MULE CROSSING: Understanding Comprehensive Equine Training Skills

By Meredith Hodges

You can often tell a horse what to do, but you have to ask a mule. Mules and donkeys are intelligent, sensitive and affectionate animals. Although they have been stereotyped as stubborn and difficult to control, members of the equine family can actually be quite responsive and compliant when they’re handled properly. Their intelligence, strength and natural athleticism make them well suited for virtually any equine activity or sport. With proper training and care, they bond closely with humans and make wonderful companions.

To work successfully with these bright, inquisitive animals is to understand the ways in which they differ from horses. Mules derive the best physical and psychological traits from both the horse and the donkey. Once you understand both the donkey half and the horse half, you’ll be well on your way to a successful relationship with your long-eared partner.

Redeeming Characteristics of Longears

The modern donkey is descended from the Nubian Wild Ass of North Africa.

Domesticated around 3,000 B.C. and has served man well ever since. Donkeys are surefooted, durable and have incredible strength for their size. They are very sociable animals and enjoy the company of their own kind, people and some other animals. They will most likely chase an animal that is smaller than them, so management must include careful consideration when they are in close proximity to smaller animals. Unlike horses, in the face of perceived danger, donkeys are inclined to freeze or hide rather than flee. However, mules being part horse and part donkey will either freeze or flee.

Mules inherit their instinct for self-preservation from the donkey, along with their innate intelligence and a number of unique physical traits. Mules may be either male or female and are primarily sterile. Horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62 chromosomes. The resulting offspring called a mule generally has 63 chromosomes, an uneven pairing, missing the conception pair. On occasion, some molly mules have conceived to jacks and stallions and have produced offspring as was the case in America with “Old Beck” and “Krause,” but this is rare. Typically, a mule foal will grow to the size of its dam, although he may be two inches taller or two inches shorter. Both mules and horses are very strong, but the mule has smoother muscling and more endurance and strength for its size. Mules also eat less, are less susceptible to parasites and disease, and will typically live longer than horses. “Hybrid vigor” gives mules some advantages over their equine cousins, but only proper management, care and training will enable them to reach their full potential.

Physical and Mental Conditioning

Mules and donkeys will bond most closely with the person who trains them. Work with your equine one-on-one to build that critical bond of trust between the two of you. Remember that patience, kindness and consideration will determine the success or failure of your training program. Longears can be obedient and reliable when they feel you have their best interests at heart. If you treat them harshly, you’ll encounter resistance at every turn. Mules and donkeys have an incredibly strong sense of self-preservation and will not do anything that they perceive is dangerous to their health.

Ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to work with your mule or donkey from the time he is born. However, regardless of your animal’s age or ability, it is critical that you always begin your training with imprinting, carefully planned, adequate groundwork and work forward in a logical and sequential way that will naturally make sense and is doable for the equine at every stage. Be sure to work with a knowledgeable trainer and use a comprehensive training program such as I offer. Begin with the basics and don’t skip any steps. The training information included in my training and management program is geared toward mules and donkeys, but also pertains to all equines. Generally speaking, it’s best to add an extra measure of patience, creativity and good humor when you work with a donkey.

Like all children, a mule foal will take after his parents to some extent. Be careful when you select a mare for breeding. Be sure she possesses correct conformation and a nice, calm mare sets the example for a nice, calm baby. From the time of his birth, pay attention to the way you touch your foal and his mother to make them both comfortable with your presence. This is called “imprinting.” A good time to practice imprinting in the beginning is at feeding time. Pick up the foal’s feet while he is unrestrained and touch, scratch and stroke him all over to discover what he does and doesn’t like. Give him time to relax and get comfortable with you. Let him choose to be with you, and you’ll find that is where he will prefer to be.

This is also a good time to introduce the concept of the “reward.” Offer his dam a reward of crimped oats when she comes to you. Your foal will see his mother’s acceptance and will learn to do the same. He is most likely already eating the oats with his dam if he readily accepts the oats. A consistent system of appropriate and prompt reward is a crucial part of your foal’s life-long resistance-free training program. Mules and donkeys will work harder for a pleasurable payoff and a handful of crimped oats serves the purpose best for equines.

