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By Meredith Hodges
Imprinting is defined as “rapid learning that occurs during a brief receptive period, typically soon after birth or hatching, and establishes a long-lasting behavioral response to a person or object as attachment to a parent or offspring.” 1 When we speak of “imprinting” in the scientific sense, it is a reference to the way the brain accepts input. The brain compartmentalizes impressions and images, and the animal reacts to the stimulus that the image produces. A collection of “imprints and images” produces memories. Imprinting training with a foal of any breed will give him a jump-start on his life with human beings.
Imprinting is more than getting your foal used to people. He’s going to spend the rest of his life with human beings, so he should get used to your touch, your voice, your smell and, especially, your handling of him. Handling your foal the minute he is born is a wonderful way to bond with him, and you will learn how he likes to be touched in order to produce a positive response. This early imprinting lays a foundation of trust for the training to follow.
Although it is commonly accepted that initial imprinting on the foal’s brain occurs only during a brief receptive period when initial contact is made during the first few days of life, it does provide a foundation on which to expand exposure to a human being through your foal’s five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight that leave impressions on the equine brain and will affect the way he interacts with a handler beyond what his dam may teach him. If the initial contact with humans leaves a positive impression, a foal will be more likely to be curious about humans than afraid of them. Because of this early contact, continuing imprinting then becomes an ongoing process that builds on the initial imprinting that is introduced at birth.
A calm, well-mannered mother helps produce a well-mannered foal, so if your mare or jennet is not easy to handle, she needs imprint training before the foal is born. Mares, and particularly jennets, can become very aggressive in defense of their offspring, so it is advisable to imprint even a mature mare or jennet so she will be safe to be around when she finally foals.
When imprinting your foal, think about the kind of adult you want him to be. A foal is very similar to a human baby regarding emotional needs—both need attention, love, guidance and praise to become loving, cooperative adults. Start your relationship with a positive attitude and approach your foal with love, patience, kindness and respect. Be sure to set reasonable boundaries for his behavior through the way you touch him and speak to him, the facial expressions you use, and even how you smell when you are around him so he can learn to trust and respect you and be happy at the sight of you.
It doesn’t matter if your equine is a young foal or an older animal—he needs imprint training. It will set the stage for the way he relates to humans for the rest of his life. Imprinting stimulates all of his five senses: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. This leaves an indelible impression on your equine’s brain as to how you expect him to behave, which—over time and with repetition—becomes his new natural way of responding.
The most important sensation to which you can expose your equine is touch. If your touch is gentle and considerate, it will feel good to him and he will be interested in your attention. When you run your fingers over his body, being careful not to press too hard on sensitive areas, he will experience pleasure and begin to look forward to your visits. Learning how your equine likes to be touched will also help things go more smoothly when you begin grooming him and tacking him up and during his training lessons, when he must learn to take his cues from your hands, legs and other aids. Even how you mount and sit down in the saddle—for instance, how your seat is placed on his back—denotes your consideration of him through touch. The wrong kind of touch, no matter how slight, can be a trigger for adverse behaviors. However, the right kind of touch—done correctly—produces pleasure in your equine and instills a willingness to perform in a positive way each time you interact with him.
To begin imprinting training, run your hands all over your equine’s body and down his legs, and put your hands in his mouth and in his ears. His reactions will help you learn how he likes to be touched. Getting your equine used to touch in this way eventually evolves into exposing him to grooming and working with tack and equipment. You are continuing to build on the initial imprinting work, but now, when you are grooming, the grooming tools will become extensions of your hands, and when you introduce various tack and equipment like clippers, they will also become an extension of your hands. Allow your equine to use his sense of touch (usually with his nose) when introducing any new object. Work toward getting your equine’s response to your touch as highly sensitive as possible, so that he can use his own body language to communicate with you. NOTE: Many owners pat their equine on the top of the head with the flat of their hand as a sign of affection, without realizing that, as a rule, most equines don’t take kindly to people patting their foreheads or faces. A pat on the forehead works if you want to distract your equine, but save it for that purpose only. It is much better to show affection by stroking your equine (always in the direction in which his hair lies), in a soothing and reassuring manner.
The tone of your voice is another important element of imprinting. If your general tone is soothing and encouraging, he is more likely to comply. Then, when he needs to be disciplined, the change in your tone of voice will convey your disapproval before you even have to touch him to make a correction—giving him the opportunity to straighten up before you actually need to apply the physical backup of negative reinforcement. If, no matter what the situation, you always speak in low tones, he will not be able to differentiate between what’s acceptable and what is not, but if you modulate your voice to clearly express what you want to convey, your equine will be much better able to understand and react appropriately.
