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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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Wrangler has been a happy camper since we acquired Chasity. Before that, he was so rambunctious that there was no one else that could be in turnout with him and I had limited time to work with him. He and Chasity are the same size and the same age, so they do get along very well. I still have to make training judgments when working with them. He helped me to get Chasity moving freely in the Round Pen during her first lessons, but lately, he has been annoying her while lunging which does not allow her to relax in the “Elbow Pull” like she should. And, he doesn’t relax either because he is too busy showing off to her now! So, I had to modify my approach. I still take them out together and just tie one up while I am working the other. I find that this works very well. Wrangler is back to moving in a dignified manner!
I can say that showing off to her did have its benefits. It developed his agility and his eagerness to move more forward and into a canter. When working him alone, I did not have to tie his reins to the saddle to keep his head up as I did when I was working him with her, but I did leave them on the bridle and secured them around his neck in case I did need them. His trot was very nice this time, so I decided to actually give the command to “Canter” and Wrangler willingly complied!
As Wrangler passed Chasity, he did occasional do a little crow-hop to acknowledge her, but mostly he stayed in good balanced posture and exhibited core strength with a lot of agility and flexibility. I used to think I needed to tire my animals to make them behave, but I have since found that when I pay attention to their physical development as well as the tasks I want them to do they are much happier and willing to comply. I PREPARE them for performance and bad behaviors decrease exponentially because I make them FEEL good! Good behavior is ALWAYS rewarded!
Wrangler decided to spook at a small branch that was on the ground, so I picked it up and we played with it! Then we got Chasity after her turn at lunging and made our way to the dressage arena.
Although Wrangler does tend to get a bit distracted when I have Chasity along, he does stay in sync with my steps most of the time. This is important in order to have their full attention.
This is Wrangler’s first lunge line lesson in the open, so I began with the short line as I usually do, but when he circled around me, he got to the point where he was facing Chasity and bolted toward her!
Apparently, Wrangler did not want to jump the fence, so he headed for the opening in the fence and then ran around the dressage arena perimeter. I just let go of the lines and watched him as he ran. I stayed where I was and assessed his movement while he got his “jollies” out!
He got halfway around and decided he wanted to go back toward Chasity. I guess he is not a confident jumper because he slowed down and carefully WALKED over the fence…in good balance and then cantered in balance in her direction!
I blocked him from going to Chasity and he darted to the left and toward the other end of the dressage arena. I called his name and asked him to come back…and he did…at a full gallop!
He thought about running around me, but decided a reward was a much better idea! Chasity was impressed with his performance and so was HE! I was just happy that Wrangler had decided to go back to work!
So, we repeated the process and he did nicely tracking to the left and halted quietly upon command. I did not let the line out very far. We would add that step the next time. I rewarded his success!
We did, however, do the same thing in the opposite direction, and again, I did not press my luck and kept the line shortened and controlled. Next, Wrangler would get his ground driving lesson in the open arena…another first.
I employed my Ranch Manager, Chad, as an assistant to make certain that things did not get out of control. I wanted to set Wrangler up for success. He was just perfect through the Hourglass Pattern and over the ground rails in the middle of the pattern.
After tracking through the pattern in one direction with the halts and rein backs in their designated spots between the cones, then crossing the diagonal and completing it the same pattern in the other direction, Wrangler did a perfect halt and rein back, and was amply rewarded for his success! It was time to quit!
I’m not sure, Augie, but it must have something to do with those two big donkeys behind us! MMMM…oats!”
“Hi! I’m Wrangler and this is Chasity! You’ll have your turn to lunge when we get done! Here’s how we do it!”
“Yeah! We’ve been doing it longer than he has…and we’re a team…even at the halt, eh Spuds?!”
“That was really fun!! Isn’t she just beautiful, Augie?!”
“Hmmmmm…oh yeah, Spuds!!!”
Donkeys love it when you keep things easy, fresh and interesting! Chasity has been doing so well with her lessons with Wrangler lately that I thought we could change things up a bit and add a LITTLE excitement to their routine by adding the mini donkeys, Augie and Spuds! If this is to be a safe endeavor, I will have to break things down into small introductory steps and make frequent evaluations as to what is safe to do and what might not be safe. I want them all to enjoy this time together with me! Seeing the mini donkeys in the Tack barn work station, Chasity is getting already started with a smile on her face!
First, I lunged Chasity by herself to see how she would respond in her “Elbow Pull” and to see whether she would maintain her good postural balance during this lesson. She did lovely at an energized and forward working walk! I was very pleased.
