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By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of Rock and Roll: Diary of a Rescue, we learned about the discovery and rescue of Belgian draft mules, Rock and Roll, by Meredith Hodges and her team of experts. As the pair’s rehabilitation continues, the road to recovery gets tougher. But for every health setback, there is a personality breakthrough with these courageous and now-trusting gentle giants—and always a reason to hope.
By May of 2011, both mules were beginning to bond well with me and I was able to separate them during workouts. I knew I would have to develop a strong bond with Roll in case Rock didn’t make it, and we all knew the odds were not in Rock’s favor. Being alone with me in the round pen helped Roll to concentrate on the tasks at hand. His way of going was markedly improving with each new lesson.
Both mules could now square up properly and move in a much more balanced frame, although holding that balance was intermittent. The personality of each mule began to emerge and they became more willing to play games and to be touched and kissed about their heads. Rock was much more overt about his pleasure during the massages, and we could finally tell that they were beginning to trust us.
By mid-June, we were able to take the pads off Rock’s back feet and reset the shoes without the pads. He had grown three-eighths of an inch of sole on both hind feet and the rotation began to improve in one back foot. Both mules were feeling much better and were actually engaging in play during turnout. Next, we discovered that due to the concussion to his rear feet from improper use during driving in the past, Roll had side bones in his right hind foot. This caused him to twist that foot as it grew out between trims, so we put shoes on his back feet as well.
Rock loved our newly acquired mini donkeys and, during turnout, he would stand by their pen for the better part of the day. Here they all are on the Fourth of July, 2011.
By that time, Rock and Roll both looked magnificent! Considering the extent of Rock’s past neglect and injuries, he had gained incredible muscle tone and balance. His eyes were bright and alert, his coat was shiny and his feet were much improved (although they still exhibited a hint of chronic founder).
Roll’s fat and lumpy body had changed dramatically. Now his body was more symmetrical and balanced, and he also sported a shiny coat and balanced feet. His eyes were alert and his appearance of laziness had completely vanished.
However, by the end of July, Rock once again began to lose muscle tone over his right hip and his front feet became very sore. We thought he and Roll may have been playing too hard, which could have caused Rock to injure himself again, so we separated them into adjoining pastures during daily turnout. At night they remained in their respective stalls and runs, side by side. Custom-made boots were ordered for Rock’s front feet to help alleviate the pressure, but unfortunately we had to wait until the first of November for delivery of the boots. By the time they arrived, they were of use for only about two weeks before the weather changed. The wet snow and mud became packed in the boots, causing Rock too much pain on the dropped soles of his feet.
While Rock was on three weeks of rest during August, he developed swelling in his sheath. He was treated with an anti-inflammatory for two weeks, but the swelling didn’t go down. Since his front feet seemed better, I decided to resume his physical therapy. Although the structured movement helped the swelling go down, it migrated to the midline of his abdomen. After two weeks of hot packing the abdomen twice a day, the swelling finally disappeared. Because Rock was becoming stronger and getting up and down more often, he was beginning to develop sores on his knees, fetlocks and hocks, and “shoe boils” on his underbelly (pressure sores caused by his hooves when lying down), all of which needed to be frequently tended to.
In September, once again there was swelling on Rock’s underside midline, which also seemed to cause him to get weaker musculature in the hips. The swelling was hot-packed, and it disappeared fairly quickly this time. By mid-October, Rock was lying down for prolonged periods of time—unhealthy for an equine—so his support team of three veterinarians, two equine chiropractors, his equine masseuse and I got together to assess his condition. All 2000 plus pounds of his weight was being shifted off his three bad feet and onto his left hind leg, causing it to track behind the right front when he walked. We decided on a regimen of phenylbutazone (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), minimal exercise, plenty of rest and icing of his feet for 15-20 minutes twice daily. Things were not looking good.
No matter what was asked of him, Rock always gave it his all. We babied him through turnout, chiropractics, trims, and massage, but it finally got to the point where we could barely get his back feet off the ground to apply the hoof dressing. We decided to remove his shoes. That day, he was so weak in the hindquarters we could not replace them and couldn’t even trim the feet without running the risk of him falling down. We waited a couple of weeks before we trimmed his heels with the aid of a custom-made, six-inch equine jack stand. That seemed to help through November and part of December, but Rock still needed the Thrush Buster and Rainmaker for hoof health. He was able to tip his hind feet forward and let us have the bottoms of his feet for a few seconds at a time so the medication could be applied. Finally, he just couldn’t manage having his feet elevated at all—the pain was too great. Around this time, we noticed that the swelling had again cropped up in his midline abdomen, which led to another week of hot packing it twice a day.