Equines have an excellent sense of smell—for instance, they can smell danger from miles away. They can also smell people, and they are much more likely to warm up to a person who smells “good” to them. Smelling good to an equine has nothing to do with soaps or perfumes or deodorants. Oats and hay are smells that all equines immediately recognize and love, so if you dole out oats rewards correctly and you actively participate in the feeding and care of your equine, you will mostly smell like crimped oats throughout lessons, making you VERY attractive to your equine!
The next sense to which you should appeal is your equine’s sense of taste (a no-brainer). When you dispense the oats reward for all of his new positive behaviors, he associates that wonderful taste with you and will follow you to the ends of the earth to get more oats.
When the equine’s five senses are truly pleased, the very sight of you will prompt the memories and impressions on his brain that you have instilled in him during imprinting. The impression you have left with him is positive, encouraging, kind, considerate and respectful, and his reactions to you will also be positive and willing.
As you begin your equine’s imprinting, make sure you include an equal measure of fun. As with children, if you make learning fun, it comes more easily. By encouraging your young foal or older equine’s enthusiasm for learning, you’ll cultivate and enhance your equine’s desire to please and to serve.
Imprinting training is truly an ongoing learning experience. When touching a newborn foal, keep in mind that the foal is coming out of the protected environment of the womb, where he’s had pressure from the amniotic fluid over his entire body. Suddenly, he’s born into an entirely foreign environment and, soon after, a human appears out of nowhere and begins touching him. Initially, this is like being tickled all over, so at this point, imprinting serves as a desensitization technique to human touch. Desensitization doesn’t mean you want your equine to become totally desensitized to you—just that you don’t want him to jump out of his skin every time you touch him. Always strive for a positive interaction between you and your equine.
Pay attention to the way your equine’s hair lays and stroke his coat in that direction only. There is more fatty tissue down the neck and over the back, so you can press a little harder when touching these areas. Going with the hair and using the flat of your hand, learn to gauge how much pressure you can apply to the fatty areas. Then, as you work your way down to where the fatty tissue becomes thinner, be sure to ease up on the pressure over the bony areas.
Always keep an eye on your equine and watch his face—he’ll let you know if he is experiencing pleasure or displeasure. If you observe wrinkling around his mouth, if his ears are laid back flat or if he stomps a foot, he is showing displeasure. A soft eye, a relaxed, contentedly chewing mouth and an absence of tension in his body denotes pleasure. So when you are engaged in training, pay special attention to your equine’s body language and adjust your own touch accordingly.
Work on evolving your own body language as a natural and truly wonderful way to “talk” with your equine. You can also use verbal language, but body language should be your primary form of communication.
Making use of your equine’s five senses to expand the meaning and benefit of imprinting can really work in your favor and will leave an indelible impression on your equine’s brain that will engage his attention and expedite the learning process. The result will be a deep and meaningful relationship with your equine not just now, but for the rest of his life.
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.
© 2013, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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.
© 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
It is important to know the differences among rewards, treats, coaxing and bribing in order to correctly employ the reward system of training called Behavior Modification.
Rule Number One: Treats and bribery should never be used during training. However, the appropriate dispensing of rewards and coaxing will produce the correct behaviors.
In order to reward your equine correctly for performing tasks, it is important to know the difference between a reward and a treat, and between coaxing and bribing. Let’s begin with some basic definitions of these terms:
Reward: something desirable given for a completed task
Treat: an unexpected gift given simply because it will be enjoyed
Coax: to gently persuade without dispensing the reward
Bribe: to persuade the animal by indiscriminately dispensing treats
Remember to give your equine a reward only after a specific task you’ve asked for has been performed—or even an assimilation of that task, which means the taking of baby steps toward completing the task. The reward should be given immediately upon completion of the task and then your equine should be allowed time to enjoy his reward before moving on to the next task. If your equine is given a food reward for only good behaviors, he will be more likely to continue to repeat only those behaviors for which he is rewarded and you can begin to “shape” his behavior in a positive way.
Treats, on the other hand, are a food that your equine especially likes, which are given randomly and without purpose. Giving random treats during training can result in crossed signals and confusion in your animal. Treats such as peppermints and even “horse treats” are generally an inappropriate food source for equines and when dispensed too freely, have actually been known to cause equine health problems, so forego treats of any kind during the training process.
Coaxing and bribing can seem like the same thing, but they are not. Bribery suggests the actual dispensing of a reward before the task has been completed. Bribery is the indiscriminate dispensing of treats and is not the way to clearly communicate to your equine which is truly a positive behavior and which is not. Rewards and coaxing are often confused with bribery, but rewards are dispensed for a task only when it has been completed, and coaxing using the promise of a reward can often be used to help your equine to stop balking and attempt to perform the task you have requested. Then the reward is given only when he has completed the task.
