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By Meredith Hodges
“Throughout history, mules and donkeys have been pegged as being stubborn and therefore stupid, but I have found just the opposite to be true. They are intelligent, sensitive animals, and they have a particularly strong survival instinct. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid danger or what they perceive as danger, and the process of training a mule or donkey is the process of earning their trust.”
—Meredith Hodges, internationally recognized mule and donkey training expert
When I began working with mules and donkeys, I quickly realized there would be no shortcuts to successful training. I steered clear of fads, trends and shortcuts and, instead, based my training program on Behavior Modification techniques developed by world-famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner over a century ago. For many years now, I have used these techniques to successfully train my own champion mules and donkeys, and I continue to share my method with millions of people through my books, an award-winning DVD series, multiple television shows, my comprehensive website and on Social Media.
The techniques presented here work well with not only mules and donkeys, but also with horses and any other trainable animals (and even humans). The program is designed to be resistance free, and the goal is—and always has been—to help people get the best performance and most enjoyment from their animals and to insure that the animal receives the best treatment possible.
Behavior Modification Basics
As a young adult I worked as a psychiatric technician at Sonoma and Napa State Hospitals in California, and the Behavior Modification techniques I learned at that time proved ideal for my later equine training purposes for two major reasons:
˚The system in which the trainer sets performance goals and rewards positive behavior leading to achievement of those goals encourages “good” behavior instead of using fear-inducing punishment to suppress “bad” behavior.
˚The step-by-step approach that builds gradually on learned skills gives the animal a sense of security and achievement that encourages trust and helps minimize resistance.
Animals, like humans, need a predictable routine in order to learn. Just as children progress through grade school, building on their knowledge with each successive grade, animals learn best when a solid foundation is laid for each new skill. By creating a logical program from the outset, we avoid the confusion that can lead to resistance.
These levels of achievement are at the heart of Behavior Modification as a training tool. Acceptable levels of behavior must be defined at each level of training, beginning with the simplest of expectations and working forward. At each level the animal must accomplish certain tasks, and each accomplishment must be acknowledged and reinforced. Also note that it is critical—especially if you are working with a mule or donkey—that you, the owner, participate in the training process. Mules and donkeys develop a strong bond with their trainer, and if they’ve learned from someone else, their performance for you may suffer in the long run. It is also advisable to consult with an experienced trainer in your area, and if you are working with my Training Mules and Donkeys training series, I am just a phone call away.
Everything we do, every behavior we choose, is based on an instinctual desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. Our choices reflect our experience. They are “reinforced” by the pain or pleasure they have given us in the past. Behavior Modification uses the same principles of positive and negative reinforcement with an emphasis on positive reinforcement.
In training, positive reinforcementis delivered in the form of rewards. We know that an equine, when rewarded for performing a certain task, will be willing to perform it again in anticipation of another reward. Note, however, that positive reinforcement is not bribery. The reward is not given as an inducement to perform the task, but as a reward for a task completed. The reward should be something the animal loves and will consistently work for, yet something that is nutritionally sound. In the case of equines, rolled or crimped oats work far better than rich snacks full of empty calories and are healthier for your equine.
Positive reinforcement also takes the form of verbal cues. When your animal performs the desired behavior, you should, simultaneously and with appropriate enthusiasm, say the word, “Good!” This works well when it isn’t possible to give a food reward right away. Clicker training, which has become a popular and effective means of audible reinforcement, is similar and applies the same concept. It’s immediate, it’s consistent, and it can be used with all mules, donkeys and horses to reinforce behavior. However, I feel that it is better to use your voice than a clicker, as the sound of your voice promotes engagement with your equine on a more intimate level, so your voice will yield better results than clicker training.
Negative reinforcement is used not to punish the animal but to encourage them to make a better choice. Negative reinforcement should be brief, to the point and used sparingly. It should never be of long duration or given arbitrarily. Negative reinforcement, such as a slap or a loud “No!” shouldn’t be used so often that it makes the animal unresponsive altogether. Remember that reinforcement by its very definition always strengthens behavior. Punishment is used to suppress behavior and may trigger other undesirable behaviors. B.F. Skinner himself said that positive reinforcement may take more patience, because the effect is slightly deferred, yet it can be as effective as negative reinforcement and has fewer unwanted residual behaviors. When you begin training, you will have to give a verbal and food reward every time the animal performs a desired response. Still, negative reinforcement is necessary to define boundaries.
