MULE CROSSING: Assessing Your Equine
By Meredith Hodges
Just like humans, all equines have different personalities. They’re not cookie cutters and should not all be treated the same way, so observe your equine whenever possible and see what he naturally likes to do, and then adjust your training program accordingly. Although each animal must go through the same kind of basic training to make sure he is building good core muscle strength in balance and good posture, he will have his own way of learning, so your presentation of the tasks may differ from one animal to the next. When you have multiple animals, treat each one of them like he’s your favorite.
Before you invest a lot of time and effort deciding whether to continue training your equine or that he will be happier as part of the stud barn, take the time to evaluate his athletic potential. The principles discussed in this article—which are applicable to donkeys, mules or horses—were developed by my mentor, the renowned resistance-freehorse trainer, Richard Shrake.
First, let’s look at conformation. It goes without saying that your equine should appear wellbalanced and in good proportion, with flat knees and smooth joints. He should be free of unsoundness. There are published standards on most breeds, or you can pick up a good 4-H manual or a judging manual to give you an idea of what the ideal is for each breed with regard to conformation
Next, we’ll look at body measurements that are used to gauge your equine’s athletic ability. These measurements will help you assess the kinds of activities for which your animal is best suited, so you can plan whether or not to take his training beyond the basics.
Begin with a six-foot piece of baling twine or string. The first measurement is from the poll to the middle of the withers. Then measure from the middle of the withers to the loin at the base of the rump. If these measurements are the same, you have a balanced animal that will be able to perform with more ease. If the neck is slightly longer, he will still be athletic because the head and neck are used for balance. But if the neck measurement is shorter, it will be difficult for your equine to balance through certain movements and transitions during all activities.
Next, measure your equine around the throatlatch. Then measure around the collar from the withers to the chest at the point of shoulder and back to the withers. This measurement should be twice that of the throatlatch, which indicates that your equine will be better able to flex at the poll,making him easier to collect and bring into the correct framefor optimum performance.
Now measure the top of the neck from poll to withers and the bottom of the neck from throatlatch to chest. The top line should be 1.5times that of the bottom, enabling your animal to perform nice, soft movements during all activities. A “u-necked”animal cannot bend properly and will never be able to achieve good collection in balance and good posture. His neck and back will be hollow, making it difficult for him to efficiently carry a rider, which can result in future soundness problems.
Next, measure the equine’s legs from the elbow to the coronet band, and then from the stifle to the coronet band. Both measurements will be the same in an evenly
balanced animal. This means he will be a good pleasure prospect, with smooth movements at the walk and trot. If he’s a bit longer in front, he will be a good prospect for Reining, jumping or Dressage because his trot and canter will be smooth,with greater impulsion from the hindquarters with an uphill balance. An animal that is higher in the rear will find it difficult to balance, so he’s probably not going to be a good athletic prospectbecause the weight will be unevenly dumped on his front quarters.
Ideally, your prospect should also be graced with 45-degreeangles at shoulder and hip,and with the same angle at his pasterns. This ideal angle will result in softer gaits and transitions, whereas a straighter hip and shoulder will result in abrupt transitions and a rougher ride. The higher the angle (90+ degrees), the longer the stride will be; and the shorter the angle (90- degrees), the shorter and quicker the stride.
Now let’s see how your prospect moves. Stick a piece of masking tape at the point of his hip as a visual reference point. Ask someone to assist you by trotting your equine on a lead as you watch the way he moves. Does his hock reach underneath and pass in front of the tape? If it does, his hindquarters will support strenuous athletic movements, his transitions will be more fluid and smoother, and his head and neck will stay level. If his hock does not reach underneath him sufficiently, he will be out of balance and must raise his head and neck through transitions.
Finally, ask the person assisting you to lead your equine while you watch him walk through smooth sand. Does his hind hoof fall into the track made by his front hoof? If he is exact, he is graced with the smooth, fluid way of going of a world-class pleasure animal. If he over-reaches the track, he has wonderful hindquarter engagement and you may have a candidate for Reining,Dressageor jumping. If he under-reaches the track, he is out of balance, causing him to raise his headand neck. He will have difficultythrough transitions and movements, which will undoubtedly make him unsuitable for advanced athletic activities.
These measurements can be quite helpful in determining your animal’s athletic future, and they can be trusted because the laws of physics are at work. But there is more to being a great athlete than just conformation. You must also assess at the personality of each individual animal. Again—these principles apply to mules, donkeys and horses.
First, let’s look at your animal’s trainability. One of the benefits of owning a registered animal is that you will have plenty of background information regarding his gene pool. Some lines are famous for being smart, athletic and good-natured. Some are known as being high-strung and nervous, perhaps making them inappropriate for certain riders. Plan to do your research before you look at a prospective animal being sold by a private owner or at an auction.
There are some practical tests you can do to help you assess an animal’s trainability. First, ask the person assisting you to hold your equine’s lead rope while you pick up a handful of sand, and then trickle the sand through your fingers near your animal’s head. Does he turn and look at you? If so, this is a good indication that he is interested in what you’re doing, which usually means he will be more trainable than an animal that ignores you.
The next test is to run your finger lightly from your equine’s girth, across the barrel to the flank. Do this on both sides. Does he tolerate this with little movement, or does he twitch and even flinch? This test will give you an idea of how he will react to your legs when you are riding. (The animal that is less touchy will be the one who learns your cues most efficiently, whereas the one that flinches is more likely to overreact.)
Now stand at your animal’s shoulder and gently put your hand over his nose, and then ask him—with a gentle squeeze and release action from your fingers—to bend his head and neck toward you. Do this on both sides. Does he bring his nose around easily or do you feel resistance? If he gives easily, it is a good indication that he is submissive and will be willing to learn more quickly.
The final check is a simple test to assess your equine’s reaction under pressure. Ask the person assisting you to hold the lead rope while you make an abrupt move, such as jumping and flapping your arms. What is your equine’s reaction? If he tries to run off, he’s probably not the best candidate for equine sports such as Side Saddle or driving, which require a steady animal. On the other hand, if he stops to look at you and tries to figure out what you’re doing, he may be a really great candidate for advanced training.
When you go through the basic exercises on the lead line and in the drivelines, there may be times when you experience resistance from your equine. Think of your animal’s resistance as a red flag that could be telling you that you either need to reassess your approach and consider a different path to the same end, or that you may simply need to break a current action down into smaller and more understandable steps. Don’t get caught up in the blame game (“It’s his fault, not mine.”) and lose your temper just because things aren’t going the way you expected. If, instead, you adopt the attitude that your equine is trying to communicate with you and that, when you meet with resistance, it is your responsibility to change what you are doing, you can avoid a lot of frustration during training and things will go more smoothly between the two of you.
And remember, just because a certain approach worked with one equine doesn’t mean it will work the same way with a different equine, so treat each animal as an individual and stay on your toes. Equines are as diverse in their personalities as humans and each individual may have a different way of learning from one to the other. Look at training as the cultivation of the relationship you want to have with each individual animal and adjust your own actions accordingly.
Keep in mind that, regardless of conformation and trainability, when you do the right kinds of exercises toward good posture and balance in their correct order—and with adequate time spent at each stage—and adjust your approach to the training of each individual, the result will be that your equine will feel much more comfortable. He will recognize your efforts on his behalf and, as he progresses, training will come more easily for both of you.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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