By Meredith Hodges
Miniature horses, donkeys and mules all have one thing in common; everyone else is taller than they are! That makes eye contact with the trainer very difficult if not impossible for them. As the saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul so it is understandable that they would become anxious if they are unable to look into a person’s eyes to decide whether they are friend or foe. I have five miniature equines: a mini horse named Mirage, a mini mule named Franklin, a mini molly mule named Francis, and two mini donkeys named Augie and Spuds. To help them all succeed and thrive, I’ve structured my training program for them based on the same one I use for all of my other equines, with one important modification. With safety always as my first priority, I work with my minis from a lower position whenever it’s safe to do so. That way, I can make eye contact with them, and I make certain they are always lavishly rewarded with an oats reward for their compliance. The results have been amazing! I’ve received total cooperation from them almost all of the time.
None of my minis were born at my ranch, so I knew that they would each first need to explore their surroundings a little at a time, and would also need ample time to get used to my staff and me. Mirage, the miniature horse, was my first mini. It wasn’t long after I acquired him that I acquired Franklin, the mini mule, who quickly became Mirage’s buddy. Since both Mirage and Franklin had previous training and because minis seem to accept training more willingly when done with a partner, we did all of Mirage’s and Franklin’s groundwork lessons together and, true to form, they learned very quickly because they were allowed to be together.
Several years later I rescued Francis, a miniature molly mule that was about as schizophrenic as they get. We penned Francis next to Mirage and Franklin for several months before I even attempted to catch her and begin her lessons alongside Mirage and Franklin. Giving her ample time to explore her own pen and to realize this was to be her sanctuary did wonders for her attitude and, after two years of very low-key training, she was able to perform calmly when we were filming the groundwork segment for the DVD, Equus Revisited.
Wherever I went during their lessons, I led all three minis together, and Francis learned to relax and comply with my wishes. I allowed her plenty of time to settle into her new surroundings before I ever asked her to come with Mirage and Franklin to the work station for grooming. The first time I was able to make real eye contact with her was during a walk we took in the hayfield in the middle of the summer. I took all three minis out to the middle of the hayfield, sat down while holding all three lead ropes and we experienced our first “picnic” together. Francis thought I was pretty scary when I first sat down, but she relaxed when she saw that it didn’t phase Mirage or Franklin. Just like human children, all equines learn better when not isolated (taken away from their equine friends) and made to feel that they’re being punished. Keeping this in mind, I lunged all three minis together in the round pen and after lunging, I tied two of them outside of the round pen while I did individual lunging and ground-driving lessons with each one individually. Because of this slow, respectful training and keeping her with her friends while she learned, Francis has made remarkable progress over the years.
I think it is critically important that all equines have a space they can call their own—their personal oasis of comfort and privacy—so when I got my mini donkeys, Augie and Spuds, I decided that the first thing they would learn about was their living quarters or, as I like to call it, their “bedroom.”
When you go to your mini’s pen, politely stand by the gate and ask “permission” to enter by simply calling his or her name and then waiting for a response. Your mini will most likely come over to you and “invite” you in by showing curiosity and giving you a welcoming look. As you can guess, it is probably your fanny pack full of oats that is really attractive to them, but they will soon learn that you come with the oats so they will no doubt be happy to see you. This is the very first step in reward training.
Begin your relationship with your mini by having a “picnic” with him. Sit yourself down on the ground in the middle of his pen and start playing with a handful of oats while you wait for him to come to you. While you have your picnic in the pen, use just your hands for contact and make sure you have plenty of crimped oats (I use a fanny pack full of oats). Because picnics are supposed to be fun and not intimidating, allow your mini to come and go as he pleases within the confines of his pen. When he becomes confident about coming to you while you’re sitting down, reward him for coming over and interacting with you. Be prepared for the possibility of doing dozens of lessons like this—however long it takes for your mini to build trust in you and feel comfortable. As your relationship progresses, you may try picking up his feet and stroking his legs (which is a good way to prepare your mini for the farrier visits that will come later). There are no expectations and there is no pressure to do anything more…it’s just your mini and you and time for bonding.