Chasity then bucked up her working trot and although she raised her head just a bit, she kept the “Elbow Pull” loose almost all the time…she is truly improving rapidly!
Next, I ground drove her and again, she did everything just right and maintained her good posture and balance…through the reverses and in both directions!
Chasity’s contact with my hands was steady and light, and she easily did her “S” turns through the middle of the Round Pen gracefully and accurately.
Chasity did a square halt and did the rein back much more easily that she had in prior lessons. She is making marked improvement every week! Yes, we only do these lessons once a week for about 20-30 minutes to get these amazing results!
Chasity and Wrangler always enjoy lunging together, but sometimes he will get a bit slow and cause her to raise her head behind him and put more tension on the “Elbow Pull” than she would do if he was not there. Wrangler spotted Augie and Spuds tied outside and did not want Chasity anywhere near them! That was when I made the decision that now would not be the right time to lunge FOUR donkeys together!
Instead, I tied Wrangler outside and introduced Chasity to Augie and Spuds…they liked each other, so I began lunging them all together! Chasity loved it!
The donkeys, large and small, tracked left and then did a perfect halt…all three of them! As they stood stock still, I rewarded them each one for a job well done!
Chasity surprised me by doing a perfect reverse and then walked behind Augie and Spuds to show them the new direction. Then they too, reversed and followed her obediently! I had to chuckle…who’s in charge here?! Wrangler just hid his face behind the post outside of the Round Pen, hoping no one would notice how left out he felt! Even though Wrangler was a bit miffed, they all had a very good time! At least he was not completely left out! Friends really LIKE to work together!
Chasity is eager to go to the Round Pen and continue her lessons. Being polite, considerate, respectful and consistent in one’s approach will create a happy and willing partner. Most resistant behaviors arise from anxiety in the animal as a result of an unpredictable approach. Equines love the company of their own kind during training whenever possible. It gives them confidence, and a more experienced animal can show them how things are done with a compliant attitude. Breaking training down into very small steps assures that your equine will NEVER be over-faced with any tasks. It is paramount that you train your equine how to lunge on a lunge line for the first few times in the Round Pen.
Lunging in the “Elbow Pull” is critical to helping Chasity maintain her good posture and balance throughout her workout. It allows full range of motion, but will prevent any hollowing of the back and neck, and give her something to lean on when she has weak moments and cannot sustain her own good posture and self-carriage for a few strides at a time. Consistent work in the “Elbow Pull” will actually change the equine’s habitual way of moving. Chasity is becoming more and more comfortable in her new and more correct equine posture! This is most evident when she is at rest with equal weight placed over all four feet underneath her body. This is true whether at work or in turnout.
Chasity is now holding her own self-carriage in good posture for more and more strides during each new lesson. It takes a lot of time to stretch and rebuild the elements that support the skeletal frame such that the body becomes strong and movement becomes more flexible and habitual.
At walk and trot, Chasity and Wrangler maintain an erect body carriage and bend through their rib cages to the arc of the Round Pen circle. Wrangler can be a bit lazy and will carry his head too low, so I add the bridle reins to prevent him from becoming a “peanut roller!” Chasity carries her head higher, so she won’t need them.
After being warmed up with her familiar lunging of five rotations in each direction, I add the lunge line. I always keep it loose, dragging on the ground. Then I give an occasional “squeeze-release” as the outside front foot comes forward. This is her cue to stay on the circle later in the open arena and not pull on the lunge line.
My end goal is always to keep Chasity as light in the bridle as possible to get the desired response. Using all this gear in the beginning allows me to do minimal pulling on the lines and later the reins. The animal is in control of the adjustment of the tension. They learn quickly what I am asking with the lightest cue from my fingers.
Chasity is now comfortable and relaxed, knows what my cues mean. With the slightest pressure on the lines, she executes a lovely reverse and continues on in a really nice posture.
Being cognizant of how you do certain moves, like going through gates, will assure that the equine responds at all times with very SLIGHT pressure on the reins or lines, or even on the lead rope…no more BOLTING! You will never need to PULL on a lunge line again in any open areas. Loss of balance is the number one reason for resistance and bad behaviors. Building this precise foundation will carry through to Chasity’s under saddle work. Building core strength that symmetrically supports the skeletal frame makes everything you want to do a lot easier for your equine. When he is strong, balanced and comfortable in his body, he is better ABLE to be a willing and compliant companion!
