MULE CROSSING: The Responsible Use of Restraints in Training

By Meredith Hodges

There is a lot of discussion about training mules versus training horses. There are some who say that training mules is harder than training horses, and others who say just the opposite. It has been my experience that it isn’t really that one animal is more difficult to train than the other. They each have their redeeming qualities and individual limitations. The people who are dealing with them also have their own redeeming and limiting factors. For instance, if you are leading a horse, and he does not want to follow you, because he hasn’t the strength in his head and neck as a mule, or donkey, does, he can be more easily bullied into compliance with a quick jerk on the lead rope.

On the other hand, if you are leading a mule, or a donkey, they can easily jerk the rope right out of your hands, or jerk you right off your feet, because of the incredible strength they have in their head and neck. When you teach a mule or donkey something one day, he will ponder what he has been taught during the days between lessons. Regardless of how many days or weeks pass, he will comply more easily during the next lesson because he never forgets what has been taught.  A horse will tend to forget and will need to be reminded where mules and donkeys will not necessarily need those constant reminders.

It makes sense that the handler needs to adjust his training program such that the horse has many frequent and consistent lessons to refresh his memory. Longears will only need lessons as frequently and consistently as it takes to maintain good postural conditioning. When applying lessons more frequently, the handler has the ability to make subtle adjustments to get the best from the horse. If he wants a Longears to respond properly, it is critical that he teaches the mule or donkey correctly the first time. They will learn EXACTLY what the handler teaches them the first time and will continue to repeat it.  The option of changing your approach during the training sequence is limited Longears. What this all amounts to is that one is really not more easily trained than the other. Rather, it is the experience and knowledge of the handler or trainer, that makes the difference with both Longears and horses.

Mules and donkeys, sensitive creatures that they are, seem to be more concerned about the overall attitude of the trainer than are horses. With the intelligent use of negative reinforcement, a positive attitude and informed use of restraints, modification of any equine behavior becomes a lot easier.

When your mule does not comply with your wishes, first you need to get his attention and do something to temper his defensive attitude. When we are intelligent about a situation, it will minimize the animal’s negative reactive responses. Our politeness and consideration promote an overall positive attitude on both parts, and opens up the lines of communication between you.

Since these equines out-weigh us by several hundred pounds, careful and informed use of restraints can sometimes be humanely used to perpetuate and escalate the close relationship between you and your Longears (and even horses) in the training environment. Restraints should be used to help “explain” what you wish from your equine, but should not be used as a perpetual training “crutch.” Intelligence, attitude and restraints should always be used in conjunction with a pursuit of “the path of least resistance” in mind to promote successful training sessions.

If we realize that correct development of mind and body takes time, we should relax, be patient, allow the equine learn at his own pace, humanely utilize helpful restraints to minimize resistance in difficult situations and actually enjoy the training process with our animals. For example, in the case of Draw Reins, they should be used in conjunction with your regular reins, only if you have Good Steady Hands and only when necessary. In the beginning, this might mean pressure on them at every stride. As with any restraint, they will need to be slowly phased out over time. This is pretty easy to see with Draw Reins and the response they elicit from the equine.

But what about a restraint such as the Scotch Hobble where the hind foot is tied up to make handling the feet easier? The first time you need to use the Scotch Hobble, you will probably need to secure the hind foot so that the toe cannot touch the ground when you try to pick up the hind foot. In order to tie the Scotch Hobble, you will first tie a Bowline (non-slip knot) around the neck loosely, then take the slack, hold the very end and work it between the back legs. When you get it in position, you can walk back to the front toward the loop around the neck while taking up the slack.

From the shoulder, give a quick tug on the rope to see if he will yield the hind foot. If he does, you can let him keep the toe on the ground when you run the rope through the loop around the neck and finish going around the back leg again. Then bring the rest of the slack back to the front loop and tie it off.

The Scotch Hobble can be helpful just teaching them to yield the hind leg with this method, without actually tying it off. See if he allows you to transfer the hind foot into your hand. If he does yield the foot and let you hold it for a few seconds, set the foot back down and reward him with oats immediately! If you do have to tie it off, do it looser every time you need to use it until it is so loose that you only have to put the loop around the neck and leave the rest of the slack laying on the floor between his legs. Pretty soon, you won’t have to use it at all. This is called phasing out the restraint. If he becomes fidgety at any point in the process, just back up one step and try again the next time.

