MULE CROSSING: Donkey Training, Part 9

By Meredith Hodges

Perfecting Lateral Techniques

You have introduced your donkey to some lateral techniques both in the arena and over obstacles, and you are perhaps discovering that he is a lot better at some things than he is at others. You might find that he quits trying and goes through the bridle, going straight instead of laterally. You must understand that lateral work is very taxing for your donkey’s muscles and will tire him quickly. When he gets tired, he will “run through the bridle” and refuse to move laterally. This will usually happen at the trot, but rarely at the walk. If you find your donkey behaving in this manner, it is best to go to walk and perform only one correct lateral move, then end the lesson there and resume it on another day when he is rested. Lateral work should really be done only once or twice a week at most. There should be at least three days between lateral sessions.

This lesson will teach you some lateral exercises under saddle that will help your donkey be more responsive laterally. Up to this point, we have been schooling what is called leg yields, or lateral moves, on an angled track. We have begun movements to introduce the side-pass, which is a lateral move, only straight sideways. This is even more difficult for your donkey than the leg yields, since it requires a higher degree of crossing over from his legs. You may have found difficulty in negotiating the side-pass obstacles previously mentioned. First, check to make sure that the placement of your side-pass rail near the fence is correct. It should be about three quarters of your donkey’s length from the fence and lay parallel to the fence so that when he stands with his nose six inches from the fence, the ground rail lies directly under the middle of his barrel, equal distance from the front and rear legs. When you lay out the “T” poles, there must be room for him to swing his shoulders or haunches around to the next pole without touching them. If these steps are done correctly, it should minimize any problems. While ground-driving your donkey, your assistant can help steady him from the front. After some repetition, he should begin to comply easily.

In the beginning, when riding your donkey over these obstacles, your assistant can help to “show” your donkey what is expected, but then you are on your own. Using the next four exercises will help to clarify lateral moves to your donkey and make them easier for him to negotiate.

Begin on the rail and spiral down to a smaller circle in three revolutions. Then leg-yield back to the larger circle. The first you will do is the spiral, as described before, with just a few modifications. Begin at the trot on a large circle and spiral down gradually to a smaller circle. When your donkey is losing momentum, slow to the walk and spiral down to the smallest circle he is able to do. Keep him walking and begin to spiral back out, using your reins and legs to move him more sideways back onto the larger circle. Use your crop at his shoulder and hip to encourage him to move more sideways at the walk. Do it this way a few times. Once he understands what is expected, you can pick up the trot as the circle becomes larger and yield at the trot to the largest circle. Each time he finishes the cycle, remember to reward him for his efforts. When he is performing well at the walk and trot, we can vary this pattern just a little more. Ask him to canter the larger circle while you begin to spiral down. At about the halfway point, ask him to slow to trot and finish the spiral as small as he can manage at the trot; then start spiraling back out to the larger circle. At the halfway point, pick up the canter and finish onto the largest circle. You can ask him to move laterally at the canter by cueing him as he is in suspension. In others words, when his front legs are out in front, he is on the ground and you would give the release on your reins and legs; when his front legs come back toward you, he is in suspension and you would pull back on the reins and squeeze with your legs. To get the sideways movement, you would pull back ever so slightly harder on the rein in the direction of travel, while maintaining the bend with a steady inside rein. This movement requires timing and coordination and will take a lot of practice, so don’t get discouraged. Just keep trying and you will soon get the right results.

The next exercise is to side-pass the donkey along the fence line. This is just like the ground pole by the fence, only without the pole. Walk along the rail and, as you come out of the corner on the short side, put your donkey at a 45-degree angle to the rail with a partial turn on the forehand. Then ask him to maintain the angle all the way down the long side of the arena. Bend him away from the direction of travel. Keep the inside rein slightly shorter and steady, while giving tugs and releases on the outside rein and kicking him behind the girth on the inside. If he moves his shoulders and not his haunches, hold the front steady, move your leg way back on the inside and kick again, asking him to move his haunches over. Then he will probably move his haunches and not his shoulders, at which point you can keep the haunches steady by locking them between your two legs, well back behind the girth. Then you can move his front quarters sideways by holding the inside rein steady and shorter, pulling and releasing the outside rein in the direction of travel, while tapping him on the inside shoulder with the crop to encourage the movement. In the beginning, you may find yourself going down the rail first haunches, then shoulders, then haunches and so on, but if your persist, he will eventually get it. You need to be alert to when he does respond correctly and lighten your cues so he knows he is performing correctly. And of course, reward him often to let him know that he has done it correctly. Nothing works better than positive reinforcement!

The next exercise is to leg-yield your donkey from the corner of the arena to the center of the hourglass pattern. Do it just as you practiced it before—make a circle at the second cone and stop him, move his hindquarters parallel to the rail, then ask him to move sideways and forward to the center gate cones. When you arrive at the cone gate, straighten him, walk forward a couple of steps, then finish that side of the hourglass in a straight walk, then trot as he becomes more proficient. When you have completed half of the hourglass, you can go on to the next second cone on the short side of the arena and repeat the exercise. Just remember to stop and reward him for each half of the hourglass. As he learns, you can go longer between rewards. In the next exercise, you will go through the hourglass as usual, but when you reach the cone gates, you will circle around towards the rail, stop at the cone gates, move his hindquarters over and yield from center to corner. When he reaches the corner the first few times, stop and reward him then continue around to the center from the other side and repeat. As before, reward him for each completed move in the beginning. As he gets better, you can start rewarding him less often after completed successions. Always begin by walking until there are absolutely no problems, then he is ready for these exercises at the trot. Any time the trot goes awry, go back and school at the walk again. If he gets too strong with you, you may have to ask him to back a few steps before proceeding. Just make sure that if you ask him to back, you do it slowly, kindly and meticulously.

These exercises should help to improve your donkey’s negotiation of all kinds of different lateral movements and will greatly improve his side-passing ability. But remember, always take things slowly and build one thing upon another. Don’t do anything any faster than you can do it right. You are not only negotiating movements and obstacles; you are also conditioning your donkey’s muscles and tendons to perform properly and strengthening them while in motion. So you’d better do it correctly, or you could cause extreme soreness, crookedness and other side effects that will inhibit his performance and affect his overall health. Be kind to your donkey and he will reciprocate!

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


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