When your mini is comfortable with you coming into his pen and interacting with him, the next step is to ask him to go into a bigger turnout area, where you should repeat the same simple lessons. Now that your mini can be loose in a larger space, ask him to come to join you for another picnic. After a few times, bring a hairbrush with you (It’s the most efficient brush to use on donkey hair).
When you sit down and he comes over for the picnic, show him the brush and let him inspect it, and then reward him for inspecting the brush. When you introduce the brush to his body, do so by first petting him, and then follow where your hand goes with the brush. This has a calming effect and also helps you to identify the more sensitive areas on his body. Always start with his neck, where there’s substantial fatty tissue and no real sensitive areas until you reach the shoulder. During this “playtime,” you can get your mini used to strange things by allowing him to wear your hat. This is an extension of the imprinting (touch) your mini should have received as a foal, only with a foreign object instead of your hands. Remember, imprinting is not just for foals at birth. It is the way you will continue to learn about how to touch your mini throughout his life and how you learn which areas are more sensitive than others. This sets the stage for how you gauge your approach when touching your mini both with your hands and with foreign objects such as grooming equipment and tack at all levels of training.
A halter doesn’t even come into play until after grooming in the pen is easily achieved and your mini will follow you to and from the pen without the halter. When it is time to introduce the halter, bring it with you into the pen for your picnic. Do the brushing and then show your mini the halter while you sit on the ground. When he sniffs the halter, he should be rewarded. Once he is unafraid of the halter, hold it on both sides of the noseband, feed your mini some oats, and then gently push the noseband of the halter over his nose and then take it off, rewarding him again. At this point you’ve got all kinds of oats in your lap and your mini’s got his head down, eating the oats, so when you put the noseband on again, just reach over his neck, grab the strap of his halter on the other side, bring it behind his ears and fasten it. If done correctly, this should not bother him. Then reward him with more oats, pet him as he complies and say, “Oh, how good is that?!” You can then take the halter off again and end the first lesson there.
Once your mini is used to having his halter put on, let him graze while supervised in a larger pasture area with his halter on while he drags the lead rope behind him. When you want him to walk away from you, simply stand up and let him go off on his own. After a few minutes, approach him again, grab the end of his lead rope and sit down again. You can give a little tug, say his name and ask him to “Come.” He should come easily when you gently tug on his lead rope. This action makes him look at you and think, “Oh, my human is sitting down again, so I’m going to come over and get more oats!” As he comes toward you, take up the slack on his approach. Once he comes to you easily, you can stand up and ask him to come while you’re standing up and reward him for it. And that’s how to teach a mini to follow you.
During your picnics, put on and take off the halter over several lessons and until he is completely calm before you try to halter your mini at the gate in preparation for leaving the pen. He must be willing to come while you are standing, and he should allow you to put on the halter at the gate using the same rewarding techniques as you use while sitting down. When he accepts the halter at the gate, the next task is to learn to properly lead through a gate and make your way to the work station for the first time. (See “Gate Training” in Part 1 of my DVD series, Equus Revisited.)
When grooming at the work station, start working your way around your animal from front to back, but ignore grooming his head for a while until he’s really comfortable with you. When you finally get to the head, you will have to change to a grooming tool called a dandy brush. First let him see and sniff the dandy brush, and then begin with the forehead. Brush upward toward his ears with the direction of the hair on his forehead and then, if he stands quietly, give him a reward. Don’t try to do his cheeks right away—give him time in the same grooming session to get used to the feel of the brush before you try to brush his cheeks, and make sure he sees the brush coming at him. Anything he sees too abruptly with his peripheral vision can potentially startle and spook him.
Breaking things down into little do-able steps seems like a long process in the beginning, but as your mini begins to understand the reasoning behind your approach, his reactions to tasks will become calmer, more automatic and more natural for him. When you allow your mini to learn to follow your lead without the halter in the beginning of each task, learning to follow you on the lead rope will be a lot easier for him, and when you finally move on to more specific tasks in training, he will oblige you much more willingly. In Part 2 of “Getting Down With Minis,” I will cover how to approach the tasks necessary for formal training.
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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