MULE CROSSING: So Much to Learn, So Little Time!

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By Meredith Hodges

When I was growing up, equine trainers were considered special people whose special talents were a mystery to common folk like me. Witnessing the cowboys riding the broncs in the rodeos and seeing the upper-level riders at the Olympics made me doubt my ability to ever accomplish what they could do! After all, this was their profession and I was just a young girl with a passionate love for equines. Since I thought I would never be able to train equines, I dreamed of rescuing abused horses and building a 100-stall barn for them somewhere in the Northwest, in Cowboy Country.

Even if all I was going to do was rescue equines, I knew I would have to have at least some experience in equine management and training, so I read numerous training books and attended many clinics and seminars. The more I learned, the more overwhelmed I became. There were so many vastly different ideas about how to do things with equines. Different authors wrote about different stages of training and they all had a different approach. There was no one author who produced anything with continuity from foal all the way to advanced levels of training. To make matters worse, in the early 1970s when I got involved with Longears, I found that there was virtually nothing available about training them for recreational purposes. That is when I decided to begin documenting everything I learned that worked well (and forgot about what didn’t).

Trying to decide what to feed my equines was a nightmare! The advertising for so many different kinds and brands of feeds and supplements was confusing and I had no idea where to begin, so I just did what the majority of people were suggesting and fed a grass/alfalfa hay mix. It wasn’t until nine years later and the loss of several horses that I decided that maybe the alfalfa wasn’t such a good idea, so I eliminated the use of alfalfa and other products that were exceptionally high in protein. Then, after the death of one of my donkey jacks, I also revisited my use of different types of grains and oils. I discovered that oats were always the healthiest grain and Mazola corn oil was the only oil needed for healthy coats, hooves and digestive tract regularity. The Sho Glo brand of minimal daily vitamins, along with a trace mineral salt block, provided adequate nutritional needs for all my equines, regardless of their types and tasks (from pleasure riding to Combined Training). This revised feeding program, combined with regular worming and bi-annual vaccinations, eliminated the incidence of severe colic and my equines became much healthier, performed better and have exhibited increased longevity.

Like most people, I started off thinking that leaving equines to just be equines without human interference was the ideal. Oh, how they would just love to exist in a large plot of pasture to live out their days in leisure! I soon found out how deadly that could be to an equine. Equines in the wild will travel for miles, exercising and grazing sporadically, balancing their diet and exercising themselves. Since the majority of the world’s equines are not wild and can no longer run free (no more wide-open spaces available), leaving them alone in a pasture to eat freely only results in obesity and all the ailments that go with it. In reality, allowing this “free grazing” is a passive form of neglect, and is usually the result of just plain human laziness. Equine owners may often feel like they “do not have the time” to do everything correctly, when, in actuality, it takes less time (and is less costly) to correctly feed, manage and train equines. That is how I can successfully be the sole trainer of 30 equines at this late date in my life.

When I began taking Dressage lessons in 1986, it gave me a whole new way to look at the equine, with more concern for his physical, mental and emotional well-being. Doing Dressage with horses was relatively easy, but I wanted to challenge myself to train the first mule in Dressage and see how far he could go. My first mule, Lucky Three Sundowner, must have run off with me over a hundred times in our first five years of Dressage training, which was a very humbling experience. I began to analyze everything in a more critical and logical way to determine what I was doing to make him run off. I no longer just took it for granted that the popular equine training techniques were the only way to train because they obviously didn’t always work with Sundowner. I began to ask myself, “Why?” and, “Is there a better way?” After addressing the elements of Dressage under saddle, I finally realized that not much was mentioned in the training materials about preparing the equine in good posture and balance WITHOUT a rider on board. I came to realize that the runaway incidents were the result of Sundowner and I both being out of good posture and balance. Unknowingly, we were fighting against each other’s balance to try to perform together. This is when I discovered the importance of adequately preparing the equine’s core muscles in good posture to carry a rider BEFORE attempting to ride or drive. No one is born in good posture. It is something that must be taught—to us and to equines. Just letting them run free when they are young does not address good equine posture or core muscle development.