As an example of coaxing, you can extend a handful of crimped oats to lure your equine closer to an obstacle, but he should not receive the handful of oats until he completes the required task or travels enough distance toward the obstacle to deserve a reward. If your equine just won’t come all the way to an obstacle, even to get a reward, you can modify the task by asking your equine to just come closer to the obstacle and then halt (but without backing up). Then the reward can be dispensed for the partial approach and halt, because these actions still qualify as an assimilation of the bigger task that is to be completed. If he backs away at all, he should not be rewarded and you will have to go back to the beginning of the task and try again.
A kind word or a pat on the head may be enjoyable for your equine, but it doesn’t necessarily insure that the desired behavior will be repeated. However, a food reward insures that desirable behaviors will be repeated, because food is a solid, tangible reward. The food reward will back up the petting, (the petting is something that you probably do all the time anyway). When you visit your equine, you most likely pat him on the nose or head and say hello, but there are no real demands for any particular task being asked of your equine—you and your equine are simply interacting. You’re getting him used to touch, discovering how he likes to be touched and learning about his responses, which is actually part of imprinting.
The problem with carrots, apples and other foods people use for treats is that they’re not something for which the equine will continue to work and are not healthy choices for your animal in large quantities. After a limited amount of time, equines can easily become satiated on most treats. It’s like a kid with a bunch of candy bars. Once they become full they don’t want any more candy and they’ll stop working for the treat. Many foods used as treats, when given too freely, may also cause your animal to become tense or hyperactive. However, it’s been my experience that an equine will continue to work for crimped oats as long as you dole them out. Crimped oats are healthy for the body and they don’t cause an equine to become tense and difficult to handle.
When you’re using rewards, always start with lavish rewards for all new behaviors. This means that, every time you teach something new, you’re going to give lavish rewards for even the slightest assimilation toward the correct behavior. For instance, if your foal is tied to the fence and upon your approach, he quits pulling, it’s time to try to walk away from the fence with him and see if he will follow you. In this first leading lesson, you’ll untie him and ask him to take a step toward you. If he does, lavishly reward that step toward you, wait for him to finish chewing his oats and then ask him to take another step forward and toward you. If he complies and takes another step forward, lavishly reward that step too. During the first lesson, you will be rewarding every single step he takes toward you. Remember to keep the lesson short (about 15 minutes) and ask for only as many steps as he willingly gives you.
Between lessons, let your equine have a day off in order to rest. When you return for the second lesson, tie him to the fence and review with him your last lesson from the very beginning. He should remember the previous lessons and be willing to follow you right away in order to be rewarded. If he seems willing to follow your lead, untie him and ask him to take a step forward just as he did before, but this time, instead of dispensing the food reward when he takes the first step forward, simply say, “Good boy” and ask him for a second step forward before you reward him with the oats. You will now be progressing from one step forward before you reward to two steps forward before you reward.
If he won’t take the second step forward, then give the reward for the first step, wait for him to finish chewing and ask again for two steps before rewarding him again. If he complies, you can then reward him every two steps during that lesson and quit after fifteen minutes. Give him another day between lessons and then proceed in the same manner, beginning with a review of the previous lesson, then a reward for the first step, and then for every two steps. During this lesson, you can now ask for three steps, and you can continue asking for three or more steps during this lesson, provided that he takes these steps willingly and then stops obediently on his own to receive his reward. You no longer need to count the steps as long as he is offering more steps between rewards each time. If, because of his enthusiasm, he begins to charge ahead, stop him and immediately reward him for halting. This will insure that he keeps his attention on you and the task at hand. This methodical, deliberate process is setting the stage for a positive and healthy working relationship with your equine.
This is how you begin with leading training, and also how you should proceed with all the new things that you will be teaching your equine. In the beginning of leading training, he gets rewarded for even an assimilation of what you’re asking. For example, when you get to negotiating obstacles, your goal may be to cross over a bridge, but when your equine sees the bridge ahead, he may stop or start backing up. At this point, allow him to back until he stops. Go back and repeat the steps you did prior to approaching the obstacle. Then, asking for only one step at a time, proceed as you did during his flatwork leading training toward the bridge, rewarding each step he takes. Tell him verbally how brave he is and continue to reward any steps he takes toward the obstacle before proceeding forward. Remember to stop at any interval where he becomes tense, ask for one more step to be rewarded, and then allow him to settle and refocus before asking any more from him.
Once he goes to the bridge without a problem, you no longer have to reward him all the way up to the bridge. Just reward him when he actually gets to the bridge. Next, step up onto the bridge and ask him to take a step up onto the bridge with his two front feet, which is another new task. If he puts one foot on the bridge or even tries to lift up a foot and put it on the bridge, make sure you reward that behavior. Once he has a foot firmly placed on the bridge, keep tension on the lead rope and ask for his other front foot to come up onto the bridge. If he places his second foot on the bridge, you can then reward him for having both front feet on the bridge. Next, you’re going to continue forward and just walk over the bridge to the other side, pause and reward. Then quit this lesson. In his next lesson, if needed, repeat the approach the same way if he starts to balk. If not, ask him to step both front feet up onto the bridge, stop, make sure he is standing squarely, and reward that behavior.
