What's New: Mule Crossing

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MULE CROSSING: Understanding the Use of Cruppers and Breeching

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By Meredith Hodges

The purpose of tack and equipment has always been to give man leverage against the equine’s resistance during training, but I believe that the equine is “talking” with his resistance and this is a cue to find another alternative to achieve harmony when something isn’t working. There is an ongoing discussion about the use of cruppers and breeching when riding mules and donkeys, and even some horses. The purpose of both is to keep the saddle from sliding forward when the equine is in motion, whether he is tracking on flat ground or going up and down hills. Inappropriate use of both devices could give the equine problems. Whether or not to use a crupper or breeching is not an either/or decision. My equines taught me that in order to make an educated decision about which to use, one needs to take into account the anatomy of the equine and the effect that each has on his body in motion during different activities.

Good conformation is important in allowing the equine to perform to the best of his ability, but the tack we use has an effect on the equine’s movement in spite of his shape. In order to obtain freedom of movement, the elements of the equine’s anatomy must be allowed to move freely through every joint of his body. Energy and blood circulation finds open tracks throughout the body and when unobstructed, will run freely from the core of the body to the extremities in a healthy equine. Core and bulk muscles that are developed symmetrically support the skeletal frame, the cartilage and ligaments that surround the joints, and the tendons that tie the skeletal frame together. All work to support the proper internal organ functions and when the equine in good posture with symmetrical strength, they are unobstructed.

Many people have approached me with questions about cruppers. Their primary concern is that the crupper can break the tail when under pressure. If there is enough pressure put on the crupper to break a tail, then the crupper should break first! When the skeletal system is adequately supported with symmetrical muscle strength and especially over the top line, the animal is better equipped to use his body efficiently, tucking his tail and using leg muscles to support his own weight while his spine remains flexed upward along the top line to support the weight of the rider. The extremities have full range of motion so he can pick each step with confidence and no obstructions. An animal with insufficient conditioning will hollow his back and neck and try to compensate for his inefficiencies in muscle conditioning and movement. When pressure is put on the crupper of an animal with inadequate muscling, there is weakness over the top line and tail that will not support heavy weight of going downhill and could possibly do damage to the spine at the dock of the tail. Just for the record, I have done lots of trail riding and three years of cross country (3 miles, up and down hills, over twenty jumps) and have always ridden with a crupper on all of my mules with nary an incident.

Breeching originates with pack and driving animals and has a distinctive purpose to keeps loads from shifting on pack animals and to provide “brakes” for those in harness. Breeching generally has a “crupper” built in with straps on both sides to attach to the saddle and help to stabilize the load. But in each case, the breeching is being used with an inanimate object that will not resist against any adjustments or corrections that the animal might make in his own body. An unbalanced rider is more difficult for the animal to balance than an inanimate load. The equine can adjust his load with his own body movements, but he cannot easily adjust a live load that works against his balance like an unbalanced rider would inadvertently do. If using a crupper, the animal has full range of motion in his body and legs with the maximum strength to back up any movement that would help to correct the rider’s position and keep him over the equine’s center of balance.

The problem with breeching on a saddle equine is in the configuration and the way it sits anatomically. When going downhill, the breeching must be snug to do its job properly and it will keep the saddle from sliding forward. However, it also compresses the biceps femoris, a large muscle in the hindquarters that functions to extend the hip and hock joints, and also causes a flexion of the stifle, and a rotation of the leg inward. When pressure is applied to this area, it restricts circulation and extension of the hind leg backwards and causes compromises in the muscles groups resulting in asymmetrical conditioning. This doesn’t pose a real pressure problem going downhill. The stifle joint is configured so it can lock when needed through a stay mechanism between the stifle and hock, but it should still have the freedom of full range of motion if it is to function properly and not get unduly locked up. When the actions in the animal’s body remain symmetrical and orderly all of the joints, including the stifle, are able to function properly. The stifle will usually get locked up only when there are chaotic and unsupported directional actions coming through the joint.

When going uphill, however, the breeching must still be snug to do its job, but the animal is not allowed full extension of the hind legs, so more pressure is put between backward motion of the femur and the breeching. This results in compromised circulation, restricted movement in the hind legs and an inability to control hind quarter foot placement. In a crupper, the animal going uphill has full extension in his hind quarters, an ability to maintain good posture and balance and this results in exact foot placement to maintain that balance comfortably and safely.

The weight and ability of the rider will determine how much pressure is put against the animal and how much resistance it will cause. Even though mules can carry proportionately more weight than a horse of the same size, this doesn’t mean you can indiscriminately weight them down until their knees are shaking. Be fair and responsible and do your part in the relationship. Do not expect the animal to carry an obviously overweight body that doesn’t know how to control itself! Participate in training activities that prepare you both, first with groundwork and later under saddle. As you learn to ride correctly and in balance, you also learn how to ride supportively and take the stress out of going uphill and downhill. You will then find the crupper much safer and more efficient when riding in all kinds of terrain…even if you are a little heavier than you should be. You and your animal will be conditioned properly and he will be able to pick his way efficiently, safely and unobstructed!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2017, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. MULE CROSSING All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Training Longears: What’s the Difference? Part 2

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In Part 1 of What’s the Difference? we began to define a few of the things that are unique to my training program. At the beginning of my career, it wasn’t long before I realized that, if I wanted to improve my skills and get a better response from my long-eared equine partners, I had to go back to the beginning, start over and pay close attention to what they needed from me at each stage of training in order to accurately perform what I was asking. When I did, lessons truly became a resistance-free, cooperative effort!

I soon realized that leading training had more value than just teaching to lead, tie and perfect technique for a showmanship class. For instance, holding the lead rope in the left hand while pointing to where I was going with the right hand, and using the right hand to maintain the position of the equine, was an important way to allow him to be responsible for his own balance with minimal interference. When I was holding the lead in my right hand, every movement of my hand caused him to have a slight loss of balance. Having the fanny pack of crimped oats strapped to my waist kept his attention on me and prevented him from forging ahead or running off entirely. Teaching the trot on the lead rope was much easier.

I soon discovered that the equine would actually measure his stride to mine when I paid attention to my own posture during leading and kept my steps and stops rhythmic and in synchronization with his. When I kept my transitions from walk to stop smooth and fluid and stopped with my feet together, so did he. When I was consistent about asking him to square up and put equal weight over all four feet at every stop, he would soon make the adjustment himself when I turned to face him. I saw an improvement in balance and strength as I kept my walking lines straight and my turns smooth, working on a gradual arc rather than abrupt turns.

When I saw the difference in the equine’s at-rest position and play patterns, it was evident to me that the muscles at the core that surround the skeletal system were becoming stronger from these passive, isometric exercises. The mind of each animal was more alert and tuned into our tasks, and there was no real incidence of disobedience when I did my part correctly. In the quest to improve their strength and balance, I improved my own substantially.

On the obstacle course, the task is first to instill confidence and trust. When you lead, and use the crimped oats reward, it alleviates fear in the equine and gives them the motivation to explore. Over time, he begins to trust your judgment. When you put obstacles in comfort zones where they eat and rest, it will create anxiety instead of instilling confidence. In my estimation, equines aren’t really afraid of the obstacles themselves. It’s just a fear of being trapped or hurt.

But there is further value in obstacle training on the lead rope. With flatwork leading training, you have cultivated strength and balance in the equine at the core and are now ready to add coordination. Once the equine has learned to negotiate the obstacles without fear, he is then ready to go back through the obstacles and learn coordination by breaking these obstacles down into much smaller steps.

At each obstacle, approach, stop and square up in front of each obstacle. Then ask for the front feet to be placed into the obstacle, stop and square up. Then ask that all four feet be placed into the obstacle, stop and square up. Then ask for the two front feet to exit the obstacle, leave the hind feet within the obstacle, stop and square up. Then exit the obstacle, stop and square up once more before leaving the obstacle.

This approach teaches the equine to stop and rebalance at every new position throughout the obstacle. It builds body awareness as well as adding coordination. You will see that they are not really as balanced as you might think when you ask them to put the two front feet off the far side of the bridge while leaving the hind feet on the bridge. The equine will generally try to keep going forward, or the hind end will pass the front end as it falls off the bridge. When he is capable of doing so, he will be able to hold the position, but you might have to provide assistance the first few times in this awkward position.

You will soon discover after this kind of training that you no longer get your feet stepped on, and that they will avoid stepping on hoses during baths, or cords during clipping. They are truly more able to effectively balance their own bodies. And when you begin lunging in the round pen, the equine is better able to comply with your wishes to balance correctly on the circle at walk and trot. Movement will be more rhythmic with smooth and fluid transitions.

When allowed to freely move in the round pen at walk and trot, the animal who has had the benefit of detailed leading training will exhibit better balance than the one who has not. When he canters, the unbalanced equine will want to raise his head, and hollow his neck and back in varying degrees. In order for him to continue to build muscle in the correct frame, I use an aid I developed called the “Elbow Pull” to help maintain good posture and balance. I was first introduced to this concept by Richard Shrake. If the equine is allowed to exercise with the head and neck raised, he would build muscle out of good equine posture. That would need to be corrected later, and would cause disobedience during the lessons due to soreness, especially if done with a rider on his back. Strengthening the equine body in the correct posture first with the “Elbow Pull” and without the rider will prevent this problem. In addition, with this device, the equine will be started in a snaffle bit with the desired direct rein communication and will learn to be submissive and light in the bridle.

This originally disturbed the Dressage community until I was able to explain its function. This is a self-correcting aid for the equine. It does not force him to keep his head down. Rather, it simply does not allow him to raise his head too high and invert his neck and back. He is free to raise his head, but if too high, it puts pressure on the poll, on the bit, behind the forearms and over the back. It suggests that he lower his head and stretch the muscles across the entire top line in correct vertical flexion. When he is in good posture, all pressure is released and muscle is built symmetrically throughout the entire body in balance and good posture.

When doing exercise in the round pen, if verbal cues and rewards are consistent, your equine actually learns verbal communication in conjunction with body language and his understanding will increase much like a child’s does in grammar school. Equines may not be able to speak English, but they can certainly learn to understand it. Being in good posture will begin to facilitate correct lateral bend to his body and build those muscles in correct posture. He will offer the canter when he is strong enough, so forcing canter is not necessary. Turning him into the fence for the reverse will set him up for the correct diagonal at trot and the correct lead at canter allowing him to make transitions easily and smoothly.

When the equine’s body is developed properly, he will be strong enough and will have the necessary control of his own body to handle the added shifting weight of the rider. Most equines struggle with their own awkwardness and before they get control of their own bodies, they are asked to deal with the awkwardness of the rider at the same time. This often results in perceived disobedience. The equine that is stable in his core muscles and body carriage will be better able to help the rider maintain and improve his own balance and control. Bucking and bolting cease to be a problem.

Learning certain moves is easy and takes much less time, but for maximum performance there is no substitute for taking the time to properly build and condition the muscles that will support your equine’s good postural frame. If you are willing to put in the time and effort necessary, the result will be an animal that is happy and comfortable in his work, light in the bridle and a beautiful mover. Your relationship and performance will soar to unimaginable levels!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Training Longears: What’s the Difference? Part 1

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By Meredith Hodges

At first glance, it seems those of us who train equines have very similar methods. This is not unusual considering we build our programs on time tested techniques and only make changes in approach when certain things are not working well. We often begin to interact with equines at a very young age and are the product of what we learn from others, and from our own mistakes. The things we learn shape our attitude and approach to riding equines, and riding is first and foremost in our minds right from the beginning. Growing up, we rarely hear anything about groundwork training and when we do, we don’t usually want to spend too much time with it.

Our youthful exposure is limited to the equine trend of the decade and popular breeds of horses unless we are fortunate enough to be the son, daughter or friend of a diverse trainer…and the first thing most people learn about mules is usually negative. Mules have taught me to be kind, respectful, patient and logical in my approach to elicit the best response. When problems arise, I don’t need to fix them, only myself! And when I do, they do the right thing.

When working with horses, we get away with shortcuts in training because the horse is more easily manipulated than the mule or donkey. After training horses for many years before riding Longears I really thought I knew how to ride and train. Much to my chagrin, my introduction to mules showed me just how much more I had to learn to be a truly competent and humane equestrian! I could get a lot from mules and donkeys with horse training techniques, but they did not seem to be as energetic, engaged and consistent. As the level of difficulty increased, I got less and less compliance with my “horse” approach and in time, I was truly humbled! I knew I had to modify my techniques!

I realized that if I wanted to improve my skills and get a better response from my long-eared equine partners, I had to go back to the beginning, start over and pay closer attention to what they needed from me in order to do what I asked. They say there are multiple ways available to the same end, which is true, but what I discovered in my years of training mules and donkeys is that there really is only one BEST way for the best results…their way! This applies to all my equines though my horses tend to be less confident and assertive than the Longears.

Training begins with nutrition and the way your equine is fed. An equine that is fed at a specific time each day is far less stressed than those with inconsistent feeding times and will learn easier. What you feed and how is critical. Equines should be fed in stalls and runs, or in dirt pens and then have monitored turnout times during the day for good health. There are various feeds today designed for the performance equine, researched by scientists in laboratories who seldom see the long-term results of these feeds. These feeds often produce faster growth and give the young equine an appearance of adulthood. When they are not allowed to grow at their natural pace (phases that often make them look awkward and gangly) the bones grow too fast and do not have the chance to harden the way they should.

For optimum bone growth, they need to grow a little and be stressed for awhile before the next burst of growth to become hard. The most obvious example of this can be witnessed in yearling halter classes at today’s shows. Equines used to exhibit very high haunches and low withers as yearlings, lacked muscle tone and were quite awkward looking. They did eventually evolve into beautiful animals, but it took time. These days, you generally see what appears to be a young, but very adult-looking horse with relatively even growth front and back and unusual muscle tone. As they age, bones and soft tissue are not as easily sustained, they become arthritic or have other old-age problems and their longevity of use is compromised. Those equines whose growth has not been artificially accelerated tend to do better and live longer.

Many of today’s feeds can cause hypertension, an inability to concentrate on their job and more frequent occurrences of colic and founder. This is why we feed a crimped oats mixture and good quality grass hay only. Any elaborated products and alfalfa hay can create problems later.

Why feed the oats in the evening? In the spring, your equines should be introduced to new pasture grass slowly. This means you feed in a dry area or small pen and let them out for limited periods of time. For instance, if they were going to be fed at 5P.M., you would only let them out at 3-4P.M. to start. When they know they will have oats, they will come back much easier.

Can I leave my longears on pasture? The answer is no, you really shouldn’t. Donkeys are desert animals and can subsist on practically nothing. The mule is half donkey and has the same trait. If left on pasture, Longears gain weight quickly that can lead to obesity and eventually colic or founder. This is also true of horses that are easy keepers. It’s better to be safe than sorry and monitor feeding more carefully. This includes where you place their feed. If multiple animals are together in a dry pen, use feed buckets or pans and keep them at least 16 feet apart to avoid fighting and possible injury. Don’t feed on the ground. Keep hay in bunks, racks or over matted or other clean, hard surface areas to minimize ingestion of sand and dirt.

What do I use for rewards during training? I wear a fanny pack of crimped oats and dispense them as rewards. Crimped oats are healthy, they get the additional energy they need while they are working and above all else, they will not get sated on them like they will on carrots, apples, horse treats, etc. Diversity in the rewards will cause diversity in their behavioral responses. I strive for confidence, obedience and consistency in my equines.

What if he becomes aggressive toward the rewards? Isn’t it better to avoid this by no food rewards? The equine will give you his best if he is “paid well.” Good behaviors that are rewarded with a food reward will be more likely to be repeated. There is a very specific correction for those who become too aggressive for the oats: Say “No” very loudly. Use the flat of your hand with a well-placed slap on the side of the mouth and put your hand in front of his face like a stop sign. He will fling his head up and to the side to avoid you and start to step back at which time you take oats from the fanny pack, quickly step forward and offer the reward while saying “Thank you for giving me my space.” The next time he tests you, you will only need to put your hand up like a stop sign and say “No!” He will then step back and wait for his reward.

The equine that receives food rewards will not only offer more during training, but he will learn how to take things from a human’s hand safely. When they are regularly given rewards, equines learn how to be gentle and careful about receiving those rewards. They will avoid biting down on your hand or fingers. Those who do not get this practice are more apt to accidently bite your fingers…or the fingers of some poor unsuspecting person who naively wanted to stop and feed your animal.

What is the difference between my methods and Clicker Training? Both are based on Behavior Modification where good behaviors are rewarded and the reward used is the same healthy crimped oats that they are normally fed. Clicker Training lets the animal know by the clicker that a reward is coming before the reward is dispensed. You might use the same reward, but using your voice instead of the clicker is much more personal and communicative.

