What's New: Mule Crossing

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MULE CROSSING: Hauling Long Distances

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By Meredith Hodges

Hauling long distances needn’t be a problem with your Longears, if you use a little common sense and consideration. Their natural durability and good sense make them basically easier to haul than horses. When hauling for more than four or five hours, there are a few things to consider.

First, you should be sure that the trailer in which they are to ride affords safety and comfort. Before you leave, you should check over your trailer thoroughly. Make sure the hitch is secure and in good repair, and that there are no weakened welds anywhere. Check your trailer’s tires, bearings, axels and brakes for maximum performance, and make sure all the lights are in working order. Take the trailer mats out and check the floor boards for rot and other weaknesses, and replace any boards that are even questionable.

Using bedding such as shavings or straw in the trailer may afford a little extra comfort, and can encourage urination on the trip, but it isn’t always the best thing to do. The wind can cause the bedding to fly around inside the trailer, causing irritation to your animal’s eyes, ears and respiratory tract, particularly if you use shavings. If you wish to use bedding, straw is the better choice. In addition to the straw bedding, choose thicker trailer mats (rather than those that are thin) for your trailer. Thicker mats allow for more absorption of trailer vibration, as well as dispersing the moisture from urination. The trailer you use should give each animal ample space in which to stand. If your mules and donkeys are crowded in too tightly, they will be tense and anxious throughout the trip and will tire easily. This can result in battles between animals, increasing the potential for injury.


Mules and donkeys, like horses, should be “dressed” for their trip. For their overall comfort during long trips, halters should be fleeced, at least over the noseband, to protect from excessive rubbing that can result from being tied. Shipping wraps for their legs are also advisable to prevent injuries from a loss of balance, misstep or kick from another animal in the trailer. Depending on the weather and the kind of trailer you have (either a stock trailer or enclosed trailer) you can use sheets or blankets to protect the rest of your animal’s body.

Donkeys tend to sit back on whatever is behind them while they ride, so they should always wear an oversized sheet or blanket that drops down behind the rump to prevent chafing. If they are not protected in this way, they can develop terrible raw spots on their tails and hindquarters. Using a tail wrap on mules and donkeys is rarely successful, as these tend to slide off (even if they are taped). If they are put on too tightly, they can cut off the circulation in the tail and cause problems.

When loading your mules and donkeys, pay special attention to each individual’s needs. Animals that lean one way or the other generally do better in a slant load trailer rather than in an in-line trailer, but if you must use an in-line trailer, make sure that the animal that leans has a solid wall or partition on the side to which he leans. You always want to put animals next to each other that get along well, so if you must load a leaner on the wrong side, be sure to put him next to an animal that is able to tolerate his leaning without retaliating if there are no partitions. If you have an open stock trailer, another alternative is to load your animals into the trailer and tie them facing backwards. Many equines actually prefer to ride facing backwards because they find it easier to balance. Note: This alternative is not advisable in a partitioned in-line or slant-load trailer.

Once on the road, try to keep your equines’ routine as close to their “at home” routine as possible. Keeping grass hay in front of them will help to alleviate some of the stress of the trip, and will encourage them to relax and accept the situation. Feeds such as grain and alfalfa hay should be avoided, since these highly mobilize the intestines and can cause contractions that can lead to colic, particularly if your animals are not drinking enough water along the way. They should at least be offered some water (whether they drink it or not) at every stop you make along the way and ideally, once every two to three hours. Note: Water that your mules and donkeys are not used to may smell or taste strange to them and can be flavored with something they like. For instance, my donkey jack, Little Jack Horner, has a preference for iced tea to flavor unappetizing water on the road. Lightly flavoring your equines’ water may encourage them to continue to eat and drink throughout the trip, and will help keep them happy and healthy.

If your trailer is large and has good suspension, your mules and donkeys can ride for as long as twelve to fourteen hours without too much discomfort, provided that you make frequent fifteen-to-twenty-minute stops every two to three hours along the journey. This should not interrupt your travel schedule, as you will already be stopping for gas along the way. If your animals are riding in a smaller trailer with more vibration, it is advisable to stop, unload and walk your animals every four to six hours, in order to give them time to stretch, relax and rest their legs. If you have a difficult animal, loading him last is often easiest, since he won’t want to be left behind and will be more likely to follow the other animals into the trailer. This can be inconvenient if you have any animals that are difficult to load because of the extra time involved, but it is always a good opportunity to train them to get in and out of the trailer simply by repetition. By the end of a long trip, they will be loading and unloading much more easily. Just make sure that, if you have equines that are difficult to load, you have allotted yourself enough travel time to include this kind of training.

Long before you actually go anywhere, get your animals used to being handled inside the trailer. When unloading, always make them stand and wait. I usually remove my animals’ shipping wraps before I let them come out of the trailer, but if they are packed in pretty tightly, I just remove the leg wraps I can reach. The removal of leg wraps before unloading adds purpose to your Longears’ waiting time (which they quickly come to understand). Frequently offering water at stops gets your animals used to you moving about the trailer while they are loaded. Most equines realize that all of this is for their benefit and you should find them mostly cooperative and appreciative.

There are times when weather can change drastically and depending on what the weather and temperatures are doing, your animals may need sheets or blankets either put on or removed. When you teach your animals to stand quietly while you climb around inside the trailer ahead of time, putting on leg wraps or taking them off should help them feel more relaxed and accepting of the whole situation.

When loading or unloading your animals, you must always be very careful not to move too quickly or abruptly, which could possibly startle them and even get you trapped. But if you do have an emergency to attend to en route and your animals have been trained in the manner described above, you should be able to get to the animal in trouble with minimal problems. It sometimes takes a little more patience to get horses to stand quietly in the trailer. Once they realize that you are truly concerned with their best interests, mules and donkeys (intelligent creatures that they are), will usually be very cooperative and your long hauls can become relaxing and enjoyable road trips.

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.

© 2000, 2003, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Looking Objectively at Your Equine

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By Meredith Hodges

Before most of us learn anything about horses, mules and donkeys, we tend to initially perceive them as large, strong and durable animals that can safely carry us anywhere we want to go and can participate in any number of equine events. This is essentially true. However, there can be a number of pitfalls along the way if you do not educate yourself and practice good maintenance, feeding and training practices.

Equines, like people, are comprised of living tissue, bones, muscles and tendons that can often experience improper growth and development, which can compromise their performance. This is why it is important to feed your equine’s living tissue, bones, muscles and tendons a healthy diet and exercise him in a way that builds these elements using natural and non-stressful techniques that will help your equine to strengthen properly in the right frame, or posture.

It is also important to make sure the tack you use fits well and is adjusted properly. An equine that is experiencing soreness from ill-fitting tack will be distracted from his best performance. Improve your own skills by taking care of your own body as you observe and condition your equine. The person who eats healthy food, exercises in good posture and improves his or her own general conditioning, coordination and Horsemanship skills will not be out of balance and will not compromise the equine’s ability to perform.

Let’s take this one step at a time. First, make sure that your equine is stabled in a place where he has adequate shelter from the elements, plenty of room to exercise himself when you are not there, clean water and a good feeding schedule. When an equine is nervous or high strung, it can usually be attributed to this very elemental beginning. Many show horses are kept in 12-foot by 12-foot stalls with limited turnout during the day, usually only an hour or two. Think about this for a minute. The equine is a grazing animal and his natural health is enhanced by what he eats and the fact that he is moving with his head down most of every day of his life. The only time his head is truly raised is when he is on alert.

The equine that is stabled in a stall isn’t urged to have his head down for any more time than it takes to eat up the loose hay after his feedings. His body is forced to remain in a very small range of movement and he can become stiff and sore when asked to do things that require more flexibility in his work. When fed high protein feeds in this situation, he is not able to expend the energy to burn this feed, and it can manifest itself in nervous and anxious behavior. Therefore, it is critical to your equine’s health that he is not only fed the right kinds of feeds and supplements, but that he is able to expend this energy in a healthy way for his body to grow and develop properly.

Muscles in the equine’s body, like our own, are structured in distinctive layers and are supported by ligaments and tendons. These muscles need to be strengthened in a specific order for optimum performance. Whether he is a foal or an older animal, his athletic conditioning needs this taken into consideration. The first exercises should be passive and easy to facilitate the strengthening of the core muscles closest to the bone. This is done with exercises on the lead line. It is not as important that he learns to negotiate obstacles on the lead line as it is how he negotiates the obstacles on the lead line.

On the approach to an obstacle, your equine needs to be relaxed and comfortable. It is your job as his trainer to show him how to do this. When you lead in good posture, walk straight lines and make smooth, gradual arcs and turns, you will encourage your equine to do the same. Using short pauses between changes of pace or direction will help your equine to stay calm and receptive to training.

For instance, when approaching a bridge, walk with your equine’s head at your shoulder as if you were in a showmanship class. Stop at the foot of the bridge and encourage your equine to stretch his nose down and investigate the bridge in order to allay any fears he might have. When your animal has indicated he is not afraid by once again raising his head level with his withers, you can proceed. Face the bridge straight on, looking straight ahead and, while keeping his head at your shoulder, take the first step straight forward and onto the bridge, making sure he follows and places one front foot on the bridge itself. Next, ask him to place the other front foot onto the bridge, stop, square up his four feet (as in Showmanship) and reward. Continue forward in a straight line. Once all four of his feet are on the bridge, stop, square up and give him a reward. Then continue across the bridge maintaining your own good posture, hesitate at the last step, and then step off carefully, in good balance and with a coordinated effort. Ask him to place his two front feet on the ground while leaving the back feet on the bridge, stop, square up and reward. Your equine will learn to follow your lead and execute the task in the same balanced and coordinated manner and will be able to halt on command at any location.

In the beginning, your equine may be fearful and nervous about going over the bridge or any other obstacle. It is enough at this time that he gets over his fear and just crosses it, whether it is done with finesse or not. Once he is over the fear of crossing the obstacle, you can begin working on his ability to cross with finesse, balance and coordination. The longer you work on perfecting the negotiation of an obstacle in a balanced and coordinated way, the stronger the participating muscle groups will become and the more comfortable and automatic the movement will become until it develops into a habit.