Chasity continues to improve. We have cut the size of her obese, cresty neck by 70%. Her back is finally elevated. The spinal and abdominal muscles are much better conditioned and support her good posture. She has come a long way. She is submissive to the “Elbow Pull” and ready to begin her combination exercises in Lunging and Ground Driving. Chasity is happy that she gets to do these exercises with her “boyfriend,” Wrangler! He is her inspiration. They are so funny together!
Chasity executes the gate perfectly and then stops to pose for a picture with me. Then we adjust her “Elbow Pull” and make sure she flexes at the poll to submit. This self-correcting restraint will provide resistance if she tries to carry her head too high which would result in hollowing her neck and back, and thus, compromising her good equine posture.
Once everything is adjusted on Chasity and Wrangler, we pose for a picture. Then they both go obediently to the rail and begin work at the walk. I have added the reins to Wrangler’s bridle to keep him from carrying his head too low. That is not an issue with Chasity. It is not usually a problem with with Wrangler either, but it is in the nineties today and very hot. Wrangler gets very lazy in the heat!
They are both stepping out nicely and exhibiting a pretty fair “working walk.” After five rotations at the walk, I ask for the trot. They are both stepping well underneath their centers of gravity and Chasity is submitting to the pressure from the “Elbow Pull.” This means she is in better equine posture with improving self-carriage.
After five rotations at the trot, I ask them for a halt and they are prompt in their response. They are rewarded and then proceed forward and after one rotation, I ask them to reverse. It is the best reverse yet!
I am so proud of Chasity! She is really holding her good posture nicely for prolonged periods of time now, even at the trot!
Chasity is gaining a lot of core strength and power to her gaits. The halts are mostly square on the landing and do not need to be corrected. Chasity is finally learning to use her hindquarters properly and she is no longer getting locked up in the right hip joint. It is now adequately supported symmetrically by the core elements: muscles, tendons, ligaments and soft tissue. Her joints operate correctly and will not wear irregularly.
After five rotations at walk and then trot in the opposite direction, Chasity was finally ready for her first Ground Driving lesson! When asked, she walked off nicely.
I had Ground Driven Wrangler first, so Chasity got to see what this was all about. She submitted softly to the lines and remained “on the bit” as we walked along. She turned easily when asked to do the “S” turn through the middle of the Round Pen.
But suddenly, we had a “Donkey Moment” when she abruptly bolted toward Wrangler! I let the lines slide through my hands, hoping she would slow down…but she didn’t! I dug my heels into the ground to try to stop her, holding the lines with just one hand so I wouldn’t lose my balance. Wrangler just dropped in behind her at the walk.
Chasity was at a fast trot around Wrangler when he decided to help me by leaning his body into the lines. This put more pressure on her bit and helped me to get her slowed down…Thanks, Wrangler!!!
Once she had slowed down, Wrangler moved away and allowed me to turn her into the rail and ask for a reverse to the right. Chasity calmed down immediately and decided to comply with my wishes… thankfully!
Chasity was still full of energy, but submitted to the pressure on the lines as I walked behind her in sync with her hind legs. I slowly crept back up the lines with my hands and got a bit closer to her hindquarters
Then I asked Chasity for the halt and a few steps of the reinback…not too many steps at first. I rewarded her efforts with a handful of crimped oats. Her first time on the drive lines had gone very well indeed… even WITH the “Donkey Moment!” It’s always good to keep your sense of humor when working with donkeys and be ready to be VERY patient! Donkeys need to process things THEIR WAY!
Wrangler is really beginning to enjoy his time working with me and helping with Chasity’s training! I think he is also happy to have someone he can be with in turnout after three years of being by himself… although a gelding, he’s just too rambunctious to be turned out with any of the others! They definitely form groups and it is wise to pay attention to the groups they choose…mid-aged mules together, minis together, older equines together and donkey families together. Wrangler LOVES his new friend, Chasity! They both truly enjoy the workouts we do together!
Chasity follows Wrangler around like a puppy dog! She is also very enamored with HIM! After adjusting his “Elbow Pull,” Wrangler and I watch the bicycles going by on the road. I find that it is beneficial when they see something, if you just stop waht you are doing and look at it, too. Then, there isn’t as much of a fuss.
Chasity watches as I ask Wrangler to flex at the poll with an offer of crimped oats. This reminds him about how to take the pressure off the “Elbow Pull” and keeps him relaxed. Then all three of us pose for a picture before getting to work! All my equines seem to know when it is “picture time” and they always perk their ears! They are all a bunch of “hams!”
“Well, are we going to do a proper reverse?” I ask Wrangler. He promptly turns into the fence and leads Chasity down the rail of the Round Pen at a walk.