As your equine learns certain behaviors, you can reinforce the learned behaviors less frequently and focus on frequently rewarding new achievements. Gradually, your animal will become satisfied with a verbal reinforcement for established behaviors, and he will comply for longer periods between food rewards. This shift from a predictable, or fixed, schedule of reinforcement to a variableschedule helps with skill progression. For example, in the transition from lunging when your animal was initially given a reward after each set of rotations in the round pen, to riding, he can eventually be ridden through his entire 30 to 40 minute session before receiving a reward.
Beware of the “delayed gratification” phenomenon, however. If your animal suspects that it will be too long before he receives a reward, he may be reluctant to even begin. Often a quick reward for a simple task at the beginning of a lesson is incentive enough to get him started. Also keep in mind that reinforcing too soon is ineffective. Your animal should be rewarded immediately after the correct behavior, not before. An animal rewarded too soon or too often can become aggressive and/or resistant to training. Remember, each of your own behaviors elicits a response from your animal. You must be meticulous in the way you ask your animal to perform, and always be aware of your own actions. In Part 2 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, I will explain how to break complex behaviors into small and simple steps to achieve the best results.
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.
© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Roll needed another core tune-up today, but every time we take him out, we need to document everything in photos and video. Normally we would work in the hourglass pattern, but we wanted better pictures than just the arena sand and fences so we decided to do some ground driving today in the 5-acre pasture instead.
I had to tighten the reins that were tied up to the surcingle because he thought it might be nice to just lower his head and graze…that was not in the program!
He was light in the bridle and easily maneuverable. I was glad to be able to walk behind and see how his rear end was moving. It was VERY wobbly from both hips and could not walk a straight line.
He will most definitely need more chiropractic work and massage going forward. I think regular core exercises are in order, once a week in order to build up his rear end bulk muscle again. We did a serpentine through the trees …
… and then left the field along the fence line to help him to stay straight. That should help to stabilize the rear, but he IS a 26 year-old with a very bad start to his life for the first 18 years, so I need to keep expectations realistic.
He lacked impulsion for the first part of the ground driving, but was beginning to engage the hind quarters a bit more and that added enough impulsion for him to go forward in a straighter line than he did at first as he traveled along the fence line.
Although I had tightened the reins coming from the bridle, Roll still managed to lower his head sideways and grab a few blades of the taller grass on the way out!!! He cracks me up!
He did remarkably better on the gravel road back to the Tack Barn. I did have to keep reminding him to keep his body straight, which he did very easily.
When we got back to the Tack Barn he drove right in and parked himself, squaring up upon my request through the lines. What a good boy!!!
By Meredith Hodges
Many have inquired as to the suitability of mules and donkeys for children. As with any equine, choosing the right individual for your child is of primary importance. However, as a general rule, we find that donkeys make excellent mounts for beginning riders because of their patient, quiet nature and good common sense. They can be the best possible babysitter. There are things to consider when choosing a donkey for your child:
The first rule to observe is never get a donkey jack for your child! Though he may be sweet and docile by nature, he is still governed by strong natural instincts so his character is not consistent. He is a stud and must be treated as such.
Donkey jennets are good prospects for children provided they are not in heat or in foal. When a jennet is in heat she may become cross and if she is in foal, or has one at her side, she is also governed by instinct for the protection and welfare of her offspring.
The best possible mount for a child is a donkey gelding. He possesses all the positive traits of the donkey without being subject to primitive instincts. Since most donkeys are small in size and possess an affectionate attitude, they make excellent companions as well as mounts for children.
Since a donkey can became quite stubborn when treated badly, it is important that you take the time to help your child and donkey get started properly. Even an untried donkey with proper help can be a wonderful mount for a child. In the first few weeks, the child and donkey should simply spend time getting to know one another. Teach your child the correct way to handle and groom the donkey. The personal bond between them will develop on its own.
When your child and donkey have developed confidence in each other, you can begin to teach them the fundamentals of riding. Tack up the donkey in a small saddle and snaffle bridle and take him into a small pen on the lunge line. Allow your child to sit astride the donkey as he walks around you. Explain to your child the basics of turning and stopping with a direct rein, commonly called plow reining. Be sure to instruct the child not to pull hard or jerk the reins. Donkeys have very sensitive mouths and do not respond correctly when they are in pain.
Teach your child to use verbal commands in conjunction with the reins and leg cues. When he wants to go forward for instance, tell your child to ask the donkey to walk. Tell the child to squeeze with his legs – don’t just kick. He should get the desired response. If the child wishes to turn, tell him to ask the donkey to “Haw” (left) or “Gee” (right). Instruct the child to pull gently on the direct rein and push the donkey into the turn with the opposite leg. When stopping, tell the child to first say “Whoa,” and then pull gently on the reins and sit deeper in the saddle to initiate the stop. When the donkey complies with the commands given, do not be afraid to reward him. He will be more than willing to perform the next time you ask him.