The part you play in all of this is very important. You will discover that if you are not in balance and coordinated in the way you move with your equine, the less balanced and coordinated he will be. If you don’t walk straight, then neither will he. If you are not confident in your approach, then he won’t be either. Even something as simple as the tack you use will play a big part in your equine’s performance. If the halter is too small or too large, it can cause irregular pressure on your animal, preventing him from complying with your wishes. How you move your equine’s head with the halter and lead line can affect his performance. Pay attention to how hard you need to pull to get even the smallest response and be ready to release pressure immediately upon compliance. But again, when releasing pressure, just give him enough slack to release the pressure and not so much that you have a lot to take back later. This will help him keep his attention on you and the task at hand. Keep this minimal degree of pressure-and-release throughout his work. Even if he backs away from an obstacle, just give little tugs followed by a release to allow him to back and then encourage him to re-approach the obstacle by coming from another angle or by coaxing him with the promise of a reward upon his attempt. Another approach is to go to the end of the lead rope, keep the rope taut and invite him to come forward by revealing the oats reward he will get when he complies. Take up the slack as he approaches. Avoid resistance at all costs!

Halters that are too loose allow too much lag time between the time you ask by giving a tug and the time the equine receives the message. This usually results in an over-reaction from your equine and then an over-reaction from you as you try to correct the mistake. A halter that is too tight can be a distraction because it can create sore spots—the equivalent to a headache and no one likes to perform with a headache! The lead line typically should be a length that you can easily handle and that will give your equine some room to move away, but that can be reorganized easily, usually about six to eight feet long.

No matter how careful you may be, there will always be times when your equine will experience some kind of soreness from playing too hard in the pasture or from kicking in a stall, to any number of daily hazards. How he is negotiating his obstacles and how he performs certain movements will give you clues to how he is feeling. Learn to watch every step your animal takes, how his feet are placed, how his body is moving and the look on his face as he performs a given task.

This is when it can be beneficial to know the basics of equine massage therapy. There is a lot that you, as your equine’s trainer, can do without a professional equine masseuse, but you should always consult with a professional for lessons on how you can do your part. Make sure that the equine masseuse you decide to use is a person who knows equines and has at least 500 hours experience with equine massage therapy. Once you learn some massage techniques, you can often alleviate minor soreness exhibited by your equine. When your equine senses that your goal is to make him comfortable as well as successful in his work, he will be much more willing and able to comply.

The specifics of training techniques covered in this article can be found in the Equus Revisited manual and DVD.

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.

© 2004, 2011, 2016, 2017, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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MULE CROSSING: Benefit of Organizational Skills

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By Meredith Hodges

People have often asked me how on earth can only three people—my daughter, my husband and myself—manage to prepare and show as many as 18 head of mules and donkeys for one show?! They say that we must be crazy, and maybe we are a little crazy, but a few simple rules of organization have made this possible.

The first consideration is the grooming of the animals themselves. Anyone who has had to body clip an animal knows how tedious and time-consuming this can be. Mule and donkey hair does not appear to grow back as quickly, nor as radically, as does horse hair, so you can clip your mule, or donkey, as far as 2-3 weeks in advance of your show and do touch up work just before the show. If you have no shows until summer, you may want to body clip in mid-April anyway. It is at this time that the winter hair begins to shed and the summer hair starts to come in. If you clip off the winter hair and blanket him for the remainder of the spring, the hair that grows in will be much more manageable than the heavy winter hair and will greatly reduce grooming time before the show.

Once the heavier coat is eliminated, a weekly grooming will keep his coat nicely maintained. Daily grooming before a show, or every other day, is even better. Each time you groom him before riding, check and clip as needed the muzzle hairs, around the eyes and ears, and around the coronet bands. Leave the hairs inside the ears to prevent irritation from bugs and flies, but trim the outside edges and backs of the ears. An ounce of corn oil in his feed daily will assure a healthy sheen in his coat on show day without the use of artificial highlighters. Trimming, or shoeing, your mule on a regular six-eight week schedule will assure that his feet will not need attending at the last minute. A routine vaccination, deworming, Coggins testing and a permanent brand inspection will make sure he is ready for transport to any show anywhere at any time. Then, all that remains to be done right before the show is minor clipping, bathing, and polishing hooves.

Each individual mule, or donkey, should have his own personal show halter and bridle for convenience. Driving animals should each have their own set of harness. This will help to reduce the time between tack changes while at the show.

Dress rehearsals before the show at home are quite beneficial. Prepare as if you are about to enter each class, one at a time. First, pick the clothing you will need to wear and store it in a designated place in your house. You do not have to actually wear them for the rehearsal. As you pick out the items, take note of the things that need to be cleaned or polished, and set them to the side of the rest of your other clothes.

Then, tack up your animal, checking each piece of equipment to make sure that it is in working order. Go ahead and practice the class. Then, as you unpack your mule, set the tack aside from the rest in your tack room for cleaning later. Do this for each animal in each class. Your animals will do better at the show if they get plenty of rest before the show, so it is wise to spend the day before the show cleaning your tack, clothes, and equipment. Before you begin to clean, load all the items into your trailer that are all ready to go without cleaning. Then, as you clean the remaining items, load them directly into the trailer as you finish them.

When the basic gear for you and your animal is loaded, make a checklist for feed, buckets, hoses, brushes, forks, brooms, and shovels, etc., that you will need for general care, load them, and check them off. When you have finished, lay out all the items that you will need for transport (i.e. sheets, blankets, shipping boots, etc.), so they are easily available. If you proceed in this manner, the risk of forgetting any important items is minimized. It is best to make sure that your trailer is fully loaded (except the animals) the night before you leave as this gives you overnight to think of anything you might have missed. Items such as your ice chest can be left until morning, or last minute, provided that you put them in a highly visible spot with a list of what is to be put in attached. Do not try to rely on your memory, as it will be clouded by the excitement and anticipation of the show.

If you are taking a number of mules and donkeys to the show, it is wise to bathe with soap at home the day before; then, cover the animal with a sheet or blanket and leg wraps. The day of the show, you would then only need to rinse, or vacuum, any excess dirt. This will minimize grooming time at the show.

Post the show schedule where you will be tacking up for each class and organize your clothing and equipment such that it is ready to go and easily accessible. Once the show actually begins, you will not have time to go hunting for misplaced items. Take note of your clothing changes and wear things that are easily changed. For instance, if your Western classes are before your English classes, you can wear your breeches underneath your Western slacks and chaps. Changing from English attire to Driving and Side Saddle attire is easily done by wearing your English clothing, then, simply change your headgear and add a lap rug for driving, or an apron for Side Saddle. Changes of your boots are pretty much optional, as English boots are easily hidden beneath properly fitting Western chaps and are appropriate footwear for English, Driving and Side Saddle.

If classes are spaced fairly close together and you are using more than one animal, it is wise to tack up the other animals ahead of time so they are ready to go. If you are using only one saddle for more than one animal, the other animals can still be bridled with the halter slipped over it, so they can be tied and waiting. Be sure to tie up the reins so they will not be chewed or stepped on. If you are using the same mule throughout the show, tacking and stripping should not be too time-consuming if your equipment is well organized.

Shows should be fun and exciting, but it can easily turn into a nightmare when things are out of place and chaotic. Make your motel and stabling reservations early and leave for the show well ahead of schedule to allow for breakdowns or other unforeseen emergencies. By all means, bring friends to help you, but give them a briefing and a list of jobs they can do. They won’t be much help if they have to keep asking what to do the day of the show! If you are going any distance at all, have your truck and trailer checked over thoroughly before you leave. There is nothing more frustrating than a major breakdown on the roadside with a trailer full of animals!

In summary, with routine grooming, farrier care, vet care, regular Coggins testing during the show season and permanent brand inspections, you can greatly reduce your show preparation time. Dress rehearsals, individual tack for each animal and organized loading will assure that all your tack and equipment will be readily available. Advanced motel and stabling reservations will afford you and your animals much needed rest when you arrive. Having your truck and trailer checked before you leave will make sure that you arrive in plenty of time. And, organization of tack and equipment when you do arrive will heighten the chances for an enjoyable and relaxing show!

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.

© 1991, 2016, 2019, 2022 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, 2022 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: 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, 2022 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, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: The Rein Back

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By Meredith Hodges

Many common horse training techniques used today work well on either horses or mules. However, being creative and using less technique with a more logical approach to training works better with donkeys. In the case of the “rein back,” the problems are universal. Some equines seem to “rein back” more easily than others. Similarities exist within the equine species regarding personality types, but there are also differences in environmental behavior during training. Horses that are resistant to backing either shake their heads violently from side to side or rear up and try to throw themselves over backwards. Resistant mules try to walk sideways or forward, and resistant donkeys are either stone statues or terrific “leaners.” All of these tendencies are an expression of discomfort in the equine and can pose serious problems for the trainer.

In order to get the best results, before teaching an equine to “rein back” you must understand the animal’s body mechanics and his mental attitude. The “rein back” is a reverse, two-beat, diagonal gait. When executing a straight “rein back,” the equine is unable to see what is directly behind him, but he can see peripherally on both sides. Because of the way the eyes are set in their head, mules can actually see all four feet when facing straight forward where a horse cannot. The depth perception of an equine is questionable at best, but when an equine must “rein back,” his vision is even more impaired because he can’t see directly behind him. This causes him to become tense because the equine must trust the trainer not to back his precious little rear into anything that might hurt him! If the trainer has been even a little abusive in the past, the equine will not be able to trust and will become resistant. On the other hand, if the animal has been brought along well and is being asked to “rein back” on the long lines, he may simply not want to “back over” the trainer. This could be perceived as disobedience when it is only consideration for the trainer.

In order to execute a straight and smooth “rein back,” the equine must be able to lower his head, round his back and step back and underneath himself easily with the power initiated from his hindquarters. If the rider has not prepared his equine for the “rein back” by allowing the animal to take one step forward first and round under his seat, the animal will be resistant. This is why one step forward before executing a “rein back” is essential. Otherwise, the equine may raise his head and hollow his back, making it very difficult, at best, to perform the “rein back.” If you have trouble visualizing this, get on your hands and knees and try it yourself to see how it feels, first with a hollowed back and then with an arched back.