Both donkeys are stepping well underneath their center of gravity and do five rotations at walk before I ask them to trot for five more rotations. Chasity is doing much better about submitting to the pressure of the “Elbow Pull” and is able to sustain her balanced posture and self-carriage for longer periods of time now.
Chasity doesn’t “lean” on the “Elbow Pull” nearly as much anymore. Both halt promptly upon command, they get rewarded, then proceed forward again and do a perfect reverse together.
Again, we do five rotations at walk and make sure they are in a regular rhythm, cadence and are submitting nicely to the “Elbow Pull” before I ask them to trot. Wrangler has really good balance and posture and is always happy to lead the way!
Now Wrangler is going to show Chasity what Ground Driving is all about. This will help them both to learn how to stay in good posture while rein cues are being given. The result will be an animal who is exceedingly light in the bridle when you finally ride them. Wrangler executes a very smooth change of direction with the “S” turn through the middle of the Round Pen. Chasity follows obediently behind her “boyfriend!”
We track left for a while in the same form, then do one more reverse and after one more rotation at the walk, we come to a halt. Then I ask Wrangler to execute a proper reinback which he does willingly with no resistence at all. I just make sure to pull and release with the corresponding line as he takes each step backwards. He is then PROMPTLY rewarded with his favorite crimped oats!
When you are consistent, polite, respectful, reward for good behaviors, make sure tack and equipment fits comfortably and always do things exactly the same way, your animal will come to know what to expect and there will be minimal resistant behaviors, if any, because they will know what to expect from you and will act accordingly. Your time together will always be fun for everyone!
It was a rainy day, so I decided to have Chasity and Wrangler’s workout take place in the indoor arena Round Pen. I had not planned to film this workout, but since the Round Pen was a lot further from the Tack Barn than my outdoor Round Pen, I decided to take my chances and try to lead Chasity and Wrangler together! I thought that would be film-worthy for sure. Those of you that have tried to lead ONE donkey around puddles in the road and other such “scary things” know that you cannot count on their compliance. All you can do is HOPE for it! As it turned out, Chasity and Wrangler were very good all the way to the Round Pen, but there were still surprises to come!
They both stood quietly while I unlatched the gate as they had done dozens of times before, then waited patiently as I opened it.
They executed the gate perfectly together. This is a testament to my belief that when these kinds of movements are consistently done exactly the same way, it eliminates confusion and promotes compliance. They happily received their rewards of crimped oats from my fanny pack.
I then tied Wrangler to the fence with the “Elbow Pull” where he would wait while I adjusted Chasity’s “Elbow Pull.” Chasity checked out the new work space.
First I adjusted Chasity’s “Elbow Pull” and then I adjusted Wrangler’s to keep them from raising their heads too high and inverting their neck and back.
They both walked casually with no pressure from the “Elbow Pull” at all. When asked to trot, Chasity was “up against” the “Elbow Pull” at first, but was still stepping well underneath her body and striking her hind feet directly under the center of balance.
It was after the reverse that I discovered that Chasity was in heat and Wrangler decided he would like to mount her! So, I deliberately and quietly took him from the Round Pen and tied him up outside the fence. Chasity resumed her workout alone. She did lovely at the walk and kept the “Elbow Pull” loose, even throughout the reverse!
When I finally asked for trot, she was hot to trot! Chasity was definitely improving her ability to maintain her self-carriage and good posture. When the “Elbow Pull” is properly adjusted, it will encourage each individual equine’s BEST posture. It should NOT force their head down.
When asked to “Whoa,” Chasity happily complied and then turned to me for her next command. I asked for the “Reverse” and she was prompt in her response.
Then Chasity resumed her calm forward motion at the working walk, maintaining a loose “Elbow Pull.”She has made marked improvement in just 4 short weeks of Round Pen work after 3 months of leading for core strength and balance in the “Hourglass Pattern.”
When I asked for trot, she showed me she was a bit tired and was back up against the “Elbow Pull,” but she was still tracking well underneath her body and holding an acceptable posture.
When my female equines are in heat, I lighten the pressure on them and quit when I see they are tiring. This keeps them from getting “grumpy” and helps them to maintain a happy attitude toward me and the training.
Chasity and I exited the Round Pen in perfect form and then went to get Wrangler. Building a good relationship with your equine makes EVERYTHING easier!
Wrangler was standing sideways to the fence, but moved over promptly upon command. I wanted him on my right. He was still mesmerized by Chasity in heat, but he was still a gentleman and complied with my wishes! I love it when they behave so well!