Now you no longer need to reward for one foot on the bridge. This is called “fading or phasing out” the reward for a previous behavior (one step), while introducing the new behavior of walking to the bridge, halting and then putting two front feet up on the bridge. Wait for a moment for him to chew his reward and then ask him to continue onto the bridge, stop and square up with four feet on the bridge and reward. If he does not comply and won’t stop on the bridge, just go back to the beginning, approach the bridge as described and try again until he stops to be rewarded with all four feet placed squarely on the bridge
Then you ask him, to place his two front feet on the ground while leaving his two back feet on the bridge. Then have him stop and square up to be rewarded. This is a difficult position and if he cannot succeed by the third attempt, you may have to step in front and aid in his balance, then reward him when he settles in this position.
The last step over the bridge is to bring the hind feet off the bridge, stop and square up one more time before he gets rewarded. This does two things. It causes your equine to be attentive to the number of steps you are asking and it puts him in good posture at each stage so that his body will develop properly. In future lessons, the steps in the approach to the bridge no longer need to be rewarded and as he becomes more attentive, he will learn to stop any time you ask and wait for your cue to proceed. After several months of this meticulous attention to these detailed steps, he will not necessarily need to be rewarded with the food reward each time—a pat on the neck and kind words of support should be sufficient. Rewards can then be given for whole “blocks” of steps when he successfully completes them.
Here is a question a lot of people ask: “This is fine while my animal and I are still working from the ground, but what happens when I finally get on to ride? Do I keep rewarding every new behavior when I ride?” The answer to that question is, “No, you don’t.” If you do your ground work correctly, it will address all the things that you’ll be doing while you’re riding before you actually even get on. Your equine has been lavishly rewarded for stopping when you pull on the reins and the drive lines, and he’s been rewarded for turning and backing and everything else he needs to learn before you actually get on him, so the only thing left to get used to would be exposure to your legs on his sides. He will soon learn that your legs push him in the direction of the turn you are indicating with your reins. For this action, he does not need to be rewarded.
In the natural progression of correct training—including during mounting training—your equine should also be getting rewarded when you’re first getting him used to your being on-board. Give him the oats reward for standing still while you attempt to mount (i.e., walking toward him, holding the left rein and reaching for the saddle horn), and then when you hang from each side of his body with a foot in the stirrup (first on one side and then on the other side), and, finally, from each side of his body while you sit on his back. When you ask him to turn his head to take the oats from your hand, you can be sure his attention will be on you because this action will force him to look at you in order to receive his oats. Then reward him again for standing still as you dismount. Consequently, by the time you actually get to the point of riding in an open arena, he’s been rewarded for having you on his back and for behaving well through all the exercises demanded from him during round pen training.
You may first want to lunge your equine when you move into the open arena. Lunge him on the lunge line and reward him during that part of your arena workout. When you are ready to mount in the open arena, have a few oats in your pockets to offer him when you mount on each side the first few times. This will ensure that his attention stays focused on you. Once he is used to being ridden, you will no longer have to reward him in the middle of riding lessons. If he does not keep his attention on his work in the open arena, this signifies that not enough time has been spent on the ground work and you should back up your training regimen to the point that he is maintaining attentiveness and performing correctly, even if it means going back to the round pen or leading work. If, in the ground work stages, you give plenty of food rewards in the correct manner, by the time you groom and tack up, your equine should have been sufficiently rewarded and will not require another reward until after your workout when you return to the work station and un-tack him. This is called delayed gratification. When you un-tack him and do your last minute grooming before putting him away, again be generous with the crimped oats and praise your equine for a job well done. Rewards are dispensed very specifically and pave the road to a solid foundation of trust and friendship.
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.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Just how sensitive is a mule about having his ears touched? If a mule is handled often and properly, he should be no more sensitive about his ears than he is about any other part of his body. However, if he is rarely handled, mishandled or handled roughly, he can become quite sensitive about any part of his body and in particular, his ears. Bearing this in mind, take the time to desensitize your mule to touch and handling by paying attention to how he likes to be touched in any given area, and then by being polite about handling those more sensitive areas. This is an important part of any training program, both for general management and for safety purposes. This is the heart of imprinting.
The mule that has an aversion to having his ears handled poses a problem with management convenience, but more than that, he can be a safety hazard in many situations. Here are some examples of lack of desensitization causing inconvenience and possibly, a dangerous situation. Inconvenient: Your mule does not want his ears touched, so you have to disassemble his bridle each time you put it on him. Dangerous: Should you accidentally touch his ears while putting the bridle on him, he could possibly thrash his head around and knock you silly! Inconvenient: If you get into a difficult spot on a trail where you have to dismount and move quickly, you may be unable to take the reins over your mule’s head in order to safely lead him. Dangerous: While you try to get the reins over his head without touching his ears, your mule could inadvertently knock you down or lose his balance and fall down while trying to avoid you. The moral is this: If your mule is to be a completely safe riding animal, he must be appropriately desensitized all over his head and body—including his ears—and trust that you will not harm him.
