By Meredith Hodges
In 1986, when I first began using my mules in Dressage, you would never have convinced me that I would follow it up with jumping. I was fearful of jumping because of a few bad experiences I had with horses. However, once I took the time to learn to ride and train properly with Dressage and experienced the overall stability of a mule, my fear disappeared.
Nowadays, when people find out that I jump my mules, the response is often, “I didn’t know mules could jump!” Not only can mules jump, they are quite good at it. However, if a mule or any other equine is to have the strength and coordination they need for jumping, their training must be approached in a specific, practical and healthy way. Then they can learn to maintain good rhythm in all gaits between jumps, to jump only as high as needed to clear fences, and to adjust their strides to and away from jumps. Proper jumping training takes time and patience because there is much more to jumping than just making it over the fences.
If you speak to mule owners all over the world, you will hear at least one tale in ten about a mule jumping out of his pen. If they have the inclination, most mules have the ability to easily clear a fence up to and even over six feet high. The capability is certainly there, but in general, mules lack the motivation to expend the energy to actually jump out.
The muscle structure of a mule is a bit different than that of a horse—somewhat like the difference between the muscle structure of a ballet dancer and a weight lifter. A mule’s muscle structure (like that of a ballet dancer’s) is comprised of longer, smoother muscle with less bulky areas, a trait inherited from the donkey. This gives him a slightly more streamlined appearance than that of a horse. And like a ballet dancer, a mule can spring his body effortlessly into the air using the muscles in his hindquarters, giving him the ability to jump either from a standstill or while in motion. For the weight lifter or the horse, this maneuver is not as easy due to their particular muscle structure. So when selecting a horse for advanced jumping, it is wise to select a breed or type of horse that has less bulk muscle and more smooth muscle, like the mule.
When riding toward a jump, a mule’s approach can often interfere with his coursework because his impulse is usually to gallop to the jump, stop and then spring over the top. Horses, on the other hand, tend to naturally do their coursework more smoothly and in stride. The mule can learn to jump in stride if given the correct schooling to overcome his instinctive way of going.
Regardless of the mule’s inherent strength and endurance, in the beginning of jumping training, he will lack the muscle development and stamina required to negotiate a course of jumps effortlessly and in stride. Like any other living creature, he can only strengthen the muscles that he uses, so it is up to you to make sure he is doing specific exercises that pinpoint the correct sets of muscles so he can do his job over the jumps, between the jumps, before and after the jumps. These three tasks require different postures that need to be supported by different muscle groups, so work on training and strengthening the specific exercises as outlined in DVD #7 of my Training Mules and Donkeys series. A proper conditioning program of exercises for your mule will strengthen the muscles needed for jumping and will prepare him for a more polished performance. This is also a good opportunity to fine-tune all the muscles in your own body as you fine-tune those of your mule or any other equine.
While training your equine to jump, you must ask yourself some very important questions. Does my animal possess the strength of body to carry him from the hindquarters with sufficient impulsion, rhythm and balance? Can he readily lengthen or shorten his stride to accommodate the distance to his fences? Are these adjustments easily made, or does my equine tend to throw his weight onto his forehand during transitions between gaits and over fences? Remember, the animal that is well schooled in jumping will carry his body with ease and make smooth transitions from an uphill balance.
There are a series of exercises that will help to build your prospect into a beautiful, stylish and exciting jumper, but it will take time and patience— there just aren’t any shortcuts. Taking the time and exercising your patience will produce not only an animal that jumps properly, but one that is also strong and confident in his abilities. This can come in mighty handy later on when you find yourself in more demanding jumping situations. Having taught your equine to jump safely, you will have a more pleasurable and stress-free ride.
When initially riding a mule over jumps, you will notice the slightly “different” way that he feels in action, compared to a horse. If you are used to jumping horses, this may seem a little odd at first but you will soon find that the mule feels more sure and stable. To me, a mule seems more balanced and stronger throughout than does a horse, and so the chance of taking a misstep or crashing a jump is lessened. Should a loss of balance or error occur, the mule is usually able to more quickly recover than the horse, making for a safer ride.
For those of you who still don’t believe that mules can really jump, all I can say is, believe it! More than a few retired cavalry officers have personally told me about Hambone, the infamous jumping mule from Fort Carson, Colorado. They’ve also told me about jumping their mules Roman-style, which means standing with one foot on the rear end of each of a pair of mules while doing patterns and jumping obstacles!
Today, mules are jumped in all kinds of events, from Combined Training to Hunter/Jumper classes. Jumping mules adds excitement and variety to training events and events where mules jump in competition under saddle against each other, and even against horses. Coon hunters often display the mule’s natural ability to jump from a standstill by jumping them in-hand over fences, either on hunts or at shows, and some mule owners even try their luck at Fox Hunting. By any standards, the mule’s capacity to jump is unquestionable, and there is no doubt he will continue to climb the ladder of equine success.
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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