Chasity flirted with Wrangler and he reciprocated while I untied his “Elbow Pull” and released him. Then we all marched together to the Tack Barn where they were untacked, then returned to the barn yard for turnout and more intense flirtation! Love was in the air!
Chasity has made marked improvement in the past two weeks with her work in the Round Pen with Wrangler. They really enjoy working together and always give me their very best effort! Their bodies are really improving with the work even though their lessons are only once a week! Chasity’s infection is completely gone, her Lordosis (sway back) is no longer there and the fat on her neck crest has shrunk significantly. It will still take a very long time to get it down to where it should be. There is simply no quick way to do this that would still be healthy for her, but she has come a LONG WAY already!
Although Wrangler is still sporting some belly hair that makes his torso look thick, both donkeys are at optimum health and weight. It is June so they have not yet shed their coats completely. Still, their hair coats are healthy and soft due to their diet and weekly grooming. I use a plastic human multi-bristled hair brush with a sprinkle of Johnson’s Baby Oil in the manes and tails for hair protection and to keep them from chewing on each other’s manes and tails. The weekly grooming with the hairbrush aerates the coat and keeps the hair healthy. They can then shed all the dead hair and not just what is on top. It also prevents breakage and uneven growth. I never body clip unless they are showing and never do the insides of the ears. Their hair coats insulate them from the heat and cold, and protect them from insects when the hair is properly maintained. They will be fully shded by August and grow their winter hair in September.
Wrangler is taken to the Round Pen first and executes the gate perfectly! I always do gates exactly the same way and reward so all my equines know what to expect and can behave accordingly with no fuss.
I tie Wrangler with the “Elbow Pull” and then go to get Chasity. She also executes the gate perfectly while Wrangler waits patiently! When you do things in a way that they always know what to expect next, there is no anxiety and therefore, no need for a “Patience Pole” to teach them to stand quietly.
I then adjusted Chasity’s “Elbow Pull” such that she has plenty of slack to raise her head, but not enough to raise it so high that she inverts her neck and back. If she tires during the lesson, she can lean against it without sacrificing her good equine posture until she can regain self-carriage again. It will put pressure on the poll, bit rings, forearms and back when she leans on and will be taut (but not tight) and when she is in total self-carriage, it will remain loose. It is a similar concept as a ballet dancer using their balance bar.
We posed for a picture before I adjusted Wrangler’s “Elbow Pull.” I allow those who already have consistent self-carriage a lot more slack than I do those who are first starting out.
Wrangler is carrying his head and neck a bit low today, but I believe he is just stretching his back that probably got sore from his antics in the larger pen yesterday when he was first turned out with Chasity! Simply put, he played a bit too hard! Chasity is starting to carry her own good posture much better and is not leaning on the “Elbow Pull” as much as she did just two weeks ago!
They each took their turn and executed very nice reverses when asked…first Chasity and then Wrangler! People often have problems lunging their donkeys, but taking things slowly and in the right logical sequence seems to help a lot! I am also grateful that I have one senior donkey to help me teach the “newbie.” It saves a lot of running and encouragement with the whip. And, they enjoy working together a lot more than alone!
Chasity really has her good posture down nicely and is keeping the “Elbow Pull” loose during the five rotations at walk in each direction. This direction, she really got enthusiastically engaged at the trot and only slightly leaned on her “Elbow Pull.” I could have taken up the slack on Wrangler’s “Elbow Pull” for this trot rotation and he would have done better, but he wasn’t excessively bad so I opted no to do it.
I did one more extra lap at a good working walk and Chasity showed me her BEST posture! I am so pleased with her improvement and so is she!!! Wrangler waits patiently for his turn to go back to the work station in the Tack Barn. What great donkeys they are!
Chasity had no way of knowing that she was about to graduate from the Hourglass Pattern to the Round Pen today, nor did she really care! She knows that every experience with me is happy and rewarding! So, she was waiting patiently at the stall door for me to come get her after I had already gotten Wrangler, her beau, from his stall! She put on her “happy face” and proceeded to the Tack Barn with a spring in her step!!!
She was particularly happy to see Wrangler standing at the work station! I cleaned both of their eyes, ears and nostrils with no problem at all! They were both eager to find out what was coming next!
After her initial introduction to the “monster vac,” this time she did not even bat an eyelash! It was of no consequence to her anymore…she was BRAVE now! I rewarded her and marveled at how her neck was improving! The fat was disappearing and her neckline was becoming straighter. Hallelujah!
I asked Chasity to do her stretches first to the right and then to the left. Her response was becoming much more flexible and symmetrical on both sides.