Before you begin to “rein back,” take that extra couple of seconds to relax and prepare your animal. First, let him take one step forward. Then, alternately, squeeze your reins and ask him to lower his head a little (not too much at first). Keep your legs snugly hugging his barrel, and lift your seat ever so slightly by leaning forward just a little. Check over your shoulder to be sure that he won’t back into anything. Then, with corresponding rein and leg cues, squeeze and release alternately from side to side: first, right rein, right leg; then, left rein, left leg. By pulling first on one side and then the other, you actually allow him to see more directly behind, thus eliminating much of the apprehension that he feels when he cannot see. Pretend that you are pushing him backward with your legs, directly after giving a gentle tug on the corresponding rein. In the beginning, be satisfied with one or two steps, and don’t forget to praise him.

Do this exercise in a two-beat fashion, with the squeeze/release action on the rein coming only a split second sooner than the corresponding leg. This prevents the hindquarters from resisting, and it is here where most resistance in backing originates. If you pull both reins at the same time, the hindquarters are not affected and this may cause considerable resistance. Animals that learn to “rein back” correctly will eventually learn to “rein back” on a mere tug of the reins and a shift of your body weight, but that is not the way to begin. Speed comes much later.

Horses and mules learn to “rein back” more easily than donkeys. As far as donkeys are concerned, why go backward when you can turn around to go forward? Because donkeys have a natural agility, this is not such a far-out way for them to think. However, if a donkey tried to turn around on a narrow trail with a rider aboard, his balance could be severely affected. Chances are, the donkey would make it, but the rider might not. The donkey needs to learn to “rein back” on command, because safety is of the utmost importance.

The simplest way to encourage your donkey to “rein back” is to ride or drive him into a three-sided tie stall, or anywhere that he has no way to escape but backward. Ask him to “rein back” with the cues outlined, and praise him for each step backward. If you are ground driving, just alternate long line pressure while you step backwards in unison with his back legs. Keep your squeeze/release action on the long lines minimal—pulling on your donkey’s mouth too much will only defeat your purpose. If your donkey is hitched to a vehicle, make sure that the weight of the cart or carriage that he has to push is not too heavy for him to manage. Adjust the breeching tightly enough so that your donkey can lean into it with his rear, and be sure that it is not so low that it will inhibit the motion of his upper hind legs.

If you have checked all of these factors and your donkey still will not back out of the stall, ask someone to act as your assistant, and have them wave a fearful object (such as a brightly colored scarf or plastic bag) low and in front of your donkey. He should dip his head to focus on the object (arching his back) and begin to “rein back,” apply the proper squeeze/release cues and after a few steps, reward him. You have set up a situation in which you can predict that his reaction will be the correct one. Once he has done this a few times, he should begin to make the connection between your cues and his action. Always keep your cues gentle, but clear. Be prepared to immediately praise those first one or two steps, and don’t ask for too many steps too soon. Just as an animal is conditioned to perform any other maneuver, his body must also be conditioned to “rein back.” Doing a “rein back” without conditioning the muscles that will be used can cause injury. Taking it slowly and cautiously diminishes the chance for resistance. Work up your speed in the “rein back” only after your equine is backing straight and easily. When he has had time off, be sure to take the time to recondition those muscles before again asking for speed.

I can’t count the hours that I have spent sitting on-board my donkey, waiting for a foot to move, giving the cue to just one side over and over again. Patience is the key to success with any animal, but with donkeys, it’s a necessity. Be patient and deliberate with your training. Don’t get upset, and don’t try to be forceful. Remember, he has to move sometime. Even donkeys get bored standing in one place for too long!

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, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This article is an excerpt from the book, Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, 2014

 

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MULE CROSSING: LTR Training Principles and Philosophy

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By Meredith Hodges

No training series would be complete without examination of the principles and philosophy behind the training techniques. The philosophy of my training techniques is based on the principle that we are not, in fact, training our equines. In fact, we are cultivating relationships with them by assigning meaning to our own body language that they can understand.

Since our own level of understanding changes and grows over time, we must assume that so does that of our animals, and we must gauge our explanations accordingly. In the beginning, the emotional needs of the young equine are quite different from that of an older animal. They need to overcome a lot of instincts that would protect them in the wild, but are inappropriate in a domestic situation. In this case, our focus must be on developing friendship and confidence in the young animal, while establishing our own dominance in a non-threatening manner.

We do this through a lot of positive reinforcement in the beginning, with gentle touch, reassuring voice, and lots of rewards for good behavior. Our expressions of disapproval are kept at a minimum. As he grows with us, the equine will realize that we do not wish to harm him, and will next develop a rather pushy attitude in an attempt to assert his own dominance – once that he is confident that his behavior is acceptable. When this occurs, we must re-evaluate our reward system and save excessive praise for the new things as he learns them and allow the learned behavior to be treated as the norm, praised more passively, yet appreciated. This is the cultivation of a delicate concept of give and take in a relationship from the emotional standpoint. As in any good relationship, we must learn to be polite, considerate and respectful of our mules, donkeys, horses, ponies and hybrids. After all, as my grandmother used to say, “You can catch more flies with sugar that you can with vinegar!”

From the physical standpoint, there are also a lot of things to consider of both mule and trainer. In the beginning, unless you are a professional trainer with years of proper schooling, you are not likely to be the most balanced and coordinated of riders, lacking absolute control over your own body language. By the same token, the untrained equine will be lacking in the muscle coordination and strength to respond correctly to your cues that guide him to perform certain movements. For these reasons, we must modify our approach to fit each new situation and modify again to perfect it, keeping in mind that our main goal is to establish a good relationship with our equine and not just to train him! It is up to the trainer to decide the cause of any resistance, and to modify techniques to temper that resistance – be it mental or physical.

For instance, we had a 3-year-old mule learning to lunge without the benefit of the round pen. The problem was that she refused to go around you more than a couple of times without running off. Assess the situation first by brainstorming all the probable reasons she might keep doing such an annoying thing. Is she frightened? Is she bored? Is she mischievous? Has she been calm and accepting of most things until now? And most important, is my own body language causing this to occur?

Animals are all quite different, as are humans, and each individual will learn in his own way, as do humans. Once in a while, you meet an animal that is not able to learn things in a conventional manner. He perceives things just differently enough to make it extremely difficult. In the case of the mule that would not lunge independently on the line, we found that she needed additional learning aids. You can either put a round pen around the animal to “force” him to comply, or you can wait until he is broke to saddle before you try to lunge him again with just the line. If you only have an arena, you can lunge the equine in the corner and the two fenced sides will help him to stay on the circle. This certainly helped her!

I have worked with many mules that wouldn’t lunge first, but would ground-drive and accept a saddle and rider with no problem. After this they seem to lunge quite easily! Learn to be fair and flexible in your approach to problems as you would for anyone you were interested in getting to know. Be firm in your own convictions, but be sensitive to things that can change and be willing to make those changes as the occasion arises!

As mental changes occur, so do physical changes. As muscles develop and coordination gets better, the animal will gain confidence. As a trainer, you will need to do less and less to cause certain movements. For example, in the case of the leg yield, you may have to turn your mule’s head a little in the opposite direction to get him to step sideways and forward. As he becomes stronger, more coordinated, and understands your request, you can then begin to straighten his body more with less effort. Granted, we have begun by doing this the wrong way, yet we have put our mule “on the road” to the right way. We have assimilated an action in response to our leg that can now be perfected over time. In essence, you have simply said, “First you learn to move away from my leg, then you can learn to do it gracefully!”

The same concept works in the case of the trainer, or rider. Sometimes you must do things that are not quite right in the beginning to get your own body to assimilate correctness. As I have said, we all perceive things a little differently and it depends on how we are introduced to something whether or not we can understand or perform it. It is nearly impossible for the inexperienced horseman to perceive and control unused seat bones as a viable means of control of the equine. In the beginning, reins and legs are much easier to use to complete such a task.

In training horses and mules, there is really little difference in one’s techniques or approach, provided we maintain patience and understanding and a good rewards system. The major difference between these two equines is their ability to tolerate negative reinforcement, or punishment. The mule, being part donkey, does not tolerate punitive action very well unless he is fully aware that the fault was his own and the punishment is fair. For instance, you ask for a canter lead and your mule keeps trotting, one good smack with the whip, or one good gig with the spurs, is negative reinforcement that will bring about the desired response, but be careful of an over-reaction from an overdone cue. More than one good smack or gig could cause either a runaway or an extremely balky animal. This kind of resistance comes from the donkey and requires a much different approach when training donkeys. The horse part of the mule allows us an easier time of overcoming this type of resistance in mules, making them different and easier to train than donkeys.

It is the innate desire of all humans to control their own lives both emotional and environmental. When we cannot, we become panicked and confused about our situation. We doubt ourselves, our abilities, and our self-worth. If we do not maintain a sense of humor about those things that we cannot control and learn to accept that which we cannot change, we are doomed to a life of depression and failure. Horses can be controlled and even some mules can be controlled for the most part, but it is my experience that donkeys are only controlled when they so desire.

Donkeys are affectionate, amicable characters, and possess such a sensitive nature that one would think punishment a real deterrent from bad behavior – but when you punish a donkey, you will be met with a tough hide and unbelievable avoidance behaviors which often cause more resistance than it’s worth! As if this isn’t enough, if you do punish your donkey for something, the next time he even comes close to the same action, he may anticipate your punishment and go straight to the avoidance behavior before he actually makes the mistake. For this reason, it is better to try to ignore the mistakes, focus on the successes and reward the equine with lots of praise. If something in your training isn’t really necessary to your final objectives and you encounter this resistance, such as I did during lunging training, then just drop it and go on to something else that they can do easily. There is plenty of time to learn it at a later date.

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, 2018, 2019, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Keys To Successful Training, Part 2: Your Working Environment

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By Meredith Hodges

The Work Station

It is important that your equine feels safe and comfortable in his surroundings. For this reason, you should use the same place each day to groom and prepare him for his lessons. In the beginning, use a small pen (approximately 400 to 500 square feet) that allows you access to your equine for imprinting, tying, leading and grooming, as described in DVDs #1 and #8 of my series, Training Mules & Donkeys (plus disc #9 when dealing with donkeys), and in Part 1 of Equus Revisited. All the while, you will also be teaching him good ground manners. Remember, routine fosters confidence and trust.