I prefer to use my voice because it is far more enticing and engaging. If you learn how to respond verbally to your equine’s good and bad behaviors instead of using a device, you will invite an intimate bond between you that is more mutually satisfying. Over time, the verbal language will continue to grow from short commands to actual conversations, very much like children learn language. Equines may not be able to learn to speak English, but if you are a good listener, calculated and consistent in your approach, they can certainly learn to understand it!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Little Jack Horner

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By Meredith Hodges


Little Jack Horner
, 13 HH Sire-Supreme of the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, was the last jack born at the famed Windy Valley Ranch in Healdsburg, California owned by my mother, Joyce Doty. He was foaled June 11, 1980, by the renowned Windy Valley Adam (14.2 HH) and out of Windy Valley Maude (15 HH). His ancestry can be traced back to the original breeding stock of George Washington’s farm at Mount Vernon, Virginia. 

In 1984 and 1985, Little Jack Horner captured second place in the Bishop Mule Days World Show Halter class for Standard Jacks. His impeccable show record consists of first and second place standings at Halter in his home state of Colorado, and in 1986, he placed first at Halter in the American Donkey and Mule Society Registered Jacks class at the A.D.M.S. Nationals in Dallas, Texas. 

In 1984, he made his debut in performance at the Colorado Classic Horse Show, placing first in Donkey Driving and Donkey Pleasure. His willing disposition held him in good stead, placing him first in Donkey Pleasure and Donkey Driving at Bishop Mule Days in 1989. Little Jack Horner (by his own enthusiastic request via running the fence) was trained in Dressage and Jumping along with his numerous offspring mules. He reached Second Level Dressage over three years and jumped four feet in exhibition at Bishop Mule Days in 1991 where he received a Specialty Award for his efforts. At Bishop Mule Days in 1993, he placed first in Donkey Pleasure, Donkey Pole Bending and Donkey Keyhole.

Although Dressage proved difficult (as it would be for any donkey), it helped to set the stage for his incredible athletic ability to jump. He soared over fences to 4’6” without a rider and worked up to 4’ with the rider on board. In keeping with traditional Dressage, Little Jack Horner worked on a Pas de Deux in Jumping with another Colorado Standard Jack, Blue Zebulon owned by Fran & Larry Howe of the Bitterroot Mule Company. Those who know the difficulty of working jacks together at all will appreciate their unique dispositions and good manners! Little Jack Horner proved himself to be not only a well-conformed breeding jack, but also a true athlete! He was inducted into the Bishop Mule Days Hall of Fame in May of 2014. 

As a breeding jack, Little Jack Horner produced some of the finest saddle mules in the world. Consistently, his genetic makeup was responsible for extremely attractive heads, refined straight legs and good angles in the hip and shoulder of his offspring mules and donkeys. In addition, these mules and donkeys reflected a smooth flowing topline, with depth of girth and a good length of neck for overall balance and beauty. Little Jack Horner’s mule and donkey offspring generally grew to the mare’s (or jennet’s) height or 2 inches taller despite L.J.’s own smaller size.

Lucky Three Firestorm never lost a Halter class and was an all-around English Champion Arabian mule.

It didn’t seem to matter with what breed of mare or jennet he was bred. His superior qualities shone through in his offspring, giving the mules an appearance more like really nice looking horses (and donkeys!), only with longer ears! 

Not only did Little Jack Horner seem to improve on the characteristics of the mares with which he was bred, but also with the jennets as well. At Lucky Three Ranch, we endeavored to produce a Mammoth Donkey with these same refined characteristics as Mammoth’s typically have a lot of thick bone in the joints and in their faces which I wished to refine. Little Jack Horner sired two jennets, Lucky Three Pantera and Lucky Three Serendipity, who indeed retained his refinement within a much larger frame. Pantera, as a two-year-old gray jennet, stood at 14.3 hands and Serendipity as a yearling, stood 13 hands, the very same height as her sire. Pantera matured to 15.2 hands and Serendipity matured to 14 hands. When we bred the daughters back to Blue Zebulon from the Bitterroot Mule Company, the offspring jacks did indeed retain Little Jack Horner’s refinement with no unsightly boniness in the heads and joints. His offspring were most often taller than both the mare and sire. Little Jack Horner proved time and time again that the jack is indeed responsible for the shape and thickness of bone, and not necessarily for the overall height of the offspring. 

Be it donkey or mule, Little Jack Horner’s offspring always placed at the top of the Halter classes in the early shows and in the top five when they began competing in performance classes. 

In January of 1989 at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, Little Jack Horner and nine of his offspring, both mules and donkeys, made a clean sweep at the show and won everything in every class in which they were entered. 

Appaloosa mule, Lucky Three Ciji never lost a Halter class, placed in the top five in the Western Performance divisions at multiple shows across the country and was a Side Saddle Champion, and Reserve Champion the following year, against horses in the International Side Saddle Organization. 

Appaloosa mule, Lucky Three Eclipse won the Bishop Mule Days Champion Warm-Up Hunter class in 2000. At the Lucky Three Ranch in 2017, we still have multiple Little Jack Horner offspring from various horse breeds (Appaloosa, American Quarter Horse, Arabian, Thoroughbred and Paint) including one Warm Blood mule bred from a Trakehner mare that I acquired for the expressed purpose of doing Dressage due their their extraordinary movement. Little Jack Horner’s offspring here at the ranch are all healthy and are still being used for ranch work, even though most of them are well over twenty-five years of age, and some are thirty years and over.

When I said good night to Little Jack Horner one chilly fall evening on October 5, 2014, I noticed that he was unusually calm and serene. He stood motionless with a colorful rainbow arched over his pen showering him in a surrealistic light as the sun began to set behind the Rocky Mountains that he loved. Little Jack Horner passed away quietly that night at the age of 34 years, but his legacy remains.

He set the bar exceptionally high for Longears everywhere and because he did, the interest in mules and donkeys has increased exponentially over the past 40 years. The old myths about donkeys and mules being stubborn and hard to work with are being laid to rest because of his efforts. What he taught me will go down in history to become my legacy as well. His story and that of his offspring needed to be told, so I documented everything I learned from them to pass on to future generations. I was very blessed to be the steward of such an extraordinary individual and to be able to go forward as the keeper of his children. He was a very special donkey for a very special time!

Little Jack Horner has left quite a legacy! It does my heart good to see how the quality of mule and donkeys has improved exponentially over the years with foundation sires such as Little Jack Horner and…

 Black Bart, bred by Sybil Sewell from the famed Windy Ridge Farm in Canada and owned by Don and Irma Mode of Oregon. Mules, once bred from culled mares, are now being bred from the best! Through more careful donkey selection, they have also improved substantially in conformation and have thereby produced incredible breeding jacks and jennets for the future!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

© 1988, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved

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MULE CROSSING: Understanding Behavior Modification

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By Meredith Hodges

When people think of Behavior Modification, most people think of the most basic idea of rewarding good behaviors with treats, which is called positive reinforcement. A common misconception is that if the positive behaviors are rewarded, then negative behaviors should not occur, but in reality, they do. Negative behaviors need to be negatively reinforced, but negative reinforcement should not be abusive. Learning how to employ Behavior Modification can be easy and fun.

Scientifically speaking, Behavior Modification is a direct and literal translation of stimulus and response. Given a certain stimulus, a living being will respond in a predictable manner. This is the essence of communication. Communication is comprised of a lot of elements that all play an important part in the receiver’s ability to understand. When trying to communicate, one needs to realize the many different perceptions that can arise from the receiver’s ability to comprehend. They may perceive from a purely technical level, a scientific level, an emotional level, a physical level, or any combination of a multitude of perceptions depending on their life experience. It is the same for all living creatures. Finding the right stimulus for each individual and implementing it properly is the key to good communication and a satisfying response.

When using Behavior Modification, one needs to take into account all the things that can make that individual a comfortable and happy individual. In the case of equines, we need to take into account the feeding and nutritional programs we use. Certain feeds can actually cause problems like nervousness, anxiety and hypertension that result in an inability to be calm and receptive to incoming information. From this evolves negative behaviors that further block the learning process.

In addition to feeds and nutrition, we need to take into account the anatomical ramifications of the way we are physically conditioning the animal. The healthiest way to condition an animal is slowly, and in an order that builds muscles layer by layer, beginning with core muscles. If you take the time and effort to approach training in that way, it promotes healthy organ function and a happy mental attitude. When doing this, one should allow the animal to perform freely, without constraint. When they feel good physically, they are more than halfway to a good mental attitude. A program of physical exercise that is taxing and stressful may produce the appearance of the right results, but there are deeper problems that can surface at a later date.

This is easy for natural athletes, but as I said, we are dealing with individuals. Not all individuals are physically able to carry their bodies in good equine posture and perform athletic movements correctly without guidance. When they do not carry themselves in the correct posture, certain muscle groups are not conditioned symmetrically throughout the body, causing compensation from other muscle groups that will eventually become over stressed and will give way to soreness, lameness or worse. The uncomfortable individual will begin to exhibit negative behaviors.

Herein lays the value of using certain kinds of restraints, such as the “Elbow Pull” that we use in DVD #2 of my resistance-free training series. This restraint is used to keep the equine in good posture while exercising, so that all muscle groups are worked symmetrically throughout the body. Of course, it is the trainer’s responsibility to make sure that they are also worked evenly on both sides of the body, forward and backward, since the restraint is only addressing the posture and not the directional movement of the muscles. The “Elbow Pull” is not in the hands of the trainer, but rather a self-correcting device so that the animal himself makes the corrections toward good posture during basic foundation work. An animal that does not have naturally good posture will soon give to the device because he will feel more comfortable than he has ever been in the incorrect posture. Restraints play an important role in the hands of competent trainers, but they should only be used to “suggest” certain behaviors, and then should be “faded or phased out” over time.

There are certain individuals who are not all that coordinated and have difficulty attaining balance in good equine posture. For this reason, it is important to start slow and gradually ask for more speed and more difficult movements only as they are able to perform. First, the equine’s balance needs to be attained at the slower gaits and with simple movements in order for the coordination to become repetitive, habitual and comfortable. This not only pertains to the animal in training, but to the trainer as well.

Verbal communication is not exclusively for the animal to learn commands. It has a two-fold purpose. For the animal, it is a way for the animal to understand what the trainer is asking when the body language is unclear. For the trainer, it is a reminder to synchronize his own body language with what he is asking from the animal so his signals are clear. This is especially important for novice trainers and animals.

In Behavior Modification, we use the animal’s natural instincts and movement to assimilate the things we wish them to do so that they can be rewarded. The reward needs to be something for which the animal is willing to work for long periods of time, something of which he will never tire and something that will not cause adverse, negative behaviors. In the case of equines, this is crimped oats. Equines that are “overindulged” or bribed will not respond the same way.

Horses have a very strong flight reflex, donkeys have a strong freeze reflex, and mules are a combination of both. All three have a strong sense of self-preservation that drives their behaviors. If you want to have an equine that enjoys his work, it is important to bolster his confidence and trust in you. This requires setting up the training environment in a safe and non-threatening manner. For instance, if you begin training a foal, or have a new equine, it would be practical to approach the animal at a time when the flight reflex is at its lowest…feeding time!

Of course, this is only practical when it comes to imprinting, haltering and simple tasks like brushing and picking up the feet. This also sets up the foundation for reward system training. When he has finished his oats mix, he will be happy to know there is an easy way to get a little bit more and will appreciate, perform and bond to the person who gives it. Chasing the equine is not an option at any time. We want him to want to come to us of his own free will. When this is done correctly, you should never have to chase your animal to catch him. He will always look forward to being with you.

During this time, your equine’s ground manners will begin to develop. If you are consistent with what you ask and the rewards are promptly and appropriately given, you should experience minimal adverse behaviors.

As he gains confidence, it is the equine’s natural instinct to become playful. In this controlled environment, you are able to set limits to these negative behaviors in the form of non-abusive punishment. The most common expression of playfulness is to turn, buck, and kick at the trainer. If a foal does this, you would simply give him a smart slap to the rump, step back and say, “No!” He might be startled, but he will turn and look at you, displaying curiosity, and when he does, you would say, “Good boy (or girl),” and then offer a reward (for paying attention) and give it to him when he approaches again. We want to encourage this curiosity.

If an adult equine turns his haunches to you and threatens to kick, you would say “No,” and use a whip (as an extension of your arm), and strike him smartly on the fetlocks only once for each kick, pausing afterwards to give him a chance to turn his head to you so you can then offer the reward the same way as you would with the foal. The strike of the whip on the fetlocks will not hurt him. It will only startle him, as will your voice when you say, “No,” and will cause a behavior in him (the turning of his head to you) that can be rewarded. Biting is handled the same way with a slap of the hand smartly to the side of the mouth, a loud “NO!” and then put your hand up like a stop sign in front of his face. He will then raise and turn his head to flee at which time you simply step forward and offer the oats reward for giving you your space. The next time he becomes aggressive (and he will), you will only have to put up you hand as the stop sign and he should step back to receive his reward. The first-time slap applied smartly was simply to clearly set boundaries. So, if you do not want to slap him again, it must make an impression the first time. It is well worth the few minutes of training that it takes in the beginning to assure that your animal will not become dangerous later. This may literally make the difference between life and death.

The result of this early limiting of the negative behaviors of biting and kicking will pave the way for you to set boundaries to any other bad behaviors that may arise in the future with a raising of the hand and a firm, “No.” It teaches the equine to think before he acts, and in the case of mules, it might mean the difference between a real bite and a soft nudge, or a kick and a soft shove with the hind foot if he experiences discomfort. Early negotiation of obstacles on the lead line will also help to engage his curiosity, help to solidify his responses for reward, passively build and condition muscles closest to the bone, and will encourage trust in the trainer. Now we can safely proceed to a more open area to play and learn with our equine.

In the round pen, we will begin to use the flight reflex as a platform for reward. The equine is already comfortable with you and knows you mean him no real harm. In the round pen, he may be averse to circling and may want to just stand. If he does, raise the whip and strike the ground behind him, or even his rump. If he still won’t move, back up, lower your body and shuffle your feet on the ground as you approach again, and he should take off. If he is the type to take off alone, just stand in the middle and wait until he slows and stops. When he does, say “Whoa,” and offer the reward.

The same goes for the equine that had problems getting started. Send him back to the rail again and build the number of rotations slowly and over time, being consistent with your rewards for the “Whoa.”  Learning a consistent “Whoa” will give you a safe zone from which to work and play. This will translate to trust and confidence, and will temper the flight reflex to a controllable level. It can make the difference between freeze and flight reflex if they are spooked under saddle.

The equine that is brought along with this kind of training will pause and give his attention to the rider for guidance before reacting to a “spook.” Any bucking and kicking while circling in the round pen should be ignored and the reward should be postponed until he has regained his composure and has done what was expected. Bucking and kicking should be allowed because many times it is merely a moment of confusion, or the need for a physical adjustment on the part of the equine at this stage of training. It is rarely an exhibition of meanness. Once they sort this all out, they will want to be with you and will use their good manners because it is the best place to be!

Whether they realize it or not, most trainers use some form of Behavior Modification in their training programs. There is so much to learn about communication to achieve balance and harmony that one person could not possibly know it all. For this reason, it is important to know and appreciate the work of others who are giving of their knowledge and assess the techniques they offer that might fit in your training program. As they say, “You can learn something from everyone.” It is our job to sort through what only works for the short term and what really works best for long term success. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s just another way to learn. The more we know, the more we learn that there is so much more to learn.

Behavior Modification is an ongoing, careful balance of communication between living creatures. It works because both parties opt to listen and learn from each other. At each stage, there are tasks to perform that need to be balanced and refined by both the trainer and the trainee. Behavior Modification is not controlling. Rather, it is a guidance system by which positive behaviors are rewarded and thus, more likely to be repeated and become habitual. The parties involved are both rewarded each time they are together because each time they are together, they learn a little more about each other in an enjoyable and appreciative manner.

Over time, with practice and this kind of understanding comes harmony and mutually satisfying performance. In the beginning, it may seem overly simple, but as you practice and learn more, your proficiency will increase gradually over time, and the results you will witness are amazing! This is why Behavior Modification is so successful not only with people and equines, but is also the method of choice in the training and treatment of zoo animals and aquatic mammals.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2005, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: The Equine in Motion

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By Meredith Hodges

I have done extensive work in training equines for many years and it seems you can never learn enough. If you learn how to ask the right questions, there is always something more to learn just around the corner. It is no secret that things can happen when you push limits and you can get what might seem to be the right results, but then you have to ask yourself…really? You may, for instance get your young Reining prospect to do a spin, but then you should ask yourself if he is executing it correctly so as not to injure the ligaments, tendons and cartilage in his body. If he is not adequately prepared for the spin with exercises that address his core muscle strength and good posture, then he is likely to do the movement incorrectly, putting his body at risk.