Love and caresses are an excellent reward and a reward of crimped oats certainly does no harm. Donkeys are very appreciative animals. If the child and donkey are supervised correctly, it can greatly enhance the entire riding experience. The donkey will protect your child with his excellent judgment and the child will learn to be a patient and understanding person through interaction with his donkey. The reason is simple; donkeys will not respond unless treated fairly. Many an equestrian in Great Britain has spent his early years astride a donkey and have become better riders because of it! So if your child expresses an interest in riding, consider starting with a donkey gelding, or maybe even a jennet. Besides being patient with children, his size is more suitable, he has ample strength to carry them and is an easy keeper so feed and vet bills can usually be kept at a minimum.
What of the suitability of a mule for child? As the mule is half donkey, he possesses many of the fine characteristics that make him suitable for children. But at this point I must caution you that he is also part horse and will generally get his disposition from the mare. So if you wish to get a mule for your child, be sure he is an individual with a quiet disposition. Then you can consider such things as size, color and other traits. The right mule can be just as good a babysitter as the right donkey, and usually more reliable than any horse!
Children and donkeys or mules, have not been seen together much in this country in the more recent past. Perhaps it is because we have not given children a chance to show their Longears publicly. Realizing this need, as in horse shows, youth classes have been included in the Longears shows of today to encourage our youth to take an active interest in the promotion of Longears. The jobs these “kids” are doing with their mules and donkeys are marvelous and their contributions are extensive. The values learned by children when dealing with donkeys and mules will stand them in good stead throughout their lives, not to mention the joy they will discover in having such a companion. So during this season of giving, consider making Longears a part of your life and give a homeless donkey, burro or mule a chance. Your child will welcome this affectionate and sensible companion. If you adhere to the guidelines I have given to you, you should not be disappointed.
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.
© 1985, 2016, 2018 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Wrangler has almost completely shed out and during my last weekly grooming, I discovered a small sarcoid on his left forearm and decided to consult with my veterinarian, Greg Farrand. Wrangler munched in the fanny pack while we talked.
Dr. Farrand Carefully inspected the sarcoid and determined that it was not a candidate for removal because of it’s precarious location. There was no way to grab loose skin around it like there was with prior sarcoids on other animals.
I shaved the area around the sarcoid so we could get a good look at it and so it would absorb the treatment the most efficiently.
In 2011, Rock had a sarcoid on his neck in front of the withers where there was a lot of fatty tissue and the skin was loose enough to pull the sarcoid away from the body. So, we shaved his neck and removed the sarcoid with surgery. We then had it biopsied to find it was not a serious sarcoid (Better to be safe than sorry!) and it eventually just went away. In the eighties, if we removed a sarcoid, it would have had a follow-up of injections to be completely rid of it. In the nineties, veterinarians discovered another way to treat sarcoids that involved taking a piece of the biopsied sarcoid and reintroducing it as an implant in the neck to prompt an immunity response. Before he could remove one of three sarcoids the from Lucky Three Eclipse, he rubbed one and tore it open. Before we had the chance to biopsy one of the sarcoids for an implant, as if a miracle, his immune system was stimulated by HIM, kicked in and all three sarcoids just disappeared…and no, they were not anything else.
Lucky Three Cyclonealso developed a sarcoid on his jaw which we successfully treated with surgery since it also was in a fatty area where we could pinch the skin around it easily. No follow up was necessary…just stitches removal.
Since Wrangler’s sarcoid was in such a delicate area, we opted to use a topical approach with Xterra, applied with a Q-Tip.
We will apply the Xterra once a day for a week, then stop for a week.
Then we will resume applying the Xterra for another week, stop after a week again and then see how it is progressing.
We will continue like this until it is gone. Xterra is surely a better way than the way we had to treat these in the eighties! Wrangler will be sure to keep you posted on his progress!
Massage for equinesis now used more often as an alternative or complementary healing process toward health and fitness.
Simple massage can prevent various injuries throughout your animal’s lifetime. Don’t wait for obvious injury to occur—preventive massage increases the length of the muscle fibers, taking pressure off the joints.
When the muscles are allowed to contract and expand to their full length, they are able to absorb important nutrients that reduce fatigue. Massage also increases blood flow, which helps the body flush harmful toxins, such as lactic acid, that build up from normal use.