Desensitization should be humane and considerate—never abusive. When we say we want to desensitize an animal, it simply means that we want him to become accustomed to touch and handling all over his body, particularly in areas such as his head, legs and rear quarters, where he is apt to be the most sensitive. An animal that has not been politely desensitized will tend to react more violently to touch. When properly teaching your mule to become desensitized, your touch should be presented in a pleasurable way, so that your mule not only learns to tolerate it, but to actually enjoy it and look forward to it. An old-time method such as “sacking out” is a somewhat crude technique that is used to desensitize an animal by tying the mule in a corner where he cannot flee, and then flinging a tarp or large canvas all over his body, including the head. Often times, it creates more problems than it can solve because it is rarely done politely. A mule that has been “sacked” about the head can actually become more sensitive because this inconsiderate approach teaches him that humans cannot be trusted. He perceives that they will fling things over his head, blinding him and causing him anxiety for no apparent reason. The mule will stand still only because he cannot move, but if he is given the opportunity to flee or fight back, he will more than likely do so. Thus, the old “obstinate mule” myths are actually most often the result of some fault of the trainer, and not the mule. Sacking out more politely will eliminate these kinds of potential bad habits.
Desensitizing a mule that is sensitive about his ears is a long-term process. First, you must maintain a firm, quiet and tolerant attitude. Nothing your mule does should make you angry enough to lose your temper or your patience. Make sure your mule is tacked with a stout, non-breakable halter and rope. While stroking his nose in a polite and soothing manner, ask your mule to come forward, one step at a time, to a stout hitch rail. If he won’t come easily, just snub your lead on the hitch rail so he cannot go backwards, and keep coaxing him forward until he comes. Take up the slack with each step and then hold until he takes another step forward toward the hitch rail. Wait as long as it takes for him to gain confidence enough to come forward. Do not get into a pulling or pushing match with him—you will only create resistance in him and perpetuate avoidance behaviors—and he will win because he is stronger and he weighs more!
When his nose is finally up to the rail, run your lead around the post and come through the noseband on his halter and around the post again. Then tie him off snugly, so that his nose is tied as closely as possible to the hitch rail, making sure there is no slack. Now begin softly stroking your mule’s nose, using gentle yet firm strokes. Next, work your way up his forehead, and finally toward his ears. NOTE: Remember to use soft, gentle yet firm strokes, going with the grain of the hair and never against it. Do not “pat” your mule—it’s too threatening.
Let the tips of your fingers find the base of your mule’s ear (away from the open side) and stroke upward, toward the tip. At this point, he will probably thrash his head back and forth to avoid your touch—just remain slow, deliberate, reassuring and gentle about your approach. When he has allowed you to stroke the ear, even if for only a couple of seconds, leave your hand resting on the ear and use your free hand to feed him an oats reward. Don’t take your hand away from the ear until he is chewing calmly and no longer worried about your hand on his ear. Do this with each ear no more than one or two times each session and then go to his shoulder and work your hand in a massaging fashion over his neck, toward his ears. While your thumb cradles an ear, let your fingers move over his poll. With your thumb, gently stroke upward on the back of his ear, while leaving the rest of your hand over his poll. If he jerks away, just keep going back to the same position of thumb cradling the ear and fingers moving over the poll.
When he will tolerate this, you can then cradle the ear in your fingers and with your thumb, begin to gently rub upward on the inside of the edge of his ear. Do not go too deep into the ear at first. After he is calm with this, you can begin rubbing downward into the ear with your fingers, while cradling the ear in your opposite hand, being very careful not to go too deep. Watch his eyes and allow him to “tell” you how deep to go. If it feels good, his eyebrows will raise and flicker. If he doesn’t like it, he will simply jerk his head away and that is your cue to lighten up. Most mules love to have the insides of their ears rubbed, so find the areas inside your mule’s ear that actually give him pleasure. Each individual mule will be different.
In the next step, you will be in the same position, but you will close your hand around your mule’s ear and hold it with just enough pressure that he cannot jerk your hand loose. Do not hold too tight, grab or pull the ear—just maintain a quiet, gentle hold on the ear and go with his movement. If he pulls away, just slightly tighten your grip on the ear until he stops pulling and then lighten your grip again. Tighten only when he pulls away, and then immediately release when he stops resisting—tighten and loosen your grip as needed, and be sure to follow his movement. He will soon learn that if he doesn’t fight it, there is no discomfort. Never tightly grip his ear and do not tighten your grip any more than you need to in order to hold onto the ear—you never want to induce pain. Once your mule is tolerant of you holding his ear in this fashion, you can introduce the clippers, should you desire, using the same guidelines of tightening gently yet firmly when he pulls and releasing when he submits. However, introduce the clippers only after he has completely accepted you holding his ears.