Horse trainers have kept us in awe of their unique and significant talents for centuries, and now that their techniques are more public, many equine professionals will pooh-pooh those who attempt a “kinder” approach to training. Scientists who study the equine in motion—its nutrition, biomechanics, care and maintenance—have   their own perceptions to offer as to what we can learn about equines. Because many of these studies and tests are done in the laboratory, scientists rarely have the opportunity to follow their subjects throughout a lifetime of activity, as well as having the opportunity to experience what it really means for you as a rider, to be in balance with your equine when you work together, whether you are leading, lunging, riding or driving. If they did, their findings would probably yield quite different results. With all this progressive scientific thought, it seems to me that common sense can often get lost in the shuffle and respect for the living creature’s physical, mental and emotional needs may not be met.

It is true that bribery never really works with an equine, and many people who attempt the “kind” approach do get caught up with bribery because they are unskilled at identifying good behaviors and waiting to reward until the task is performed. However, reinforcement of positive behaviors with a food reward does work if you can figure out how to adhere to the program, and be clear and consistent in how you behave and what you expect. In order to do this, you need to really pay attention to the whole equine, have a definite exercise program that has been proven to work in developing the equine’s good posture and strength, and be willing to work on yourself as well as your equine. A good program for your equine will require that you actively participate in the exercises as well. That way, you will also benefit while you are training your equine.

People feel better when they pay attention to their diet and are aware of their posture while practicing physical activities—and, in the same respect, an equine will perform willingly and happily if he feels good.  Horses have as many different postures as do people, and there are generalized postures that you can easily notice and predict in specific breeds of horses. For instance, the American Saddlebred has a higher body carriage than that of the Quarter Horse. However, each individual within any breed is not naturally born in good posture and might need some help to get in good posture in order to exercise correctly.

There are varying levels of abuse and most abuse happens out of ignorance. Many training techniques appear to get the equine to do what you want, but the question then becomes, “How is he doing this and will it result in a good strong body or is it in opposition to what would be his best posture and condition?” Any time you take the equine out of good posture to accomplish certain maneuvers, you are abusing his body, and this can result, over time, in degenerative breakdown. For instance, those who get in a hurry in Dressage and do not take a full year at each level in order to develop their equine’s body slowly and methodically may discover, several years later, that their animal has developed ringbone, side bones, arthritis or some other internal malady. These types of injuries and malformations are often not outwardly exhibited until it is too late to do anything about them.

In my experience with my draft mule rescues, Rock and Roll, this became blatantly apparent to me. When Rock had to be euthanized in December of 2011, a necropsy was performed after his death. When the necropsy report came back and we were able to ascertain the long-term results of his years of abuse, neglect and bad posture, we found it a wonder that he was able to get up and down at all, much less rear up and play with Roll and trot over ground rails in balance.

His acetabulum (or hip socket) had multiple fractures. The upper left photo shows Rock’s normal acetabulum and the upper right photo shows Rock’s fractured acetabulum. The photo at right shows the head of each of Rock’s femurs. Rock’s left femoral head was normal, while the right, injured femoral head was virtually detached from the hip socket and contained fluid-filled cysts. There was virtually no cartilage left on the right femoral head, nor on the right acetabulum. It was the very fact that my team and I made sure that Rock was in balance and took things slowly and in a natural sequence that he was able to accomplish what he did and gain himself an extra year of quality life.

Tragically, many equines are suffering from abuse every day, while they are trying to please their owners and do what is asked of them. Their owners and trainers take shortcuts that compromise the equine’s health. It could be that these owners and trainers are trying to make choices with limited knowledge and really don’t know whom to believe. But ignorance is not a valid defense and sadly, the animal is the one that ends up suffering.

When they don’t have enough time to ride, racing stables often use hot walkers in order to exercise their Thoroughbred horses. But when an equine is put on a hot walker, he is forced to walk in a circle with his head raised and his neck and back hollowed. Since we all build muscle while in motion, muscle is being built on the hot walker while the equine is out of good posture. Consequently, when the equine is ridden later, bad behaviors can arise simply because the animal is uncomfortable. It would be better to develop core muscle strength (the strength around the bones and vital organs) first in good posture before developing hard muscle strength over the rest of the body. Core muscle strength takes time, but once the animal begins to automatically move in good posture, it becomes his natural way of going.

The Lucky Three mules have always been worked in good posture, and spend only as much time on the hot walker as it takes for them to dry after a bath. They maintain their good posture while walking and rarely let the hot walker “pull” them into bad posture.

There has been a lot of scientific research done on equine biomechanics using treadmills, which is one of my pet peeves. It would seem to me that any data scientists have gathered is not viable for one reason. An equine on a treadmill will not move the same way as an equine that is moving over ground. Have you ever had the ground move backwards underneath you? What kind of an effect do you think this would have on your ability to walk, trot or run correctly and in good posture? The very motion of the treadmill throws the body balance forward while you try to keep your balance upright. It actually interferes with the ability to balance easily and therefore, does not build muscle symmetrically and correctly around the skeletal structure and vital organs.

Like many, I am of the belief that mechanical devices that force an equine into a rounded position do not necessarily put that equine in good posture. I would guess that many trainers think the “Elbow Pull” device that I use is guilty of developing this artificial posture. If that is their opinion, then they do not understand how it works. Rather than pulling the equine’s head down into a submissive position, when adjusted correctly, the “Elbow Pull” acts like a balance bar (like a ballet dancer would use) to help the equine to balance in good posture. It takes time to develop good posture. So, in the beginning, your equine can only sustain good posture for a certain number of measured steps, and then he must “lean” on the “Elbow Pull” in between these moments of sustaining his ideal balance on his own. The “Elbow Pull” simply prevents him from raising his head and neck so high that the neck becomes inverted and the back hollowed, but it does not actually pull his head down. The rope itself is very lightweight and puts virtually no weight on his head and neck at all. Note: Because horses react differently than mules and donkeys when hard-tied, a simple adjustment to allow the “Elbow Pull” to “slip” with a horse is necessary.

Like humans, when equines are encouraged and aided in developing good equine posture, core strength with adequate bulk muscle built over the top, they are healthier and better able to perform the tasks we ask of them. With this in mind and other good maintenance practices, you can enjoy the company of your equine companion for many years to come and most of all, he will enjoy being with you!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Rewards, Treats, Coaxing and Bribing

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By Meredith Hodges

It is important to know the differences among rewards, treats, coaxing and bribing in order to correctly employ the reward system of training called Behavior Modification.

Rule Number One: Treats and bribery should never be used during training. However, the appropriate dispensing of rewards and coaxing will produce the correct behaviors.

In order to reward your equine correctly for performing tasks, it is important to know the difference between a reward and a treat, and between coaxing and bribing. Let’s begin with some basic definitions of these terms:

Reward: something desirable given for a completed task

Treat: an unexpected gift given simply because it will be enjoyed

Coax: to gently persuade without dispensing the reward

Bribe: to persuade the animal by indiscriminately dispensing treats

Remember to give your equine a reward only after a specific task you’ve asked for has been performed—or even an assimilation of that task, which means the taking of baby steps toward completing the task. The reward should be given immediately upon completion of the task and then your equine should be allowed time to enjoy his reward before moving on to the next task. If your equine is given a food reward for only good behaviors, he will be more likely to continue to repeat only those behaviors for which he is rewarded and you can begin to “shape” his behavior in a positive way.

Treats, on the other hand, are a food that your equine especially likes, which are given randomly and without purpose. Giving random treats during training can result in crossed signals and confusion in your animal. Treats such as peppermints and even “horse treats” are generally an inappropriate food source for equines and when dispensed too freely, have actually been known to cause equine health problems, so forego treats of any kind during the training process.

Coaxing and bribing can seem like the same thing, but they are not. Bribery suggests the actual dispensing of a reward before the task has been completed. Bribery is the indiscriminate dispensing of treats and is not the way to clearly communicate to your equine which is truly a positive behavior and which is not. Rewards and coaxing are often confused with bribery, but rewards are dispensed for a task only when it has been completed, and coaxing using the promise of a reward can often be used to help your equine to stop balking and attempt to perform the task you have requested. Then the reward is given only when he has completed the task.

As an example of coaxing, you can extend a handful of crimped oats to lure your equine closer to an obstacle, but he should not receive the handful of oats until he completes the required task or travels enough distance toward the obstacle to deserve a reward. If your equine just won’t come all the way to an obstacle, even to get a reward, you can modify the task by asking your equine to just come closer to the obstacle and then halt (but without backing up). Then the reward can be dispensed for the partial approach and halt, because these actions still qualify as an assimilation of the bigger task that is to be completed. If he backs away at all, he should not be rewarded and you will have to go back to the beginning of the task and try again.

A kind word or a pat on the head may be enjoyable for your equine, but it doesn’t necessarily insure that the desired behavior will be repeated. However, a food reward insures that desirable behaviors will be repeated, because food is a solid, tangible reward. The food reward will back up the petting, (the petting is something that you probably do all the time anyway). When you visit your equine, you most likely pat him on the nose or head and say hello, but there are no real demands for any particular task being asked of your equine—you and your equine are simply interacting. You’re getting him used to touch, discovering how he likes to be touched and learning about his responses, which is actually part of imprinting.

The problem with carrots, apples and other foods people use for treats is that they’re not something for which the equine will continue to work and are not healthy choices for your animal in large quantities. After a limited amount of time, equines can easily become satiated on most treats. It’s like a kid with a bunch of candy bars. Once they become full they don’t want any more candy and they’ll stop working for the treat. Many foods used as treats, when given too freely, may also cause your animal to become tense or hyperactive. However, it’s been my experience that an equine will continue to work for crimped oats as long as you dole them out. Crimped oats are healthy for the body and they don’t cause an equine to become tense and difficult to handle.

When you’re using rewards, always start with lavish rewards for all new behaviors. This means that, every time you teach something new, you’re going to give lavish rewards for even the slightest assimilation toward the correct behavior. For instance, if your foal is tied to the fence and upon your approach, he quits pulling, it’s time to try to walk away from the fence with him and see if he will follow you. In this first leading lesson, you’ll untie him and ask him to take a step toward you. If he does, lavishly reward that step toward you, wait for him to finish chewing his oats and then ask him to take another step forward and toward you. If he complies and takes another step forward, lavishly reward that step too. During the first lesson, you will be rewarding every single step he takes toward you. Remember to keep the lesson short (about 15 minutes) and ask for only as many steps as he willingly gives you.

Between lessons, let your equine have a day off in order to rest. When you return for the second lesson, tie him to the fence and review with him your last lesson from the very beginning. He should remember the previous lessons and be willing to follow you right away in order to be rewarded. If he seems willing to follow your lead, untie him and ask him to take a step forward just as he did before, but this time, instead of dispensing the food reward when he takes the first step forward, simply say, “Good boy” and ask him for a second step forward before you reward him with the oats. You will now be progressing from one step forward before you reward to two steps forward before you reward.

If he won’t take the second step forward, then give the reward for the first step, wait for him to finish chewing and ask again for two steps before rewarding him again. If he complies, you can then reward him every two steps during that lesson and quit after fifteen minutes. Give him another day between lessons and then proceed in the same manner, beginning with a review of the previous lesson, then a reward for the first step, and then for every two steps. During this lesson, you can now ask for three steps, and you can continue asking for three or more steps during this lesson, provided that he takes these steps willingly and then stops obediently on his own to receive his reward. You no longer need to count the steps as long as he is offering more steps between rewards each time. If, because of his enthusiasm, he begins to charge ahead, stop him and immediately reward him for halting. This will insure that he keeps his attention on you and the task at hand. This methodical, deliberate process is setting the stage for a positive and healthy working relationship with your equine.

This is how you begin with leading training, and also how you should proceed with all the new things that you will be teaching your equine. In the beginning of leading training, he gets rewarded for even an assimilation of what you’re asking. For example, when you get to negotiating obstacles, your goal may be to cross over a bridge, but when your equine sees the bridge ahead, he may stop or start backing up. At this point, allow him to back until he stops. Go back and repeat the steps you did prior to approaching the obstacle. Then, asking for only one step at a time, proceed as you did during his flatwork leading training toward the bridge, rewarding each step he takes. Tell him verbally how brave he is and continue to reward any steps he takes toward the obstacle before proceeding forward. Remember to stop at any interval where he becomes tense, ask for one more step to be rewarded, and then allow him to settle and refocus before asking any more from him.

Once he goes to the bridge without a problem, you no longer have to reward him all the way up to the bridge. Just reward him when he actually gets to the bridge. Next, step up onto the bridge and ask him to take a step up onto the bridge with his two front feet, which is another new task. If he puts one foot on the bridge or even tries to lift up a foot and put it on the bridge, make sure you reward that behavior. Once he has a foot firmly placed on the bridge, keep tension on the lead rope and ask for his other front foot to come up onto the bridge. If he places his second foot on the bridge, you can then reward him for having both front feet on the bridge. Next, you’re going to continue forward and just walk over the bridge to the other side, pause and reward. Then quit this lesson. In his next lesson, if needed, repeat the approach the same way if he starts to balk. If not, ask him to step both front feet up onto the bridge, stop, make sure he is standing squarely, and reward that behavior.

Now you no longer need to reward for one foot on the bridge. This is called “fading or phasing out” the reward for a previous behavior (one step), while introducing the new behavior of walking to the bridge, halting and then putting two front feet up on the bridge. Wait for a moment for him to chew his reward and then ask him to continue onto the bridge, stop and square up with four feet on the bridge and reward. If he does not comply and won’t stop on the bridge, just go back to the beginning, approach the bridge as described and try again until he stops to be rewarded with all four feet placed squarely on the bridge

Then you ask him, to place his two front feet on the ground while leaving his two back feet on the bridge. Then have him stop and square up to be rewarded. This is a difficult position and if he cannot succeed by the third attempt, you may have to step in front and aid in his balance, then reward him when he settles in this position.

The last step over the bridge is to bring the hind feet off the bridge, stop and square up one more time before he gets rewarded. This does two things. It causes your equine to be attentive to the number of steps you are asking and it puts him in good posture at each stage so that his body will develop properly. In future lessons, the steps in the approach to the bridge no longer need to be rewarded and as he becomes more attentive, he will learn to stop any time you ask and wait for your cue to proceed. After several months of this meticulous attention to these detailed steps, he will not necessarily need to be rewarded with the food reward each time—a pat on the neck and kind words of support should be sufficient. Rewards can then be given for whole “blocks” of steps when he successfully completes them.

Here is a question a lot of people ask: “This is fine while my animal and I are still working from the ground, but what happens when I finally get on to ride? Do I keep rewarding every new behavior when I ride?”  The answer to that question is, “No, you don’t.”  If you do your ground work correctly, it will address all the things that you’ll be doing while you’re riding before you actually even get on. Your equine has been lavishly rewarded for stopping when you pull on the reins and the drive lines, and he’s been rewarded for turning and backing and everything else he needs to learn before you actually get on him, so the only thing left to get used to would be exposure to your legs on his sides. He will soon learn that your legs push him in the direction of the turn you are indicating with your reins. For this action, he does not need to be rewarded.

In the natural progression of correct training—including during mounting training—your equine should also be getting rewarded when you’re first getting him used to your being on-board. Give him the oats reward for standing still while you attempt to mount (i.e., walking toward him, holding the left rein and reaching for the saddle horn), and then when you hang from each side of his body with a foot in the stirrup (first on one side and then on the other side), and, finally, from each side of his body while you sit on his back. When you ask him to turn his head to take the oats from your hand, you can be sure his attention will be on you because this action will force him to look at you in order to receive his oats. Then reward him again for standing still as you dismount. Consequently, by the time you actually get to the point of riding in an open arena, he’s been rewarded for having you on his back and for behaving well through all the exercises demanded from him during round pen training.

