By Meredith Hodges
Until a decade ago, mules were used predominantly to perform work, primarily packing and plowing. How they performed this work was really of minimal concern provided that the jobs were accomplished. Today there is an expressed interest for well-mannered saddle mules like never before. The smooth travel and natural comfort of a mule ride coupled with their surefootedness and resistance to disease has inspired horsemen to change their mounts to mules or at the very least, add one to their herd. As more people express the need for well-mannered saddle mules, the need for better training practices becomes apparent. Granted, there are those who will always be content to just get on once a week and go for a ride. If the mule tolerates this, he is automatically accepted in the equestrian world and is considered trained. However, equines that possess this accepting nature are rare. Most mules and even horses will only respond when the correct approach is used. Most people are exposed to limited knowledge about equine management and training and will need the guidance of a trainer or instructor for safety’s sake. My friends Alan and Sally McClean of Golden, Colorado, decided to find out if benefits could be reaped from professional training.
In the spring of 1985, Alan and Sally came to consult with me about training their two fine saddle mules, “Bucky” and “Walter.” Sally had her leg in a cast. When I inquired about her accident, she told me that Bucky had fallen with her astride, pinning her leg underneath him. She told me that he had always been rather clumsy and tripped often, but she wasn’t sure if this could be corrected. Bucky had also been shown in Western Pleasure at the National Western Stock Show, where he refused to take his left lead. Walter’s problems were also seemingly minimal. He tended to be nervous about things in general after being on the racetrack for three years and refused to take his right lead. Neither mule was what you might call ill-mannered. It was apparent that they both needed help. The mules were clearly out of balance with little or no core strength to maintain any kind of real balance. The rider on board simply exacerbated the problem. These problems were making Alan and Sally a little apprehensive about using them very often and thus, decreased the amount of pleasure they could derive from their mules.
As problems such as these arise, we find that training is indeed much more than simply being able to ride your mule or any equine. The right kind of training enhances communication between equine and owner in addition to correcting questionable manners and behavior. The routine practice in training allows the animal to know what to expect of their owners, and what their owners can expect from them. Their manners and behaviors will be shaped accordingly, and stress and confusion will be kept to a minimum. The mule that is calm and easy to handle is truly a joy and a pleasure to his owner.
There are many mules that are calm and easy to handle. Each animal has his own particular set of idiosyncrasies that are unique to his situation. Some are more spoiled than others, but nevertheless generally cooperative. But what of those times of difficulty? What about taking only one lead, or tripping or falling? These are things a professional can help to correct. These are also things that should be corrected both for your sake and for the sake of your equine. His general health and your total enjoyment and safety are at stake!
Not unlike humans, mules must be taught how to carry themselves to make maximum use of their bodies. Overall muscle and skeletal conditioning is necessary for maximum performance that results in a sound body and a sound mind. The equine that has difficulty in picking his leads correctly is generally an animal that is not conditioned properly in good equine posture and balance. The muscles in his body are stronger on one side than they are on the other side which makes it painful and difficult for him to perform on his weak side. This only adds frustration to the whole situation when he cannot do what you ask. If you, as the owner, do not realize his physical limitations, it could jeopardize the whole relationship with your mule, thus limiting pleasure.
A professional trainer can be a qualified coach for you and your equine. His or her training program should include proper conditioning of muscles through a specific and scheduled series of exercises. The more difficult moves, such as sliding stops and spins, will come in natural succession as his body is strengthened. Frustrations are then minimized as the animal is able to perform. Most of us are contented with general knowledge about training. However, professional trainers, like athletic coaches, need to be able to evaluate each individual animal and decide upon a training program to suit his individual needs. Sure, professionals cost money, but they can also save you money by ensuring your equine’s good health and good manners. The “vet” bills you save could be your own!
In the case of Bucky and Walter, not only did they have difficulty with their leads, but their gaits were rough and one-sided. Correct body strengthening, balancing and conditioning was not the only problem. To add to their problems was incorrect shoeing. In Walter’s case, the shoeing had resulted in contracted heels on one side of his body, undoubtedly causing a lot of stress and strain when coupled with weak core muscles. More than incorrect shoeing, Bucky’s problem of tripping and falling was due to improper posture and body carriage. Today, both mules are strengthened, balanced and able to perform to the best of their ability. They are not put under undue stress when ridden and are noticeably calm and contented while being handled, and the ride they provide is much smoother. Alan and Sally were particularly pleased since their 15-hand mules will now stretch, lowering their backs about four inches which makes mounting much easier. What a pleasure they have become!
The benefits you will reap from professional training can be numerous. You will have a smoother ride because the animal is correctly balanced and strengthened in good equine posture. The animal will have more stamina, agility and endurance. He will have a higher resistance to disease due to increased circulation in good equine posture which greatly reduces vet bills and maintenance costs. There should be no worry about his behavior in public, but most of all, he will be an enormous pleasure to his owner and a credit to his breed.
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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