At the beginning of training, you should offer rewards often, although only after a requested task is performed or assimilated. This will strengthen the bond between you and encourage good behavior. If your equine pulls away, don’t chase him. Simply let go of the rope, reins, drivelines, etc., and offer him oats when he returns to you. Your task is to be clear in your intent, fair in your expectations and prompt with rewards when tasks or assimilations are completed. When your animal understands which behaviors result in a reward, those behaviors will be repeated. This is called “Behavior Modification.”

Mule foals are not much different than human babies when it comes to their need for attention, love, guidance and praise. Giving your foal plenty of time to be a “kid” will help him as he grows, and playtime can do double duty if you play games that give him a sense of security, set boundaries and build the trust between you.

Once your foal is comfortable with being handled, you should be able to halter him with little trouble. Feeding time is a good time to start. Teach your foal about the halter and leading while he is still young. You’ll be using halters and lead ropes with him all his life and carefully planned leading exercises are critical to your equine’s core muscles development in good equine posture. The balance he attains will serve him well as his tasks become more difficult. This makes for a more pleasurable experience between you.

Tying your foal comes next and is comprised of a series of brief, methodical lessons. First, halter your foal with the mare tied nearby. Attach a thick cotton lead rope to his halter and tie him to a stout hitching post using a safety knot. Be sure to use a flat nylon webbed halter to avoid undue pressure points on his face and to prevent breakage. Approach him every 10 minutes and wait for him to slacken the rope before you release him. Keep lessons to no more than 30 minutes and repeat for as many days as necessary until he doesn’t pull back. Once he’s standing quietly, you can brush him with a soft brush and pick up his feet. He may struggle a bit at first, but as long as he isn’t hurting himself, he’ll be learning how to “stay cool.”

When you can easily halter and tie your foal, and he ceases to pull back upon your approach, untie him and ask him to follow. If he refuses, just tie him up again, wait 10 minutes, untie him and ask him again. When he finally follows you for a few steps, praise and reward him, so he knows he’s doing well. There’s no need to jerk, pull hard or hit his rump. Keep your voice calm and use the simple command to “Walk on.” Be patient, work with him and reward him when he does what you ask.

When he walks when you say, “Walk” and stops when you say, “Whoa,” you’re ready to do more. Keep verbal commands VERY SIMPLE in the beginning. Always hold the lead rope in your left hand while standing on his left side (the “near side”), and point in the direction of travel with your right hand to keep him in proper position with his head at your shoulder. Look where you are going and match your steps with his front legs. Your foal should stop when you verbally say “Whoa” and he feels the resistance of a slight drag on the lead rope. Always stop with your feet together and he will learn to do the same. When he stops, ask him to square up such that he has equal weight over all four feet with the front and rear legs standing together.  He should stand straight and still on a loose lead to receive his reward.

Until now, you’ve kept your foal in a confined area such as a corral or paddock. Now you can move to a larger area, keeping in mind that this will affect his behavior. Use a calm reassuring voice to let him know that everything’s okay as you introduce him to simple obstacles. Use the lead rope to guide him through each obstacle. If he gets frightened, put yourself between the obstacle and your equine. Keep tension on the lead rope and give him plenty of time to investigate each new object. Encourage him to move forward by showing him the oats reward and then praise him with the reward when he touches the obstacle with his nose. We are trying to change his fear into curiosity. This is a time for positive interaction between the two of you. Take your foal with you often to discover new things together. Teach him to trust your judgment during training now and he will trust you always.

Once your animal will stand calmly when tied and willingly follows you over and around different obstacles, you can then introduce him to the trailer. If you’ve built a trusting relationship with him, he should load with little or no resistance. Never get in a hurry! It will only take longer. If he refuses to cooperate with a reward as an enticement, you might need to make use of a lunge line and whip used as described in my books and DVDs in conjunction with the reward.

Mules are typically about a year or more behind horses in their overall development. Even at two years of age, your mule is still growing and the cartilage in his joints is still soft and being shaped. He is a rambunctious youngster and not inclined to be easily restrained. Because the cartilage is soft, he’s more susceptible to physical and psychological injury at this stage, so proceed with caution—only the simplest of leading lessons is appropriate at this point.

