Mule Crossing: Moving Beyond Prey vs. Predator
By Meredith Hodges
In the past, when equines ran free, they were unencumbered by human interaction and could build and condition their muscles naturally. Today, with increased population but reduced open lands, their activity is often restricted. It then becomes our responsibility to not only train them, but to prepare them physically to perform and keep them happy in their environment. This responsibility becomes even more important when we ask them to exert more energy than normal, in activities like long trail rides, endurance events, showing and equine-related work. Proper preparation for this modern-day lifestyle will help to minimize your equine’s stress, both physically and mentally.
Natural Horsemanship techniques, based on the equine’s natural behavior and status as a prey animal, promote an awareness we often overlook. They give us a wonderful way to learn how to connect with the equine mentally and communicate with him using our own verbal and body language. Many people get intimidated simply by the equine’s size. These techniques instill a sense of confidence and understanding, and without them, fewer people would take an interest in these animals and want to learn how to interact with them. A relationship with an equine can be incredibly satisfying, and equine companionship can enhance any life. This is why therapeutic riding programs for the disabled, at-risk youth, and those with other physical and mental disabilities are so successful.
Understanding the equine’s natural evolution and behaviors can help us give him what he needs to thrive in captivity. It would be nice if we could provide a habitat akin to what the wild equine used to enjoy: room to run, with an abundance of soft dirt and occasional hard ground under his feet. Unfortunately, today’s equine must deal with a multitude of unfamiliar challenges, including extreme activities, exposure to crowds of people, and more prolonged exposure to hard surfaces such as asphalt and cement, not withstanding the sometimes unrealistic demands that we put on him.
Understanding the prey-predator responses can help to guide us in the training of our equines, but because of the change in the environment, it shouldn’t completely define our training methods. The prey animal that is uncomfortable with making direct eye contact with the human “predator,” for instance, is virtually trapped in a confined environment in which he has no control and can therefore become anxious and difficult to handle. We are taught not to make eye contact with him until he is willing to face us. We are taught to “chase” him in a round pen until he does.
When he finally gains the confidence to approach, we are then taught to disengage his hind quarters and keep him at bay so he doesn’t breach “our space.” This can be very confusing to any intelligent being because you are telling him to “come” and then to “go away!” And, we are handicapping him by disengaging his survival ability for flight. His response over time is to give in, but under these circumstances, he will not always to learn to trust.
The equine’s natural flight reflex is strong and takes him away from conflict. However, when man intercedes without taking into consideration the physical, mental and emotional needs of the equine, it can result in resistance wherein the equine is trapped into conflict. He is then labeled disobedient and often punished for that perceived disobedience. For instance, the equine that is “trapped” on a lunge line and asked to reverse toward the handler will inadvertently be improperly set up to take the new trotting diagonal, or the new lead at canter, from a position that actually “tangles” his hind legs and causes him to fumble into the new diagonal or lead. This mistake can become painful and even detrimental to the stifles as he jumps out of the entanglement and can cause resistant behaviors which are often punished on top of the physical pain he is already experiencing.
The equine body needs to be properly prepared for his athletic endeavors, as does any athlete. We prepare our human athletes with exercises that address muscle groups throughout the whole body before they actually play the games to avoid acute injury to muscle groups that are not normally used in the game. Why would we not give our equines this same consideration? Teaching the reverse in the beginning should always be done in the round pen where you can ask him to turn away from you, which will set up his hind legs properly for the new direction and strengthen his body symmetrically in good equine posture. Once he has established good equine posture and balance over a long period of time doing appropriate exercises, he will then be better able to efficiently reverse towards you on the lunge line by changing direction from a position of balance rather than an awkward imbalance.
Despite the varied differences in personalities and approach, the one thing that we can all learn to do is to communicate with respect, set clear boundaries and apply good manners in order to make friends when we accept their true nature, respect it, understand it and negotiate rather than “command.” It really is that simple, although training ourselves to be that way isn’t always simple. Animals do this with each other all the time, but they are clear communicators where we humans are not always clear in our intent. That is why you will often see animals of completely different species getting along with each other, whether prey or predator.
By setting up our equine’s environment so he is able to relax, and by behaving in a polite, respectful and considerate way, the equine can learn to respond more appropriately. When we pay close attention to the healthy development of his body and provide the right kinds of exercises to strengthen his core muscles in good equine posture, we can ultimately gain the trust and respect from the equine that we need for him to deal with all situations and obstacles the same way every time—to trust and look to us for guidance before reacting. Everything that we do for him should make him feel good, and that is what real friends are for! The equine will bond to the person who trains him, so make sure you are honestly engaged with your equine.
Be a true leader and learn to set boundaries for your equine with appropriate corrections for bad behaviors (which can be found on our website and in our products). Make these corrections quickly and then immediately return to a clear definition of what you expect and make sure that it is easily doable for your equine at each step. Every animal on the planet will correct another’s misbehaving with a very clear and undeniable gesture that will stop the abuser promptly in their tracks. Take note. This is not abusive, but rather a very clear communication of what’s right and what’s clearly wrong. In fact, in the case of the mule attacking the puma that has circulated the internet for the past few years, it was clearly a case of the mule engaging in the hunt with his human “friend.” So, who is really prey and who is predator in this particular scenario? Sometimes we just need to change our perception or understanding of things and deny all-encompassing generalizations and stereotypes.
Reward good behaviors as per the laws of Behavior Modification, or “appropriate reward system training.” The oats reward that we use ensures that the good behaviors will be repeated and will become the animal’s new natural way of being. In the practice of true Behavior Modification, all five senses should be employed: sight, hearing (voice), smell, touch and taste. These are all innate ways to communicate effectively. Any distractions should be eliminated when communicating with your equine—put away the electronic devices, clickers and loud whips, and avoid abrupt noises.
The way that you manage and train your equine can be set up in a logical, sequential and predictable routine that your equine can rely on thereby dispelling his anxiety and maximizing his trust in you. Exercises that prepare his body slowly and over a long period of time to carry a rider ensure that he will not overexert or compromise muscles that could otherwise become sore, or worse. Interaction with him that is more conversational using the five senses will elicit a more conversational response from your equine, developing a close relationship comprised of negotiation and mutual respect where both partners participate on equal ground. We spend 12 years preparing our children to become responsible adults. How could it effectively take much less for our equines to learn to live and work in their new and more crowded environment? If you have any doubts about the real success of this kind of approach, you need only visit the Lucky Three Ranch where we all make direct eye contact with each other and see the results for yourself! When our equines are spooked into flight, they run towards us, then stop and ask, “What do we do now?!”
For more information about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive correspondence training program, Training Mules and Donkeys, please visit www.LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Also, find Meredith Hodges and Lucky Three Ranch on Facebook and Twitter. And don’t forget to check out her children’s website at www.JasperTheMule.com.
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