Once your equine has mastered tying and leading in the small pen, he can then move on to a designated work station where he will not only be groomed, but will also learn to accept tack in preparation for the round pen. This should be a place that has a good stout hitch rail and easy access to your tack and grooming equipment.

When working around your equine at the work station, pay special attention to his body language. If he becomes tense or skittish, acknowledge his concerns with a stroke on his neck, supportive words to him and a reward of crimped oats when he settles down. Always learn to wait for him to settle down before you proceed.

Don’t make too much out of unimportant details. For instance, if your equine is pawing the ground, don’t insist that he be still unless you need to approach him and do something specific with him. Many of your animal’s anxious behaviors get unintentionally rewarded by giving him too much attention, which can actually cause the behaviors to escalate. If you ignore pawing, cribbing, throwing of the head, pushing with the nose, stomping and other anxious behaviors, they will lessen over time, provided that you step in, ask him to stop and reward your animal, but only when he is being quiet.

Before you begin to groom your equine—whether you’re going to brush, vacuum or clip him—make sure you give him the time to figure out what you are going to do. He will exhibit his acceptance with a sigh, relaxation of his musclesor with a turn or dropping of the head. Once he has accepted the presence of the item to be used, such as a brush, vacuum or clippers, you can begin. Don’t forget to always start at the front and work your way back to the tail.

Keep an eye on the pressure you apply whenever using these various grooming tools. Different animals will have different sensitivity to these tools and will tolerate them better if they know you are not going to cause undue pressure or pain. Learn to brush the mane and tail starting at the bottom and working upward, and use a conditioner such as baby oil to keep from pulling or breaking the hair. (Baby oil will also keep other equines from chewing on the tail.) A shedding blade can be an uncomfortable grooming tool when used improperly. When using a shedding blade to remove mud around the head and ears and even on your animal’s body, be careful to minimize his discomfort by monitoring the pressure you apply to each area and working VERY slowly. When bathing him, be extra careful not to get water in his eyes or ears. These types of consideration for your equine’s comfort will help build his trust and confidence in you, and it will help make training easier and more enjoyable for both of you.

Tack and Equipment

In order to elicit the correct response from your equine, always make sure you are using the correct tack for whatever you are doing. If you are not sure about what tack to use when, go to the Lucky Three Ranch website for more detailed information, or ask the experts in your area. Make sure all tack and equipment fits your animal properly. If it doesn’t, it can cause adverse behaviors during training. 

In the Round Pen

Once your equine is leading well in the small pen, he should be in consistently good posture with square halts, easily negotiating trail obstacles in the open and relatively relaxed while at the work station, he is ready to move to the round pen.

Once in the round pen, you will have an opportunity to assess your animal’s progress so you can begin work on balancing on the circle in good posture and conditioning the hard muscle masses in preparation for performance. The size of your round pen is important—45 feet in diameter is ideal. If it is any larger, as you will have difficulty reaching him with the lunging whip, which means you won’t be able to have enough control over him. If your round pen it is any smaller, it will interfere with your equine’s balance and ability to develop the right muscle groups. It should be made with relatively solid walls and be high enough so your animal cannot jump out. Your round pen can be made of a variety of different of materials, such as 2-inch by 12-inch boards and posts or stock panels. Never use electric fencing, pallets, tires or other non-solid materials. The ground surface should be a three- to four-inch–thick base of soft dirt or sand.

While working in the round pen, be aware of how your own body language and verbal commands elicit certain behaviors in your animal. If something isn’t working right, look to yourself and ask yourself what you might be doing to cause the adverse behavior you are seeing. Equines are very honest about their responses, and if they are not doing what you expect, it has to be in the way you are asking. Also, don’t hurry your equine. When asking for the walk, make sure that the walk is even in cadence, balanced and regular—not hurried. Only after your animal is correct in his execution of one gait, should you move on to the next gait. When first introduced to the round pen, it is not uncommon for an equine to begin work at the trot and then, as he becomes more comfortable with the new area, at the walk.

If you just let your equine go in an unrestricted frame, he can build muscle incorrectly, which will most likely cause problems later on. To be sure you are building muscle evenly throughout his body, in the correct posture and on both sides, use the “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint I devised, as described in DVD #2 of Training Mules & Donkeys.

As explained in DVD #1 of Training Mules & Donkeys, while you were doing passive exercises on the lead rope in the small pen, you were also building the core muscle groups that are closest to the bone. Now that you are in the round pen, you will begin to build your equine’s bulk muscle in strategic areas that will strengthen him and make carrying a rider or pulling a cart a lot easier for him. It will also minimize the chance for soreness or injury, as well as resistant behaviors. Keep sessions short, 30-40 minutes, and only every other day at the most. When muscles are exercised, they need to be stressed to a point just before fatigue, and then rested afterwards for one day before repeating. This is the correct and safe way to build muscle. Any other approach will cause fatigue and actually start deteriorating muscle tissue. Remember to use relaxation techniques and warm-up and cooling down exercises with your equine before and after every workout.

In the Arena

The arena is the place to really start focusing on forward motion and lateral exercises to further strengthen your equine, and it is the place to begin fine-tuning his balance while he is carrying a rider. The arena is also a good place for you to fine-tune your own riding skills, so that you learn to help your equine maintain good balance and cadence, on straight lines and while bending through the corners. In order for your equine to correctly go through the corners, you will be asking him to bend the muscles through his ribcage so he can remain upright and balanced. Equines are not motorcycles and should not lean around the corners. The power should always come from the hindquarters to keep the front end light, supple and responsive to cues. If his front end is heavy and sluggish, your equine is not adequately stepping underneath with his hind legs and will thus, lose forward impulsion and power and will not properly condition his muscles.

Open Areas

Open areas are good for stretching and relaxing at all three gaits. They can be used for negotiation of obstacles and to execute large flowing patterns. You can also practice stretching exercises, as described in DVD #5 of Training Mules & Donkeys. Then proceed to working on more collection on the short sides of the arena, and go back to stretching exercises again before you quit the lesson. The open areas allow for a wide variety of training exercises by giving you the space to use numerous patterns and obstacles. Try using cones to mark your patterns—this benefits both you and your animal by helping you both stay focused. An arena without cones is like a house without furniture.

As far as the open road and in traffic, these areas are forseasoned animals only, so please do not even consider using these areas to school your equine—the results could be disastrous! With the heavy traffic these days, it is really safest to avoid heavily traveled roads entirely. For a pleasureable experience, stick to areas where you and your equine will be safe and comfortable.

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.

© 2004, 2005, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Keys To Successful Training, Part 1: Attitude and Approach

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By Meredith Hodges

Establishing a bond – Are you having problems getting the same response from your equine that trainers do?  This two-part article is designed to help you learn to successfully train your own equine.

Training isn’t just a way to teach your equine to do certain “movements,” but a way for you to help him to grow physically and mentally healthy, and to enable him to learn to cope with the demands that will be put on him during his lifetime—much like raising a child to grow up to be a healthy and productive adult.

The subtleties in your attitude and approach, along with a solid knowledge base, can make all the difference in your training program.  Whether your equine is a foal or an older animal that you have just obtained, whether he is trained or untrained, the process is the same and it’s never too late to get started with the right kinds of expectations in mind. You are creating a bond, developing the foundation for a healthy friendship, and setting the ground rules that will dictate the positive extent of your continuing relationship with your animal. It is important to be an active participant in your animal’s training. After all, you wouldn’t have someone else make a friend for you. You’d do it yourself—one-on-one.   

Feeding – What you feed your equine and how well his health is maintained will determine how responsive he will be to training. Although some popular feeds may build body mass more rapidly and may seem to be promoting healthy physical development, these high-protein feeds can also have negative effects, especially on Longears. Often, with high-protein feeds, an equine’s physical growth is accelerated and becomes disproportionate to his normal growth on simple equine feed like oats and grass hay. His mental growth may also be adversely affected with high-protein feeds, as they can cause anxiety and limited attentiveness. If the animal is feeling anxious or inattentive, or if parts of his body become sore from unnatural growth spurts or inappropriate exercise, he may be less likely to perform in an enthusiastic and energetic way.

I have found that equines do best on a mixture of crimped oats (1-2 lbs. for the average-sized saddle equine) mixed with a vitamin concentrate such as Sho-Glo (1 oz.), and Mazola corn oil (1 oz.) for hooves and coat, and for digestive tract regularity. Draft animals would get twice as much and minis get ¼ to ½ as much. This once-a-day oats mix regimen should be fed in the evenings and supplemented with grass hay twice a day, with the amount of hay being increased or decreased to monitor desired weight gain or loss. As a reward for positive responses in training, your animal should get the additional crimped oats so he will get immediate energy when he needs it the most, during the training process. Crimped oats, unlike any other equine reward, is also something that the animal will continue to work for without tiring of it.

Apples, carrots, horse treats and the like are things on which they can get sated and are not necessarily good for your equine in excess. Some of these “treats” can even have the same effect that candy has on children. An animal may experience residual affects such as an upset digestive tract, a short attention span or even hypertension, all of which can have a negative affect on training. Feeding the same way, and at the same times each day, is not only healthy, but it fosters confidence and trust within your animal because it makes him feel good. He learns without question that he can depend on you for his welfare and that his efforts will be rewarded with his favorite reward of crimped oats.

Consideration – Being patient, kind and considerate toward your equine and spending a little more time developing a good solid foundation with him before moving on to more elaborate maneuvers will yield better results. Remember to always be aware of your equine’s physical, mental and emotional responses during training. For instance, you may think that, once your mule is moving around the round pen at all three gaits with a reverse, he is ready to begin riding, but this may not necessarily be true. Considering that it takes years to really condition muscles to their maximum strength, six to eight months of doing round pen exercises is not really that long a period of time. If you don’t spend at least six months on flatwork leading training and six months on obstacle leading lessons to promote strength and balance in good posture, you can greatly hinder your equine’s ability to perform in the round pen on the circle. In turn, spending less than six to eight months in the round pen will not produce the best results in muscle development. If you move through conditioning too fast, it will affect your animal’s mental attitude toward training and he will very likely experience soreness and emotional depression. As a result, he will most likely become resistant to training.