Basics of Resistance-Free Training

During these early lessons, some discipline may be required. If your youngster gets a little bold and jumps or nips at you or kicks, you must correct the behavior so it doesn’t become a bad habit. With the flat of your hand, give him a brisk slap on the side of mouth if he bites or on the rump if he kicks, and in a strong voice say, “No!” Then continue to play with him so he knows that everything is okay. When an older animal tries to bite you, slap him on the side of the mouth and very loudly say, “No!” and then raise your hand like a stop sign in front of his face. He will raise his head, begin to turn to the side and be ready to leave, or simply will back up. Immediately take a step toward him, tell him, “Good boy,” and reward him for giving you your space. Be consistent and use only the word “No” to correct him. Correcting kicking through training is covered in DVD #2 of my resistance-free training series, Training Mules and Donkeys.

It’s very important to understand that negative behaviors on your part, such as yelling and hitting, when used in isolation, don’t really work with any equine. Abusive behavior will shut the animal down, pushing him into a freeze response and severing the connection between you. If there is any opportunity to do so, he will simply leave you standing alone.

In rare cases when negative reinforcement is required, always immediately follow the negative correction with positive verbal praise and a reward him when the he responds to the correction. He may test you again, but a raised hand and verbal, “No!” should curb the behavior. He should back off and wait for the reward. When being disciplined for aggressive behavior in the future, you should only have to raise your hand like a stop sign and say “No!” If the slap was done smartly the first time, he should automatically take a step back and wait for his reward.

Set the stage for success to encourage good behavior. Just as you’ve established a feeding schedule, also design a training routine. Equines will work better when they know what is expected. Set up a workstation where you start each lesson.

Each day that you train, always bring your animal to the designated work station. Tie him, then groom him and tack up. At the end of each lesson, return to the workstation to un-tack and groom.

Ideally, you should have a round pen, arena and obstacle course to work in, but whatever facilities you have, be sure that the training and grooming areas are clean and safe. The familiarity will keep him calm and receptive.

Also get in the habit of covering everything your mule or donkey has previously learned before going on to something new. A quick review will boost his confidence and prepare him to go on to the next level.

Athletic Conditioning  for Optimum Performance

Training begins by building a positive relationship with your animal, establishing a consistent reward system, and maintaining a safe, comfortable environment. Another often-overlooked but critical component is the need to physically condition your equine, so he can safely do whatever you ask of him. This is probably the toughest part of training. Our inclination is to rush through the basics to get to the “fun stuff,” but without thorough athletic conditioning with balance and strength in good equine posture, your animal simply won’t have the physical capacity to properly do what you ask. On the contrary, he’ll be more prone to injury and more likely to develop behavioral problems.

The work to develop core muscles, tendons and ligaments in good equine posture doesn’t start in the round pen—it begins on the lead line. Showmanship work on the lead line helps to develop strength and balance on the flat ground, in a controlled situation. Leading over obstacles adds coordination to the strength and balance. Take plenty of time at each leading stage of training before moving your animal to the round pen to learn balance at all three gaits on the circle. It takes months to develop muscles.

Physical loss of balance is the biggest problem in under-conditioned animals and the most common cause of bad behavior. When you design your training program to fully develop muscles, tendons and ligaments in good equine posture, your equine will feel good all over and be more willing to comply. Stretching is also important for the equine athlete—young or old. Make sure you incorporate appropriate passive and active stretches throughout your training program to protect your animal from injury. It takes years for an equine to grow and develop properly. Give him the benefit of patience, kindness, respect and proper care, and you’ll both reap the rewards.

Breeding and Training for Performance

When you think of mules and donkeys, activities such as driving, packing and trail riding probably come to mind. But these days, mules, in particular, perform in an amazing variety of events including Reining, roping, Pleasure classes, Endurance events, Hunter classes, Jumping and even Dressage and Combined Training. In fact, in 2004, the United States Equestrian Federation voted to allow mules into their Dressage Division with provisions.

Better breeding, better training and renewed interest bolstered the popularity of Longears as pets and performance animals in modern times. By selecting your mare carefully, you can help to determine your animal’s athletic potential. Choose the breed of mare that most closely exemplifies talent in the specific events that you desire. By choosing and adhering to a comprehensive, sequential training program, you can help your equine to reach his potential in a way that keeps him healthy and happy.

