding had been traditionally sacked out before he came to student Cindy. Though Tonka would stand very still in response to pressures like the touch of the flag, his tense posture reflected his worry. In the photo on the left, Cindy uses the lead to ask Tonka to soften, which here means to turn off and release the defensive muscles of the back. When Tonka does soften (right), resulting in a lowered head and a more relaxed expression, Cindy releases the light pressure she had on the lead, removes the flag, and offers praise.

Because my goal is to achieve a partnership based on connection and meeting the horse’s needs, I take a different approach to helping a horse learn how to deal with pressures.  Instead of teaching learned helplessness, I build the horse’s confidence by showing him that he can control virtually any stressful situation by staying mentally present with me and remaining soft in his responses. Once a horse starts to believe that he can control pressure, he becomes calmer, less reactive, and more able to listen to the requests I make of him, regardless of what is going on in the environment. 

Once a horse understands how to soften to pressures while standing, it is important to teach them that the same principles apply in motion. Here, Mentorship student Robyn’s introduction of a flag worries this green mustang while he is walking, but she is soon able to help him to think through this pressure and relax by using the lead to ask him to soften to the pressure instead of tensing. Notice the lightness with which Robyn uses the lead, maintaining the same softness in herself that she wants to convey to the horse.


Going through this training also deepens my relationship with the horse, as he learns that sticking with me makes the world a much less frightening place. Eventually, even unfamiliar pressures will not cause the horse much concern, as he trusts his own ability to handle whatever may come, especially when I am around. I believe that empowering the horse in this way, rather than forcing him to merely endure pressures he can’t escape, creates the safest, happiest, and most enjoyable equine partner.



Josh Nichol