Unpredictable Fear

Unpredictable Fear

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Q. I have inherited a mare that no one wants because every once in a while she spooks and bolts, big time, without warning. No one has ever been able to figure out for sure what sets her off. But she can go from being normal one second to a serious panic the next. She spooks and takes off like she was shocked or stung by a bee.  It can happen any time, even in her pasture, at the cross ties, in a trailer, or when you're riding.

Our vet was out last week and saw her for the first time. He thought she was just a kind and gentle mare. In fact, she was at the time, as she is most of the time. I explained that this is part of the problem, and probably why so many people have tried before and why so many people have been scared or hurt trying to be patient with her.  She is just great until she freaks out. I told him we were not sure if we could keep her, and we were thinking about "putting her out of her misery."

He asked me if anyone had ever tried "sacking her out." He has never seen the procedure done, but thinks you just deliberately try to scare the horse until you wear it down, until it gets used to everything imaginable and nothing at all scares it. He suggested I talk to you about it. Can you explain how to do it and if you think it would work for this mare? If you don't think it will work, what would you do?


A. First, let me tell you what I know about the term "sacking out" a horse.  There are variations on how it might be done. In fact, in different horse disciplines and regionally in North America, "sacking out" can refer to procedures that boil down to at least three distinct behavior modification methods. In its simplest and maybe most popular meaning, "sacking out" is used to refer to a single specific step in acclimating a horse to saddling and having things on its back.  A saddle blanket, cloth, or simply a burlap sack is rubbed on the back, then moved and slung around the horse as you might sling up a saddle onto the back of a horse.  The objective is to simulate saddling and get the horse used to it before putting on the full weight of the saddle.

In behavior-learning language this would be called desensitization, or systematic desensitization.  The goal is not to scare the horse, just to familiarize it gradually with the novel stimulus.  The sack is presented gradually and respectfully, below the animal's threshold for fear or panic.  The horse could be just standing in the aisle or on cross ties, or in its box stall.  You might limit restraint so that the horse can move a bit at first, and so help keep the stimulus below the threshold for fear.

A variation of this procedure, also called "sacking out," starts with a young horse, not necessarily at saddling time, and is extended to all sorts of common stimulation with all sorts of objects all over the horse as well as sounds and sights that you would like to get the horse to accept. Most horses are very good at acclimating to just about anything by systematic desensitization. In fact, it's how they acclimate to the world on their own.  And of course, systematic desensitization is the main tool we rely upon to acclimate horses to our world and needs. It's just gradual and repeated exposure of a novel or mildly aversive stimulus until they get used to it.

What your veterinarian is likely referring to is another quite different procedure that some horsemen also know as "sacking out."  It involves a major event in which the horse is restrained while it is presented with stimuli specifically designed to frighten and overwhelm it.  The idea is that since the horse cannot escape, it might eventually stop trying, stop struggling, and maybe even stop responding at all (freezing).

This total lack of control of events on the horse's part is supposed to lead to submission and eventual calm compliance with all that man wants of him. In behavior modification terminology, this procedure most closely approximates something called flooding. In contrast to systematic desensitization, the goal in this procedure is to deliberately present fearful stimuli that normally provoke a strong reaction, even panic, with the animal unable to escape.  So some people talk about staying above the threshold for reaction in the case of flooding, as opposed to below the reaction threshold in systematic desensitization.

When they talk about "sacking out a horse," many people talk about tying the horse to a stout pole and hobbling or hog-tying him. Often, though, the restraint does not just inhibit escape;  it applies punishment instead of simple inhibition of responding.  It makes perfect sense when people complain that the struggle and injury delay the horse calming down and accepting the state of helplessness.  The horse seems to learn that the whole deal and everybody associated with it is bad.

So, not only does this method not work in those cases but the horse gets more frightened, gets ulcers, etc. I've heard stories that to avoid this scenario, there is a procedure for burying the horse in sand up to its neck, so it is immediately helpless to respond and unable to hurt itself. Some people talk about such total immediate and inescapable restraint causing immediate submission and subsequent compliance, sort of like a squeeze chute or a good hold on a cat. I have not seen the burying myself either, but would love to evaluate it critically.

Next, let me say that based on only my experience, I think that most horses with a history such as yours are not likely to benefit from any of the "sacking out" procedures.  Your mare is used to all the usual things in her life, she willingly complies with so many different things, and you don't know what scares her.  So the systematic desensitization type of sacking out is not going to help with what spooks her because you don't know what to desensitize against.

I really don't know about the "flooding" type of sacking out. I have never found anything in that direction very useful. Flooding procedures can lead to an undesirable state of depression, known as learned helplessness, in which the animal's normal behavior becomes suppressed.  All sorts of physiological and behavioral stress can result.

Over the years I have adopted a few animals such as your mare and have worked with them myself, as well as sent them to people I considered the best. Some still have not been rehabilitated--they still had seriously dangerous periodic, unpredictable episodes.  These truly frightened bolting animals are among the toughest equine behavior problems I know.

I agree with you that this type of history makes you consider euthanasia as the best strategy.  This is particularly true for cases such as your mare, where the episodes can happen when the horse is alone and otherwise undisturbed in a pasture. I am always thinking there must be a precipitating problem that we are unable to diagnose. I'm not sure most of these are behavior problems, in the sense of a learned or simple psychological problem. Sometimes I wonder if it is a sensory or pain perception problem. Unfortunately, sensation and perception are very difficult to evaluate in humans, let alone animals. Sometimes it looks like behavior associated with hallucination or panic attacks in people.

But in any case, it can't be a comfortable life for the animal if even in pasture retirement it has to go though such sincere panic from time to time. I have seen some run into fences in what looks like a state of terror. Certainly, you can't encourage anyone to keep putting people or the animal at risk by trying to use the horse.

At the risk of being flooded with mail, I'll also offer that I have become responsible for a few horses with similar histories for which I have come to the decision that peaceful euthanasia was warranted. In every case one or more people have expressed serious disappointment that we could not keep trying or would not pursue finding another home. Some have offered to make personal sacrifices to try to keep some of these sad sacks alive. I have thought about it and discussed it a lot with trusted colleagues and animal ethicists. My current thinking is that, even with today's societal concerns for trying to do everything possible not to end the life of certain animals, I'm still feeling that it's not only okay in most instances to euthanize such horses humanely, but it is the best overall decision at some point in many cases. Euthanasia can eliminate the animal's suffering and end the worry and risk for the responsible and innocent people, even if someday, somehow that individual animal could perhaps have been rehabilitated.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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