Regardless of how you plan to use your mule, basic Showmanship training lays the foundation for all future training. In Showmanship, your mule or donkey must learn to follow your shoulder at a walk and a trot, stand squarely and quietly, and do a turn-on-the-haunches. Each time you lead your mule, do it as if you were in a Showmanship class. The walk to and from the barn or pasture is THE place to start.

After you and your mule master Showmanship, you can begin to vary your training routine. For example, you might practice showmanship one day, rest the next, work with obstacles the next day, rest for a day, go for a trail walk, rest and then add lunging and so on. Your mule needs time to think, so keep it fun for both of you. Keep your expectations reasonable and remember that short, frequent lessons (20-40 minutes) with a day’s rest in between are better than long, repetitive drills. Also, understand that disobedience is an honest response to YOU and what you’re asking. If you’re not getting the response you want, ask a different way.

Training for Saddle

After you have built core strength in good equine posture on the lead rope, and after your equine has finally learned to stay erect while bending his body through the rib cage during turns as he walks at your shoulder, he is now ready to move on to the round pen for lessons in lunging on the large circle. This is where he will learn more complex verbal commands and where he will begin to develop bulk muscle, balance, rhythm and cadence through the walk, trot and canter on the circle.

Begin lunging your mule in the round pen first in the bridle, and then  in the bridle and saddle for ten-minute intervals. Then add the “Elbow Pull” to put him in his proper postural frame to correctly develop his muscles. Follow your trainer’s instructions about body language as you practice at all three gaits and the reverse. When you and your mule have perfected your lunging technique, you’re ready for ground driving in the round pen.

Ground driving builds your mule’s confidence and teaches him the fundamentals of riding without the stress of a rider. Here, the animal learns verbal and rein cues from the drive lines that set the stage for more advanced resistance-free training. You will begin to develop the synchronization of your own body with his by following the steps he takes with his back legs. Then when you ride, your seat will be more flexible and better able to follow the motion of your equine’s body. If your goal is to ride your Longears, keep in mind that these animals mature more slowly than horses. A Longears might not be physically or mentally ready to carry a rider until he’s four years old. When your equine is physically prepared, comfortable with the saddle and bridle, and proficient in lunging and ground driving, he will then be ready to ride.

You will need to give your animal plenty of time to adjust to new sensations and directions. Always wear a helmet and work with an assistant until you’re confident your equine can calmly walk, trot and lope with you on board, first in the round pen and then in the open arena. As your animal advances, remember to work on your own “Horsemanship” techniques and the accuracy of your aids – your hands, seat and legs.

Driving Training

Driving your equine can be great fun, but driving is very different from riding and the details are paramount. Driving can be hazardous for you and your animal, not to mention whatever or whomever is in your path. Choose an appropriate prospect—one who will stay fairly calm in the face of new situations. If you’re inexperienced, be sure to work with a trainer before setting off on your own.

Of course, before you tack up, you’ll need to desensitize your animal to the sound and feel of the harness, blinders and other equipment. Take your time and follow your trainer’s instructions carefully. Be careful because too much desensitization can cause your equine to become bored and disinterested. Instead, use the introductory techniques you used in leading training and appeal to his natural curiosity and sense of adventure to bolster his confidence.

Once he’s comfortable with the equipment, practice lunging and ground driving your equine in harness. Eventually, you can add a PVC pole to mimic the shaft, then a drag (such as an old tire) for weight, then a travois of two poles and a crosspiece. Clear verbal commands are positively essential here. Used in combination with the drive lines and a suitable driving whip, they will be your primary means of communication. Take your time and remember that each individual animal is different. Safety should always be your primary concern. The “fun stuff” will come in time. 

Importance of Logical and Sequential Training

This article is only an overview of my resistance-free training basics for all equines and especially for mules and donkeys. If you’re serious about working with any of these smart, strong and intelligent animals, you’ll need to invest in a complete training program. Any equine training program worth its salt will address not only the exercises and assimilations required for performance, but also the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the animal.

Even abused or neglected animals can be rehabilitated using resistance-free training methods that include slow and methodical body conditioning. With love and patience, mistreated animals can learn to trust again and injured animals can recover enough to thrive. Training an equine should be like making a friend—it’s something no one else can do for you, and the experience teaches you as much about yourself as it does about your animal. So, remember to keep it fun and enjoy the journey.

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.

© 2008, 2016, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.

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