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MULE CROSSING: Surge of Mule Shows

By Meredith Hodges

I remember back in 1982 when summer came and we had to search high and low for shows in which we could compete with our mules! As they say, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Mule shows are now so numerous that it is becoming very difficult to decide which ones to attend. Years ago, our mules were not necessarily welcome at horse competitions, and today that has changed as well – making our decisions about where to compete is even more complicated. It is truly amazing to see the tremendous growth in popularity of the mule over the past 30 to 40 years, but then I guess it was inevitable given all their redeeming qualities! It really isn’t that unusual that people would begin to prefer mules once they received accurate and truthful information about them. Granted, you have to be smarter than the mule in order to train one, but once you train one properly, you have a wonderful companion and a top competitor in the equine world. More and more, the criticism of mules has changed to general curiosity and a willingness to learn more about these unique animals. Many people have taken a great deal of time and effort to bring these animals into the public eye. To name them all would take volumes, but their work is certainly appreciated!

As I said, there are many all-mule and donkey shows that you can attend in most states across the U.S. Most of them are held in conjunction with State Fairs. However, there are others that are promoted with horse and mule races as well. The American Donkey & Mule Society sponsors a National Mule and Donkey Show that floats from state to state. The 1992 A.D.M.S. Nationals were held in conjunction with the South Carolina State Fair. There were some truly lovely mules to see in our eastern United States.

Breed shows are another place you will see mules today. In many places, you will see mules competing in their classes sandwiched between classes for anything from Draft Horses to Arabians and Saddlebreds. Many of these breed shows not only included a mule division, but allowed mules to compete in their Open Classes as well against the various horse breeds. In 1991, our own Lucky Three Mae Bea C.T. competed in an Open English Pleasure class of primarily Saddlebreds and American Show Horses to sixth place of 20 entries. It is nice to know that the judges were taking mules seriously, as well!

The American Driving Society has been quite supportive itself! They encourage mules to participate in the many facets of driving that they offer, from pleasure, to fun events to actual marathon driving. In these shows, the mules are allowed to compete directly with the horses. Shows such as these tend to really test the knowledge and expertise of the trainer and the conditioning and response of the animals. Integrity in progressive learning is encouraged while stark competitiveness and politics take a back seat. This type of situation is much more appealing to the novice who wants to learn and improve his and his animal’s skills.

The United States Dressage Federation is another group that has encouraged mules to come and compete in their schooling shows, giving mules the opportunity to train and show with the best that Horsemanship has to offer. Showing was limited to non-A.H.S.A. (American Horse Show Association) shows, but nevertheless, quite adequate and beneficial for our mules. It is understandable that they should not compete with horses and riders that are competing for National and International Championships, and sometimes for Olympic recognition. It could offset the points system drastically should a mule compete, being ineligible for such events anyway. The A.H.S.A. has stated that these championships are horse competitions.

The United States Combined Training Association left it up to each region to decide whether, or not, to allow mules to compete and some areas are more tolerant than others. Dressage and Combined Training offers the ultimate in fitness and conditioning of both animal and rider. Because it requires so much physical exertion and skill, everyone is accustomed to discussion on gross errors and wrecks with little or no embarrassment. This makes for a great learning environment with a lot of positive social interaction. We have had a lot of fun for three years competing with the Mountain States Combined Training Association and the Windy Wyoming Combined Training Association. They were a great group of folks from the organizers to the competitors. When Lucky Three Mae Bea C.T. came in second in 1992 in the Open Novice Division at the Abbe Ranch Horse Trials in Larkspur in June, organizer Susan Farmer presented our ribbon and warmly said, “We’re not prejudiced here! Congratulations!” I think it is more important to these folks to see that people enjoy the sport and more over, to continue to want to participate and learn. This makes for attainable long term goals, and even more… it makes for long term friendships.