You may first want to lunge your equine when you move into the open arena. Lunge him on the lunge line and reward him during that part of your arena workout. When you are ready to mount in the open arena, have a few oats in your pockets to offer him when you mount on each side the first few times. This will ensure that his attention stays focused on you. Once he is used to being ridden, you will no longer have to reward him in the middle of riding lessons. If he does not keep his attention on his work in the open arena, this signifies that not enough time has been spent on the ground work and you should back up your training regimen to the point that he is maintaining attentiveness and performing correctly, even if it means going back to the round pen or leading work. If, in the ground work stages, you give plenty of food rewards in the correct manner, by the time you groom and tack up, your equine should have been sufficiently rewarded and will not require another reward until after your workout when you return to the work station and un-tack him. This is called delayed gratification. When you un-tack him and do your last minute grooming before putting him away, again be generous with the crimped oats and praise your equine for a job well done. Rewards are dispensed very specifically and pave the road to a solid foundation of trust and friendship.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

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MULE CROSSING: Neonatal Isoerythrolysis

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By Meredith Hodges

“Neonatal isoerythrolysis (NI) is a condition in which the mare creates antibodies against the foal’s red blood cells, and then passes these antibodies to the foal via the colostrum. Once the foal absorbs these antibodies, they result in lysis* of the foal’s red blood cells within 24 to 36 hours after birth. This red blood cell destruction is widespread throughout the foal’s body and can lead to life-threatening anemia and/or jaundice. (This is similar to the human Rhesus, or Rh, factor, where a woman who is Rh-negative gives birth to her second or subsequent child that is Rh-positive, resulting in destruction of the newborn’s red blood cells.)1″

All legitimate mule breeders should be aware of this condition, especially because it can occur more often when breeding donkey jacks to mares than it does when breeding stallions to mares within the same species. If the hybrid foal’s blood type is the same as its mother’s, then there is no problem. However, when the jack and the mare have different blood types, and the foal possesses the jack’s blood type, there is potential for NI to occur.

On the surface of the mare’s red cells are antigens that will stimulate the production of antibodies against incompatible red blood cells (RBCs). There are basically two ways that these RBCs can get into her system:

1) If the foal’s RBCs enter the mare’s circulation via the placenta during pregnancy or during delivery.

2) If the mare obtains these incompatible cells during a blood transfusion.

If neither of these conditions occurs, the mare can carry, birth and nurse her foal with no problem. However, if the incompatible red cells do somehow get into her system, she will begin making antibodies against those cells that, in turn, will be passed into the foal’s system via the mare’s first milk, or colostrum.

“Signs of neonatal isoerythrolysis depend upon the rate and severity of red blood cell destruction. Affected foals are born healthy, and then typically develop signs within 24 to 36 hours. In severe cases, the signs of NI may be evident within 12 to 14 hours, whereas in mild cases, signs may not be present until three or four days of age. NI foals will develop progressive anemia, thus leading to depression, anorexia, collapse and death. These foals may also develop pale mucous membranes that later become yellow or jaundiced.”2

The mare’s blood can be tested ahead of time to determine if she has a different blood type than the jack (or stallion), but a positive test result does not necessarily mean that NI will automatically occur, only that there is the possibility for occurrence. Blood samples from the mare and jack should be taken two to four weeks before the mare is due to foal to determine if she is producing antibodies against the foal’s red blood cells. If the blood test is positive, then precautions must be taken to save the foal at birth by making sure it is prevented from nursing its dam for the first 24 to 36 hours. The foal should be muzzled and bottle-fed colostrum from a mare that has not produced these same antibodies, and therefore is compatible with the foal. To be absolutely safe, the colostrum should be obtained and tested from a mare that has never had a mule foal.

For the best results in building the foal’s immune system, this “replacement” colostrum should be collected within the first six hours after birth. The mare being used does not need to be the same blood type as the foal, but her blood must not contain antibodies to the foal’s RBCs. The quality of the colostrum will determine the amount fed to the foal. Immediately after birth, the foal should be given two to three feedings of colostrum within the first two hours, and then be given milk (for energy) for the first 24 to 36 hours after that. Goat’s milk is best for this purpose. After 24 to 36 hours, the foal should be able to be safely returned to its dam’s milk. If NI is present but is caught early enough, the foal can be transfused with blood and there is a chance that it may live, but this transfusion procedure has inherent risks and there are no guarantees of success.

Research on NI has been done over the years on Thoroughbred horses, and statistics indicate that 20 percent have incompatibilities between dam and sire, yet only one percent of foals develop NI. The incidence in mule breeding suggests that the rate is higher. The Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, the University of California at Davis and the Louisiana State University all have laboratories set up to do this initial NI testing on mares. Consult with your veterinarian about contacting any of these facilities for information on how to collect and ship samples for NI testing.

Out of concern for future mule offspring, the Lucky Three Ranch—with the assistance of our veterinarian, Kent M. Knebel, D.V.M.; Colorado State University researcher, Josie Traub-Dargatz, D.V.M., M.S.; and Louisiana State University researcher, Jill McClure, D.V.M., M.S.—began thorough testing of Lucky Three Ranch stock in the early nineties, with particular attention paid to our breeding jack, Little Jack Horner. It was discovered by Dr. McClure that Little Jack Horner’s RBCs were resulting in unidentifiable antibodies in many of the horse mares that carried his foals. The mares that were sampled had antibodies present, but Dr. McClure was unable to “type” the antibodies found in the mares.

The next step was to immunize some research horses at L.S.U. using Little Jack Horner’s RBCs. If they made antibodies, Dr. McClure would have a more readily available source of antibodies for further research. She also took samples from some burros from another L.S.U. project and discovered that they, too, had the same RBC factor that occurred in Little Jack Horner, but the antibodies produced in the mares were still unidentified. There was already quite a bit of medical and scientific data on N.I. that could help in the prevention of this potentially fatal condition. However, this discovery of new antibodies stimulated by the jack and produced by the mare proved that there was still a lot more that needed to be learned. All of Little Jack Horner’s tests showed him to be of a compatible blood type to the mares if he was a stallion of the same species, and yet these unknown antibodies were being produced. Perhaps future research will hold the answer to this puzzle.

A debt of gratitude is owed to veterinarians like Dr. Kent Knebel, who take time out of their busy schedules to collect samples for this research, and to dedicated researchers like Dr. Josie Traub-Dargatz and Dr. Jill McClure, who continue with this important research that benefits our mule industry and its future generations. Their ongoing research will continue to have a significant impact on mule breeding programs, not just here in the United States, but all over the world.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1990, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Handling Your Mule’s Ears

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By Meredith Hodges

Just how sensitive is a mule about having his ears touched? If a mule is handled often and properly, he should be no more sensitive about his ears than he is about any other part of his body. However, if he is rarely handled, mishandled or handled roughly, he can become quite sensitive about any part of his body and in particular, his ears. Bearing this in mind, take the time to desensitize your mule to touch and handling by paying attention to how he likes to be touched in any given area, and then by being polite about handling those more sensitive areas. This is an important part of any training program, both for general management and for safety purposes. This is the heart of imprinting.

The mule that has an aversion to having his ears handled poses a problem with management convenience, but more than that, he can be a safety hazard in many situations. Here are some examples of lack of desensitization causing inconvenience and possibly, a dangerous situation. Inconvenient: Your mule does not want his ears touched, so you have to disassemble his bridle each time you put it on him. Dangerous: Should you accidentally touch his ears while putting the bridle on him, he could possibly thrash his head around and knock you silly! Inconvenient: If you get into a difficult spot on a trail where you have to dismount and move quickly, you may be unable to take the reins over your mule’s head in order to safely lead him. Dangerous: While you try to get the reins over his head without touching his ears, your mule could inadvertently knock you down or lose his balance and fall down while trying to avoid you. The moral is this: If your mule is to be a completely safe riding animal, he must be appropriately desensitized all over his head and body—including his ears—and trust that you will not harm him.

Desensitization should be humane and considerate—never abusive. When we say we want to desensitize an animal, it simply means that we want him to become accustomed to touch and handling all over his body, particularly in areas such as his head, legs and rear quarters, where he is apt to be the most sensitive. An animal that has not been politely desensitized will tend to react more violently to touch. When properly teaching your mule to become desensitized, your touch should be presented in a pleasurable way, so that your mule not only learns to tolerate it, but to actually enjoy it and look forward to it. An old-time method such as “sacking out” is a somewhat crude technique that is used to desensitize an animal by tying the mule in a corner where he cannot flee, and then flinging a tarp or large canvas all over his body, including the head. Often times, it creates more problems than it can solve because it is rarely done politely. A mule that has been “sacked” about the head can actually become more sensitive because this inconsiderate approach teaches him that humans cannot be trusted. He perceives that they will fling things over his head, blinding him and causing him anxiety for no apparent reason. The mule will stand still only because he cannot move, but if he is given the opportunity to flee or fight back, he will more than likely do so. Thus, the old “obstinate mule” myths are actually most often the result of some fault of the trainer, and not the mule. Sacking out more politely will eliminate these kinds of potential bad habits.

Desensitizing a mule that is sensitive about his ears is a long-term process. First, you must maintain a firm, quiet and tolerant attitude. Nothing your mule does should make you angry enough to lose your temper or your patience. Make sure your mule is tacked with a stout, non-breakable halter and rope. While stroking his nose in a polite and soothing manner, ask your mule to come forward, one step at a time, to a stout hitch rail. If he won’t come easily, just snub your lead on the hitch rail so he cannot go backwards, and keep coaxing him forward until he comes. Take up the slack with each step and then hold until he takes another step forward toward the hitch rail. Wait as long as it takes for him to gain confidence enough to come forward. Do not get into a pulling or pushing match with him—you will only create resistance in him and perpetuate avoidance behaviors—and he will win because he is stronger and he weighs more!

When his nose is finally up to the rail, run your lead around the post and come through the noseband on his halter and around the post again. Then tie him off snugly, so that his nose is tied as closely as possible to the hitch rail, making sure there is no slack. Now begin softly stroking your mule’s nose, using gentle yet firm strokes. Next, work your way up his forehead, and finally toward his ears. NOTE: Remember to use soft, gentle yet firm strokes, going with the grain of the hair and never against it. Do not “pat” your mule—it’s too threatening.

Let the tips of your fingers find the base of your mule’s ear (away from the open side) and stroke upward, toward the tip. At this point, he will probably thrash his head back and forth to avoid your touch—just remain slow, deliberate, reassuring and gentle about your approach. When he has allowed you to stroke the ear, even if for only a couple of seconds, leave your hand resting on the ear and use your free hand to feed him an oats reward. Don’t take your hand away from the ear until he is chewing calmly and no longer worried about your hand on his ear. Do this with each ear no more than one or two times each session and then go to his shoulder and work your hand in a massaging fashion over his neck, toward his ears. While your thumb cradles an ear, let your fingers move over his poll. With your thumb, gently stroke upward on the back of his ear, while leaving the rest of your hand over his poll. If he jerks away, just keep going back to the same position of thumb cradling the ear and fingers moving over the poll.

When he will tolerate this, you can then cradle the ear in your fingers and with your thumb, begin to gently rub upward on the inside of the edge of his ear. Do not go too deep into the ear at first. After he is calm with this, you can begin rubbing downward into the ear with your fingers, while cradling the ear in your opposite hand, being very careful not to go too deep. Watch his eyes and allow him to “tell” you how deep to go. If it feels good, his eyebrows will raise and flicker. If he doesn’t like it, he will simply jerk his head away and that is your cue to lighten up. Most mules love to have the insides of their ears rubbed, so find the areas inside your mule’s ear that actually give him pleasure. Each individual mule will be different.

In the next step, you will be in the same position, but you will close your hand around your mule’s ear and hold it with just enough pressure that he cannot jerk your hand loose. Do not hold too tight, grab or pull the ear—just maintain a quiet, gentle hold on the ear and go with his movement. If he pulls away, just slightly tighten your grip on the ear until he stops pulling and then lighten your grip again. Tighten only when he pulls away, and then immediately release when he stops resisting—tighten and loosen your grip as needed, and be sure to follow his movement. He will soon learn that if he doesn’t fight it, there is no discomfort. Never tightly grip his ear and do not tighten your grip any more than you need to in order to hold onto the ear—you never want to induce pain. Once your mule is tolerant of you holding his ear in this fashion, you can introduce the clippers, should you desire, using the same guidelines of tightening gently yet firmly when he pulls and releasing when he submits. However, introduce the clippers only after he has completely accepted you holding his ears.

Introduce the bridle by holding your right hand flat on the poll between your mule’s ears, and by using your left hand to raise the crown piece over his nose and up to his forehead. Slide your right hand down his forehead a little to meet your left hand. When your hands meet, transfer the crown piece into your right hand, insert the bit with your left hand, and then raise the crown piece up to the base of his ears. Slowly transfer the crown strap back to your left hand. Gently cup the fingers of your right hand around the base of his right ear. Now bend the ear forward and under the crown piece and slide it over your hand (and the ear) into its position behind the ear. While keeping your palm firmly on your mule’s poll, slowly move to the left ear and repeat the same movements.
The bridle should now be in place and you can reward your mule. Do not put on and remove the bridle any more than once per session. Your mule needs to clearly know that this is not just some annoying past time you have discovered, but an act of necessity. He will soon learn that if he cooperates, it won’t take too long. Once the bridle is on, get right to the business at hand and forget the ears for a while.

When you return with the difficult mule, tie him as before, stand directly in front of him (with the hitch rail between you) and gently remove the bridle with both hands lifting and sliding the crown piece over both of his ears simultaneously, so there is little pressure on his ears as it slides over them. If he still holds the bit in his mouth, hesitate for a minute when the bridle is off his ears and allow HIM to drop the bit. Removing the bridle this way will help to avoid chafing the ears and will avoid the bit hitting his teeth before you remove the bridle the rest of the way. Always removing the bridle in this fashion will encourage him to drop his head and will prevent bad habits such as pulling away or flinging his head.

When your mule gets used to having his ears handled and being bridled while snubbed and haltered, you can then begin dropping the halter and loosely tying him while he is being bridled. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks before you can drop the halter—this will vary depending on the individual mule, so just be patient. Your quiet, gentle perseverance will eventually win out and your mule’s ears will be desensitized and quite manageable. After you have mastered his outer ear and inner ear, you may find that your mule actually enjoys having his inner ear stroked or scratched, and bridling becomes easy. Integrating washing his face and cleaning his nostrils and ears during the grooming process should further help him to accept having his ears handled. Handling your mule’s ears can actually become a truly pleasurable experience for your Longears.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1992, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Why Mules Are Exceptional

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By Meredith Hodges

Across the United States and around the world, as mules are given more and more opportunities to perform in many diverse situations, they are exhibiting their exceptional beauty, athletic ability, endurance and intelligence. There are definite physical and psychological reasons for these outstanding abilities. It has been proven that the mule not only inherits the mare’s beauty, but is also more athletic than the mare out of which he came. The mule is an exceptional hybrid not only because he inherits these qualities from his dam, the mare, but he also inherits the best qualities from his sire, the jack who is responsible for his muscle structure, thickness of bone, strength and intelligence.

The muscle structure of a mule is noticeably different than that of a horse. His body is covered with masses of long, smooth muscle whereas the horse has more differentiated bulk muscle masses.

The most apparent example of this difference is seen in the chest of the mule. The horse’s chest has two distinct muscle groups, which creates a very distinctive line of separation in the middle of his chest. However, the mule’s chest is composed of one wide muscle mass that resembles a turkey’s breast, which greatly enhances the mobility of the front quarters. Another example is found in the mule’s hindquarters, where the long, wide and smooth muscles enable the mule to kick forward, backwards and sideways—he can even scratch the top of his head with a hind foot if he wants to! Mules are also quite capable of climbing under, over and through most kinds of fencing. Restraints that are used with horses often do not work with mules because of their astounding ability to free themselves from annoying circumstances with their strong, quick and agile movements. Because the hindquarters of the horse possess bulkier muscle masses, the horse does not have this incredible range of motion. The difference in muscular structure is similar to that of a ballet dancer versus that of a weight lifter—the ballet dancer’s longer, smoother muscles are more conducive to elasticity and agility.

In addition to this physical structure, which allows him more diverse range of movement, the mule also inherits from his sire (the donkey jack) the strength to tolerate prolonged and strenuous use of his muscles. One need only try to budge an unwilling donkey to realize his incredible strength! Donkeys traditionally possess an unbelievable vigor, and this vigor is passed on to the mule, adding to his superiority over the horse in strength and endurance. The donkey jack also contributes to the superior, tough hooves of the mule and a unique resistance to parasites and disease. Throughout their long history, the donkey’s natural ability to survive and thrive in habitats both desolate and unyielding guarantees that donkeys and their mule offspring are more sure-footed than other equines and masters of self-preservation.