Many equine trainers talk about disengaging the hindquarters. While practicing Dressage, I learned that, in reality, the hindquarters must be engaged and active (much like a motor) for the animal to move correctly and do what is asked of him, and why would anyone want to shut down the motor? When I employed popular equine training techniques with the halter, lead and whip and tried to keep the mule at a distance (not allowing him to come close to me), he would give a quick jerk of his head and neck, bump me with his rear end and take me “skiing” across the arena…if I was dumb enough to hang onto the rope! I thought, “Why not just let go of the rope and when he comes back, reward him for coming back with a handful of oats from my fanny pack? And, why not let him come in close and then continue the imprinting process through his adulthood, so he will get used to me touching his body?” He could then learn to move away from the pressure of my hands and negotiate groundwork obstacles more easily. When you are constantly pushing your equine away from you, you don’t have the opportunity to do much touching, and there is a crucial security and trust that your equine develops from being touched by you. Equines that are used to being touched all over their bodies on a regular basis are less likely to become spooked about things. And the equines that get practice taking those tiny little oats out of your hand are less likely to bite your fingers than those that do not get this kind of practice.

Trainers in general advise owners to set things up so it is hard for the equine to do the wrong thing. Why not just concentrate on setting him up to be able to easily do the right thing? Wouldn’t you get a better reaction from your equine if he received rewards for a job well done rather than focusing on the punishments and intimidation if he didn’t comply?

For instance, if you want him to jump a barrel, set up three barrels end-to-end and perpendicular to the fence. Now send him over the obstacle on a long lead with nowhere to go but between you and the fence. And when he succeeds, reward him for it. Once he is compliant over the three end-to-end barrels, take one barrel away and do the same thing. When he accomplishes that, then take the next barrel away and make him do the last one against the fence. Don’t forget to reward him each time he succeeds. Once he successfully completes these steps with no problem, place the barrel in the open and send him over it. He should do this confidently because he now knows it is easy and that he will get rewarded for his effort. When you break things down into small, doable steps within your equine’s capabilities that will always be rewarded, you’ll attract his full attention and training will become easy and fun! Just make sure the reward is always the same healthy oats that he loves.

Bosals, side-pulls and bitless bridles can never replace the communication that can be developed through correct practice between your hands and the corners of your equine’s mouth with the direct rein action of a snaffle bit. Bitless bridles have a completely different action that can result in “kinks” in your equine’s neck. To feel this discomfort, try standing completely still and facing straight ahead. Now, without moving, just turn your head to the side. Can you feel the pull on the muscles just below your ear? This is the same action that your equine experiences when the pull comes from the higher point on his nose where the halter noseband (or bitless bridle) would sit. When a mild snaffle bit is placed in the mouth and used with a flash noseband on the bridle, the equine can be prevented from flipping his tongue over the bit and will take an easy contact with the bit, promoting a solid means of communication.

When you take contact with the reins (or, in the case of driving, the lines), the equine’s natural instinct is to initially create some resistance against your hands. He will stretch his nose out to take contact with the intent of pulling on the bit, but will eventually learn to “hold” the bit. When he does this, he elongates his neck and increases the space between his vertebrae, so when he receives the connection to your hands and is asked to stop or turn, it happens easily because it does not create soreness in his neck. Your hands need to be flexible and “giving” to avoid resistance to the bit. You can feel this difference in your own neck when you vertically round it up and out and THEN turn your head to the side…no more pulling on the muscle below the ear. This “comfortable connection” encourages a working connection from his lips to your hands.

Restraints should only be used to suggest compliance to the equine and not for complete control over any resistance. Patience, calmness and purposeful action during the use of restraints are all paramount in teaching the equine how to cope with things that are difficult for him. In the use of restraints, one runs the risk of being more severe than intended, which will have a negative impact on the equine’s response to the restraint used. I have discovered some very simple restraints that work well.

Working with your equine’s natural movements and paying attention to proper body conditioning produces comfort and ease of performance. For instance, asking your equine to turn toward you when he is being lunged causes confusion, which adversely affects his hindquarters and puts stress on his hocks and stifles. This is why lunging in a round pen or lunging in drive lines is vitally important. Your equine must be allowed to turn away from you when lunging so he can instantaneously set up his hind legs for the correct diagonal at trot and the correct canter lead, thereby avoiding potential injury to his hindquarters.

Desensitization techniques create disengagement in activities. The equine learns to “give up.” They are fearful of the consequences if they do not obey. Training with fear tactics can produce obedience, but not a viable partnership. My psychiatric nursing degree and my studies in Behavior Modification with human beings proved to be useful in understanding the use of Behavior Modification in equines. It also provided me with the basis for my resistance-free, reward-based training program. I prefer to teach my equines good manners in a polite way so that they are fully engaged, respectful, confident and eager to go with me every time I see them—in other words, resistance-free! The rewards from this kind of training are beyond any joy I could have imagined! My journey has proven to me that anyone with the will to listen, learn and question “WHY?” can become his or her own trainer—with amazing results.

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 FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

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