If you are not really the competitive type, but enjoy the simpler side of showing in gymkhana events and pleasure classes, there are a lot of small Open Shows that you can attend sponsored by various saddle clubs across the U.S. They will usually let the mules compete right along with the horses. Learning and having fun are again the key issues here.

The mule has been proving his worth now, more than ever in Competitive Trail Riding and Endurance Racing. When you talk about Competitive Trail Riding in Colorado, you have to give credit to Cee Wolf who really excelled with her mules in this area of equine athletics, even at 80 years of age! She is another lady who has done great promotional work for mules!  I would like to thank the millions of people who have given of themselves, that mules might be seen for whom they really are… a truly wonderful companion and a magnificent athlete and performer!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit, MEREDITH HODGES PUBLIC FIGURE Facebook page, or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at Also, find Meredith on Pinterest, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube and Twitter.

© 1992, 2016, 2024 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

MULE CROSSING: Donkey Training, Part 5

By Meredith Hodges

By now your donkey should be getting much better at his turns on the forehand and haunches on the lead line. He should be leading easily at the walk and trot and squaring up while stopped. He should be lunging at the walk and trot in the round pen, and ground-driving at the walk in the round pen, both straight and through turns and reverses. He should be walking and trotting with a rider in the round pen, without the assistant. He should be both ground-driving and walking with a rider through the hourglass pattern and on the perimeter of the larger arena. Now you are going to ask for a little more detailed control by asking him to walk over and through some very straight-forward obstacles.

Set up some obstacles in a confined area. Obstacles might include a tarp, four ground rails, a bridge, a straight back-through, a mailbox and a tractor tire. Your donkey should have been led through these obstacles as part of his leading training, so he should be familiar with these obstacles. Now you can begin to ask him to negotiate these obstacles more on his own by first ground-driving him through them, then (if he is large enough) by riding him through them. Begin by reviewing his turns on the forehand and haunches. Then attach the drivelines and have your assistant lead him as you drive him from behind. Start with something simple such as ground poles, a tarp or a bridge that he can easily walk over. If he is negotiating the tarp or bridge, ask him to “whoa” when he is standing on it with all four feet, reward him and then proceed. If he is negotiating the ground poles, walk over them. Once he is on the other side, stop him immediately and reward him. Then proceed. Then have your assistant lead him to the mailbox while you ground-drive him, and have him stop parallel to it. Reward him for stopping, then have your assistant open and close the mailbox and reward him again for standing still. Then proceed. Walk him through the parallel poles and stop him. Reward him. Then ask him to back out of them. Reward him again. Then proceed to the tractor tire. Make sure your assistant walks through the tire and not around it, because the donkey will do exactly as he sees her do! Once on the other side of the tire, have your assistant stop and allow the donkey to put his two front feet in the tire and halt. Reward him. Then proceed forward and allow him to walk through the tire to the other side and halt. Reward him again. Your assistant will be giving the treats, since you will need to maintain the drivelines.

After he has negotiated all of the obstacles with the assistant leading him, it is time for him to negotiate them on his own. Have your assistant stand on the ending side of the obstacle while you ground-drive him through exactly as you did before, stopping in the appropriate places. Whenever you stop, have your assistant come to him and reward him, then have her go back to the starting position, where she will reward him again as he completes the obstacle. If you have any problems with him at all, have your assistant come back and lead him through it again, then try to ground-drive him through again on his own. Do not try to bully him into doing it. This will only cause resistance and a failure to understand how to properly negotiate the obstacle.