The Courbette (on Chasity) and the Passier (on Wrangler) are two used All Purpose English saddles that I bought over 35 years ago, that fit all my mules and donkeys, and are in as good condition today as the day that I bought them! I centered them on their backs and adjusted the crupper to keep them in place!
I bridled them both and took Wrangler to the Round Pen first. Then I tied Chasity on the outside of the Round Pen and she watched while I lunged Wrangler.
Then it was her turn! I adjusted the “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint to the right tension and asked Chasity to flex at the poll. Then we began lunging. She leaned on the “Elbow Pull,” but it kept her from hollowing her back and neck while still allowing her to reach well underneath her body with her hind legs.
After five rotations in one direction, I stopped her and asked for a reverse. She hesitated, but eventually understood what I was asking of her and happily trotted off. She did make me work a bit to keep her going, but she was beginning to relieve a bit of the tension on the “Elbow Pull.”
Since things were going so well, I rewarded Chasity and flexed her neck again. I decided to allow Wrangler to help show her how it is done for five more rotations in each direction. That would be all I would need to do on a 85+ degree day with their shedding not quite completed. Wrangler was amazing! They had not been turned out together yet, so I thought he might be silly with her, but he was all business!
Of course, Wrangler did the reverse quickly and perfectly while Chasity took a little persuading. Wrangler just walked confidently and patiently, keeping his good posture with the “Elbow Pull” loose, while he waited for her to catch up. For two thirteen year olds, they were awesome!
Although Wrangler has been with me for three years, and Chasity for only three months, I find it amazing how quickly they happily come to their ideal equine posture. They exit their lessons renewed and refreshed!
Chasity was very stiff and compromised through her whole body when she first arrived. She was extremely rigid over the top line and could not flex from the poll at all, much less through her entire spine. The “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint and work in the Hourglass pattern has helped her to be more flexible in her head and neck, and has produced some flexion through her back. Now we are going to ask her to extend that flexion the whole length of her spine. She has been learning how to stay erect around turns while bending through her rib cage, and easily flexes her neck and back when squared up at the halt. These subtle actions have reshaped the body fat evenly over her body and reduced the size of her enlarged neck by 50% in just one month! Her posture is already greatly improved!
Chasity began by leaning on the “Elbow Pull” to keep her reasonable good equine posture. After a month of work, she is now able to sustain her own self-carriage a good part of the time. When she leans on the “Elbow Pull,” it is taut and when she is in self-carriage with good postural balance, it is loose. She started over the first pole and it was loose, then caught her balance on the second pole and it tightened…
On the third pole, she regained her balance and the “Elbow Pull” became loose again, but stepping over the last pole she allowed her balance to be too elongated and had to lean on it again.
As Chasity walked away, she again resumed her good equine balance and self-carriage and the “Elbow Pull” was loose again. We repeated the poles a little later in the Hourglass Pattern and she was then able to sustain her balance and self-carriage over the first pole…
…over the second and third poles, in good equine posture and not leaning on the “Elbow Pull”…
…and finished over the fourth pole with no loss of balance at all! As she is strengthened in good posture, her core muscles, ligaments and tendons will gain strength with symmetrical development and her time in self-carriage will increase. Ultimately, the “Elbow Pull” will remain loose at all times. She now walks in a rhythmic and cadenced fashion, matching every step that I take and halts easily upon request with no anxiety, or excess movement.
I asked her to square up and this time, instead of just flexing at the poll, I asked her to lower her head and stretch her entire spine from head to tail. Then we proceeded with more work in the Hourglass Pattern in the opposite direction and she practiced bending through her rib cage while staying erect around the corner cones.
Next, we negotiated the gate into the obstacles area, halted and squared up. I gave her a reward and asked her to stretch down again.
Chasity has been doing very well with breaking the bridge down into small steps. She halts easily, squares up and holds her balance in several new positions, with the front feet up, back feet down…
…with all four feet on the bridge and with front feet down and back feet up. She did very well at stretching her spine in all of these odd postions that added to her symmetrical core development.
Then she squared up again off the bridge and did one more deep stretch. Chasity was surprised to see the tarp where the tractor tire used to be and took exception to this “new” obstacle. The silly thing was that she side-passed the rail with her front feet on the tarp and her back feet in the sand. I thought, “Okay, now I know how to get her to side pass when I am ready! Silly Girl!” LOL!
We went back and tried again. She was hesitant, but realized what it was this time. I have to remember, Chasity has cataracts in both eyes and cannot see very well…trust is everything! There was no problem at all with the familiar smaller tires!
