MULE CROSSING: Getting Down with Minis, Part 2
By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of this article, you learned how to begin your relationship with your miniature equine in a positive and natural way, and how “getting down” to their eye level so they can make eye contact with you discourages striking, jumping on you and other bad behaviors that are common when working with miniature equines. Be sure you have successfully completed the lessons in Part 1 before moving on to the lessons in Part 2 or training may not yield the desired positive results. Also, if possible, it is best to work minis in groups if they are used to being with other equines, as they perform better when they are with their “friends” and it doesn’t hurt to train their friends in the same way.
Let’s begin with something you and your mini will experience on a regular basis: a visit from the farrier. First, lead your mini to the work station (as described in Part 1). When you get to the work station, tie up your mini and sit on the floor with him (as you did in the pen). Now you will be having a “picnic” (as you did in Part 1), but this time you will be in the work station and you will have a guest…the farrier. Before the farrier attempts to pick up the first foot, ask him to sit down beside your mini in front of the shoulder on the left side and offer a handful of oats as a way of introducing himself. Next, while you sit at your mini’s head and offer the oats reward for good behavior, have the farrier begin with the near side (left) front foot and work his way around from front to back, and then from back to front on the other side (right). While the farrier is working, talk calmly and encouragingly to your mini, and as long as he is doing what is asked of him, offer rewards generously. He should yield his feet easily, but if he does not don’t offer the reward until he complies.
Don’t shove your mini when you want him to move over. Rather, give him some oats and use your index finger to tap or poke him on the side of his ribcage. If he doesn’t move over, use your whole hand to give him a slight push, always using a “push and release” movement, which is non-confrontational. You don’t want to keep steadily pushing up against him, because as soon as you give him anything to push against, he will and you could find yourself in a pushing match or, worse, a confrontation with him. As soon as he complies and moves, give him the oats reward and slide your body in next to him to help hold him in position for the farrier as he works with each foot. Don’t be afraid and always stay on the same side as the farrier. If the mini decides to make an abrupt move, he will try to slide around you because equines really don’t like stepping on, or running over, soft, squishy things like our bodies, so if your mini can get out of your way, he will. Even if he was to jump up in the air, he would more than likely jump over or around you, taking the path of least resistance. Trust your mini, stay calm and avoid becoming tense or exhibiting fear and things should go smoothly.
Once your mini is leading well, has accepted the farrier and is ready to investigate obstacles, you can begin to take him for walks and see how many different things you can investigate together. At each obstacle, be polite and tug on the lead rope only until it is taut, then wait for your mini to respond. If he balks and you need to keep hold of his lead rope because of potential danger, just let out the slack on the lead rope and allow him to take a little more time going through the obstacle. If you are negotiating something like ditches or water and your mini balks, lengthen the lead rope to get to the far side of the obstacle and hold tension on the rope until he complies and comes forward over or through the obstacle. If leading two minis and one of them balks, lengthen the balky one’s lead rope and let it lay out on the ground while you take the more compliant mini through the obstacle. Then let go of the first mini’s lead rope and pick up the lead rope of the balky one, holding the tension until he negotiates the obstacle and joins you and the first mini on the other side of the ditch or water.
This approach becomes particularly important when negotiating something like a dock or a bridge where you are not only dealing with an obstacle, but an obstacle that makes you substantially taller than you already appear to your mini. This is another instance when you can “get down” on your mini’s eye level the way you did in the pen and at the work station. Remember to do things in small steps. When you walk onto the surface of the dock or bridge or any other large, flat surface, leave enough room for your mini to come up. When you get to the end of the lead rope, take up the slack and then sit down and offer the reward. Then, once your mini has negotiated the obstacle, give him the oats reward and just have another picnic. If a companion equine is accompanying you, be sure to tie the companion animal in front of the obstacle so your mini can always see him. If you tie him behind, your mini will worry and want to go back instead of forward.
When you are ready to step down off the dock or bridge, it would be unsafe to be lower than your mini, so at this point you should stand up, go to the end of the obstacle and ask him to come forward off the raised obstacle, making sure he has plenty of room to come off the obstacle without you having to move. Stand quietly and keep the lead rope taut as you verbally encourage him and invite him to come down off the bridge. As soon as he jumps down, ask for a halt and reward him for jumping down and stopping right in front of you. (He will learn to negotiate the obstacle more slowly with practice.) Once he has finished negotiating the obstacle and halted and is chewing on his reward, you can then proceed to the next obstacle. Having definite, purposeful and timely pauses will help alleviate anxiety and resistance in your mini.
Be vigilant about when it is safe to get down to his level and when it is better to stay standing. Always opt for the low-level eye contact whenever possible and when you determine that it is safe to do so. Remember, the longer he must go without making eye contact with you, the greater the chance of resistance, but eye contact on his level will give him confidence in your judgment and will help to facilitate a real bond between you. If negotiating an obstacle such as a tractor tire or six tires, just extend the lead rope over the tire or tires, sit on that side, keep the rope taut and proceed as you did with the bridge obstacle.
Allow your mini to come forward and look at the tire, put his nose in the middle of it and, if he wants to, put his front foot up in the air to “feel” the space. If he wants to stand on the tire, that’s all right, too, but remember to keep the rope taut and don’t pull—release pressure as soon as he begins to move. Pulling is a common mistake that people often make, which can easily throw an equine off balance, creating a dangerous situation.
I call this technique “OATS.” (Observe, Approach, Touch and Sigh). It allows your mini time to observe each situation, then approach and touch the obstacle, finally giving a sigh as a signal that he is relaxed and not afraid. Always reward him for his efforts so he can begin to gain confidence and trust in you. By following the OATS technique you are turning your mini’s fear into curiosity, which will serve to keep him calm in future situations.
Part 3 of this article will cover negotiating obstacles with more finesse, lunging and groundwork in harness.
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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