Once your donkey is going smoothly and obediently through the obstacles on the drivelines, you can ride him through (if he is large enough). Begin as you did with the drivelines and have your assistant lead him through first or ride through ahead of him on a schooled animal that he likes, stopping in the appropriate places and rewarding him each step of the way. Depending on how willing your donkey is, this could be the next lesson, on the very same day. Each time you go to the obstacle course, repeat this entire process each time, first on the drivelines with the assistant, then without, ride with the assistant leading, then ride through the obstacles without her. It will not be long before he is going well, as donkeys learn things quickly and thoroughly, although they do have off days and may decide not to comply with a particular obstacle on that particular day. Tomorrow, it may be an entirely different story and he may have no trouble at all with any of them. It’s just the nature of the donkey to “change things up a little” from day to day. They like to keep us honest and on our toes. This is why I have included a separate section in my Training Mules and Donkeys series just for donkeys that is designed to be used WITH the other DVDs. Do the obstacles in a different order each time to prevent your donkey from anticipating and ignoring your cues, and be sure that you are cueing him properly for each obstacle, making your movements as light as possible.

If you encounter resistance at any obstacle, just stop, have your assistant come back and lead him through again. Then try it again. If you encounter only mild resistance at any obstacle, try to straighten your donkey out and repeat the obstacle again without the assistant. For instance, let’s suppose your donkey goes through the parallel poles, but won’t stop for the back. Stop him as soon as you can after the poles and ask him to back. Then go forward again in a large circle and come back through again and try to stop him in the middle, between the poles, then back. Give him every opportunity you can to succeed on his own and be sure to reward him for it.

Often, a donkey will create resistance by sticking his nose out and pulling his head to one side. If this becomes a perpetual problem, you can use the elbow pull to help to keep him straight and to discourage this kind of resistance. Take a 12-foot length of 3/8″ rope with snaps on both ends. Fold it in half and drape it over his poll. Run the two ends through the snaffle bit rings from the outside toward his mouth, down between his legs and over the back on each side. Tie it off with his head pulled to a level where his poll is about six inches above his withers. This is called an “elbow pull” and instructions on how to make and adjust it are included in my Equus Revisited DVD. This will keep him from sticking his nose out and will encourage good posture as he goes through the movements. It is a better way to deal with this problem than it would be to use draw reins (as shown in photos), as draw reins need to be held and adjusted in your hands. Draw reins can too often produce an over-reaction, even in the most experienced hands. Do not use the elbow pull in any other part of his training until he has learned to trot well, both in the round pen and in the open. This comes later than the walk work we are doing now.

To vary the routine and to keep things interesting while cultivating the best responses in your donkey, you should spend one day in the round pen, the next day in the open area doing the hourglass, and the next session on the obstacle course. Be sure to include a review of turns on the forehand and haunches, and ground-driving both straight and with turns preceding each session. And always, before you ride off and immediately after mounting, ask your donkey to bring his head to your knee on each side by offering a treat and vibrating the rein on that side. This encourages light responses in your donkey. Don’t drill your donkey every day. He only needs clear and consistent lessons to learn well, and he needs rest in between so as not to establish any soreness or side effects from using muscles he hasn’t used before. Don’t worry, he will not forget what you have taught him, and even if you have three days or three weeks between lessons, he will be right where you left him! Herein is the beauty of training a donkey or mule.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit, MEREDITH HODGES PUBLIC FIGURE Facebook page, or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at Also, find Meredith on Pinterest, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube and Twitter.

© 1999, 2016, 2024 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.

MULE CROSSING: Donkey Training, Part 4

By Meredith Hodges

You have, thus far, begun to teach your donkey several things: how to begin to execute the turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches, how to walk forward in a round pen from the lunge whip without a saddle or harness (then with the saddle and harness), on the drivelines, and while being ridden. He has also begun to learn how to “trot on” from the lunge whip while tacked up, and how to walk and trot on the lead with an assistant aiding from behind. Do not be alarmed if your donkey’s movements are not perfect. Each time you work with him, he will get better at each of these things, especially if, at the start of each lesson, you review before adding anything new.