Pay attention to how many laps your equine does in each direction and at each gait: how many reverses to the left, and then how many to the right. Take this opportunity to assess whether he will need a few more laps on the side that is weaker. If you make these things your priority, when you finally do start riding him, his straight lines will be straighter, his turns smoother and his reverses and stops more balanced, and with minimal effort. As your equine grows stronger and more mentally and physically confident, the upper-level movements will come faster and easier than did the basic foundation training, which is why it’s so important to take your time and be patient—especially during foundation training. Another way to show consideration for your animal is to investigate valuable therapeutic tools like equine massage and chiropractics.

Structured exercises – Even if you do not plan to show your equine, he must be strong enough to be able to perform easily, even on something as seemingly simple as trail riding. Different exercises build different muscle groups, so it is important to know what exercises you should begin with and which exercises should follow. Don’t let yourself get sucked into drilling on something that just isn’t working. If you run into problems and things aren’t working out properly, just go back and try something that is similar in its demand but simpler for you and/or your equine to execute. Sometimes, it is just a manner of approaching the problem differently or leaving it to another day. Like humans, equines have their own individual ways of learning and it’s up to you to figure out what works best with your particular equine on any given day. You can find my suggested approaches to this in my DVD series, Training Mules & Donkeysand Equus Revisited. Note: Don’t forget to reward your animal for positive behavior.

Body language and verbal communication – Learn to be consistent with your verbal commands and don’t leave them out. Most equines can learn to identify words and will usually respond much more readily to verbal commands than to cues alone, so give your equine this “verbal cue” advantage.

In the beginning, keep your words simple and consistent (“walk,” “trot,” “canter,” “reverse,” “whoa”). As your equine becomes more familiar with them, you can include additional words (“move over,” “go to the rail,” “easy,” and so forth). By the time he is an adult and has gone through this kind of training, he should begin to understand almost anything you might have to say. It is much like a child who first learns his ABCs, then words, then sentences and, eventually, entire paragraphs.  Pay attention to yourself as you are training. How you feel affects your animal, which will dictate how he reacts to you. For instance, if you are a little nervous about being around your equine, he will sense this and may think there is a reason for him to be nervous, too. If you are happy, relaxed and patient about doing things, you will elicit a better response from your equine. Attitude is everything, so do whatever you need to do to keep the experience interesting and enjoyable for both of you.

Benefits of group lessons – Equines can learn from each other, so it can be beneficial to work them together. When you are working with foals, it is helpful to take “Mom” along or have her tied nearby during training sessions. Green animals often do better on the trails during the first year if they are ridden along with well-trained trail animals. If you have multiple animals to keep conditioned, you can even lunge them together, provided your work in the round pen has been consistent with each of them separately from the beginning. In driving training, the “group lesson” idea of hitching young animals with the “old pros” has been a common practice for many years.  Speaking of “old pros,” it is to your advantage to find a local instructor/trainer with whom you can periodically take lessons. This gives you a way to check to make sure you stay on the right track and continue to improve your own skills. Lists of trainers and instructors can be obtained from the United States Equestrian Federation and from the American Donkey & Mule Society.  In Part 2 of Keys to Successful Training, I’ll go into further detail regarding ground training as well as the actual physical training areas, and many of the other important components that contribute to a successful and rewarding training program.

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.

© 2004, 2005, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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MULE CROSSING: Gate Training

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By Meredith Hodges

Learning to go through a gate with respect and consideration for the handler is an important lesson for your equine to learn. Your considerate and consistent approach to retrieving him from his stall, pen or pasture can make all the difference in safety and pleasure for you both. This begins from the time you take him from his stall. Do not go into his area, but rather, ask him to come to you. If you have been consistent rewarding your equine from your fanny pack with the same oats he gets fed every evening, this should not pose a problem. The reason for feeding the oats in the evenings is so he is given the motivation to come back in during the spring months when pasture time must be limited. Feeding only grass hay in the morning gives him incentive to come to you to be haltered for lessons, as he knows his efforts will be rewarded with extra oats. Use verbal commands to “come on!” prefaced by his name. This reinforces his response to verbal commands and familiarity with his name. This will come in handy when you need to fetch him from a pen of multiple animals.

Going through a gate seems simple enough, but you can really get into trouble if it is not done correctly. Ask your mule to follow your shoulder to the gate and halt squarely, and then reward him (crimped oats) for standing quietly while you unlatch the gate. When going through the gate, if possible, the gate should always open away from you and your mule. When the gate is hinged on the left, transfer your lead line from your left hand (showmanship position) to your right hand, and open the gate with your left hand. Switch positions if the gate is hinged on the right, but always be sure to keep your body, rather than your mule’s body, closest to the gate. Ask your mule to walk through at your shoulder, to turn and face you on the other side of the gate, and to follow you as you close it. Then reward him again and latch the gate.

After latching the gate, turn back to your mule and reward him yet again for being patient and standing still while you latched the gate. This repetitive behavior through gates will teach him to stay with you and wait patiently instead of charging through, or pulling away from you. This is especially helpful when you are leading several animals at once. This way, you can get through a gate safely with as many animals as you choose to lead through together. Even if the gate is only two mules wide, you could lead as many as four through by simply lengthening the lead lines of the back pair, asking the first pair to come through first then encouraging the second pair to come through directly behind them before you turn back to the gate. When trained this way, your mules will all line up like little soldiers on the other side of the gate to receive their rewards. They will stand quietly while you latch the gate and will only proceed from the gate when you ask.

When you return your mule to a pen with other animals, wave the others away from the gate and return the mule to the pen the same way he was taken out. Lead your mule or mules through the gate, reward them, and then reward the others for staying back.

If you have any problems with kicking, carry a whip with you to keep the problem children at bay while you reward the others first. Do not vary this routine.

The repetition will build good habits. Once the others have learned that they cannot approach when you wave them away, and each mule knows the routine of going through the gate properly, and you want to take one animal from the herd, you can call his name, wave the others away with your hand, open the gate and allow him to come through and turn (receiving his reward, of course) to put on the halter. You never have to get in the middle of their sometimes-dangerous playfulness again, and your animals will all be easy to catch.

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.

© 2003, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: In Appreciation of Mules

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By Meredith Hodges

We have all heard the numerous negative myths about mules that abound, but have you ever thought of a mule as a hero, as an extraordinary member of our society? The mule’s history can be traced back to Biblical times, and in those days, he was known as the preferred mount of royalty. Given his ancestry, this should not be surprising. After all, is he not the offspring of the chosen mount that Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem? As Jesus was the Son of God, so is the mule the son of the chosen donkey. And he has much to teach us about ourselves and our world—if we could only learn to observe and listen carefully to what he is telling us. The mule can be a catalyst for health, happiness and prosperity, but we must learn to do our part in appreciation of him.

Although he is often confused with his sire, the donkey, the mule is the symbol of neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. During past political campaigns, certain Republicans actually declined to have their picture taken with a mule, because they were either ignorant of the difference between a mule and a donkey, or they were afraid that the mule would be mistaken for the Democratic Party’s symbol—the donkey.

As author Melvin Bradley notes, “Democrats in mule states have always been friendly to mule-loving voters. With a farm population of 25 percent of the total, votes from mule people could make a difference.”1As presidential candidate Harry S. Truman discovered, this was politically beneficial information and he used it wisely. Finally, on May 31, 1995, Governor Mel Carnahan signed a bill designating the Missouri mule as the official state animal.

When people are open and fortunate enough to be able to engage in intimate communication with the mule, they soon discover the redeeming and heroic characteristics of the donkey (that are naturally present in the mule). The donkey is the embodiment of various moral truths, which is why he is used as an appropriate hero in numerous fables. He possesses the ability to serve without judgment of his master. He is affectionate, thoughtful and humorous and carries his burdens without complaint. We are often dismayed by the true reflection of ourselves that we are destined to see while in his presence. The donkey is a creature of wonder and augury, and glimpses of these same characteristics can be seen in the mule. Although the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party, his effect on people is subjective and universal, and is not restricted to just one group.

I’d like to share one of my favorite stories, illustrating the mule’s legendary endurance and great heart. According to author Walter Rickell, “When General George Custer made his campaign into the Black Hills in early 1870, Buffalo Bill led him the first day as his guide. Custer and his staff were on their finest horses brought from the east, and they were prancing and ready to go. Suddenly, Buffalo Bill appeared on his little grulla Comanche mule, Mouse. Cody paid no attention to the way the officers ridiculed him and the mule—Cody had ridden Mouse before and found he could run a good lick, but his strongest point was his endless endurance. Custer, noting it was Cody’s intention to ride the mule, called a halt and informed him it was no time for pranks, that they had to travel fast, and Mouse could never stay out of their way. Cody said nothing, touched Mouse with his spurs, and led off, the column following. By the early afternoon, in terrific heat, the horses were lathered, and Cody had to stop several times for the column to catch up. The general was surprised that, at camping time that night, Mouse was still in the lead. Custer tried to trade his fine horse for the mule. Cody rode Mouse back that night over the same trail.”2

Mule stories from the past are numerous in this great country of ours. The number of mules (and horses) in the U.S. peaked in 1919, at 26.5 million. The United States of America was quite literally built on the backs of its mules—they pulled supply wagons in the cities, forged west with the early settlers across the vast prairies, packed hunters’ gear in the mountains, plodded underground with the coal miners and plowed the Southern cotton fields. They have participated in war alongside our brave soldiers, and have found their place in the field of entertainment. They even helped with the excavation of the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

After the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the number of mules in the U.S. declined, and in 1967, there were less than ten thousand. But happily, in recent years, renewed interest and public awareness have sparked a steady increase in the mule population.