Donkeys have long been referred to as “stubborn,” but this is a false and unjust perception. It is not stubbornness that causes an overloaded donkey to stop dead in his tracks to rest his body, but rather common sense and a strong desire for self-preservation. After all, would a sensible human being deliberately pack more than he could comfortably carry, and then continue a hike until he drops from heat and exhaustion? No. Would his refusal to do so be considered as being “stubborn?” Certainly not—it’s just common sense. The same common sense should be applied when understanding a mule or donkey’s behavior—and this holds true in any potentially dangerous situation a donkey may face. For example, when crossing a body of water, the donkey does not possess a human’s acute visual depth perception. Therefore, when he refuses to step into water that seems perfectly safe to us, it is because his depth perception is telling him to use caution and to take his time in evaluating the situation before he proceeds. His behavior is determined by the way he is asked to perform a task and by his concern for his welfare and safety.

As a rule, donkeys are equipped with the innate intelligence to sense that humans are not always concerned with what is really best for them, yet they are still willing to gives us the opportunity to convince them otherwise. Donkeys also have a natural social attraction to humans and, when treated with patience, kindness and understanding, they learn to trust and obey. On the other hand, if they are treated with pain and abuse, they are not likely to comply and can become very dangerous to handle. Mules and donkeys have an honest way of responding to our demands, so if your mule or donkey is not complying with your request, you need to review the clarity of how you are communicating your desire and adjust your approach accordingly. The intelligence of the donkey is no accident.

When a male donkey, with his traits of superior intelligence, strength and muscle structure is bred to a female horse with a calm disposition, good conformation and athletic ability, the result is an exceptional and incredibly beautiful animal—the MULE!

October 26th has been popularly designated as National Mule Appreciation Day, but anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to nuzzle a muzzle knows that these magnificent, gentle, bright, honest, upbeat, funny, patient and loyal friends need our appreciation and guardianship not just once a year but every day. Let’s spread the word whenever we can mules and donkeys are truly amazing!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1985, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Choosing the Right Jack

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By Meredith Hodges

When choosing a jack to breed to your mares and jennets, there are many important factors to consider. Conformation is the most obvious, but size, type, disposition and genetics are equally significant. As a direct result of the donkey’s evolution our choices in jacks are considerably limited these days. In the days when donkeys were widely used as beasts of burden, conformational soundness was an important consideration in their ability to do physical work. Today, the donkey is not as widely used in this manner, becoming more of an owner’s pleasure animal. In some cases, he is simply another pet. As a result, not much care has been taken to preserve his conformational integrity, thus limiting the availability of true breeding stock.

Although the conformation of the ideal jack can only be approximated, you should always try to choose a jack that is as close to the ideal as possible for your breeding programs. (Perpetuating undesirable conformation traits will only compound future breeding problems.) The first conformational consideration is the jack’s overall balance and proportion. His torso should be well connected to the front and rear quarters, with plenty of width and depth from heart girth to the flank, which allows for maximum efficiency of the heart and lungs. The topline from the withers to the tail should be relatively straight, with only a gentle slope from the withers to the croup, and neither excessively long nor short-backed. A longish back is acceptable, provided there is not a lot of distance between the last rib and the point of the hip, as this causes weakness through the loins. The unusually short-backed jack does not have adequate lateral  and vertical flexibility in his movement. A rigidly straight back is discouraged, as is a back that sags too drastically in the middle (except in the case of an aged animal).

Proportionately, the jack should not be too narrow in the chest, through the rib cage and in the rear quarters—nor should he be too wide in these areas. These faults in proportion can interfere with his action, causing him to be “pin-toed” (splay-footed) or “pigeon-toed” (toed-in). The pin-toed jack will brush his knees and fetlocks together in deep footing, causing him to be a slow mover, or he may even cross his legs over one another, increasing the possibility of a fall.

The closest approximation to a 45-degree angle in the hips and shoulders is preferred, with an adequate balance of muscle and sinew in all four quarters. One of the most common faults in donkeys today is straight and slight shoulders and hips. The withers and croup should be even across the topline, and the jack with withers slightly higher than the croup is preferred over the opposite, as this could set the animal’s body weight too far on the forehand, making turns and stops more difficult. It could also increase the possibility of falling. The croup should be smooth and round over the rump, with a tail set neither too high nor too low.

The feet and legs of the jack are the foundation of his conformation. They should be straight and true, with flat bone and adequate angles at the shoulders, hips, stifles, and hock and fetlock joints. The foot should be trimmed and shaped to compliment the angles in his joints to maintain the good conformation that should be present in the four quarters of the animal. For example, on a jack with good shoulders, the slope of the pasterns should be parallel to the slope of the shoulders. When dropping a plumb line on the front legs, which should be neither too far forward nor too far underneath him, the plumb line should fall from the point of the withers to the ground, directly at the back of the front legs. When dropping a plumb line on the hind legs, it should fall from the base of the tail to the point of the hock, and straight down the back of the cannon bone to the ground.

As far as a donkey’s hoofs are concerned, the expression, “No foot, no donkey” is literally true. Faults such as buck-kneed, calf-kneed, tied-in at the knee, round bone, short straight pasterns, coon-footed, too-long cannon, sickle hocks, splay-footed, knock-kneed, bowlegged, pigeon-toed, broken forward or backward feet, or too straight through the stifle and hock are all serious faults and should be avoided when breeding. Being slightly cow-hocked behind can be overlooked, as this usually increases maneuverability. The hoof itself should not reflect a ribbed appearance — it should be smooth and inclined to look sleek and oily. Even on the donkey, the hooves should not be contracted, but well-sprung (although less sprung than a mule or horse), and supported with a well-extended, healthy frog. Donkeys have a multi-layered hoof wall that will shed off in the event of mild or even severe trauma to the coronet or hoof wall, so many donkeys exhibit a “peeling” or “scabbing” of the hoof wall. A jack with this damage to the hoof should be inspected carefully to determine the severity of the problem and the extent of possible weakness in the hoof itself. If it is a cosmetic problem, it can often be managed successfully by adding one ounce a day of Mazola corn oil to the diet. If it is a genetic problem, a jack with hoof problems should be avoided when breeding and should probably be castrated.

The head and neck of the ideal jack should be attractive and set-in correctly, giving an overall balanced look to the animal. He should have good length to the ears, neither too far forward nor too far back, so the poll is clearly apparent. His eyes should be set so they give him a maximum field of vision forward, backward and peripherally. The eyes should not be set too high nor too low, which would offset the overall balance of the head. He should have adequate width and fine enough bone in the head, to allow for plenty of space for the brain and internal organs of the scull cavity. The length of his head should compliment the balance of his body and taper to a smaller and delicate muzzle. His jaw should be straight and aligned, showing neither a parrot mouth (under bite), nor be undershot (over bite, or buck toothed). This is critical for feeding and nutrition. The slightly dished-face, straight-faced or Roman-nosed jack should not be ruled out, provided the other criteria are met. The neck should be set in so that it flows easily into the withers and has adequate length for the ability to bend and maintain balance. He should have neither a U-neck nor an excessively crested neck. It should not be too wide, or too narrow, and should tie into the throatlatch in a trim and flexible way.

The basic conformation for the breeding jack should be the same regardless of size, although there are specific considerations with regard to type and use. The jack generally contributes more to the thickness of bone in his offspring, but not necessarily to their height. Therefore, when breeding for saddle mules and donkeys, the more refined-boned Standard or Large Standard jacks are preferred. On the other hand, when breeding for a draft mule or donkey, you would want to preserve more thickness of bone and use a stockier jack, such as a Large Standard or Mammoth. Use the same guidelines when breeding for miniatures; stocky begets stocky and refined begets refined. When breeding for saddle mules, you may want to keep the refinement, so you would use a Standard or Large Standard jack to breed to a saddle horse mare. However, if you wish to have a pack mule that is not overly tall, you might then want to breed a Mammoth jack to a saddle horse mare.

The genetic pool is a very important consideration when breeding. A particular jack may be a beautiful specimen, but, regardless of how lovely and balanced he may be, he may possess genes that produce offspring with many conformation faults. Since donkeys have been so inbred, this can happen more frequently than you might imagine. When choosing a jack to breed to your mares and jennets, it is wise, if possible, to take a look at some of his offspring from different mares and jennets, so you can better assess his stronger traits and determine which traits appear to be pre-potent. If this is not possible, your alternative is to breed him with only the best mare or jennet you own, in order to increase the odds for positive traits to come through in the offspring. Sometimes you can try to compliment the mare with the jack, such as a long-backed mare with a short-backed jack to get a medium-backed mule, but this doesn’t always work. A reputable jack owner should have records to show how and what his jack has produced and be able to attest to the consistency of his jack’s production. Granted, in the past this was virtually impossible, but today we have the American Donkey & Mule Society registry (and other Longears registries), and many conscientious breeders who realize the importance of recording their breeding information, thereby giving us all a better understanding of Longears production. So, don’t be afraid to ask the breeder whatever questions you may have.

Disposition is of the utmost importance when choosing a jack. However, there is a difference between the jack’s natural instincts, his personality and his acquired personal attitudes, so you should learn to distinguish between a natural instinct, a distinctive personality trait and behavior that was the result of improper handling. I have found most donkeys to be quite cooperative and affectionate when patiently and fairly treated, but some can also be more obstinate about things than others. Remember, in addition to the inherited traits of the jack, it is the mare, or jennet, from which the offspring learns most of his behaviors while he is growing up. So learn to make educated choices concerning your breeding stock and, in order to maintain the integrity of the breed, use only jacks with the best conformation for breeding.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1986, 1991, 2012, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Photo Captions:

1) North Africa 1943 (Library of Congress)

2) Sire-Supreme Little Jack Horner and Meredith Hodges

3) Lucky Three Excalibur

4) Lucky Three Blue Baron

5) Standard Jack, Colorado D.J.

6) Foundation Sire Windy Valley Adam

7) Don Mode driving Foundation Sire Black Bart

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MULE CROSSING: Hoof Differences in Horses, Donkeys and Mules

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By Meredith Hodges

The old saying, “No foot, no mule” is literally true, as it is in any nomadic animal. If the hooves are not trimmed and balanced properly, it will offset the balance of the equine’s entire body and can compromise longevity in the animal because his entire internal structure will be compromised. Most equines will need to be trimmed or shod every 6-8 weeks whether horse, mule or donkey.

Horse’s hooves in general are proportionately larger, rounder and more angled than that of the donkey or mule. The sole of the foot is flat on the ground promoting good circulation in the foot through the frog.

Regardless of the size of the animal, the hooves of the mule will be smaller and more upright than that of a horse of equal size, and should be well sprung and supported, not contracted. They should have a smooth appearance and look sleek and oily. No ribbing should be apparent and the frog should be well extended, healthy and make adequate contact with the ground for good circulation to the hooves. The shape of the mule or donkey foot is more oval and the bottom of the foot is slightly “cupped” which accounts for the surefootedness in the mule and donkey. When being trimmed, the mule should be left with more heel than the horse to maintain the often more upright position that complements the shoulders and hips. If the mule or donkey has a better slope to the shoulders, he might have an angle that is similar to the horse, but he will still grow more heel than the horse. The shape and condition of the hooves of the jack and the mare are both equally important when considering foot development in the mule.

Because donkey and mule hooves are different from a horse’s hoof in that they are more oblong, cupped in the sole, they need more heel left during a trim than the round, flat sole and low heels on a horse. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule as there are in most generalizations. Most donkeys are relatively inactive and live on moderate ground, so they do grow out in that time period. Some donkeys, like my own Little Jack Horner, are much more active and will wear their feet down naturally.

Miniature Horse

 

Miniature Mule

 

Miniature Donkey

 

Saddle Horse

 

Saddle Mule

 

Saddle Donkey

 

Draft Horse

 

Draft Mule

 

Mammoth Donkey

 

Of course, those that do not have the benefit of good training and conditioning would still wear unevenly and would still need to be trimmed, however, with the correct training and conditioning, they may wear evenly and may not need to be trimmed more than once a year! The same goes for those who would live in rough terrain. They may wear their feet down, but they would still need to be trimmed for balance. Those who are moving correctly may wear down evenly and would not require trims as often.

Failure to have your mule’s hooves regularly trimmed in order to maintain their balance and shape can result in an imbalance in your mule’s feet, which will then cause an imbalance throughout his entire body, inhibiting his performance. However, if trimming is done consistently, the risk of imbalance, accident or injury will be greatly reduced.

There are a lot of things to consider when trimming and shoeing all equines. If the animal is to have shoes, for instance, then they would need to maintain the flat surface of the sole for the shoes to fit properly. It is important that the equine have relief from shoes when they are not being ridden as much. We usually take any shoes off during the winter which keeps the heels from becoming contracted from wearing shoes and promotes good circulation to the foot as the frog can then make contact with the ground more consistently than it can with shoes. A good understanding of the anatomical differences among horses, mules and donkeys is essential for healthy hoof care.

When your farrier is trimming your equine, he should take into account the angles of the shoulder, the forearm, the knees, the cannon bone, fetlock, pastern and the general angle to the entire body when at rest, not just trimming off the excess. This is an anatomical call and only people who are schooled and skilled in this profession should even attempt it or you could run the risk of injuring your animal.

It is commonly known that, when it comes to horses and mules, light-colored hooves are softer and more likely to break down under stress than are the darker, black hooves. Even though the black hoof is naturally harder than the light-colored hoof, if it does not contain sufficient moisture, it can become brittle and can chip away as destructively as can the lighter hoof. Whichever breed of equine you own and whatever the color of their feet, remember that good hoof care is essential for all domesticated equines.

For better or worse, an equine inherits his hooves through his genes. If your equine has inherited good feet—black, oily-looking, and with good shape—then you are fortunate and hoof care and maintenance should be relatively simple. If he has inherited a softer or misshapen foot, you will need to discuss more specialized care with your farrier. Beware of generalizations as they can often be misleading! Each animal should ultimately be assessed individually.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Do Mules Need to Be Shod?

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By Meredith Hodges

Do mules need to be shod? Those who are familiar with mules might be tempted to say, “No,” but the answer is a little more complicated than you might think. Although the mule generally has a tougher and more durable foot than the horse, all mules do not have the same feet, nor do all mules apply the same kind of stress to those feet. Therefore, each individual animal has to be considered when answering the question, “To shoe or not to shoe?”

It is commonly known that, when it comes to horses and mules, light-colored hooves are softer and more likely to break down under stress than are the darker, black hooves. Even though the
black hoof is naturally harder than the light-colored hoof, if it does not contain sufficient moisture, it can become brittle and can chip away as destructively as can the lighter hoof. Whichever breed of equine you own and whatever the color of their feet, remember that good hoof care is essential for all domesticated equines.

For better or worse, an equine inherits his hooves through his genes. If your mule has inherited good feet—black, oily-looking, and with good shape—then you are fortunate and hoof care and maintenance should be relatively simple. If he has inherited a softer or misshapen foot, you will need to discuss more specialized care with your farrier.

Climate and weather greatly affect the condition of your mule’s feet. Damp weather and muddy footing will tend to soften the walls of any hoof, and perpetual exposure to mud and dampness can cause deterioration of his feet. With the light-colored hoof, which tends to soften more easily, this could spell disaster. It is wise, therefore, during damp weather or if you live in a damp climate, to provide a clean, dry place for your mule to stand. Conversely, extremely hot and dry weather can cause your mule’s feet to become dry and brittle, and they may start to crack due to contraction and expansion of the hoof. For this type of dry weather or climate, you may want to overflow your water tanks regularly so your mule has a place to “cool his feet.” If it is excessively dry, you may even need to manually lubricate your mule’s hooves as needed with one of the commercial products available. But before you use an artificial hoof lubricant, first check with your farrier to make sure that it is actually needed. Many people use hoof products too frequently, which can cause hooves to become too soft. When this begins to happen, you will see horizontal rings appear around the hoof wall, and sometimes, vertical lines. Try not to let the hoof get to this point by using lubricants sparingly, but if you see that these rings are beginning to appear, immediately discontinue use of the lubricant and allow the hoof to harden. Then check with your vet to make sure it is not a founder condition. It does not take much to adequately soften the hooves of an animal with rock-hard feet. During the really dry seasons, lubricant application once a week is usually sufficient.

Assuming that your mule has a normal set of dark, healthy hooves, he will probably not need to be shod, as long as he is used strictly for pleasure or only sporadically. However, if you are going to use your mule on excessively rocky or hard ground, you might want to look into getting shoes for him. Mules that repetitively participate in more stressful and demanding activities (such as parades, showing and endurance events) should be shod to protect their feet and to keep them healthy. Prevention of bruising or cracking and maintenance of good foot and leg posture is critical to the equine athlete.

The pack and pleasure mule that is not used much or is used on softer terrain and in places where he does not require shoes must still be trimmed for balance regularly to assure that his feet are evenly worn and that he is not putting undue stress on any joints, muscles or tendons. Failure to have your mule’s hooves regularly trimmed in order to maintain their balance and shape can result in an imbalance in your mule’s feet, which will then cause an imbalance throughout his entire body, inhibiting his performance. However, if trimming is done consistently, the risk of imbalance, accident or injury will be greatly reduced.