Introduce the bridle by holding your right hand flat on the poll between your mule’s ears, and by using your left hand to raise the crown piece over his nose and up to his forehead. Slide your right hand down his forehead a little to meet your left hand. When your hands meet, transfer the crown piece into your right hand, insert the bit with your left hand, and then raise the crown piece up to the base of his ears. Slowly transfer the crown strap back to your left hand. Gently cup the fingers of your right hand around the base of his right ear. Now bend the ear forward and under the crown piece and slide it over your hand (and the ear) into its position behind the ear. While keeping your palm firmly on your mule’s poll, slowly move to the left ear and repeat the same movements.
The bridle should now be in place and you can reward your mule. Do not put on and remove the bridle any more than once per session. Your mule needs to clearly know that this is not just some annoying past time you have discovered, but an act of necessity. He will soon learn that if he cooperates, it won’t take too long. Once the bridle is on, get right to the business at hand and forget the ears for a while.
When you return with the difficult mule, tie him as before, stand directly in front of him (with the hitch rail between you) and gently remove the bridle with both hands lifting and sliding the crown piece over both of his ears simultaneously, so there is little pressure on his ears as it slides over them. If he still holds the bit in his mouth, hesitate for a minute when the bridle is off his ears and allow HIM to drop the bit. Removing the bridle this way will help to avoid chafing the ears and will avoid the bit hitting his teeth before you remove the bridle the rest of the way. Always removing the bridle in this fashion will encourage him to drop his head and will prevent bad habits such as pulling away or flinging his head.
When your mule gets used to having his ears handled and being bridled while snubbed and haltered, you can then begin dropping the halter and loosely tying him while he is being bridled. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks before you can drop the halter—this will vary depending on the individual mule, so just be patient. Your quiet, gentle perseverance will eventually win out and your mule’s ears will be desensitized and quite manageable. After you have mastered his outer ear and inner ear, you may find that your mule actually enjoys having his inner ear stroked or scratched, and bridling becomes easy. Integrating washing his face and cleaning his nostrils and ears during the grooming process should further help him to accept having his ears handled. Handling your mule’s ears can actually become a truly pleasurable experience for your Longears.
© 1992, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
With the hectic schedule of spring and summer slowly tapering into fall, thoughts of cool, refreshing mountain streams, the sight of a massive bull elk, or the quiet majesty of the rugged mountain peaks on a relaxing trail ride, mountain hunt or pack trip begin to ease their way into our minds. What better time to share with your mule or donkey? What better place for him to show you what he was born to do? A mountain trail ride or pack trip are both perfect ways for you to get to really know your Longears and strengthen the bond between you.
Mules are remarkably strong and durable animals, making them excellent mountain partners. The cupped shape of their hooves allows them to track the rough mountain terrain with much more surefootedness than their counterpart, the horse. A mule’s superior intelligence and strong sense of survival help him to carefully negotiate the placement of his feet, insuring the safest ride possible. This is both important and comforting to know when heading for the mountains. The mule’s strength and endurance are sometimes unbelievable, but always dependable. On a hunting trip, he will take you through rough mountain terrain for days then pack out the “elk of your dreams” with the greatest of ease.
Around the campfire, he is wonderful company on those lonesome mountain nights. His blatant curiosity can make for some fun—and funny— situations, and his loving ways will win your heart. But first and foremost, he is a reliable companion when the going gets tough.
A few years ago, some close muleskinner friends of mine decided to take a hunting trip into the Rocky Mountains. Packing in, the weather was beautiful with warm temperatures, calm breezes, and not a cloud in the sky. After setting up camp and tending to their horses and mules, the hunters set off tracking elk. Hunting was good, but after a few days, the evening brought with it an unpredictable snowstorm of incredible intensity. The hunters crawled from their tents the next morning to discover their camp buried in more than four feet of snow!
With no chance of the storm lifting, the hunters packed up what they could on their horses and mules and quickly got under way. Since time was of the essence, tents and much of their gear had to be left behind. As they left the campsite, the snow deepened and the terrain underneath was steep, rocky and treacherous. They had gone only a short distance when the snow became so deep and the terrain so hazardous that the horses refused to go one step farther. Anxiety was high when the horses could not blaze a trail out. The hunters were worried they wouldn’t make it off the mountain alive.
In the face of this great danger, my friend asked his trusted mule, Goliath, to break trail for the others. With slow, careful, deliberate steps, this well-trained, loyal mule led them all down the mountain to safety. Once there, they freed their trucks and trailers, which were buried in snow, loaded them up, and made their way back to the lowlands to safety. The storms on the mountain worsened and it was spring before the hunters could return for the rest of their gear, but they were eternally grateful to Goliath the mule for leading them safely down the mountain!