Those who work with mules know that interacting with them can keep a person healthy and happy. The typical mule person gets up early in the morning to feed and water his mules, and then goes back to his house for his own breakfast. Then it’s back to the barn to harness or saddle up and make way for the day’s activities with the mules. There is much to learn from a mule in every interaction, and if he isn’t doing what we want, then we probably haven’t asked the right way. When we do, he complies and, in the process, teaches us about real patience, love, respect and good manners. There is no more loyal friend and companion than a mule. As the old mule skinners will tell you, you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em. You either get along with them or you don’t—there’s no in between with a mule.

Obviously, I have one of the worst cases of “Mule Fever” ever suffered! But then, here I am—older, wiser and without any broken bones due to my association with mules. In fact, I can say my life was saved by one of my own mules. I was on my mule, Mae Bea C.T., leading a group of four trail riders on horses up a switchback in the Rocky Mountains, when the trail began to get very narrow. It was 100 feet straight up on the right and 100 feet straight down on the left! I could not see very far ahead because the two-foot trail wrapped around a huge boulder and blocked my forward vision. As I rounded the boulder, with the horses right on my rear, I was faced with a trail that disappeared into a wide landslide of small rocks. I couldn’t go forward and, with the horses directly behind on the wider part of the trail, I couldn’t back up. The horses could turn around where they were, but I couldn’t. I waited for the horses to get turned around, and then indicated to Mae Bea C.T. that I wanted a tight turn on the haunches. She sat her rear back on her haunches and swung her front legs over the 100-foot drop in a smooth and effortless 180-degree turn, facing next in exactly the opposite direction. She then stopped and waited for my next cue to lead the horses safely back down the trail. I shudder to think what could have happened had she been a nervous horse.

“Mule Fever” happens when you find yourself hopelessly involved with a mule…or many mules! Suddenly, there is no other equine that will do. Many people liken a mule to a dog, but dogs are unconditionally faithful and submissive, whereas the mule challenges your soul. He innocently challenges you to be the best (or worst) person you can be—more like very young children would do. You might as well be tangling with an elephant if you don’t learn how to correctly ask the mule to do what you want. Most folks end up just dangling at the end of a lead rope or hanging on for dear life during a runaway—if they are lucky enough not to get dumped on the ground and possibly stomped on or kicked! If a person finally learns what a mule has to teach, there cannot be a more reliable, intelligent and loyal friend.  At the end of a day spent with mules, one is tired, but it’s a good tired. The activity has increased circulation throughout the body, making the body tired and the mind alert. This makes for a good night’s sleep, and the next day, the cycle begins again—with joy!

Although the therapeutic value of the mule goes back as far as his own history, the idea of intentionally using mules for actual therapy did not come until much later. One of the most successful therapeutic stories involving mules is that of the Vision Quest Wagon Train. Vision Quest founder, Bob Burton, had a dream to use mules and the discipline and hard work of a real wagon train to help troubled kids. So, in 1976, the first Vision Quest Wagon Train was launched. In this life-changing program, 36 at-risk teens were required to spend one year traveling with six mule-powered wagon teams that went south in the winter and north in the summer. During the journey, the kids learned positive social skills and responsibility in caring for themselves and for their animals, with a solid success rate of 60 percent. (Mules really do make the best teachers!) Today, plans are being made on Facebook for a Vision Quest Wagon Train Reunion in 2012. Clips of the Vision Quest Wagon Train journeys can be seen on YouTube.

In 1985, an attempt was made by the Lynchburg Mule Trader’s Association, supported by the leadership of the Jack Daniels Distillery and U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, to designate October 26th as Mule Appreciation Day, in commemoration of George Washington’s receipt of Royal Gift, America’s first mammoth jack, from the King of Spain. Jack Daniels itself sponsored the first Mule Appreciation Day to gain publicity and support for the petition, which was passed by the House of Representatives by a substantial margin, but failed to pass in the Senate. The bill was later sent to a referral committee, where it languishes today. (Leave it to Congress to get our half-ass half-passed!) However, the spirit of mule lovers is undaunted—Mule Appreciation Day rose from the dead and has been celebrated ever since, even without the blessing of Congress. We red-blooded Americans love and appreciate our mules. Gratitude and appreciation are never outdated!

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.

© 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2019, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

1The Missouri Mule: His Origin and Times, Volume II, by Melvin Bradley, Curators of the University of Missouri, page 353.

2The Misunderstood Mule, by Walter Rickell, Reproductions West, Burbank, CA, 1976.

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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, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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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, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. MULE CROSSING All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: From Mules to Riches

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By Meredith Hodges

Long before the Founding Fathers drafted our constitution, America began as a religious nation under God, and the mule has his roots in religion just as does the country he has helped to build. The mule of today’s ancestor is the donkey, mentioned in the Bible numerous times as an animal respected by God and blessed by Jesus Christ. The donkey was even chosen to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and, later, acted as the mount Jesus himself used for his ride into the city of Jerusalem.

Here is an ancient story, quoted directly from the Bible, illustrating the mule’s wonderful sense of humor: “So Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and the Cherethites, and the Pelethites, went down and caused Solomon to ride upon king David’s mule, and brought him to Gihon.” I Kings 1:38

“And Absolom met the servants of David. And Absolom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the Heavens and the earth, and the mule that was under him went away.” II Samuel 18:9.

Mules are the true professionals of slapstick humor and professional psychotherapy! When you get into an altercation with a mule, you will seldom get hurt, but you will surely be set straight in a most humiliating way.

In the early days of what was to become the United States of America, mules and horses perpetuated the expansion of the colonists into the Western territories of America. Since these early times, the American mule has acted not only as a pack animal for miners and fur traders penetrating the West, but it has also played an important part in our country’s defense, being able to cross terrain not accessible by any other means, and carrying and pulling heavier loads of weaponry than horses could even begin to carry.

When the fight for freedom from England’s rule was launched with the American Revolution, donkeys and horses were used in varying capacities to help win the battle for our country’s liberty.

Freedom was won as a result of the combined efforts of humans, animals and faith. One need only examine the humble traits and character of mules and donkeys to see that they indeed possessed the faith and the strong constitution to make some very important contributions to this country’s independence.

Drivers and mules, Gary, W. Va., Mine, where much of the mining and carrying is done by machinery. Location: Gary, West Virginia.

As they say, an army “marches on its stomach,” so it was a natural for Americans to progress further and delve into agriculture. Because of the extraordinary ability of mules to work for longer periods of time in sometimes harsh and unrelenting climates, their surefootedness and resistance to parasites and disease and with their ability to work long hours, the mule became the gem of agriculture. He learned his job quickly and put his heart and soul into every task.

When American coal mining was booming, the mule was such a valuable member of the mining process, that a good mining mule was considered to actually be more valuable than a human miner. Mining has always been a dangerous business, and the mining mule’s innate sense of self-preservation was well known. “Mules are very smart…They know what they can do and would never do anything they couldn’t or would not want to do. Mules were known to pull at least three full mine cars full of coal. If you hooked up a fourth car they would balk at any commands and just stand there. No way would they pull the fourth car!” 1

“Mules are the living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. Mules were the pack animals of Spanish padres and grizzled prospectors. These animals have a dominant place in frontier history. From 1883 to 1889, the 20-mule teams moved 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley, California, to Mojave—165 miles away—traveling 15 to 18 miles a day. The 20-mule teams, the dramatic solution of a transportation problem, soon became a world-famous symbol, the trademark first of the Pacific Borax Company and, today, of the many products made by U.S. Borax.” 2 So began the mule’s vital contributions to industry and the economy.

Man and donkey out on Tanner Ledge, Grand Canyon, Arizona

In 1976, under the direction of the North American Trail Ride Conference, the Bicentennial Wagon train became a notable event in American history. Commemorating the trek West that was made so long ago by brave and adventurous pioneers, the Bicentennial journey went from California east to Valley Forge, retracing the steps of these first U.S. settlers. The outriders brought back scrolls of signatures signed by enthusiastic citizens to reaffirm their belief in the principles upon which America was founded. State by state, wagons met up with the main train and joined the trek. No doubt, many of these Bicentennial wagons were pulled by our beloved mules. “Going through my deceased folks’ stuff, I found an ‘Official Souvenir Program’ of the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage. It’s interesting reading about the program in 1995–‘96, to have a Conestoga wagon or Prairie Schooner from each of the 50 states across the country on historic trails, ending up at Valley Forge on July third.” 3

Although some Americans have become concerned about the impact donkeys may have on the environment and, in particular, on our state parks, there is no evidence that the burro will reproduce at a rate that will threaten the ecosystem, especially that of the Grand Canyon. In fact, it is possible that the burros have already been in the Grand Canyon for centuries. There is evidence that the erosion attributed to the burros is more often due primarily to other invasive forces, such as humans and the natural erosion that occurs from geological forces and the canyon’s climate. There is also some concern that the donkeys pollute water holes, but the defecation of burros (and mules) has never actually been proven to pollute anything in their environment. Currently, there is an effort to prevent mules from being used in the Grand Canyon, but they are clearly the safest way to traverse and enjoy the beauty of this American natural wonder. Mules and donkeys learn their jobs well and cannot be dissuaded from their purpose of carrying inexperienced tourists to the bottom of the canyon and back up again—with a remarkable safety record. Their smaller hooves do little damage to the trails, and their handlers have the integrity to maintain the trails just as they maintain their precious mules. Cyclists, hikers and motorized vehicles in the parks have the potential to do much more irreparable damage to the environment than any mule or donkey. In truth, it is the human element, rather than mules and donkeys, which does most of the damage to our delicate ecosystem.

America’s journey has been one of courage, determination and great faith. It has been defined by its sequential growth phases of religion, defense, freedom, agriculture, economics, industry and ecology. We have worked alongside mules and donkeys for centuries and have often taken their generous contributions for granted in the course of our fast-paced growth. But the mule and donkey are likely to remain with us as long as they can find a way to make their contributions to society.

Those of us who attend Bishop Mule Days every year and many Longears lovers across this country are very well-acquainted with the incredible assets of the mule, and look forward to singing his praises every year on October 26th, when Mule Appreciation Day rolls around. Let us never forget to thank our trusted equine companions for all they have done to make possible this great country of ours!