I believe that horses and mules, doing what they would naturally do alone—on terrain that is neither hard nor rocky—do not need to be shod. But mules that are asked to repetitively perform with a human on-board in varying surface situations should be fitted with the proper kind of shoes to help protect them from the additional weight and other demands that will be put upon their bodies. For example, my trail mules wear regular shoes on all four feet when they are being regularly used for trail riding and a variety of other activities, lessening the potential for injury. Then, when there is an occasional misstep on hard ground or rocks or when we trail-ride in the more challenging mountains, the shoes help to absorb some of the shock that would otherwise be absorbed by the hoof itself. It is my experience that young mules (and horses from two to four years of age) bear most of their weight on their front legs until their bodies are carefully and properly conditioned, and this is when you will see the most wear and tear on their feet. Because of this, my young mules that are just beginning saddle training wear regular shoes on the fronts only until their bodies are balanced and their activities clearly defined. Our broodstock, youngsters (under three years of age) and equines that are not used under
demanding conditions can go barefooted year-round, but they all still get regular trims every six to eight weeks.

All my other stock is shod for the specific purpose for which they are used: The Reining mules wear slider plates during the competition season, and the jumpers are fitted with either regular shoes, a tap and die shoe with studs or a borium shoe for non-skid, depending upon the terrain they will be negotiating.  If I were to ask one of my mules to race, I would fit him with the lighter-weight racing plates. Each equine athlete is given a set of shoes particularly designed for the best performance in his event, just as is the case with the human athlete. In the winter, if my mules have the need to wear shoes, I add rim pads to their shoes to help prevent “snowballing.”

Granted, there are a lot of mules that may not need to be shod, but there are also many that do need shoes, so each individual mule’s feet must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Because of this fact, the generalizations that “mules don’t need to be shod” and “all equines should go barefoot” are not always correct. You must take into consideration how your particular mule’s genetics affect his hooves, what he will be used for and how harsh the demands put on him will be on his feet. These important factors will determine whether or not he needs shoes, and if he does need shoes, what kind of shoes will best suit him. And don’t forget to check your mule’s shoes on a regular basis to make sure that all is well and that his shoes are staying on tight, but most of all, that he is comfortable and happy.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2014, 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Breeding Quality Mules

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By Meredith Hodges

Windy Valley Ranch broodmare and mule foal.

In the past, mares unsuitable for improved horse-breeding programs were the mares used for mule breeding. Looks and conformation were of little concern, since the animal that was produced had limited use for draft and farm work. In 1967, with the founding of the American Donkey & Mule Society, a new type of mule began to emerge—the American Saddle Mule—limited only by the imagination in his uses. As the mule’s popularity grew, so did the need for more carefully organized breeding programs to try to produce only the most superior mules in overall appearance and athletic ability.

In what I refer to as Phase I of our Lucky Three Ranch breeding program, my mother, Joyce Doty, successfully bred attractive, athletic and versatile mules at Windy Valley Mule Ranch in Healdsburg, California, between 1973 and 1979. They were bred for pleasure, work and show from 60 head of assorted breeds of mares. These mares included Arabians,

Thoroughbreds, Tennessee Walkers, Morgans and Draft horses, but no Warmbloods.

Windy Valley Ranch champion mules, 1978.

We learned that the jacks would produce a stronger and more durable offspring, but that the heavy-boned Mammoth Jacks were not necessarily producing the most athletic—or the most attractive—saddle mule offspring. It seemed that the smaller, more refined Large Standard (48″ to 56″) and Standard Jacks (40.01″ to 48″) were better for the production of Saddle Mules. This led to Phase II of our breeding program.

Little Jack Horner doing Second Level Dressage, 1992.

Little Jack Horner, a Large Standard, was the last jack born at Windy Valley Ranch before its dispersal in 1979. In 1980 I brought him to my new Lucky Three Ranch in Colorado to become the sire supreme. My main focus was on the production of attractive, athletic, amiable and multiple-use saddle mules that would be suitable for the widest variety of uses. Beginning in 1982, Little Jack Hornerwas used with a number of different breeds of mares, including Quarter Horses, Appaloosas and a Half-Arab/Half-Quarter Crossbred. Over the next six years, as the offspring aged and matured, their abilities were quickly recognized. They excelled in all events at the shows and gave the Lucky Three its current reputation for breeding only the best.

In late 1985 I began taking a special interest in Dressage and Combined Training—the Breed shows no longer held a challenge for me. Our Quarter Horse, Appaloosa and Arabian mules competed against horses in Dressage and Combined Training and our mules were quite competitive. They were exceptional in their gaits, responsive, submissive and lovely to watch. Only two real major problems became apparent if we were to continue on this path: 1) The mules were a little too small (only14.2 to 15.3 HH) and, 2) the Quarter Horse influence caused them to be built slightly downhill, creating problems with overall balancing. It was time again to revise our breeding program.

Foal Midnight Victory(“Vicki”) and Trakehner mother Vinesse.

Midnight Victory (or “Vicki,” as she was nick-named), a Trakehner cross, was born just before midnight on June 21, 1990. I had seen only one Trakehner-bred mule in my entire life, and it was the most elegant and refined mule I had ever seen, with conformation to spare. And now I had one!

Vicki was everything I have always bred for in a mule, exhibiting quality in her looks and her movement, and in and the kind of intelligence that is exalted by horsemen and women everywhere. She was the product of 17 years of selective breeding, which, in the case of the hybrid mule, can be a very lucrative and frustrating business. Frustrating because of people’s preconceived ideas about mules, because of the close attention that must be paid to selection of the right jacks and mares, and because of genetic considerations when breeding, such as Neonatal Isoerythrolisis (a condition that occurs when the mother’s blood is incompatible with her foal’s—similar to the RH negative factor that can occur in human mothers and babies).

Midnight Victory (“Vickie”) at 20 years old.

Why a Trakehner cross? We spent years breeding donkeys before we finally got Little Jack Horner, a sire that predictably throws refined, attractive and athletic offspring, as well as producing some of the top halter mules in the country. Crossing him on Warmblood stock seemed like the natural thing to do next. We did need to be careful in choosing the type of Warmblood mare that would make the best match.

“Vicki’s” younger full brother, Lucky Three Vindicator (“Vinnie”) at 19 years old.

 

 

The Trakehner horse was carefully bred as a versatile and durable animal, with refinement and elegance in mind. Today, this horse plays an important role in the evolution of the mule from an ugly duckling into another beautiful swan in the American Horse Show ring.

After careful consideration of refinement and movement, we decided that the Trakehner would be the best cross. We feared that some of the other Warmblood breeds might produce too heavy an animal, something we had spent the last 17 years breeding out. In using caution and a careful breeding program, the Lucky Three Ranch was well on its way to producing the best in Sport Mules. Heartier and more athletic than their Thoroughbred and Trakehner dams, they were capable of performing in more versatile ways than were ever before imagined.

Phase III was the most exciting phase of the Lucky Three Ranch breeding program. The size and “downhill” problems had been solved, and the offspring made our dreams come true and their “presence” known. My deepest gratitude goes to all the conscientious people in the Thoroughbred and Trakehner industries for their special attention to selective breeding programs that have made it possible for us to produce such a lovely and remarkable hybrid.

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s just something a little more special about Vicki. She is way above average when it comes to mules and she definitely commandsyour attention. She embodies the spirit of free expression and an almost eerie reincarnation of a perfect dream…with long ears! Could this “presence” be something genetic, passed down through the ages of Trakehner (and possibly Arabian) breeding? It would seem so.

The mules of Lucky Three Ranch are living proof of what quality breeding produces. They are elegant, first-class animals that are easy keepers, inexpensive eaters and loyal, personable companions—you need only feast your eyes upon these mule offspring to be convinced!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1990, 2011, 2016, 2019, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Basic Training for Foals Includes Common Sense

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By Meredith Hodges

“Imprinting” is a natural process by which an animal (most typically, when young) comes to recognize another animal or a person as a parent or other object of habitual trust. Imprinting is also the way any equine is touched when he is a foal and handled throughout his entire life. It is never too late to use imprinting with your equine, and the way you do it will determine whether or not he develops a lifelong confidence and trust in you. NOTE: Imprinting should not be utilized only when your equine is a newborn, and then never utilized again. Imprinting should continue throughout his entire life.

Equine foals must be allowed to play—running, kicking and rolling. This is how they exercise so they can grow up to be healthy adults. Like any baby or toddler, a foal cannot be expected to have perfect manners, so keep lessons short (10-20 minutes every other day at the most) and use good judgment when you are with him to avoid being kicked or bitten. If he does kick or bite while you are doing things with him, use the flat of your hand and give him a quick thump on the rump for kicking or on the side of his mouth for biting, accompanied by a loud “No!”  He will probably run off, but should be able to be coaxed back verbally and fairly easily with soothing language and an offer of crimped oats. When he finally does come back to you, reward him with a nice pat on the neck, and then leave him to play. By doing this, you are letting him know that it is okay to play, but not to kick or bite. He has learned that bad behavior will elicit an unpleasant touch while his good behavior will illicit kind touch and soothing words. You can resume more serious corrective lessons later.

The most important thing to learn when training your equine is to dispense the crimped oats reward promptly and generously in the beginning of training, and only when your equine is complying (do not use anything but crimped oats for rewards). This will solidify the connection between the two of you and begin to establish a strong and mutually satisfying relationship. If, when haltered, your equine tries to pull away from you, just let go of the rope, reach in your fanny pack and offer the crimped oats to coax him to return to you. Remember not to try to progress through lessons too quickly, as this is usually what causes disobedience. Never chase your equine! Whenever at all possible, allow him to come to you of his own free will.

Before you begin your equine’s leading lessons—and during “tying” lessons—your equine should be rewarded frequently and whenever he is not pulling against the rope. This will help him to understand that he will be rewarded when the rope is loose so he is more likely to follow you when you do untie him and try to lead him. This concept is the same for each new task in each new lesson. Each time he easily complies, he should be rewarded. At this point you can move on to new lessons, but, in order to set him up for success, be sure to break down each process into small steps. Remember to always be generous with the rewards. An equine that learns to take the oats reward politely from your hand is less likely to bite you than one who has not had enough practice getting rewarded with the oats from your hand. When the correction for biting is done properly, your equine will learn not to be aggressive toward the reward and will learn to take them more delicately and gently from your hand.

If, as an adult, your equine gets too close or pushy, slap him on the side of the mouth with an open hand and a very loud “No!” Then put your hand up like a stop sign in front of his face. He should then step back or fling his head back, at which point you immediately step toward him and say, “Good Boy (or Girl),” and give him a reward for giving you your space. The next time he gets too close or pushy, simply put your hand up like a stop sign with a loud and abrupt “No!” This should be sufficient. Your equine should then be willing to back up and wait for the reward. You still need to be very consistent about when the rewards are given and when the correction is truly needed. “No” is the only negative verbal command you should ever give and should be the only word that ever denotes your displeasure so there is never any confusion (do not use any other negative verbal words or noises).

NOTE: Never leave a halter on an unsupervised equine. This is very dangerous! The halter can easily become snagged on something and can result in severe injury, a broken neck, or even death.

When thinking about the way horses, and particularly mules and donkeys learn, consider the way human children learn: They cannot accomplish many different tasks all at the same time. When tasks are not taught one by one and in a natural and logical order, confusion and failure are almost certainly guaranteed. If you want to have good results, you need to be working in a natural and logical order, with small enough steps that make sense to your equine. When training your mule or donkey, use a fanny pack filled with crimped oats, but do not offer a bucket of oats.

You should not even try to put on a halter and lead until your equine lets you touch him all over. Then you can approach with the halter. For instance, before you even halter your equine, ask him to come to you and then reward him with crimped oats when he does come. When he is consistently coming to you, the next step is to carry the halter with you without put it on him. Reward his approach toward you and his acceptance of the halter being present. Let him sniff and investigate the halter as much as he wants. Once he shows no sign of being at all bothered by the presence of the halter, you can then put the halter on him. When doing so, remember to always be polite and gentle. Reward your equine for the acceptance of the halter, and then try to loop your arm over his neck while feeding the crown strap of the halter from your left hand (from under his neck) to your right hand that is looped over his neck. This way, even if he starts to slowly move away, you can pull him back towards you with the loop around his neck and finish the process by putting his nose through the noseband of the halter. However, if he quickly jerks away, just let go of the rope. Then show him the oats and encourage him to return and try again, but do not give him any oats until he comes all the way back to your hand. Anytime he moves away, just ask him to return, but never chase him. Always make sure he comes all the way to you for his reward.

If you find that you are having difficulty during leading training, your own body may be out of good posture, causing you to take too many steps before stopping to square up. First, make sure you are in good posture. Then give the verbal command to “walk on.” Walk a straight line, pointing to where you are going with your right hand and keeping the left hand securely on your left hip. Make sure your steps mirror his front legs. Then stop, face your equine, reward him for stopping, make him stand squarely, make sure you are still in good posture and reward him for squaring up. Now just stand still for a few minutes, giving your equine time to settle and process what has just happened. Then reward him for standing quietly for a few minutes.

Next, turn and face the next direction in which you will be going, point with your right hand, give the command to “walk on,” and repeat the exercise. If done correctly, there will be many chances to hesitate a bit or stop between actions. All of these hesitations and stops will force your equine to pay attention and be ready for your next move. If you are performing each task in these smaller increments, he will be less likely to forge ahead. It will also give you the opportunity to do things slowly enough to get it exactly “right” and through repetition, your equine will be able to transform learned behaviors into automatic behaviors. If you try to hold a move too long or, on the other hand, do things too fast, your animal may not have time to properly comply, causing him to get confused, lose interest and engage in avoidance behavior.

You should not need to tug, pull or push. Just stand still in good posture when you stop and immediately stick your hand into the fanny pack and offer the reward. If you are doing all of this correctly, your equine might turn his head into your hand and swing his hindquarters around so that he faces you instead of stopping in his tracks. Not staying straight in his tracks is a temporary problem that you can fix by simply squaring him up after he has stopped and been rewarded. If he is forging ahead, one or more things are going on; either you are not doing things in small enough steps, not rewarding promptly enough to make him turn into you, or you are not using the fanny pack. These problems can be fixed by being more attentive to your own good posture and your movements, and to the times when he does cooperate. Keep lessons in small enough steps so he can be rewarded. This is called “setting up for success.”

You need to lead your equine with your left hand and shorten the lead rope, so he carries his head next to your right shoulder and cannot slip his head behind your back. He may try to walk ahead of you, at which point you can use your right hand to push his nose back into position. This will be very awkward at first and it will take time for you both to learn to do it properly. If he knows you are carrying a fanny pack of oats, he will be more apt to go in front of you than to follow you from behind or pass you, because he will be looking for the fanny pack. Again, use your free right hand to push him back into the correct position.

Without the reward, there is no incentive for him to do a task correctly, so always remember to dispense the reward promptly and appropriately, accompanied by a verbal “Good Boy!” whenever he correctly does what you ask. Do not spend more than 15 to 20 minutes every other day on lessons, as your animal can get bored and frustrated if you drill. At first, just practice “walk” and “halt.” When he has learned to stay at your shoulder, you can progress to the next step of halting and setting him up to stand squarely. Once he does this correctly, you can move on to trotting and turns. Remember—breaking the lessons into small steps, maintaining good posture and quickly rewarding will help your equine to achieve small victories because you are setting him up for success!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

© 2016, 2017, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Myths About Desensitization

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By Meredith Hodges

You really don’t want to desensitize your animals to everything. Here is Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of the word “desensitize”:

1) to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or non-reactive to a sensitizing agent.

Some people have the misconception that, in order to desensitize an animal, you have to make it numb to its surroundings and any stimulus it encounters. Not true! What you really want to do is sensitize your equine to different body language and cues from you, as the trainer. So “desensitization” does not mean achieving a total lack of sensitivity. Rather, it should be approached as a way of training your equine (in a way that is quiet and calm) to be less sensitive to certain objects or events that may be cause him to be fearful, so he can move forward with confidence and the right sensitivity toward the communication between the two of you.

When incorrect, harsh or overly aggressive desensitizing techniques are used on equines, the handler is met with either a very strong flight reflex or a stand and fight reflex.  In either case, an equine will either put up a fight and be deemed a rogue and, therefore, untrainable, or eventually just “give up” and succumb to the trainer’s wishes. This is  a sad situation because the equine is not given the opportunity to make reasonable choices in his relationship with his trainer. The equine’s instinct to warm up to the person training him is hampered by his fear of more desensitization techniques. Thus, he becomes resigned to his work and is not fully engaged in the training process.