At the next lesson, if he is large enough, he will learn to trot with a rider onboard. If he is too small to ride, skip this lesson under saddle and do it with the drivelines. As always, begin with a complete review. After he has done his turns on the forehand and haunches, walked both on the lunge and with the drivelines, done right and left turns both on the drivelines and with a rider, and trotted with tack, he is ready to trot with a rider. Before you begin, here is a little exercise you can use to help your donkey stay light in the bridle. When you have mounted, take a treat in your right hand and your right rein in your left hand, and ask him to bring his head around to your knee and take the treat from your hand. Then take the treat in your left hand and the left rein in your right hand, and ask him to bend his head around to your opposite knee and take the treat from your hand. (Don’t pull—just vibrate the rein as his head comes around, and don’t try to hold him there. He will be very light in the bridle later on, once his neck muscles are stretched and flexible.) Now you will school the trot: Do it just as you did the walk. First ask your donkey to walk while your assistant, with the lunge whip, acts as a backup. You will give the command to walk, squeeze and release your legs and use your riding crop, if necessary.

Your assistant will come into play only if your donkey does not respond to your cues first. When he is in a good free walk on a loose rein, give the command to “trot.” Use your voice, then your legs and then go to your crop, if necessary. If this doesn’t work, your assistant can step in behind and encourage him with the lunge whip with one smart strike to the gaskin above the hocks, while shuffling his or her feet to create some noise. This should work, but you, as the rider, must sit absolutely still, maintain a very loose rein and allow the donkey to comply on his own. (Do not keep thumping his sides with your legs, nor keep hitting with the crop.) If all this fails to make him move on, just stop, pet him (no treat this time) and wait until he sighs or resumes chewing, then start over again. He is just trying to figure out what you are asking. This is not disobedience. It is important to note that you should not move from one attempt to the next without letting him chew. This is the way your donkey tells you that he is relaxed and ready to listen. If he just won’t do it, then go back to the lunging and have him trot without the rider once more, then try again at the next lesson. Each donkey is a different individual and will learn at his own pace.

As a trainer, I do not ask for perfection on the movements previously described, just cooperation and a reasonable effort. Repetition, over time, will take care of the rest. It is more important that you and your donkey have fun together and learn together in a way that is pleasing to you both. Your donkey may get bored with the round pen if you are there often. Varying the routine and place of training can alleviate this. He should be doing well with the walk at this point and be ready to move into an open arena for further lessons.

Set four cones in the four corners of your arena, with ample space for him to walk around the outside of them. Then set two cones in the center of the arena, creating a gate through which the two of you will pass. This will outline an hourglass pattern for you and your donkey to follow, as he perfects the verbal commands to “walk on,” “haw,” “gee” and “whoa.” “Trot” will come later.

First, lead your donkey (fully tacked up with either saddle and bridle or harness) around the perimeter and let him inspect the new area in which you will work. Remember to use your showmanship techniques. Then find a spot in the arena and review the turns on the forehand and haunches. Next, attach your drivelines and, with the assistant leading him, ground-drive him through the hourglass pattern. As you drive him, talk constantly, telling him what he is doing: “Walk on, walk on, good boy, walk on, haw, haw, haw, walk on, walk on, haw, haw, haw, walk on, walk on, good boy, walk on, gee, gee, walk on, walk on, walk on, haw, haw, haw,” etc. This is how you will reinforce the meaning of the verbal commands to your donkey for a good, solid foundation, and you will not have to repeat yourself as often later on. First, loop the pattern one way, then cross a nice straight diagonal and loop the other way. Have your assistant try to do as little as possible and let you actually drive him from behind. As you make each turn, give the command, pull/release the rein VERY lightly, and tap him VERY lightly with your driving whip on the opposite side, whether he needs it or not.