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, 2016, 2019, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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1Mine Stories, The No. 9 Mine & Museum,Lansford, PA

2Mr. Longears, Volume 6, Number 21, Summer 1979

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MULE CROSSING: Donkeys As Livestock Guardians

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By Meredith Hodges

There has been a lot of discussion since the early nineties around using donkeys for small livestock protection and predator control. Donkeys can certainly be a formidable opponent for cats and dogs and other smaller animals. One needs to be careful about who the donkey is pastured with since it is in their nature to pursue and sometimes kill animals that are smaller and weaker than them. This is true in all donkeys, although some individual females tend to be more maternal and are not apt to go after smaller livestock. The males will always be more aggressive than the females and do not make good guardians for smaller livestock.

The other thing to consider is whether or not they have been raised with the livestock they are expected to guard. When raised with the other livestock, they will feel more a part of that “family” and are less likely to do them harm. A donkey that is going to be expected to guard livestock, but was not raised with them, should be carefully introduced to them “over the fence” for several weeks. Then if all seems to go well, you can introduce them in the same pen and watch for any signs of aggression. If there are signs of aggression after a few weeks of being separated, then they probably will never really get along. You must remember that a donkey is NOT a predator, nor a prey animal that will necessarily get along with other livestock. Donkeys prefer to be in a herd with other donkeys. They do not like being alone either. Donkeys have a strong sense of “family” and prefer to be with their own kind. When forced to be with other species, they will blend, but grudgingly.

There are three basic sizes of donkeys: Miniatures, Standard Donkeys and Mammoths. Our American donkeys are further identified by their height when being described rather than specific breeds. This is because they are so interbred from being turned loose during the time of the Spanish explorers. There are no real purebred donkeys in America other than the descendants of the original Andalusian donkeys that were bred from George Washington’s stock at Mt. Vernon. One must go to Europe to see the original BREEDS of donkeys. American donkeys are identified as: Miniature Donkeys (36” & under), Small Standard Donkeys (36.01” to 42”), Standard Donkeys (42.01” to 48”), Large Standard Donkeys (48.01” to 56”) and Mammoth Donkeys (Males 56” & over; Females 54” & over).

Miniature donkeys are not suitable guardians for livestock at all. They are too small and can fall victim to predators themselves. They simply cannot defend themselves. Standard donkey jennets are the most sought after for predator control, however, keep in mind that they are PREY animals and can fall victim to predators that are fairly large, or predators that run in packs. Mammoth donkeys are simply too slow to react. They lack the quickness and athleticism that it takes to combat a predator. Donkeys will never be able to guard against such predators as bears and mountain lions.

Good ranch dogs that are bred for guarding sheep and other livestock are a much better choice for guardianship. They are quick, clever and always on the alert. Their barking can alert the farmer as well. They can even move the livestock to a safer location on their own and will often chase off a predator pretty easily with their confusing way of attacking.

As with all livestock, donkeys need to be provided with adequate shelter from the elements, whether heat or cold, must be provided trace mineral salt blocks and clean, fresh water. Their time on pasture will need to be monitored for optimum health which will often clash with the grazing needs of sheep, goats and other smaller livestock. Donkeys are desert animals and really easy keepers. It is not uncommon when they colic or founder on too much, or too rich, grass. They cannot be on pasture 24/7.

Donkeys will need regular trims and must therefore, be reasonably trained. They will require vaccinations twice a year and regular worming. If they are not trained to accept these things, most veterinarians and farriers will be averse to handling them until they are. It takes time and patience to gain the trust of your donkey before you can actually consider him trained.

I have found it better to be smart about livestock control and not make it so easy for the predators. As I said, guard dogs bred for herd management are a much better choice. One should NEVER use mules as a guardian as they WILL be dangerous to smaller livestock and other smaller or weaker animals, even older mules! However, I have discovered that when my mules are pastured next to the smaller animals, predators give them a wide berth and thus, skirt the pens where the smaller animals are kept.

Since miniature donkeys and mules are always at risk, I add another element of safety for them by lining their pens with metal grating over the stock panels. Then, everyone is also brought in every night and turned out for a limited amount of time during the day. This gives me the opportunity to monitor their diet, check for injuries twice a day and keep them safe overnight. All my equines are taught to come in from turnout upon request. They know there is always a crimped oats reward awaiting them.

Wooden barns and wire fences can be easily torn down by larger predators. So over the years, I slowly replaced all of my wood barns and wire fences with metal barns, steel panels and vinyl fencing with hot wires on the top. I also run hotwires on the bottom of the vinyl fencing in areas where animals are likely to come through by climbing underneath. The way my barns and pens are laid out, the mule and large donkey pens surround the miniatures’ housing accommodations. It is not uncommon to see large “cats,” bears, coyotes and other predators in the foothills of Colorado where I live. It is even getting worse as more developments are built in the mountains and drive these predators off the mountains in the wintertime.

In summary, I do not recommend using donkeys as guardian animals. We need to remember that they are PREY animals themselves and can be grossly injured in any altercations with a predator. I think there are better choices for livestock guard animals and setting up the environment in which your livestock (donkeys included) is kept. These two considerations will promote the health and welfare of your livestock, and cost you a whole lot less in the long run!

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.

© 2022 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, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Winter Fun with Your Equine

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By Meredith Hodges

After Spring, Summer and Fall come and go, the cold days of Winter can easily become an excuse to slow down and do less, but Winter can be just as fun and full of activities with your equine as any other season. Along with the basics—food, water and shelter—your equine needs activities to keep him fit and happy. Like any of us, he doesn’t want to be active only part of the year and then left alone during the Winter months, bored and lonely (not to mention the stress he will feel when he has to be reconditioned every Spring). Instead, it’s healthier for him, both physically and mentally, to be active and maintained year-round. This does not mean you need to ride him three or four days a week throughout the Winter. There are lots of other fun, diverse activities you can enjoy together that will adequately maintain his body condition while keeping him interested and happy.

Of course, in order to enjoy Winter games and sports, you must first be sure to dress appropriately for the weather in your area. If you live in a cool or cold climate, dress in layered clothing you can easily remove if you need to. Wear a hat to conserve your body heat and footwear that keeps your feet warm and dry. What your equine wears in cold weather is equally important. For instance, if your equine’s winter coat tends to be on the thinner side, he may need a blanket for the long Winter nights to keep his body from expending too much energy just trying to stay warm. The blanket will also serve to mat down his coat so there is less chance of it becoming entangled in his tack or harness. If you have a stall for your equine, just for Winter months, you may want to trace-clip him in the areas that do the most sweating so that when he is worked, he will cool down quickly and easily. Promoting good circulation keeps your equine warm, helps his body to stay flexible and supple, and cuts way down on his muscle and bone stiffness. Be sure to begin any and all workouts and recreational activities with consistent and appropriate warm-up exercises.

Since most inclement weather produces slippery ground surfaces, if your equine is to be used extensively, it is important that he have appropriate shoes on his feet during the slippery seasons. On strictly muddy or slippery surfaces, tapping and drilling studs into his shoes can help immensely in giving him added traction. If cared for properly, you can remove these studs when you don’t need them. If you get snow in your area, you may want to go with borium shoes and rim pads. The borium shoes supply good traction, while the rim pads prevent snow from balling up in your equine’s feet. I also suggest using splint boots on all four of his legs. This will protect against injury and give him added support and protection of his fetlock joints.

If you have a very young equine, make sure to consistently continue your routine of handling him throughout the entire winter. I do not suggest lunging a very young equine unless you have the advantage of an indoor arena, as he could slip and injure himself. But you can still take him for walks on the lead line, ground drive him through various Winter scenes and
spend plenty of time grooming him. All of this will accustom him to Winter’s unique terrain and obstacles, maintain his essential and continued imprinting and bonding with you, build his self-confidence and maintain his good manners.

The better trained your equine is, the more possibilities there are for Winter sports and games. If the idea of taking lessons at a riding stable that has an indoor arena appeals to you, Winter tends to be a less hectic, more peaceful time of year in which to learn and practice without the added stress and anxiety of showing and other warm weather activities. But even if you want to forego the lessons, there are numerous stables that will rent the use of their indoor arenas for a nominal fee and there are places to trail ride through beautiful Winter scenes. People and equines alike seem to derive great pleasure from these Winter get-togethers when they are carefully and responsibly planned.

Another great way to have fun with your equine is participating in Winter games and holiday parades. Christmas is always a joyous time to bring your equine out of the barn. Consider decorating your equine, dressing up yourself and then riding or driving in your local Christmas parade. This can be loads of fun! Caroling aboard your equine throughout your neighborhood is also a wonderful way for you, your equine and your neighbors to get into the holiday spirit. Oftentimes when my equines and I have gone out caroling after a Christmas parade, the neighborhood children have come out to sing and dance behind our caroling caravan! This kind of pure joy is contagious and always reminds me of the true meaning of the Christmas season.

There are lots of different Winter games that you can play with your equine and if you have a friend who wants to participate too, there are even more possibilities. With proper shoes on your equine and good, flat ground, and if the weather permits, there are so many gymkhana games that you can play. Or how would you like a brisk cross-country gallop on your equine with a few fences to jump? Or you and a friend can take an exciting ride on a tire or sled, taking turns with one person riding the equine while the other rides the sled or tire. If you have more friends with equines, you can even have Winter races. You are limited only by your own imagination! Remember that any game or sport requires that you consider safety first for both you and your equine: What are your abilities? What are your limitations? What is your level of physical conditioning and that of your equine? Whatever activities the two of you do to keep busy, happy and healthy during the Winter months, the name of the game should always be—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.

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

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MULE CROSSING: Reflecting On Longears

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By Meredith Hodges

The contributions being made by mules and donkeys today are more numerous than they have ever been before and we should give thanks that we still have these Longears touching our lives and making them full!

When the age of automation arrived, many mules, donkeys, and horses were put out of work. Mechanical alternatives were taking their places in the fields, in the coal mines, along the canals and even in the mountains. Horses made a somewhat smooth conversion of use to modern day recreation, but it was not as easy for the mules and donkeys. The history of mules and donkeys was never that well documented. Literally thousands of books have been written revering the horse for his contribution to the building of great societies and cultures. However, a lot of the things attributed to the horse were actually done by mules and donkeys! It does not surprise me that by 1966, mules and donkeys were on the decline. Their uses were no longer critical to development and growth of society.