There are many stories like this one, where mules and donkeys have emerged as heroes in precarious situations. However, if you prefer not to take risks like my hunter friends, there are other less daunting activities you can enjoy with your donkey or mule.
Why not take your longeared companion along to the mountains for a hike or a picnic? He would thoroughly love just being with you in those beautiful surroundings. While you walk the trails, enjoying the marvels of nature, your donkey or mule can carry the lunch essentials. While you enjoy the wildflowers or try your hand at fishing a mountain stream, you can be confident that your Longears will enjoy the peaceful solitude and be able to stay out of serious trouble at the same time.
If you question taking excursions such as these with your longears because of a lack of training, there are fellow Longears lovers who can help you. All over the United States, excellent mule trainers are available to help beginners. A Longears lover once told me that his love for burros and mules began years ago when he found Dusty, a three-month-old wild burro caught in a blizzard. He took her home and cared for her, and, a year later, he entered her in the National Western Fall Classic Donkey and Mule Show. He and Dusty were awarded the title of Reserve Champion Donkey of the Show! Ever since, he has sought to help others enjoy Longears and horses in any way he can. In addition to breaking and training wild mustangs at his Medicine Bow Stables, he has included free clinics for burro owners to teach them how to handle and care for their animals.
Getting proper training for your donkey or mule can only enhance your relationship with them and in turn, they will enrich your life. This fall, why not take the time to really get to know these remarkable animals by letting them share in the fun, be it hiking, hunting, packing, or picnicking. The life you enhance may be your own!
© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
The Work Station
It is important that your equine feels safe and comfortable in his surroundings. For this reason, you should use the same place each day to groom and prepare him for his lessons. In the beginning, use a small pen (approximately 400 to 500 square feet) that allows you access to your equine for imprinting, tying, leading and grooming, as described in DVDs #1 and #8 of my series, Training Mules & Donkeys (plus disc #9 when dealing with donkeys), and in Part 1 of Equus Revisited. All the while, you will also be teaching him good ground manners. Remember, routine fosters confidence and trust.
Once your equine has mastered tying and leading in the small pen, he can then move on to a designated work station where he will not only be groomed, but will also learn to accept tack in preparation for the round pen. This should be a place that has a good stout hitch rail and easy access to your tack and grooming equipment.
When working around your equine at the work station, pay special attention to his body language. If he becomes tense or skittish, acknowledge his concerns with a stroke on his neck, supportive words to him and a reward of crimped oats when he settles down. Always learn to wait for him to settle down before you proceed.
Don’t make too much out of unimportant details. For instance, if your equine is pawing the ground, don’t insist that he be still unless you need to approach him and do something specific with him. Many of your animal’s anxious behaviors get unintentionally rewarded by giving him too much attention, which can actually cause the behaviors to escalate. If you ignore pawing, cribbing, throwing of the head, pushing with the nose, stomping and other anxious behaviors, they will lessen over time, provided that you step in, ask him to stop and reward your animal, but only when he is being quiet.
Before you begin to groom your equine—whether you’re going to brush, vacuum or clip him—make sure you give him the time to figure out what you are going to do. He will exhibit his acceptance with a sigh, relaxation of his musclesor with a turn or dropping of the head. Once he has accepted the presence of the item to be used, such as a brush, vacuum or clippers, you can begin. Don’t forget to always start at the front and work your way back to the tail.
Keep an eye on the pressure you apply whenever using these various grooming tools. Different animals will have different sensitivity to these tools and will tolerate them better if they know you are not going to cause undue pressure or pain. Learn to brush the mane and tail starting at the bottom and working upward, and use a conditioner such as baby oil to keep from pulling or breaking the hair. (Baby oil will also keep other equines from chewing on the tail.) A shedding blade can be an uncomfortable grooming tool when used improperly. When using a shedding blade to remove mud around the head and ears and even on your animal’s body, be careful to minimize his discomfort by monitoring the pressure you apply to each area and working VERY slowly. When bathing him, be extra careful not to get water in his eyes or ears. These types of consideration for your equine’s comfort will help build his trust and confidence in you, and it will help make training easier and more enjoyable for both of you.
Tack and Equipment
In order to elicit the correct response from your equine, always make sure you are using the correct tack for whatever you are doing. If you are not sure about what tack to use when, go to the Lucky Three Ranch website for more detailed information, or ask the experts in your area. Make sure all tack and equipment fits your animal properly. If it doesn’t, it can cause adverse behaviors during training.
In the Round Pen
Once your equine is leading well in the small pen, he should be in consistently good posture with square halts, easily negotiating trail obstacles in the open and relatively relaxed while at the work station, he is ready to move to the round pen.