Often, trainers will put obstacles such as a trailer, tire or tarp in an equine’s pen in the hope of getting him used to it by making him live with it. But ask yourself this: How much rest would you get if someone put a blaring radio in your bedroom to desensitize you to noise? Equines have many of the same reactions to their personal space that we do, and they do much better when their place of rest is just that—a place of rest and comfort. And when lessons are approached in a considerate, respectful and rewarding way, an equine is more likely to approach them with an eager and positive attitude that facilitates better learning. It is always better to turn your equine’s fear into curiosity than it is to just assault his senses.

When doing obstacle training, it is better to allow your equine a gradual approach with small steps and great rewards for his honest effort than to whip and spur him through just to get to the other side. When his fear is converted to curiosity, the chance of his refusal to go forward is lessened and his trust in you as the trainer allows you to, eventually, ride through any obstacle at the slightest suggestion. This is because he trusts your judgment and has not been frightened, hurt or made uncomfortable during the training process. This is your equine developing sensitivity to your demands and learning to willingly comply so he can become a participating partner in each activity.

Some trainers believe that breaking down tasks for the equine into tiny steps is a waste of time and that giving a food reward prevents an equine from learning to respect the trainer, but I disagree. When you break tasks down into understandable steps in the beginning stages of training, you will eventually begin to get solid, reliable behavior from your equine. You will have to pay attention to a lot of little details at the beginning stages of training (and that can seem overwhelming at first), but if you take the time to pay attention to these small steps in the beginning stages and through the ground work and round pen work that will follow, when you finally do move on to riding under saddle the lessons will go much more quickly.

Each stage of training should become easier for you and your equine to master. For instance, it actually takes you less time to train in something like a side pass if you have done your groundwork training with the lead line and drive-line lateral training before you even get into the saddle. It also follows that the side pass will come more easily for your equine if he has first learned to move on an angle in the leg yield before having to move straight sideways. This is an example of taking things in small, logical steps, keeping your equine sensitive to his surroundings and tasks without fear. It also greatly lessens the chance for a fear or anxiety-driven blow up from your equine later on.

There is a physical as well as mental aspect to all of this technique. While you are training your equine to perform certain movements and negotiations over obstacles, his muscles, ligaments and tendons are all involved in his actions. When an equine is asked to do a movement for which his muscles have not first been properly conditioned, he will not only execute the motion incorrectly, but his premature attempt will undoubtedly compromise his muscles, ligaments and tendons. Even if he can adequately assimilate a requested movement while he is young, he could easily be creating problems in his body and joints that will cause him escalating problems as he ages.

If you were asked to go on a 25-mile hike with a 50-pound pack on your back, how would you prepare in order to safely and successfully perform this task? You would break it down into small steps, working up to it by first running a short distance with a very light weight, and then gradually increasing the distance you run and the weight you carry, which may take as long as a couple of years of careful training and conditioning. But if you tried to prepare for this kind of grueling hike by simply walking around the block a few times for a couple of days, you’d wreck your muscles, compromise your health and probably fail—all because you attempted to do the task when you weren’t physically or mentally ready. And depending on how much you strained your body, you just might discover down the line that the damage is permanent and will worsen over the course of your life. I use this illustration to show that, just as with humans, when it comes to training and conditioning your equine, it’s always better to take it slowly—one step at a time. Your equine will learn to enjoy being a partner in your challenges and goals if you give him the time he needs to be able to do these activities comfortably and with success.

An equine that learns in this sensitized way can also make judgments that might even save your life when you might not be paying attention. This is because when your equine is calm and well rested, he actually seems to be able to anticipate consequences, making him more likely to stop and wait for your cue. The equine that is “forced” during training will most often become anxious about a challenging situation and will seldom stop and calmly alert you to a potential peril—and he most likely will not trust your judgment.

It is because I have trained my mules in this sensitized way that I once avoided going over a 100-foot drop up in the Rocky Mountains while on a trail ride. On that particular day, I was in front, riding my mule, Mae Bea C.T. with four horses behind us. When we came to a giant boulder semi-blocking the trail, I told the people on the horses to wait and rode ahead. I soon found that the trail had narrowed to an impassable two feet wide and a rockslide had wiped out the trail ahead completely! It was straight up 100 feet on one side of the trail and straight down 100 feet on the other side and there was no going forward. The horses behind me were still on the wider part of the trail on the other side of the boulder and were able turn around, so they were safe, but backing my mule around the boulder on that treacherous trail would be very dangerous. I thought we were stuck. At that point, my mule calmly looked back around at me as if to ask, “Well, Mom, what do we do now?” I thought for a minute and then shifted the weight in my seat toward my mule’s hindquarters. This movement from me allowed her to shift her weight to her hindquarters. Then, with pressure from my right leg, she lifted her shoulders, pivoted on her left hind foot and performed a 180-degree turn to the left on her haunches, and with her front feet in the air, she swept them across the open precipice of the cliff and turned us back around to face the wider (and safe) part of the trail. After completing the turn, she stopped again, looked back at me to see if everything was okay and waited for my cue to proceed back down. I believe, without a doubt, that my mule’s incredible and calm response to a life-threatening situation was the direct result of the sensitized training methods I used that created our unbreakable bond of trust.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

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MULE CROSSING: On the Trail with Mules

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By Meredith Hodges

With the hectic schedule of spring and summer slowly tapering into fall, thoughts of cool, refreshing mountain streams, the sight of a massive bull elk, or the quiet majesty of the rugged mountain peaks on a relaxing trail ride, mountain hunt or pack trip begin to ease their way into our minds. What better time to share with your mule or donkey? What better place for him to show you what he was born to do? A mountain trail ride or pack trip are both perfect ways for you to get to really know your Longears and strengthen the bond between you.

Mules are remarkably strong and durable animals, making them excellent mountain partners. The cupped shape of their hooves allows them to track the rough mountain terrain with much more surefootedness than their counterpart, the horse. A mule’s superior intelligence and strong sense of survival help him to carefully negotiate the placement of his feet, insuring the safest ride possible. This is both important and comforting to know when heading for the mountains. The mule’s strength and endurance are sometimes unbelievable, but always dependable. On a hunting trip, he will take you through rough mountain terrain for days then pack out the “elk of your dreams” with the greatest of ease.

Around the campfire, he is wonderful company on those lonesome mountain nights. His blatant curiosity can make for some fun—and funny— situations, and his loving ways will win your heart. But first and foremost, he is a reliable companion when the going gets tough.

A few years ago, some close muleskinner friends of mine decided to take a hunting trip into the Rocky Mountains. Packing in, the weather was beautiful with warm temperatures, calm breezes, and not a cloud in the sky. After setting up camp and tending to their horses and mules, the hunters set off tracking elk. Hunting was good, but after a few days, the evening brought with it an unpredictable snowstorm of incredible intensity. The hunters crawled from their tents the next morning to discover their camp buried in more than four feet of   snow!

With no chance of the storm lifting, the hunters packed up what they could on their horses and mules and quickly got under way. Since time was of the essence, tents and much of their gear had to be left behind. As they left the campsite, the snow deepened and the terrain underneath was steep, rocky and treacherous. They had gone only a short distance when the snow became so deep and the terrain so hazardous that the horses refused to go one step farther. Anxiety was high when the horses could not blaze a trail out. The hunters were worried they wouldn’t make it off the mountain alive.

In the face of this great danger, my friend asked his trusted mule, Goliath, to break trail for the others. With slow, careful, deliberate steps, this well-trained, loyal mule led them all down the mountain to safety. Once there, they freed their trucks and trailers, which were buried in snow, loaded them up, and made their way back to the lowlands to safety. The storms on the mountain worsened and it was spring before the hunters could return for the rest of their gear, but they were eternally grateful to Goliath the mule for leading them safely down the mountain!

There are many stories like this one, where mules and donkeys have emerged as heroes in precarious situations. However, if you prefer not to take risks like my hunter friends, there are other less daunting activities you can enjoy with your donkey or mule.

Why not take your longeared companion along to the mountains for a hike or a picnic? He would thoroughly love just being with you in those beautiful surroundings. While you walk the trails, enjoying the marvels of nature, your donkey or mule can carry the lunch essentials. While you enjoy the wildflowers or try your hand at fishing a mountain stream, you can be confident that your Longears will enjoy the peaceful solitude and be able to stay out of serious trouble at the same time.

If you question taking excursions such as these with your longears because of a lack of training, there are fellow Longears lovers who can help you. All over the United States, excellent mule trainers are available to help beginners. A Longears lover once told me that his love for burros and mules began years ago when he found Dusty, a three-month-old wild burro caught in a blizzard. He took her home and cared for her, and, a year later, he entered her in the National Western Fall Classic Donkey and Mule Show. He and Dusty were awarded the title of Reserve Champion Donkey of the Show! Ever since, he has sought to help others enjoy Longears and horses in any way he can. In addition to breaking and training wild mustangs at his Medicine Bow Stables, he has included free clinics for burro owners to teach them how to handle and care for their animals.

Getting proper training for your donkey or mule can only enhance your relationship with them and in turn, they will enrich your life. This fall, why not take the time to really get to know these remarkable animals by letting them share in the fun, be it hiking, hunting, packing, or picnicking. The life you enhance may be your own!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: The Responsible Use of Restraints in Training

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By Meredith Hodges

There is  a lot of discussion about training mules versus training horses. There are some who say that mules are harder to train than horses and others who say just the opposite. It has been my experience that it isn’t really that one animal is more “difficult” than the other. They each have their own redeeming qualities and individual limiting factors. The people who are dealing with them also have their own redeeming and limiting factors. For instance, if you are leading a horse and he does not wish to follow you, because he hasn’t the strength in his head and neck as a donkey or mule and can be more easily bullied into complying with a quick jerk on the lead rope.

On the other hand, if you are leading a mule or donkey, they can easily jerk the rope right out of your hands because of the incredible strength they have in their head and neck. When you teach a mule or donkey something one day, he will ponder what he has been taught during the days in between lessons.  He will comply more easily during the next lesson.  Regardless of how many days or weeks have passed between lessons, the horse will tend to forget and will need to be reminded where the mule or donkey will not.

It makes sense that the handler needs to adjust his training program such that the horse has more frequent and consistent lessons to refresh his memory. The mule will only need lessons as frequently as it takes to maintain good physical condition. When applying lessons more frequently, the handler has the ability to make subtle adjustments to get the best from the horse. If he wants the mule or donkey to react properly, it is critical that he teaches the mule or donkey correctly the first time as they will learn EXACTLY what the handler teaches and will continue to repeat it. The option of changing your approach during the training sequence is limited. What this all amounts to is that one is really not more easily trained than the other. Rather, it is the experience and knowledge of the handler or trainer that really makes the difference.

Mules and donkeys, sensitive and intelligent creatures that they are, seem to be more concerned about the overall attitude of the trainer than are horses. With the intelligent use of negative reinforcement, a positive attitude and informed use of restraints, modifying the behavior of any equine becomes a lot easier.

When mules do not comply with our wishes, you need to get first his attention and do something to temper his defensive attitude. When we are intelligent about a situation, it minimizes the animal’s negative reactive responses. Our politeness and consideration promote an overall positive attitude on both parts, and opens the lines of communication. Since these animals outweigh us by several hundred pounds, careful and informed use of restraints must sometimes be used to perpetuate the close relationship between you and your mule or donkey (and sometimes horses) in the training environment. Restraints should be used to help “explain” what you wish your mule to do, but should not be used as a perpetual training “crutch.” Intelligence, attitude and restraints should always be used in conjunction with a “path of least resistance” to promote successful training sessions.

If we realize that correct development of mind and muscle takes time, we can relax, let the animal learn at his own pace, utilize these helpful restraints to minimize resistance in difficult situations and actually enjoy the training process with our animals. For example, in the case of Draw Reins, they should only be used lightly in conjunction with your regular reins and only when necessary. In the beginning, this might mean at every stride. It is rather obvious how the Draw Reins can be phased out over time, but what about a restraint such as the Scotch Hobble, which is a seemingly inflexible restraint?

The first time you use the Scotch Hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind foot so that it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quieter and more accepting of what you are doing, you can loosen the Scotch Hobble a little at each session. If your mule’s behavior is good, adjust the Scotch Hobble so that his toe rests on the ground. Next session, you might let him stand on all fours with the rope tied loosely into position, until he has complied to the point where the rope is actually around only the hind foot and is lying loosely on the ground. Naturally, if he becomes fidgety, just back up one step and tighten your connections on the rope.

There are many restraints available for use in the equine industry today: martingales, tie-downs, side reins, draw reins, hobbles and the list goes on. In my estimation, these restraints are being used much too freely as “crutches” and are responsible for terrible body posture and limited responsiveness among today’s equines. A restraint should be used only as a helpful tool to allow you to attain a certain positive response from the animal. Once you get the proper response, it is your responsibility to phase out the restraint in order to instill in your animal the correct behavior itself.

Early in a mule’s life, he should be taught to be calm in restraints, which makes daily tasks much easier. Your veterinarian and farrier will thank you and it may save your mule’s life if he should get caught in a fence, fall into a hole or encounter any other such potential for disaster. The goal is to teach him to think before he struggles or bolts and tries to run. Many Longears do this naturally, but it is always better to reinforce this pause for thought with lessons.

CAUTION: NEVER USE THE FACE TIE ON A HORSE.

The following technique is useful when working around very young mules, although it works on adults as well. You must remember to step back if your mule begins to struggle—give him space to learn the situation.

To use the Face Tie:

  1. Wrap your lead around the hitch rail once until your mule’s face is over the rail and held tight against it.
  2. Slip the rope through the noseband of the halter and around the hitch rail again and secure it. For a more secure tie (or to keep your mule sideways to the rail for vaccinations), you can run the rope through the throatlatch and around the hitch rail again.

Use the Face Tie to aid in clipping your mule’s bridle path and other light weekly trimming to prepare him for show clipping later on. It can also be used to teach a difficult mule or donkey to be bridled.

If your mule is difficult to lead, you can use a Quick Twist in your lead rope to give you more leverage. Twist a loop in the lead rope and bring it behind the noseband of the halter. Slip the loop around your mule’s nose and pull it snug. Pull on the lead until it is tight around his nose, and then just stand still, holding the tension in the lead rope until your mule steps forward. Do not keep pulling or jerking on the rope or he will become resistant and go backwards instead. By using the Quick Twist, when you ask him to come forward, you are not just pulling the halter—you have more leverage. Repeat as necessary.

NOTE: Do not tie your animal up while using a Quick Twist. Remove the quick twist and use the face tie if needed when tying.

To further perfect your equine’s Showmanship technique, you can also use a Lead Shank with a chain under the jaw, but always tie him with the lead rope only—never with the Lead Shank.

A soft, three-foot (one-meter) rope can be used to make a set of front leg hobbles. Leather hobbles are generally considered an “appointment” (equipment accessory), and are sometimes attached to the saddle when showing in Western classes. They are dangerous and not very effective because they can easily break. So if you have a need for hobbles, be sure to purchase those that are meant to be used on the equine’s legs and not those made of thin leather that are meant only as an equipment accessory for your saddle. Be careful with nylon hobbles as they can chafe the equine’s pasterns if they are not lined with a softer material.

Probably the most helpful restraint there is when it comes to mules and donkeys is the scotch hobble. This restraint helps to facilitate good ground manners and prevent kicking by restraining one hind foot, causing the mule to stand still while you work on him, whether it’s clipping or shoeing him, or saddling him for the first time. But, as with any restraint, you should keep in mind that it must be phased out sooner or later. The first time a restraint is used, it will usually have to be used in its full capacity to get the desired response.

To make the 15-foot (5-meter) scotch hobble:

  1. Tie a nonslip knot around your mule’s neck.
  2. Take the excess rope down to the hind foot and around the pastern, then back up through the neck loop and back around the pastern a second time.
  3. Pull the rope just tight enough so that your mule must stand on his other three feet for balance.
  4. Wrap the excess around the ropes going to the foot and back up to the loop around the neck.
  5. Tie with a quick-release knot. By wrapping the ropes going to the foot, you prevent the foot from slipping loose.

The first time you use the scotch hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind leg so it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quiet and accepting, you should loosen the hobble a little each time until you are not really using it at all. This is called “phasing (or fading) out the restraint.”

When he has learned to stand calmly in a scotch hobble, you can use a twisted lead rope (with no snap) in a figure eight to hobble his front legs with a safety knot. The same lead rope can be used to tie up one front leg by wrapping the rope around the bent leg, forcing the mule to keep all his weight on the other three legs. This type of hobbling is particularly useful when clipping the hair on the front legs of a mule. As you work on the leg that is not hobbled, your mule will quickly learn that with the other leg ties up, it is to his advantage not to try not to move the leg you are clipping.