We reinforced her bending with the barrel exercises and practiced backing through the Back-Through “L.” She is still a bit “stuck” in reverse, but it will loosen up in time. She needs to learn to manipulate her body in a good postural balance and it is awkward for her now. It will just take patience and moving slowly. Speed will come with practice.
A nice deep spinal stretch relaxed and prepared her for the final obstacle! Chasity had been doing “Evasion Therapy” on me when I placed the tractor tire obstacle with too much open space around it. Boy, was she surprised to find out it was right there in front of her with no where to go but forward!
Chasity only put one foot inside the tire as she danced along the edge with her other three feet, so I opted to do it again the other way. This time, she put two feet into the center of the tractor tire… PROGRESS! Coming back through, she finally agreed to step through it with all four feet!
Finally, SUCCESS! My patience had paid off and our relationship was still intact! We finished with another REALLY DEEP stretch. Chasity’s flexibilty and elasticity were improving rapidly! Doing obstacles in confined spaces in the beginning promotes success and I am all about setting up your equine for SUCCESS!
Roll had his summer bath yesterday and it was a great day for it! It was 100 degrees!
Today it was a little cooler, so we opted to go to the dressage arena and work in the hourglass pattern on the lead rope in his “Elbow Pull” and surcingle.
The twisting in his right hind foot was markedly better today after last week’s workout. I am glad I made the call to go back to the leading exercises after his riding experience on May 6. He felt sluggish and the right hind foot was not adequately supported and was twisting quite a bit.
Going back to his core leading exercises for the past few weeks has greatly improved the musculature and corresponding soft tissues, ligaments and tendon that support the pastern and fetlock and the twisting has substantially subsided. He now has a much more upward balance!
I find it amusing that these animals really DO mirror what we do, so it is best to pay attention to what YOU are doing as well as what your mule is doing!
Because you can’t necessarily SEE core muscle development, it is hard to tell how much it can help the equine with his overall posture, balance and performance. Once you have engaged in the exercises, you can begin to identify these very subtle nuances in the equine’s way of moving.
We often talk about “head sets” in the equine world and want our equines to be soft and supple in their poll, but what of the rest of the body? When the body is truly in good postural balance, it is easy for the equine’s WHOLE BODY to perform as it was intended.
The animal is soft and pliable throughout his body and you will begin to notice when they are using their whole body and when there are compromised segments. The easiest thing to see is how an animal with adequate core strength will use ALL his muscles such that you can actually see the muscles rippling in motion over the ribs.
The animal without core strength will be stiff and immobile over the ribs and the legs will move underneath the body, but neither adds support nor fluidity to his movement. ROLL is living proof of this drastic difference in conditioning.
We finished Roll’s lesson with some simple stretching exercises…
…then walked to the gate with the lead slung over his neck…
…and then backed a few steps, all evidence of his own good postural body carriage. I am so pleased that Roll is doing so well at 26 years old!
Finally a day came that was warm enough to be able to wash the winter dirt out of Roll’s mane and tail! The first thing was to make sure he did not “feed on his lead rope” while I wasn’t looking, so I removed the rope lead and attached him to the chain lead at the wash rack.
The water was still icy cold, but I tried to limit his and my exposure to the cold. When we were done, his dirty brown mane and tail had turned the gorgeous, creamy reddish blond that I knew it was. He looked so handsome!
I gave his spine a stretch by pulling on his tail. Then it was time to put on his gear for his core strength leading exercises in the hourglass pattern in the outdoor arena.
He put up with my fussing to fit the surcingle…
…and obediently dropped his head when I put on the bridle and “Elbow Pull.”
I think he was glad we were finally able to go back out and work again after a few weeks of VERY cold temperatures. He has been having difficulty getting up and down, so I new he needed to get back to some moderate forced exercise. When he is left to his own devices, he tends to be somewhat of a couch potato.
He actually did better than I thought he would first walking down the road to the arena…
…and going through the gate to begin to execute the hourglass pattern balancing exercises.
It wasn’t that hard to get him to set up his feet with equal weight over all four feet…easier than the last time. Still, he is hesitant to fully weight the right hind foot. I believe this might be due to the soreness that he has developed from getting up and down. He has pretty tall side bones in that foot.
Roll is now 26 years old and although he cooperates, his mind does wander a bit like a “little old man’s” mind would! Still, when I call his name to remind him, he DOES come to attention!