Massage aids in reprogramming the nervous system to break patterns that can cause atrophy or knotted tissue. If you are unsure as to the severity of an injury, consult your vet!
At Lucky Three Ranch, I have found that therapeutic equine massage promotes relaxation and reduces stress. It also stimulates healing after an injury and provides significant relief from pain as it did when Roll had White Line Disease in 2016-17.
Massage can reduce muscle spasms, and greater joint flexibility and range of motion can be achieved through massage and stretching—resulting in increased ease and efficiency of movement.
Always be aware of your animal’s reaction to pressure and respond accordingly. Watch his eyes and ears. As you work look for signs of sensitivity toward the affected area such as biting, raising and lowering the head, moving into or away from pressure, contraction of muscles from your pressure, tossing his head, swishing his tail, picking up his feet, changes in his breathing or wrinkles around his mouth.
If your animal is heavy in the bridle, if he tips his head to one side, or if he has difficulty bending through the neck, he is exhibiting stiffness in this area.
If he moves away, he is telling you that you are exerting more pressure than he can comfortably endure, and you should go back to using your fingertips.
A raised head and perked ears may indicate sensitivity. He is asking for lighter pressure, so learn to pay attention to the things your animal tells you about his body.
Massage therapy should never be harmful. For the sake of safety and comfort, do not attempt massage therapy for rashes, boils, open wounds, severe pain, high fevers, cancers, blood clots, severe rheumatoid arthritis, swollen glands, broken bones, direct trauma or if there is any chance of spreading a lymph or circulatory disease, such as blood poisoning. Avoid direct pressure on the trachea.
It is easiest to find sore spots and muscles when your animal is warmed up, so after a ride is a good time to do massage therapy and passive range-of-motion exercises.
Each time you ride, take the time to quickly go over your animal and assess his sensitive areas: check his range of motion to detect stiffness in the joints. Paying this kind of attention to his body will enhance his athletic performance and provide him with a wonderfully relaxing reward. Give your equine the preventive care that he deserves to make your way to a mutually satisfying relationship.
“This vacuum sure feel good, Spuds!”
“Yeah, Augie, but why is Roll here with us?”
“Not sure, Spuds, but she’s putting on our driving gear.
We haven’t done that in a very long time! Can you tell where we are going?””
“Not really! I can see underneath, but Roll still makes a better door than a window! Is he going with us?!”
“It looks more like we are going with HIM, Spuds!”
“Oh look, Spuds! It’s the hourglass pattern! It must be ground driving today!”
She just got done leading Roll through the pattern and now you get to ground drive the pattern. Why do I have to go last?!
“Because that’s just the way it is, Augie! Just stay cool and chill while we do this thing in sync. I love to see if she can match my tiny steps!”
“One…two…three…four. She’s doing pretty good, Augie!”
Finally, it’s MY turn now, Spuds…one…two…three…four!”
“You watch, Spuds! I’m putting my whole body into it”
“Apparently she liked it! That was really fun and EASY!”
“Ah Gee, Spuds, do we have to go back already!”
“I don’t know about you, Augie, but I’m ready for supper!”
“You’re always ready for supper. That’s why you are so PORTLY, PUDS!”
Roll has been off for quite some time during this crazy winter weather that we have been having and due to the extra office work that I have taken on. Today we had an opportunity with warm temperatures, but avoided the mud from the snow by working indoors. First, I groomed Roll with a curry and then the vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner is a great tool to promote circulation to the muscles over the body.
Johnson’s Baby Oil in the mane and tail help to protect the hair from the harsh winter weather, drying mud and prevents other equines from chewing on them.
Today we used my Kieffer dressage saddle that seems to fit most of my mules and Roll included with a girth extender. Then I put on the “Elbow Pull” and adjust it so that it helps him to keep his good posture throughout his lesson.
The “Elbow Pull” only prevents him from raising his head so high that he inverts his neck and hollows his back. Otherwise, it affords him full range of motion upward (to that point), downward to the ground and as far as he can stretch his head and neck to both sides.
We went to the indoor arena and he stood like a soldier while I closed the gate and prepped for our lesson in the hourglass pattern. It is extraordinary how core strength stays with these guys even when they are off work for long periods of time.
This is not true with bulk muscle or an animal that has not had the benefit of core strength postural development. The core strength that we develop in good posture is sustained by the equines themselves in their daily routines even when they do not receive forced exercise as long as they continue to move in good posture and rest four-square. Equines that rest with uneven foot placement, or cock a hind foot and drop a hip are not balanced in good posture with a strong core.