Once in the round pen, you will have an opportunity to assess your animal’s progress so you can begin work on balancing on the circle in good posture and conditioning the hard muscle masses in preparation for performance. The size of your round pen is important—45 feet in diameter is ideal. If it is any larger, as you will have difficulty reaching him with the lunging whip, which means you won’t be able to have enough control over him. If your round pen it is any smaller, it will interfere with your equine’s balance and ability to develop the right muscle groups. It should be made with relatively solid walls and be high enough so your animal cannot jump out. Your round pen can be made of a variety of different of materials, such as 2-inch by 12-inch boards and posts or stock panels. Never use electric fencing, pallets, tires or other non-solid materials. The ground surface should be a three- to four-inch–thick base of soft dirt or sand.
While working in the round pen, be aware of how your own body language and verbal commands elicit certain behaviors in your animal. If something isn’t working right, look to yourself and ask yourself what you might be doing to cause the adverse behavior you are seeing. Equines are very honest about their responses, and if they are not doing what you expect, it has to be in the way you are asking. Also, don’t hurry your equine. When asking for the walk, make sure that the walk is even in cadence, balanced and regular—not hurried. Only after your animal is correct in his execution of one gait, should you move on to the next gait. When first introduced to the round pen, it is not uncommon for an equine to begin work at the trot and then, as he becomes more comfortable with the new area, at the walk.
If you just let your equine go in an unrestricted frame, he can build muscle incorrectly, which will most likely cause problems later on. To be sure you are building muscle evenly throughout his body, in the correct posture and on both sides, use the “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint I devised, as described in DVD #2 of Training Mules & Donkeys.
As explained in DVD #1 of Training Mules & Donkeys, while you were doing passive exercises on the lead rope in the small pen, you were also building the core muscle groups that are closest to the bone. Now that you are in the round pen, you will begin to build your equine’s bulk muscle in strategic areas that will strengthen him and make carrying a rider or pulling a cart a lot easier for him. It will also minimize the chance for soreness or injury, as well as resistant behaviors. Keep sessions short, 30-40 minutes, and only every other day at the most. When muscles are exercised, they need to be stressed to a point just before fatigue, and then rested afterwards for one day before repeating. This is the correct and safe way to build muscle. Any other approach will cause fatigue and actually start deteriorating muscle tissue. Remember to use relaxation techniques and warm-up and cooling down exercises with your equine before and after every workout.
In the Arena
The arena is the place to really start focusing on forward motion and lateral exercises to further strengthen your equine, and it is the place to begin fine-tuning his balance while he is carrying a rider. The arena is also a good place for you to fine-tune your own riding skills, so that you learn to help your equine maintain good balance and cadence, on straight lines and while bending through the corners. In order for your equine to correctly go through the corners, you will be asking him to bend the muscles through his ribcage so he can remain upright and balanced. Equines are not motorcycles and should not lean around the corners. The power should always come from the hindquarters to keep the front end light, supple and responsive to cues. If his front end is heavy and sluggish, your equine is not adequately stepping underneath with his hind legs and will thus, lose forward impulsion and power and will not properly condition his muscles.
Open areas are good for stretching and relaxing at all three gaits. They can be used for negotiation of obstacles and to execute large flowing patterns. You can also practice stretching exercises, as described in DVD #5 of Training Mules & Donkeys. Then proceed to working on more collection on the short sides of the arena, and go back to stretching exercises again before you quit the lesson. The open areas allow for a wide variety of training exercises by giving you the space to use numerous patterns and obstacles. Try using cones to mark your patterns—this benefits both you and your animal by helping you both stay focused. An arena without cones is like a house without furniture.
As far as the open road and in traffic, these areas are forseasoned animals only, so please do not even consider using these areas to school your equine—the results could be disastrous! With the heavy traffic these days, it is really safest to avoid heavily traveled roads entirely. For a pleasureable experience, stick to areas where you and your equine will be safe and comfortable.
© 2004, 2005, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
“I dunno, Spuds, but this hairbrush sure feels good and it’s really getting out all that dead hair! Feels GREAT!”
“Okay, Augie, now that your mane is done, let’s do the rest of you.”
“Hmmmm…this tastes pretty good on a hot day!”
“You are so adorable, Augie! Love your cutesy face!”
“Yeah, Yeah! Give it a rest, Mom! This is embarrassing!”
“Of course, she WOULD throw us a curve! That is one HUMUNGOUS truck, Augie! Are you sure we’re okay?”
“Of course, we are! She would never ask us to do anything that would hurt us! She LOVES US!”
“I suppose you’re right, Augie!”
“It’s easy when you have core strength and flexibility, Spuds! Then you can BOTH get what you want!”
“Sure is smoky out here from the fires, Augie!”
“Yeah, but it’s nice to be out for another adventure!”
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.