On a difficult mule, you may have to use the twisted lead rope in conjunction with the scotch hobble. Adjust the scotch hobble so only your mule’s toe touches the ground for balance, but not enough to bear weight. Once he is accustomed to this restraint, you can safely put him in sheepskin-lined chain hobbles.

Do not use nylon hobbles—they can cause severe rope burns if they are not lined with a soft material! Leather hobbles are fine as long as they are intended for restraint use and not just as a saddle accessory. Now you can think about taking your mule into the high country, hobbling him and turning him loose to graze while you set up camp. You should be able to find and catch him the next morning, because mules generally do not wander far from their “families.” But keep in mind that mules are very smart and can quickly learn to hop along while hobbled. Also, if you have a horse with you that likes to wander, be sure to tie him up because mules will follow horses.

Choosing the right restraint for a given situation takes thought and consideration. You must ask yourself, which restraints are available to me? Which restraint will most likely bring about the response I desire from my mule? Will the response with this restraint come with little or no resistance and is it humane? Will it cause other more serious problems in the animal? And finally, can the restraint be phased out relatively easily?

Keeping these things in mind when using restraints will help to keep the relationship with your mule from becoming a battleground. Bear in mind that whichever restraint you use might vary from situation to situation and from animal to animal, so carefully consider your options. Remember, using intelligence, a good attitude and an informed use of restraints can greatly enhance your training experience together.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1989, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Donkey Jacks

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By Meredith Hodges

A donkey jack can be your best friend or your worst enemy! Because he is a donkey, he possesses all the wonderful characteristics particular to donkeys—intelligence, strength, easy maintenance, suitability for many equine sports and, probably most important, an innate affectionate attitude. You must, however, realize that he is still an intact male, often governed by the hormones in his body. When nature takes over, the jack’s conscious thought is greatly diminished and he can become quite hazardous to your health. The jack’s aggressiveness is often masked by his sedate and affectionate attitude, but it can arise in a split second and do more damage than even a stallion. Usually, there is an awkwardness, or indecisiveness, in an agitated stallion that will allow you time to get out of the way, but the jack reacts strongly, swiftly and right on target, allowing you little or no time for retreat. By keeping a few simple things in mind, you can greatly reduce your chances of injury when handling jacks.

First, try to keep your jack in a comfortable atmosphere. Jacks can be great worriers, particularly about their mares and jennets. Ideally, you should keep the jack well out of sight and smell of the females, but this is not always practical. If he must be near females, make sure your jack has a roomy area, free of refuse and debris, and adequately fenced. The fences should be high enough to discourage his leaning over the top and strong enough to bear his weight on impact. Also, they must be constructed so that there are no protrusions that could cause him injury. If females (or other animals) are present, the jack may run back and forth along the fence and catch his head on anything that is protruding. Hot wires along the inside of a weaker fence will often serve this purpose. However, a hot wire used alone is not sufficient. If your jack becomes frightened, he could run through an electric wire before he even knows that it is there. Giving him a clean, comfortable area where his limits are clearly defined will help him to be a calmer and more manageable animal.

Always make sure your jack’s pen is cleaned daily and that he has free access to clean water, a trace mineral salt block and good grass hay. If he gains too much weight with free choice grass hay, then simply limit his intake to two flakes at each feeding in the morning and evening. He can have a limited amount of oats during one feeding a day (preferably in the evenings), mixed with an appropriate vitamin supplement such as Sho Glo, and one ounce of Mazola corn oil (I suggest this particular brand—other brands of corn oils are not the same) for management of his coat, his feet and his digestive tract regularity. During feeding times, you should check him from top to bottom for any new changes to his body like cuts, bruises, lameness, etc. This is also a good way to reinforce his acceptance of being handled all over and to solidify your relationship with him. This consistent management practice paves the way for good manners in the jack, because he then knows with no uncertainty that you are a true friend and really do care about his well-being.

Many people opt to keep jacks in solitude, but this is not really good for them. Being a natural herd animal, they need social interaction. When they don’t have company nearby, jacks can become depressed (donkeys have actually been known to die from depression—they can stop eating and simply give up). To remedy this, jacks can be pastured or penned next to other animals, as long as the fencing is adequate between them. Of course, you also need to take into consideration the personality types of the animals involved, as well as being careful to make sure they are compatible. This can fulfill their need for companionship and keep them happy in confinement. As long as there are no cycling horse or donkey females around, jacks can be pastured next to mules of both genders. I had my own jack, Little Jack Horner, penned next to our teaser stallion for many years and they actually liked each other! We never had any trouble with them at all.

You can spend more time with your jack by using him for more than just breeding. Animals, like people, always do better when they have a regular job to do that affords them some purpose in life beyond propagation. Some sort of job will give your jack an alternative purpose, which can help to diffuse his obsession with the female. It will also attend to the strength of his core muscles that surround the skeletal system and vital organs and teach him self-discipline. And it affords more time for you to develop your relationship with him, have fun together and to deepen the bond between you, which helps the jack to develop a healthy mental attitude. There are many jack owners who use their jacks for riding and driving, as well as for breeding. This is an excellent and actually the best plan, but if you lack the time or inclination to use your jack this way and wish to use him exclusively for breeding, you should still take some time—at least two or three days a week—to work on halter training and groundwork, such as ground driving, for manageability. Teach your jack to walk, trot, whoa and stand still on the lead. During these sessions, keep a positive and relaxed attitude, with more emphasis on your rapport with him than on his performance. Be his friend so he has something to look forward to besides females and breeding, and he will have a much better attitude overall.

When he is flawless with his leading training, you can get him used to the bridle and a surcingle or lightweight saddle, and then move on to ground driving. Lunging is not as important, since most donkeys do not like to lunge. I suppose they don’t see much purpose in going around in a circle more than once to come back to the same place over and over again. Taking the time to properly train your donkey jack at halter and in the drivelines will enhance his obedience, and will make him more comfortable and relaxed.  During the breeding process, it can even speed up his readiness.

When using your jack for breeding, develop a routine that he can count on every time. When you go to the stall or pen to catch the jack, wait for him to come to you at the gate or stall door, and then reward him with oats when he comes to you. Then put on the halter, ask him to take one step backwards, and then reward him again (which is very important to prevent him from running over you and barging through the gate or out the door). If you are going to breed him, the mare should first be prepared. Next, once you are both out the door, ask him to whoa and square up all four feet. Then you can lead him to the breeding area, where you can then tie him to the hitch rail a little ways away from the waiting mare. By being consistent in your manner of going from the stall to the breeding area, the jack will learn not to be pushy and aggressive toward you.

When in the breeding area, your jack must be taught patience and obedience. If the mare is left to stand just out of reach until he is ready to breed, he may consider this a tease and may become anxious and unruly. To clarify your intentions to him, you can take the cloth you used to clean the mare and place it over the hitch rail near your jack’s nose. This way, he can get a good, strong scent of the mare, which will more quickly ready him for breeding and substantially decrease his anxiety time. If he is an indifferent jack, this can actually increase his interest in the female and, in turn, shorten the actual breeding process time. The fact that you brought him the scent allows the jack to believe that it is your decision when to breed and not his and that he must remain obedient. Let him cover the mare only when he is fully ready and make him walk to her in a gentlemanly fashion. If he becomes too aggressive and starts to drag you just return him to his place on the hitch rail, hold him there for a minute, reward him when he stands still and then re-approach the mare.

Just to be on the safe side with your jack while breeding, use either a muzzle or a dropped noseband (snugly fit low on his nose)—this will prevent biting injuries to you or to the mare. When he is finished, make him stand quietly behind the mare while you rinse him off. Allow him that last sniff to the mare’s behind, and then take him back to his stall (or pen), ask him to stand still while you remove the halter and then let him go. That last sniff appears to be an assertion of his act and of his manhood. If you try to lead him away before he sniffs, he might not come with you and he might become even more aggressive toward the mare. Remember to do things with your jack in a routine way, and always with safety in mind—this will allow him to relax and use the manners he has learned. NOTE: Women who are menstruating should never handle jacks or stallions during that particular time, since the scent can trigger aggressive and dangerous behaviors in these animals.

When you are around a jack, you must always be alert and know what he is doing at all times. A jack can be the most adorable, loveable, obedient guy in the world, but you must realize that his natural instincts can arise at any time and, although he may not do it intentionally, he can severely hurt you just the same. And when observing a jack from the other side of the fence, always remember that he can come over the top of that fence, teeth bared, so don’t ever turn your back to him or become complacent around him!

Lastly, when putting on or taking off any of his headgear, watch your fingers—when a jack knows the bit is coming, he often opens his jaws to meet it (with anticipation of the bit on a bridle), and your fingers can easily get in the way. Rather than a standard lead rope, it is advisable to use a lead shank with stallions and jacks for the best control. However, I discourage running the chain of a lead shank either through the mouth or over the nose. The correct position for a lead shank is under the jaw. Run the end of the chain through the ring on the near side of the halter noseband, then under the jaw, then through the ring on the opposite side of the noseband, and then clip it to the ring at the throatlatch on the right side of his face. This gives you enough leverage to control him without the halter twisting on his face. If you have spent plenty of time and done your homework during his leading lessons, your jack will learn to be obedient on the lead shank, even during breeding.

Retired jacks still need regular attention and proper maintenance to stay healthy into their senior years. Donkeys that do not receive good core muscle maintenance throughout their lives will often begin to sag drastically in the spine as they age. Their gait then becomes stilted, because their balance and strength are severely compromised. They can no longer track properly while moving or square up correctly when at rest. This can lead to irregular calcification in the joints, depression because they don’t feel well and premature health problems. On the other hand, the jack who has had a consistent and healthy management and training routine will enjoy longevity. If you keep these basic management and safety factors in mind, you and your jack can have a long, happy and mutually rewarding relationship!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1990, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Introduction to Behavior Modification, Part 2

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By Meredith Hodges

In Part 1 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, we addressed the steps involved in employing the reward system of training properly whereby desired behaviors are rewarded promptly and negative reinforcement is quick, fair and used sparingly. In Part 2, I will explain how to break down more complex movements into smaller steps that are simple and easy to accomplish, and then how to string them together in order to get the desired response from your equine.

Shaping Behaviors

Shaping behaviors takes reinforcement to the next level. Now you are working with the tendency of an animal to perform in the right way and guiding that performance toward your ultimate goal. This is called successive approximation. For example, if you are teaching a turn on the haunches on the lead line, you must first ask for one step forward. Then walk toward your animal’s shoulder and ask for the turn. In order to teach him to plant his rear pivot foot before the turn, the process must be broken down into smaller steps. First, ask for the step forward and reward him immediately when he complies. Then move on and ask for one step forward and one to the side, rewarding him again when he’s successful. Then ask for one step forward and two to the side and reward, and so forth.

Eventually, your animal will complete as many steps as you desire and, at the same time, learn to cross one foot over the other and only do as many steps as you ask. B.F. Skinner describes shaping behavior as a response that must first occur for other reasons before it is reinforced with a reward and becomes an operant or “action of choice.” A complex response such as executing the entire turn all at once would never occur naturally correct to be reinforced if you simply “turned the animal around.” He could not possibly understand that he must place the pivot foot before the turn is executed, and would most likely just “swap ends,” with no pivot foot placement and no finesse to the turn. However complex responses can be shaped by separately reinforcing their component parts. Then these parts can be put together in the final form of the operant or “desired action.”

An example of shaping a behavior by breaking it down into a string of very small steps is how I taught my donkey, Little Jack Hornerto canter. Although many people tried to tell me that donkeys don’t canter, I had seen donkeys canter when they ran free, so I knew it was possible. First, I set the goal of cantering a circle. No one could run ahead of my donkey fast enough to reward him with oats and negative reinforcement such as the crop didn’t work well at all, so I had to find another kind of reinforcement. Using the pleasure principle of finding the best motivation for an action, I put my cycling broodmares into a pen at one end of our hayfield and I took my jack to the other end. When asked to canter toward those mares, he did so eagerly. He first learned to canter in a straight line. I reinforced the action verbally with, “Good, good,” while we cantered, and then I gave him a food reward once we reached the pen.

The next time I did the same thing, but this time I turned my donkey in a large half-circle route to the pen, and I rewarded him again the same way. The third time, I asked for a little more of a circle and I got it. Several times later, I was able to get an entire circle before we ran the line to the pen with the mares in it. Once my donkey learned that he could canter easily with me on his back, I didn’t need the mares anymore.

I took Little Jack Hornerinto the arena and tried to canter the perimeter with him. At first he cantered a few strides and then dropped to trot. Each time he cantered, I praised him verbally, and when he broke to trot, I would finish the circle, stop him and praise him with the food reward. It was slow going the first few tries, until I started counting strides and realized the jack was adding one more stride at canter with each attempt. Before long, he was cantering the full circle with ease on command.

With training like this, my donkey jack, Little Jack Horner, has performed successfully in Trail, Reining (with spins, slides and flying lead changes), Second Level Dressage and even performed at Bishop Mule Days where he jumped four feet in exhibition —quite remarkable for a 13-hand equine, and a donkey no less!

The Ten Principles of Behavior Shaping

1) Establish and raise your performance criteria in increments small enough to give your animal a reasonable chance of success and create an opportunity for positive reinforcement. If the criteria are too challenging, the animal may fail and give up.

2) Train for one aspect of a behavior at a time. Do not try to teach several skills at once. When training for a dressage test, for example, do not practice the whole test every day. Take a few sections of the test and work on those. Practice going up and down the centerline in straight lines. Practice 20-meter circles. Practice going deep into the corners of the arena with the right amount of bend. Shape the ultimate result by gradually linking the components, and they’ll fit together nicely. Ride the test as a whole, and the quality of the smaller components will suffer.

3) Before you move to a new skill, put the current skill or behavior on a variable level of reinforcement. Use a fixed schedule of reinforcement on any new behaviors, rewarding verbally and with oats each time the behavior is performed, but once the animal “gets it,” reward less often and randomly. Then, as you add a new behavior, reinforce that behavior on a fixed schedule, while randomly rewarding learned behaviors.

4) When introducing new behaviors, relax expectations on the old ones. What was once learned is not forgotten, but under the pressure of assimilating new behaviors, the old behaviors sometimes temporarily fall apart.

5) Stay ahead of your trainee. Be prepared with what you will ask next, in case your animal has a sudden breakthrough and easily performs the next step. You must keep your equine challenged in order to maintain his interest.

6) Avoid changing trainers in midstream. The animal/trainer relationship is an integral part of the training. Changing trainers disrupts the training process until a new bonded relationship is formed. The owner should be doing the training with only guidance from a professional trainer as the animal will bond to the person who actually does the training.

7) If one shaping process is not working, try another. Individuals, whether animal or human, learn in different ways. Continue with the premise of reinforcement, but find what works best for your animal at any given stage. For example, if you cannot get your equine to back through barrels in a figure eight, simply begin by going forward and always start between the barrels to allay any fears he might have of them.

8) Do not interrupt the training process without cause—this constitutes a punishment. When you are training, try to avoid interruptions. When you train using the methods of behavior modification, you are obliged to reinforce the good behaviors. If you aren’t paying attention, you may inadvertently punish a desired behavior if you interrupt it. The most common example of an infringement would be talking to someone while you are training the animal. If you must talk to someone, simply include the equine in the conversation.

9) If a learned behavior begins to deteriorate, simply review and use fixed reinforcement until it is re-established. Sometimes side effects from negative reinforcement can cause this to occur, but if you remain calm and patient, the animal should relearn quickly.

10) Quit while you’re ahead. At the beginning of the each session, you will likely see improvement from where you were at the end of the session before. Drilling on a desired behavior will make the animal tired and less willing to perform. Better to quit with a good assimilation of the requested behavior, and work to refine it in subsequent sessions.

The Road to Success for You and Your Equine

As you begin to understand the principles of shaping and modifying behaviors, it is important to realize that it is a lot like dancing, cooking or any other learned skill—the only way forward is with practice. The more you practice, the better trainer you will become. You have the opportunity to practice positive reinforcement every moment of your life, reinforcing behaviors in everyone—the cat, the dog, your husband or wife, your children. It becomes a game of noticing and praising positive accomplishments while setting clear boundaries to all behaviors, large or small. With practice, you will increase your awareness and, thus, your skill. The success or failure of your efforts to shape behavior in any animal does not depend upon your expertise, but on your patience, respect, consideration and consistency during the process. This may not be the easiest way, but it is extremely effective—and it’s fun!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

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