There are many kinds of restraints available in the equine industry today: Martingales, Tie-Downs, Side Reins, Draw Reins, Chambons, Hobbles, Breeding Hobbles and the list goes on. In my opinion, most of these are being used much too freely as “crutches.” They are responsible for terrible body posture and severely limit calm and compliant responsiveness among today’s equines.

A restraint should only be used as a temporary helpful tool to allow you to get a desired response from the animal…to help to show them what you expect from them. Once you get the desired response, it is your responsibility to phase out the restraint in order for the new behavior to become his new normal way of responding…correct behavior. Restraints help to reshape behaviors!

Early in a Longears life, he should \be taught to be calm in restraints which will make routine tasks much easier. Your Veterinarian and Farrier will thank you, and it might save your mule’s life if he should get caught anywhere, fall in a hole, or encounter any other potential for disaster. Your goal is to get him to stay calm and think before he begins to struggle, or bolt, and tries to run. Many Longears will stand still naturally when they are trapped, but it is always better to reinforce this pause for thought with regular lessons.

NEVER USE A FACE TIE OR ANY HARD-TIE ON A HORSE! They have a completely different reaction to being hard-tied than a mule or donkey. They will frantically fight it and throw their bodies around so wildly that they can hurt you or themselves quite easily! I do use my Elbow Pull on horses, but do not hard-tie it. Rather I tie it with loops that slip over their back when they pull against it.

The following technique is useful when working around very young mules, although it also works well with adults. If your Longears begins to struggle, simply step back and wait for him to calm down, reward with crimped oats when he’s are calm and then resume what you were doing. The Face Tie is a very useful restraint for worming, giving shots, clipping bridle paths, clipping on the head and for teaching an ear-shy Longears how to accept the bridle over their ears. The technique is easy.

Find a good, stout hitch rail or post:

  • Wrap your lead rope around the hitch rail once until your animal’s face is over the rail. This may take coaxing as you take up the slack one step at a time. Remember the oats reward as he takes steps forward.
  • Slip the rope through the nose band again and secure it. For a more secure tie that will keep him sideways to the hitch rail so he cannot swing his haunches into you (like when you are giving shots), Run the rope first though the nose band as previously described, then com back through the nose band, take the rope further down the hitch rail toward the shoulders, go through the throatlatch and tie it off there. With his head secured in two places, he will not be able to pivot at the chin anymore to swing the haunches very far.

If your mule or donkey is difficult to lead and tends to bolt and run, rather than using chains that can cause unsightly bumps on the face, you can use what I call the Quick Twist. A quick twist of your lead rope through the nose band and over his nose will provide adequate leverage. Just stand your ground and don’t move if he pulls against you. The rope will tighten around his nostrils and restrict his ability to inhale deeply. He will soon discover that if he comes toward you, it loosens and allows for free breathing again. If he becomes insistent about running off, be sure you are always leading in a confined space and just let go of the lead rope and let him run off… it’s better not to lose a pulling battle with him and let him think he can win. The coax him back by reminding him that you have the crimped oats in your fanny pack! If he still won’t come back, leave him for awhile and try again later. He’ll be back!


Hobbles can be helpful when clipping the legs, but I don’t recommend using them very much. Longears are truly adept at running off in them and most hobbles will cause rope burns on the pasterns that will scar permanently and never really heal. Do not use nylon hobbles for this reason unless they are lined with fleece. Leather hobbles seem to be fine for supervised use. When camping, it is better to tie them UP to a High Line, or just tie up a horse to the High Line and leave the mules free to roam loose with no halters on. They will stick near the horse.

Choosing the right restraint for a given situation takes a lot of thought and consideration. You must ask yourself which restraints are available for you to use? Which restraint will most likely bring about the correct response from your equine? Will the response come with little or no resistance, and is it humane? Will it cause other more serious problems with the animal? And finally, can the restraint be phased out easily?

Keeping these things in mind when using restraints will help to keep the relationship with your mule from becoming a battleground. Bear in mind that whatever restraint that you use might vary from situation to situation, and from animal to animal. So, carefully weight your options! Remember, using intelligence, a good attitude and informed use of restraints can greatly enhance your training experience together!


To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, MeWe and Twitter.



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