After we did the hourglass pattern 1 ½ times each way, I slung the lead rope over his neck for the first time to see if he would follow me across the arena to the gate, stop, through the gate and down the road to the Tack Barn (Sorry, no photos – we shot video). He did excellent! I was so proud!
And when we got back, he obediently lowered his head again to get his bridle removed. He has truly changed dramatically in the eight years that I have had him. I can’t believe it has been that long! My how time flies when you’re having fun together…staying healthy!
After being off last week, Roll was more than happy to come with me today. The air was brisk with a bit of a breeze and Roll was even a little snorty walking up to the work station. We spent a good amount of time with the Goody hairbrush getting the undercoat loose and I then went over him with the shedding blade to get the excess on top. He was still shedding hair all over, so I decided to go ahead with the vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner serves a dual purpose: it pulls the remaining loose hairs from his coat while stimulating the capillaries to come to the surface of the skin. This increased circulation makes for an extremely soft and healthy coat. He still has a lot left to shed, but his hair now feels silky to the touch. I then put Roll in his surcingle, Eggbutt Snaffle bridle and “Elbow Pull” for his core muscle, postural leading lessons.
Roll practically pulled me down the alleyway to the dressage arena, but was very well behaved when we stopped to give Augie and Spuds a treat of oats. Roll was okay with sharing as long as I gave him more oats, too!
Roll and I then walked to the gate and he went through beautifully as always.
We marched along the pens and gave treats to all the mules who would be his audience.
Roll launched into the hourglass pattern on the lead rope with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He squared up easily, but was still reluctant to put all the appropriate weight on his right hind foot.
He kept an upright balance through the turns and was markedly better in balance over the ground rails.
He even trotted a bit along side of the pens once I got out in front of him, but when I asked him to trot back to the gate, he was too tired! The chiropractor had come out to see him last week and said that he was locked up in his right hip, so it may be he needs another chiropractic visit this week as well.
At any rate, I was pleased with his progress and even though he missed his lesson last week, he still did better than in prior weeks. The hind feet were no longer twisting after his trim on May 19th.
It may very well be that he can graduate to the round pen soon for bulk muscle building. His core is solid now and after his workout, he was much tighter in the abs and filled in nicely over his topline.
Roll is carrying just a little more weight than I would like to see, but he did look less obese after his lesson and when we begin the bulk muscle building, it should disappear rapidly as the fat evolves into muscle. At twenty-six, Roll is doing so much better than I ever would have expected given his questionable history.
Roll missed his exercises last week, so we thought we had better get out there today. Both of us were a bit tired of the arena, so we opted for a walk down the hayfield road. It was a rainy day and Roll had rolled in the mud, so we just did the hairbrush and shedding blade routine without the vacuum cleaner this time. Then we were ready to go.
Although he missed his exercises last week, he was still a bit better on the right hind foot. He did not want to put full weight on it, but I was sure he would do better after his walk in his core muscle building gear: the snaffle bridle with the dropped noseband, his surcingle and the “Elbow Pull” to make sure that the topline and abs would be engaged during the workout.
In the spring, we only turn out in dirt areas while the grass is growing. The equines will get turned out on grass on June 1st. This helps to maintain a nice stand of grass in all the turnout areas that will last all summer and into the fall. We never graze the equines on the hayfield pastures.
Contrary to popular belief, horse manure (or any manure that is not processed) will contain weed seeds and will contaminate the weed-free hayfields that we have managed to grow on 112 of our 127 ½ acres. There is an obvious size difference between us, but Roll is a gentleman and though he REALLY wanted to eat the grass, he still stuck to the routine as best that he could.
He did try to drag me off the road and over to the grass, but I just planted my feet, pulled on the lead rope as his right foot was coming forward and redirected him back down the road.
He was so good that I decided to let him have a bite and we then continued on down the road. We walked about a half mile out and back.
On the way back, Roll was breathing a bit hard, so I know he put his heart and soul into his exercise yet again. What a great guy! When he got back, he was fully weighting the right hind.
The “Elbow Pull” is a self-correcting restraint that encourages the equine to use his entire body to go forward in a relaxed and correct postural frame. It promotes the stretching and strengthening of the topline and results in the hind legs coming well under to support the body and to keep the hind quarters (motor) providing active impulsion. In the “before” pictures, the equines are simply moving their front and back legs underneath the torso, but the torso is not really moving due to inactivity in the rib cage muscle groups. In the “after” pictures, you see that the equine posture has dramatically changed and now produces an active and “rippling” effect throughout the rib cage muscle groups (which can be seen in the moving videos). This is the basic difference between a really good dressage prospect and one that might be passed over.