When saddling, we do it from the left side (near side) as done normally, but to keep things balanced, we unsaddle from the right side (off side) and pull the saddle back onto the rear end to loosen the crupper and make it easy to remove. When the equine is routinely handled like this, they learn to relax and stand quietly because they know what to expect.
It is amazing to see how much Roll’s attitude has changed in the eight years he has been with us. When he first arrived, he would snort at everything and hide behind Rock. He is now a happy, confident and affectionate 26 year old, 18 hand draft mule. He enjoys his lessons and never forgets a thing!
Trying new things is now done with much less effort and thus, much less drama! Yes, Roll is a bit obese with atrophied bulk muscle right now, but with routine lessons, he will be back to peak condition in no time. An equine that possesses a good foundation built with core strength in mind will be in a position to excel in all kinds of equine activities…because they are never over-whelmed.
Today, Chad brought Roll up to the work station. On October 23, 2017, I had found a nodule on Roll’s lower right jaw line. Our veterinarian, Greg Farrand came out right away to check it to determine what kind of growth it was.
We have had sarcoids in the past, but this did not seem to be a sarcoid, but rather, a small cyst that was not attached to the bone. Since it was not attached, I made the decision to get it removed before it had an opportunity to become attached to the bone.
Lucky Three Sundowner had a similar growth on his jaw that WAS attached to the bone and it finally grew to such a size that it ultimately obstructed his ability to eat and he had to be put down at the age of 35 years.
We were preparing to vaccinate the herd, so we opted to wait on Roll’s surgery until after the vaccinations and hoped for a freeze that would kill all the insects. The exposed wound would have a better chance at healing in the colder weather without insect interference. We had to wait for quite a while since our winter weather proved to be unusually warm until today, December 22, when we finally opted to do the surgery.
Greg gave Roll a sedative to help him to relax. I shaved the area heavily covered with winter hair with my #10 blades and then Greg stepped in and shaved it closer with his veterinary-gauged blades.
He then injected the site with a numbing agent and prepped it for the surgery.
The cyst was neatly contained and unattached below the surface of the skin. He carefully cut it away from the skin and was left with a perfectly round cyst that fell out easily.
When cut in half, the cyst revealed granular tissue in the center that is indicative of some foreign agent in the body that was surrounded by tissue that just never abscessed. We will send off the cyst to be tested to make sure there are no further issues to treat.
Greg carefully and neatly sutured the skin along his jaw line back together.
Greg gave me instructions about the care of the wound. Basically, we did not have to do anything, but let it heal. I will remove the sutures in 10-14 days.
Roll was still a bit drowsy when I took him back to his pen. He will not get food for at least two hours after the surgery to keep him from choking. He should heal nicely.
I took a sleepy Roll back to his pen. By tomorrow, he probably won’t even know what happened and he was such a trooper through it all! I am so glad my mules are trained the way they are…not a bit of trouble!
10/26/17: It is MULE APPRECIATION DAY today and the perfect time for an update on Roll! Roll has recovered nicely from his bout with White Line Disease in 2016. He had no workouts during that year, but surprisingly, he retained his core strength and balance throughout 2016 and came into 2017 still in good posture and balance. This leads me to believe that core strength does not necessarily deteriorate as rapidly as does bulk muscle.
Roll had his most recent “leading for core strength postural workout” on May 23rd this year. However since then, I have been unable to pursue any more lessons during the entire summer due to business obligations.
He was scheduled for his regular farrier visits on May 18th, July 14th and on September 21st. During that time, he also had two chiropractic visits and was doing very well with only minor adjustments needed.
On October 17th, Roll had a short ride with Brandy in the Lucky Three Ranch North Pasture after being off all summer. He was rather disgusted with Brandy after she unseated her rider, Bailey, at the beginning of the ride by spooking at a shadow on the ground. Roll did great although I could tell he was a bit stiff from the onset, but loosened up and gained impulsion by the end of the ride.
Roll had his last massage on July 13 and continues to thrive at the age of 26 years old. On October 25, we discovered a sarcoid-like tumor on his right jaw, x-rayed it and will do a removal following next week’s vaccinations.
After being off all summer, I thought he did very well and this only reinforced my belief that core muscle really does sustain itself once the animal has spent at least two years doing very specific core muscle, postural exercises.
We feel pretty blessed here at Lucky Three Ranch and want to share our good wishes for safe and happy holidays with you and your family. Merry Christmas!