By Meredith Hodges
Mules and donkeys are wonderful animals. They’re strong, intelligent and what a sense of humor! But training a mule or donkey is different from training a horse. They require love patience, understanding and a good reward system. Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly and only to define behavioral limits. The result is an animal that is relaxed, submissive, obedient, dependable and happy with his work.
Mule and donkey owners find it difficult to find trainers for their Longears because most horse trainers are unfamiliar with the psychological needs required by Longears to invoke positive responses from them. Those trainers who are capable are few and far between, making it difficult for inexperienced owners in remote areas to get their animals trained properly. Many people attempt to train their own animals and achieve a certain level of success despite the trials and tribulations of trial and error. This can be a long and frustrating road.
We are fortunate enough today to have all kinds of books and videos available on training Longears. However, it wasn’t that long ago when there was virtually nothing published on this subject. Those of us who were training needed to use educational resources published on horse training and modify those techniques to better suit our Longears. This still left a lot of room for trial and error…and frustration for both the trainer and the animal.
Interest in Longears has grown tremendously over the past 50 years. With this increased interest has come an increase in the numbers of animals that need to be trained each year. The few trainers who are competent with Longears could not possibly train even most of the animals that need it, even if it were geographically possible—which it isn’t. Owners usually need to travel distances to visit an animal in training, which limits their own ability to learn with their Longears. This can also become a problem when the animal returns home.
Seminars and clinics are helpful, but they cannot replace the day to day routine that helps produce a safe, obedient and dependable animal. Mules and donkeys bond to the person or persons who train and work with them. They develop a warmth and affection for them, and a desire to please and to serve. Without this bond, mules and donkeys will often comply, but without commitment to their work. Subsequently, when the pressure is on, they may “quit” on you in an instant.
Many people have complained about sending their animal to a trainer for as long as two years, only to have the animal return home and become a problem within as little as three months. It is important to take an active part in the training of your Longears. The more you can be a part of the training, the better for both you and your animal. Even if your mule or donkey is with a competent trainer, you need to plan on spending at least two days a week with your animal and the trainer so that your animal learns to trust you as well as the trainer. Being present and interactive with your animal at feeding time will solidify the trust he gains.
A lot of people ask me why I quit taking outside Longears for training here at the Lucky Three Ranch. In all honesty, I had developed a waiting list I could not possibly have fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time. I would, however, really like to see more people having fun and enjoying their Longears as much as I do. I considered doing clinics like so many trainers do, but I felt I could reach more people through a video and book training program with my technical support only a phone call away. Hence, I developed my training series, “Training Mules and Donkeys. Time and time again, my training series proves that this was a great way to reach people and help them to reach new levels of communication with their animals. People who never before had the courage nor confidence to even attempt such a thing are discovering the self satisfaction and elation of training their own mules and donkeys. Most people tell me it is the best part of their day when they can work with their animals. They are quite surprised at how easy it is to establish a routine that fits with their other weekly activities…thanks to the intelligence and forgiveness of these wonderful animals.
I had been involved with training horses most of my natural life before I began training mules at my mother’s Windy Valley Ranch in Healdsburg, California almost 40 years ago. I knew nothing of Longears at the time I started there. I tried all kinds of “suggestions” from other people and by trial and error—and a lot of resistance—I somehow managed to get a lot of mules trained, but I knew there had to be an easier way. I have to applaud the forgiveness of these mules in the face of my own impatience and ignorance. They let me know when my approach to training was unrealistic and punitive, and did so in a knowing and careful way. My lessons with them were proportionate to my mistakes, so I was lucky enough not to experience anything like head injuries or broken bones. When these kinds of injuries occur, there is something grossly wrong between the animal and the person who has been injured. It could be a lot of reasons, but the one thing of which I can be sure is that the animal acted appropriately for himself, and the problem occurred because there was a lack of communication.
When we raise our children, we begin with nurturing, love, affection and play. The way we play outlines certain behavioral limits for our children and helps them to develop and learn to socialize in a positive and healthy manner. As the child grows, family interaction helps him to define for himself his place in the world. Appropriate physical activities help the child’s body to develop in a slow and healthy way. School, in its natural and logical order helps the child to understand and learn to react appropriately in society and in the world. It helps to develop the confidence on which his self image and self worth is built. Physical activities increase with intensity, strengthening the physical well being of the child. This takes longer than 18 years. How can we, in all good conscience, expect our young Longears to develop in a healthy way, both physically and mentally, if we expect them to learn the same kinds of things in so much less time?
At first, you might think there just isn’t enough time to spend with your animal to accomplish all this, but somehow we all manage to make time for these things when we have children. We learn to experience and grow with our children, as we can also do with our animals by being realistic with our expectations at each stage of growth and training. We give ourselves the time to do this without the pressure of being hurried. There are few times in this world when we are really able to “stop and smell the roses.” Longears can afford us this very special time if you only let them. Look upon the time with your donkey or mule as you would look upon the time you spend with your child. Some days will be for learning and some for just plain fun. When there are learning days, try to make them fun and stress-free. Someday you’ll find yourself saying: “I can’t believe he has turned out to be so good. I never really felt like I was ‘training’ him!”
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.
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