When he is executing the pattern without any deviations, you can eliminate the assistant and ask your donkey to respond to your cues alone. Use your verbal commands, reins and whip to help keep him straight. If he tries to deviate from the pattern, either stop him and resume, or just pull the rein in the direction he is to travel and help him get back on track with the driving whip. Use your whip lightly, but definitely on one side or the other to “push” him in the right direction.  Use your whip directly over the croup for forward. Do NOT let him circle and come back to the track. He needs to learn to go in the direction in which you are pulling, and if you allow him to go in the opposite direction and circle back, you will find that he will be doing it a lot more than you would like. It’s better to stop a bad habit before it has a chance to become habit at all. To prevent a memorized response, stop him and ask him to back at different points on the pattern every so often to vary the pattern. Donkeys have terrific memories and if you stop him in the same place all the time that is where he will ALWAYS stop, no matter what you are trying to do. Do this pattern this way for a couple of sessions, and when he is going easily you can add circles at the cones to create a more interesting workout.

When he is steering well, it is once again time for your assistant to aid you in getting your donkey to go straight along the rail of the arena. Have your assistant walk along the rail, between it and the donkey, with the lead line held loosely in her hand, allowing you to drive the donkey from behind. If you tryto do this without the assistant, you will find that your donkey remembers the hourglass pattern and will try to go to the middle. He needs assistance in learning this deviation from what he has previously learned. When you change direction, keep your assistant between the wall and the donkey to help maintain his straightness. After about two times around in each direction, he should “get it,” and you can drive him without the assistant. Each time you change direction, do a straight crossing on the diagonal. (Short diagonals and half-turns will be taught later in this series.) Donkeys like to bend in half far too much, so you want to discourage this in the beginning and opt for straightness.

The next step for the larger donkey is to be ridden at the walk through the hourglass pattern, both with the assistant and without, as outlined in the ground driving lesson. Do this exactly as you did before and don’t forget to repeat, repeat and repeat your verbal commands! Vary the stop and reward him with treats every time you stop to reinforce the good behavior. Be very exact and consistent with your rein and leg cues and don’t use your crop unless absolutely necessary. Rein cues should be only vibrations of the rein, legs should stay quiet while the donkey is in motion and should come into play only to urge him forward when he stops, and to support his body and keep it upright in conjunction with your rein cues through the corners.

The leg to the inside of the arc should remain at the girth and serve as a support post while the leg to the outside of the arc is at the back cinch and drives him forward into impulsion. The inside rein tells him what direction to turn while the outside rein stays steady in a straight position so he does not turn too abruptly. If you persist with continuous motion in your legs and hands, you will dull your donkey’s response and you will find that he begins to ignore you. If he does begin to make a mistake, just stop, wait until he has sighed or is chewing, then resume. Again, do not let him veer off and circle back. If he does run off to the right, for instance, you must turn him back to the left to bring him back, since that is the rein he pulled away from you. Conversely, if he runs off to the left, you would bring him back with the right rein, but you NEVER circle and come back in the direction HE has chosen. If you can manage it, it is best to just stop, regroup and go on, but sometimes they do take you well out of the desired pattern.

During the next lesson, you can add the perimeter of the arena, just as you did on the drivelines. Have your assistant lead your donkey twice around both directions and across a straight diagonal to change direction. Then you can ride solo. The same rules apply here as they did when learning the pattern. Keep him straight, repeat commands, back up verbal commands with consistent rein and leg cues and if he pulls out to the left, bring him back with the left rein. If he starts to trot, pull straight back and give the command to “whoa.” If· he still won’t stop, keep him straight and stop him at the fence. DO NOT TURN HIM! If you start this, it will become a practically impossible habit to break.

As you have probably noticed, donkeys think a little differently than do horses and mules, and must be approached accordingly for the best and most non-resistant response, but there is no reason that you cannot accomplish this with a little patience and understanding. While you may have to teach, “Walk here, walk there, walk this way and that,” and it seems that you are progressing at a snail’s pace, remember that it takes less time for your donkey to really process what you are teaching him. So, in essence, he is learning more quickly than a mule or horse, he doesn’t need as much repetition and the training time is about the same, and, in some cases, shorter! So stop worrying and have a good time.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit, MEREDITH HODGES PUBLIC FIGURE Facebook page, or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at Also, find Meredith on Pinterest, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube and Twitter.

© 1999, 2016, 2024 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.