MULE CROSSING: The Equine in Motion
By Meredith Hodges
I have done extensive work in training equines for many years and it seems you can never learn enough. If you learn how to ask the right questions, there is always something more to learn just around the corner. It is no secret that things can happen when you push limits and you can get what might seem to be the right results, but then you have to ask yourself…really? You may, for instance get your young Reining prospect to do a spin, but then you should ask yourself if he is executing it correctly so as not to injure the ligaments, tendons and cartilage in his body. If he is not adequately prepared for the spin with exercises that address his core muscle strength and good posture, then he is likely to do the movement incorrectly, putting his body at risk.
Horse trainers have kept us in awe of their unique and significant talents for centuries, and now that their techniques are more public, many equine professionals will pooh-pooh those who attempt a “kinder” approach to training. Scientists who study the equine in motion—its nutrition, biomechanics, care and maintenance—have their own perceptions to offer as to what we can learn about equines. Because many of these studies and tests are done in the laboratory, scientists rarely have the opportunity to follow their subjects throughout a lifetime of activity, as well as having the opportunity to experience what it really means for you as a rider, to be in balance with your equine when you work together, whether you are leading, lunging, riding or driving. If they did, their findings would probably yield quite different results. With all this progressive scientific thought, it seems to me that common sense can often get lost in the shuffle and respect for the living creature’s physical, mental and emotional needs may not be met.
It is true that bribery never really works with an equine, and many people who attempt the “kind” approach do get caught up with bribery because they are unskilled at identifying good behaviors and waiting to reward until the task is performed. However, reinforcement of positive behaviors with a food reward does work if you can figure out how to adhere to the program, and be clear and consistent in how you behave and what you expect. In order to do this, you need to really pay attention to the whole equine, have a definite exercise program that has been proven to work in developing the equine’s good posture and strength, and be willing to work on yourself as well as your equine. A good program for your equine will require that you actively participate in the exercises as well. That way, you will also benefit while you are training your equine.
People feel better when they pay attention to their diet and are aware of their posture while practicing physical activities—and, in the same respect, an equine will perform willingly and happily if he feels good. Horses have as many different postures as do people, and there are generalized postures that you can easily notice and predict in specific breeds of horses. For instance, the American Saddlebred has a higher body carriage than that of the Quarter Horse. However, each individual within any breed is not naturally born in good posture and might need some help to get in good posture in order to exercise correctly.
There are varying levels of abuse and most abuse happens out of ignorance. Many training techniques appear to get the equine to do what you want, but the question then becomes, “How is he doing this and will it result in a good strong body or is it in opposition to what would be his best posture and condition?” Any time you take the equine out of good posture to accomplish certain maneuvers, you are abusing his body, and this can result, over time, in degenerative breakdown. For instance, those who get in a hurry in Dressage and do not take a full year at each level in order to develop their equine’s body slowly and methodically may discover, several years later, that their animal has developed ringbone, side bones, arthritis or some other internal malady. These types of injuries and malformations are often not outwardly exhibited until it is too late to do anything about them.
In my experience with my draft mule rescues, Rock and Roll, this became blatantly apparent to me. When Rock had to be euthanized in December of 2011, a necropsy was performed after his death. When the necropsy report came back and we were able to ascertain the long-term results of his years of abuse, neglect and bad posture, we found it a wonder that he was able to get up and down at all, much less rear up and play with Roll and trot over ground rails in balance.
His acetabulum (or hip socket) had multiple fractures. The upper left photo shows Rock’s normal acetabulum and the upper right photo shows Rock’s fractured acetabulum. The photo at right shows the head of each of Rock’s femurs. Rock’s left femoral head was normal, while the right, injured femoral head was virtually detached from the hip socket and contained fluid-filled cysts. There was virtually no cartilage left on the right femoral head, nor on the right acetabulum. It was the very fact that my team and I made sure that Rock was in balance and took things slowly and in a natural sequence that he was able to accomplish what he did and gain himself an extra year of quality life.
Tragically, many equines are suffering from abuse every day, while they are trying to please their owners and do what is asked of them. Their owners and trainers take shortcuts that compromise the equine’s health. It could be that these owners and trainers are trying to make choices with limited knowledge and really don’t know whom to believe. But ignorance is not a valid defense and sadly, the animal is the one that ends up suffering.
When they don’t have enough time to ride, racing stables often use hot walkers in order to exercise their Thoroughbred horses. But when an equine is put on a hot walker, he is forced to walk in a circle with his head raised and his neck and back hollowed. Since we all build muscle while in motion, muscle is being built on the hot walker while the equine is out of good posture. Consequently, when the equine is ridden later, bad behaviors can arise simply because the animal is uncomfortable. It would be better to develop core muscle strength (the strength around the bones and vital organs) first in good posture before developing hard muscle strength over the rest of the body. Core muscle strength takes time, but once the animal begins to automatically move in good posture, it becomes his natural way of going.
The Lucky Three mules have always been worked in good posture, and spend only as much time on the hot walker as it takes for them to dry after a bath. They maintain their good posture while walking and rarely let the hot walker “pull” them into bad posture.
There has been a lot of scientific research done on equine biomechanics using treadmills, which is one of my pet peeves. It would seem to me that any data scientists have gathered is not viable for one reason. An equine on a treadmill will not move the same way as an equine that is moving over ground. Have you ever had the ground move backwards underneath you? What kind of an effect do you think this would have on your ability to walk, trot or run correctly and in good posture? The very motion of the treadmill throws the body balance forward while you try to keep your balance upright. It actually interferes with the ability to balance easily and therefore, does not build muscle symmetrically and correctly around the skeletal structure and vital organs.
Like many, I am of the belief that mechanical devices that force an equine into a rounded position do not necessarily put that equine in good posture. I would guess that many trainers think the “Elbow Pull” device that I use is guilty of developing this artificial posture. If that is their opinion, then they do not understand how it works. Rather than pulling the equine’s head down into a submissive position, when adjusted correctly, the “Elbow Pull” acts like a balance bar (like a ballet dancer would use) to help the equine to balance in good posture. It takes time to develop good posture. So, in the beginning, your equine can only sustain good posture for a certain number of measured steps, and then he must “lean” on the “Elbow Pull” in between these moments of sustaining his ideal balance on his own. The “Elbow Pull” simply prevents him from raising his head and neck so high that the neck becomes inverted and the back hollowed, but it does not actually pull his head down. The rope itself is very lightweight and puts virtually no weight on his head and neck at all. Note: Because horses react differently than mules and donkeys when hard-tied, a simple adjustment to allow the “Elbow Pull” to “slip” with a horse is necessary.
Like humans, when equines are encouraged and aided in developing good equine posture, core strength with adequate bulk muscle built over the top, they are healthier and better able to perform the tasks we ask of them. With this in mind and other good maintenance practices, you can enjoy the company of your equine companion for many years to come and most of all, he will enjoy being with you!
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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