In 1967, concerned Paul and Betsy Hutchins founded the American Donkey & Mule Society, designed to spark the fires of interest in these longeared animals. The A.D.M.S. quarterly journal continues to remind the American public of all the extraordinary things that had been accomplished in history by donkeys and mules. They plowed the fields, pulled the covered wagons and worked in the coal mines. They pulled barges on  the canals and packed munitions for the military. They built the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Wild Bill Cody rode a mule named Mouse that put General Custer’s fancy Thoroughbred to shame over long distances and rough terrain. The crowned heads of Europe rode mules as a statement of class and Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a small and humble donkey! Although the horse was revered and given the credit, mules and donkeys were always right there, too – strong, steady and humble!

Thanks to Paul and Betsy Hutchins, we have been reminded of Longears’ great legacy and there are those, including myself, who would find a way to appreciate their efforts and would help to make donkeys and mules an important part of modern-day society.

The American Donkey & Mule Society today offers a wide variety of programs that include Longears of all sizes, breeds, types and uses. The A.D.M.S. journal is still published quarterly and is growing with the industry, keeping folks abreast of new and innovative uses for the Longears of the future. It serves as a record of accomplishment. The A.D.M.S. registry ensures a more traceable ancestry than has ever before been possible. Many different A.D.M.S. award programs insure that outstanding individuals are recognized for their diverse accomplishments, and books and literature have been compiled and made available to anyone who wants to know more about these unusual animals. A.D.M.S. has inspired the formation of local clubs and groups that share in this interest and the result is evident in art, jewelry and other Longears products and events. The A.D.M.S. has given our children an alternative in equestrian sport that is interesting, challenging and unique in spirit.

Mules and donkeys are becoming the equine of choice in many areas today. The California Sierra Nevada Pack Stations are populated with mules trained to take tourists on pack trips through the scenic mountain areas. The only equines safe enough to carry tourists down the steep rocky trails at the Grand Canyon and at Molokai are mules! Hunters are using mules as riding and pack animals due to their incredible strength, endurance and intelligent nature. They can handle rougher terrain and adverse weather conditions better than can the horse. Donkeys are finding new uses in guarding sheep from unwanted predators. Mules and donkeys are used in handicapped riding and driving programs, and molly mules are being used for embryo transplant. Third world countries are being educated in the care and feeding of their donkeys and mules to enhance economic growth. Mules and donkeys have even become viable 4-H projects for young people who enjoy the challenge. We are finding that there are actually very few things these longeared equines can’t do!

Skeptic that I am I have always attempted to find the limitations of these incredible individuals. Here at the Lucky Three Ranch, we continually challenge our mules and donkeys with new and innovative tasks. They have continually met these challenges with success! With each new success, our mules and donkeys have brought many new and wonderful friends into our lives, making life full and very rewarding. To this day, I am still amazed when an animal has met his challenge and accomplished what I have asked. I suppose part of me would still like to believe that if they could have done all these things, then they would have already been done. But I can see now that that isn’t necessarily so. Need has a lot to do with it. No one ever NEEDED an upper level Dressage mule before! But I did!

Lucky Three Sundowner worked at Third Level Dressage after winning the World Championship in Reining at Bishop Mule Days in 1984. He exhibited play patterns that evolved from his training that would undoubtedly contribute to his success as he moved into Fourth level Dressage. His crazy play patterns looked very much like the Spanish Riding School of Vienna’s, “Airs Above the Ground!” Lucky Three Mae Bea C.T. clearly showed that you can do a variety of things well on a mule – whether it was against horses or other mules and with, or without the bridle!

Mules give new meaning to the word VERSATILE! That is not to mention that they can be a loyal friend and companion as well when trained correctly. Then there was Little Jack Horner who defied all the laws of “Donkeyhood!” He was accomplished in Western Performance classes including Reining and Gymkhana, Driving and Obstacle Driving, Second Level Dressage and he jumped in formal hunter style over four feet in exhibition at Bishop Mule Days and got a Specialty Award for his effort. He was the sire of some of the most athletic mules in the world today.

Since we have yet to find any serious limitations in these Longears’ ability, at the Lucky Three Ranch we concerned ourselves with documenting these three unique successes. Training Mules and Donkeys: A Logical Approach to Longears is a book documenting the training techniques we have used that led to the ultimate success of our mules and donkeys. It will was first released in May 1993 and was revised in 2013. As far as I know, it is the only book of its kind with training from foal to adulthood and has subsequently been supported by more books, DVDs and television shows and our extensive and comprehensive website at www.luckythreeranch.com. The intent is always to help mule and donkey enthusiasts to get the best from their animals and to avoid the common pitfalls that would sour an otherwise stimulating and rewarding experience with Longears. It just goes to show that MULES CAN DO, AND DONKEYS, TOO! Seeing IS believing and dreams really CAN come true!

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.

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

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MULE CROSSING: My Favorite Christmas Tradition

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By Meredith Hodges

My favorite holiday of the year has always been Christmas! The sights, sounds and smells of Christmas transport me to a magical place for the whole month of December, and the excitement and joy of yesterday still ring true today. I cannot think of a more deserving holiday than one that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and promotes so much hope and serenity throughout the world, if only for a day. Christmas reminds us all that the spirit of sharing and giving is timeless and takes only a willing attitude and a little bit of creativity.

While I was growing up, Christmas in my family was filled with numerous traditions. When we were twelve days out from Christmas, we watched a 1955 film called On The Twelfth Day of Christmas. As you might guess, it was based on the old English song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Every year, the film
brought wild bursts of laughter, as we watched a proper Edwardian lady’s townhouse in England become filled to overflowing with gifts from her suitor. Not only did she get the gift designated for each day, but also the same gifts from prior days plus the new one. By Christmas, her little townhouse was filled with 12 partridges in pear trees, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 calling birds, 25 gold rings,  30 geese a laying, 28 swans a swimming, 32 maids a milking, 27 ladies dancing, 30 Lords a leaping, 22 Pipers piping and 12 drummers drumming! Laughter filled our house daily from that day forward, all the way up to Christmas. Of course, as children, we were also reminded of the “naughty and nice” list.

To my siblings and me, Santa Clause was the personification of “sharing and giving” and it was important for us to meet the man who inspired so much warmth and affection. Like so many little children, the tradition of sitting on Santa’s lap and telling him what we wanted for Christmas HAD to be observed. Then, after our visit with Santa, we would spend the next few days shopping for the perfect gifts to give to those we loved. I remember that my parents, brothers, sisters and I were very conscientious about contributing to the Salvation Army volunteers who dotted the department stores with their little red pots, filled with donations for those less fortunate. We children bought some of our gifts, but a lot were created from scratch from things we found around the house. The presents we made always seemed to mean the most.

Christmas baking for days on end with my Grandma is a favorite memory. We got to bake great gifts for many friends and family members (and we all knew there would be time to exercise and take off the weight…LATER!). We children were wide-eyed and filled with wonder as we passed the evenings listening to our favorite Christmas carols and our elders’ stories of Christmases past. And we absolutely knew that Santa really could drive eight tiny reindeer across the sky, with Rudolph lighting the way with his red nose, bringing presents to little children all over the world. All of these experiences bonded our entire family together.

As a family, we always enjoyed going to a large, rural live Christmas tree lot just a few miles away, where we searched for and cut down of our very own special Christmas tree. Right before Christmas Eve, we put the tree up and decorated it with lots of garlands, popcorn strands and ornaments, many of which represented our family’s “Christmases past.” The Christmas decorations that were everywhere brought smiles to our faces and made us dance with joy, while Christmas bells rang out to remind us of the good in everyone.

On Christmas Eve, surrounded by close friends and family, my mother accompanied us on the piano as we sang Christmas carols. Another Christmas Eve tradition was our very favorite meal of hamburgers and French fries—a quick meal for my mom to fix and food we kids all loved. For dessert, Mom made chocolate and lemon meringue pies. Dessert was always delicious, but we children were anxious to get to the business of opening the presents we gave to each other later in the evening. We knew that our presents from Santa would not be there until Christmas morning, so we set out milk and sugar cookies for Santa and his reindeer before we went to sleep, so that he would know how much we appreciated his time and effort, and that we found it amazing that he could give gifts to every child, all in one night.

We kids always awoke extremely early on Christmas Day, bouncing down the stairs to see what Santa had left us. The cookies and milk were gone and the presents from Santa were under the tree, but we were not allowed to touch them until our parents and grandparents got up. That wait was excruciating, but it was oh so much fun when the adults finally got up! After opening presents, everyone had a light breakfast, because the early afternoon would bring our traditional Christmas dinner with friends and family. My mother made the most amazing spread of perfectly roasted turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, an incredible salad filled with everything you can think of from the garden, sweet potatoes and a lovely cranberry sauce. The meal was always topped off by my grandmother’s unique and decadent chocolate roll, a light chocolate cake with real whipped cream and homemade chocolate sauce on top.

Now, as an adult, my Christmases are a wonderful combination of the traditions I experienced as a child and my own new traditions, which means always including my beloved mules, donkeys and horses. In fact, back when I lived in my original farmhouse at Lucky Three Ranch, the old floors were sturdier than those in my present home, so the mules were actually allowed to help with the decorating of the Christmas tree!

My equines have also been involved in many Christmas parades throughout the years. We would always decorate our surrey (pulled by Mae Bea C.T.) and our Meadowbrook cart (pulled by Little Jack Horner) with the most elaborate decorations! It was so much fun to hear and see the crowds of people along the parade routes waving and cheering in appreciation of our efforts. On Christmas Eve, a group of us would often go Christmas caroling throughout the neighborhood in our mule- and donkey-drawn vehicles.

Of all the Christmas traditions I treasure, my favorite is the tradition that arose when Lucky Three Ranch was born and my mules, horses and donkeys became an integral part of each holiday season. My favorite tradition now is the time spent sharing a warm hug with each of my equines and giving them an extra measure of oats on that very special day that we call Christmas!

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, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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