By Meredith Hodges
Many times I have been asked, “Is training a mule any different than training horses?”
The answer to this is “Yes.” Since a mule is half horse and half donkey, the trainer must learn to appeal to the donkey half of the mule as well as the horse half. Donkeys are very sensitive animals requiring infinite patience and understanding. They possess a natural willingness to please which is evident when their training is approached properly. When training is done incorrectly, they will exhibit resistant behaviors that include everything from standing stock still to running off. Both donkeys and mules must always be given clear verbal communication and body language so they can comprehend exactly what is being asked of them.
When training your equine for saddle or driving, you will need to spend adequate time conditioning his muscles correctly. In order for things to happen as effortlessly as possible, the equine needs strength and coordination in good posture and a clear understanding of what is expected of him. This is why it is so important to spend months instead of merely weeks on leading training. Since an equine’s bones are only cartilage and not hardened until approximately three years old, he should be at least three years of age before a rider is introduced.
Showmanship training is not just for the showmanship class at a show. Perfecting your showmanship technique every time you have your equine on a lead line will command his attention to detail, build his confidence in you and insure that he is strengthening his muscles properly throughout his body at the most basic level.
Just as a baby must first learn to crawl before he can walk, your equine first needs to learn to walk at your shoulder in nice straight lines with his balance equally distributed over all four feet, so that when you ask for a halt or a turn he is able to do it easily and without a loss of balance. Be conscious of your own body position when practicing, and when preparing to walk off, hold the lead in your left hand, face squarely forward, extend your right arm straight forward, give the command to “Walk on” and take a few steps forward, making sure that you are also walking straight forward. You will be giving your equine a lead to follow that is definite and not wobbly.
When you ask for a halt, stop with your feet balanced, your weight distributed equally over both legs and still facing forward. Give your equine a second or two to settle and then turn to face his shoulder. If his legs are already square, you can then give the crimped oats reward for stopping. If they are not square, take a moment to square up his legs and then give the reward. Praise him for standing quietly for a few seconds and allow him to settle. You can then face forward again, point in the direction of travel, give the command to “Walk on” and walk a few more steps before halting again. Add more steps each time before halting. Whenever you practice turning, always turn the equine away from you—never into you. To insure optimum balance, practice leading him through these exercises from BOTH sides.
When executing a turn to the right, assume your leading position and then point in the direction of travel, asking your equine to take one step forward with the right front foot then cross the left front foot over the right to make the turn. Your own legs should execute the turn in sync with your equine’s front legs, giving him a good example to follow. Although you will rarely have an occasion to actually lead from the right side, be sure to practice from both sides to insure symmetrical muscle development. Dispense rewards, but only after he has completed what you have requested.
Paying attention to detail will greatly improve your equine’s body conditioning, good posture and balance, as well as his attention to your requests. Equines learn EXACTLY what you teach them and will only be as meticulous as you are. To build good habits, to facilitate good equine posture and to maintain your equine’s full attention, routinely lead your animal in the manner I describe, always giving him a few seconds before each move to prepare for the next move. The result is a relaxed, compliant and confident equine.
Once he has learned to follow and to do the “moves,” you then need to help him fine-tune these moves, making them as steady, balanced and coordinated as possible. He should learn to walk, trot and back up in straight lines, to stop squarely and to execute smooth, properly arched turns. Remember that your equine will follow your lead, so always pay close attention to your good own posture and “way of going.” Equines and humans have corresponding body parts, so if you are stiff or off-balance in any part of your body, your animal will exhibit the same problem in his body.
Always look where you are going and correlate your legs with his front legs, matching his pace. Over time, he will begin to match the rhythm of his steps with yours, allowing the two of you to move together as one.
Maintain your own balance and rhythm, and ease into transitions from walk to trot and trot to walk smoothly and in rhythm and cadence—and so will your equine. Ask him to stand squarely each and every time he stops. Set up his back feet first by pushing on the lead rope with your hand directly under his chin in a diagonal motion toward the back foot that is forward. Push and release (in a diagonal motion only) the lead rope toward the forward foot as much as it takes to move it into line with the other back foot. Once the back feet are in line, set his front feet by pulling and releasing gently forward (again, in a diagonal motion only) to align the front legs.
He will soon begin to square up by himself the minute you stop and face him. Don’t forget to use your verbal commands. If the feet are out of alignment, use the command, “Foot?” and your equine will learn to move his feet into the correct position. Remember that your equine needs ample time to respond, so don’t be too abrupt. If going from walk to a trot, say “walk, walk, walk…and…tr-r-r-rot.” I find that just by putting the word “and” before the next command (and lingering on that specific word) gives the equine a signal that a change of pace or direction is coming and allows him time to easily respond. Rather than using abrupt commands and signals that can cause your equine to “bounce” into transitions (causing “kinks,” soreness, disobedience and even injury), this steady and even technique enables your equine to “slide” into transitions. This approach lessens mental and physical stress and helps muscles and tendons develop properly.
As your equine gains strength, you will notice that he now carries his body differently. He is more balanced, solid and steady, and is able to stop squarely at every “whoa,” regardless of the gait. As he frolics in the field, notice the dramatic change in his play patterns. He will be much less awkward.
When you can loop the lead rope over his neck and he follows you faithfully and in good posture through the flatwork showmanship patterns, he is ready to move on to obstacles. (Remember that conditioning muscles and tendons takes a lot of time and patience.)
You should not do the work in the round pen until he has completed his postural lead line training, both on flat patterns and then through obstacles. The simple exercises in my DVD training series, Training Mules & Donkeys, are beneficial for all types of equines and will help your animal to build muscle correctly throughout his body, so that when you do begin work in the round pen, he has enough muscle strength, balance and coordination to hold his own good posture correctly for longer periods of time. Then he is truly ready to learn to balance on a circle. Each disc in this training series is designed to take from six months to one year to complete (depending on the individual animal), so be prepared to take plenty of time at each step of the training process.
The methods used in my DVD training series are especially helpful if your equine was previously rushed through training and never experienced the benefit of being “comfortable in his own skin.” Equines are never too old to be rehabilitated using these methods. And if an equine understands that you have his best interests at heart, he will be more willing to leave other equines to spend time with you, so being herd bound ceases to be a problem. Whether you are working with a mule, a horse, a donkey or any other equine breed, developing your animal’s physical, mental and emotional needs in a simple and resistance-free sequential process of adequately rewarded tiny steps will produce a reliable, obedient, happy and healthy companion that you can enjoy for many years to come.
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 new children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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