MULE CROSSING: Training Longears: What’s the Difference? Part 1
At first glance, it seems those of us who train equines have very similar methods. This is not unusual considering we build our programs on time tested techniques and only make changes in approach when certain things are not working well. We often begin to interact with equines at a very young age and are the product of what we learn from others, and from our own mistakes. The things we learn shape our attitude and approach to riding equines, and riding is first and foremost in our minds right from the beginning. Growing up, we rarely hear anything about groundwork training and when we do, we don’t usually want to spend too much time with it.
Our youthful exposure is limited to the equine trend of the decade and popular breeds of horses unless we are fortunate enough to be the son, daughter or friend of a diverse trainer…and the first thing most people learn about mules is usually negative. Mules have taught me to be kind, respectful, patient and logical in my approach to elicit the best response. When problems arise, I don’t need to fix them, only myself! And when I do, they do the right thing.
When working with horses, we get away with shortcuts in training because the horse is more easily manipulated than the mule or donkey. After training horses for many years before riding Longears I really thought I knew how to ride and train. Much to my chagrin, my introduction to mules showed me just how much more I had to learn to be a truly competent and humane equestrian! I could get a lot from mules and donkeys with horse training techniques, but they did not seem to be as energetic, engaged and consistent. As the level of difficulty increased, I got less and less compliance with my “horse” approach and in time, I was truly humbled! I knew I had to modify my techniques!
I realized that if I wanted to improve my skills and get a better response from my long-eared equine partners, I had to go back to the beginning, start over and pay closer attention to what they needed from me in order to do what I asked. They say there are multiple ways available to the same end, which is true, but what I discovered in my years of training mules and donkeys is that there really is only one BEST way for the best results…their way! This applies to all my equines though my horses tend to be less confident and assertive than the Longears.
Training begins with nutrition and the way your equine is fed. An equine that is fed at a specific time each day is far less stressed than those with inconsistent feeding times and will learn easier. What you feed and how is critical. Equines should be fed in stalls and runs, or in dirt pens and then have monitored turnout times during the day for good health. There are various feeds today designed for the performance equine, researched by scientists in laboratories who seldom see the long-term results of these feeds. These feeds often produce faster growth and give the young equine an appearance of adulthood. When they are not allowed to grow at their natural pace (phases that often make them look awkward and gangly) the bones grow too fast and do not have the chance to harden the way they should.
For optimum bone growth, they need to grow a little and be stressed for awhile before the next burst of growth to become hard. The most obvious example of this can be witnessed in yearling halter classes at today’s shows. Equines used to exhibit very high haunches and low withers as yearlings, lacked muscle tone and were quite awkward looking. They did eventually evolve into beautiful animals, but it took time. These days, you generally see what appears to be a young, but very adult-looking horse with relatively even growth front and back and unusual muscle tone. As they age, bones and soft tissue are not as easily sustained, they become arthritic or have other old-age problems and their longevity of use is compromised. Those equines whose growth has not been artificially accelerated tend to do better and live longer.
Many of today’s feeds can cause hypertension, an inability to concentrate on their job and more frequent occurrences of colic and founder. This is why we feed a crimped oats mixture and good quality grass hay only. Any elaborated products and alfalfa hay can create problems later.
Why feed the oats in the evening? In the spring, your equines should be introduced to new pasture grass slowly. This means you feed in a dry area or small pen and let them out for limited periods of time. For instance, if they were going to be fed at 5P.M., you would only let them out at 3-4P.M. to start. When they know they will have oats, they will come back much easier.
Can I leave my longears on pasture? The answer is no, you really shouldn’t. Donkeys are desert animals and can subsist on practically nothing. The mule is half donkey and has the same trait. If left on pasture, Longears gain weight quickly that can lead to obesity and eventually colic or founder. This is also true of horses that are easy keepers. It’s better to be safe than sorry and monitor feeding more carefully. This includes where you place their feed. If multiple animals are together in a dry pen, use feed buckets or pans and keep them at least 16 feet apart to avoid fighting and possible injury. Don’t feed on the ground. Keep hay in bunks, racks or over matted or other clean, hard surface areas to minimize ingestion of sand and dirt.
What do I use for rewards during training? I wear a fanny pack of crimped oats and dispense them as rewards. Crimped oats are healthy, they get the additional energy they need while they are working and above all else, they will not get sated on them like they will on carrots, apples, horse treats, etc. Diversity in the rewards will cause diversity in their behavioral responses. I strive for confidence, obedience and consistency in my equines.
What if he becomes aggressive toward the rewards? Isn’t it better to avoid this by no food rewards? The equine will give you his best if he is “paid well.” Good behaviors that are rewarded with a food reward will be more likely to be repeated. There is a very specific correction for those who become too aggressive for the oats: Say “No” very loudly. Use the flat of your hand with a well-placed slap on the side of the mouth and put your hand in front of his face like a stop sign. He will fling his head up and to the side to avoid you and start to step back at which time you take oats from the fanny pack, quickly step forward and offer the reward while saying “Thank you for giving me my space.” The next time he tests you, you will only need to put your hand up like a stop sign and say “No!” He will then step back and wait for his reward.
The equine that receives food rewards will not only offer more during training, but he will learn how to take things from a human’s hand safely. When they are regularly given rewards, equines learn how to be gentle and careful about receiving those rewards. They will avoid biting down on your hand or fingers. Those who do not get this practice are more apt to accidently bite your fingers…or the fingers of some poor unsuspecting person who naively wanted to stop and feed your animal.
What is the difference between my methods and Clicker Training? Both are based on Behavior Modification where good behaviors are rewarded and the reward used is the same healthy crimped oats that they are normally fed. Clicker Training lets the animal know by the clicker that a reward is coming before the reward is dispensed. You might use the same reward, but using your voice instead of the clicker is much more personal and communicative.
I prefer to use my voice because it is far more enticing and engaging. If you learn how to respond verbally to your equine’s good and bad behaviors instead of using a device, you will invite an intimate bond between you that is more mutually satisfying. Over time, the verbal language will continue to grow from short commands to actual conversations, very much like children learn language. Equines may not be able to learn to speak English, but if you are a good listener, calculated and consistent in your approach, they can certainly learn to understand it!
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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