After Christmas, I decided to resume a modified version of his physical therapy. Trooper that he was, he tried with all his might, but his hips were listing terribly to the left, and the first time he went over the three one-inch ground poles, he crashed into every one of them. His third time over, he grazed just one. When I put him back in his pen, he immediately laid down. I then noticed the bulging in the coronet band of his left hind foot. He was “sinking!” We immediately called the vet and he confirmed my fear. The lamina was pulling away from the hoof wall and allowing the bones to “sink” through the sole of Rock’s hoof. It wouldn’t be long before the other feet would quickly follow suit. It was clear that he was in agony and would have to be put down, so our vet came out the ranch, loaded Rock up with anti-inflammatory and pain medications and said he would be back the next afternoon.
Every day for a year, I prayed for a miracle for Rock and each time I prayed, he got better. I now wondered if God would give us yet another miracle and let him live—but it wasn’t meant to be. On December 27th, 2011, surrounded by his Lucky Three family, our beautiful Rock took his last steps. We all knew it was time for us to let him go. Rock was euthanized at home and died peacefully, with his head resting in my hands.
My vet Greg Farrand informed me that the president of Colorado State University had pulled together a team for Rock’s necropsy and the preservation of his skeleton as a teaching aid for the CSU Veterinary Sciences department.
When the necropsy came back, it showed not a single fracture of Rock’s pelvis, but rather multiple old fractures in the socket of the hip joint. The bottom of the socket was almost completely gone and there was a hole the size of a dime at the top of the socket. The head of the femur had no cartilage left and there was fibrosis and cysts full of fluid the entire length of the femur stem.
I have come to realize that our courageous and noble Rock gave us more than one miracle. He had been able to live one more year of life with a severely shattered hip joint and compromised femur. He proved that our balance and core muscle therapy can work wonders! And he lived long enough to give his half-brother, Roll, the chance to bond with people who will love and care for him for the rest of his life. Thank you and God bless you, Rock. We will miss 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, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
I first saw Rock and Roll at the National Western Stock Show in January of 2010. The two Belgian draft mules looked enormous in the 12′ X 12′ stalls in the holding area. They had been rescued from slaughter at an auction in Kiowa by my two friends, Fran and Larry Howe, owners of the Bitterroot Mule Company in Bennett, Colorado. My friends explained why they couldn’t resist trying to help the two draft mules. They were the largest mules any of us had ever seen. Roll was supposedly 16 years old at 17 1/2 hands and Rock supposedly 17 years old at 18 hands. Both mules were severely underweight. Rock had recently been treated for abscesses, which required the removal of two molars. The two draft mules stood quietly, seemingly unaffected, as we stared in total amazement. A rescue attempt was certainly worth trying.
In August of 2010, I saw Roll again at the Larimer County Fair. Larry drove him in the Single Hitch classes and, when I was able to speak to him, he and Fran told me Rock could not come to the show. He had come up lame. Roll had put on weight and was looking better than he had looked in January however, he still appeared to be stressed. Longears have been known to die from depression, so one of my main concerns was if Rock died, Roll could become depressed and might not live very long. Fran and Larry decided that this rescue was more than they could handle and asked if I would be interested in taking the pair. I agreed, and after we had quickly made a suitable space for them, Rock and Roll were delivered to the Lucky Three Ranch on December 5th, 2010. One look at the way Rock was moving and we knew this was going to be difficult at best.
Rock and Roll were obedient, but suspicious animals. Their eyes lacked expression and were cloudy in spots, and their coats were oily and dull, something that is not apparent in photographs. Their hooves looked irregularly trimmed and out of balance, with prevalent stress rings on all four feet of each mule. They had clearly been foundered more than once and their bodies were riddled with scar tissue. Roll listed to the right and walked with a twist to the right hind foot. Rock had to lift and swing his right hind leg to the side in order to walk forward. The leg appeared calcified and restricted in every joint. Neither mule could freely reach forward through the shoulders and hips, nor place each foot in a regular rhythmic fashion. There was muscle atrophy throughout their bodies, and their bellies hung from the spine, with no apparent musculature in the abdomen or over the top line. There was hope for some recovery with Roll, but when my well-respected equine masseuse, Joanne Lang, C.M.T. and I assessed Rock, we knew there would be limitations as to what could be done for him. We both knew we might be setting ourselves up for a broken heart, but for Roll’s sake, we agreed to try to make Rock comfortable for as long as we could.
Before beginning therapy, Joanne and I gathered all the information we could on Rock and Roll. This was not an easy task, as there were no registration or health papers, only the information that Bitterroot Mule Company could provide. The pair was not eating very well, and by the way he was turning his nose up at the feed, I suspected Rock might even have ulcers. Fran and Larry told me what they had fed the mules. I promptly took them both off the feed that would clearly be, in my experience, too rich for them and put them on our standard equine diet. Because both mules were branded, we were able to identify the brands as coming from the Hunt Limousine Cattle Ranch in Elizabeth, Colorado. We later discovered that the Hunt Limousine Cattle Ranch had obtained Rock and Roll when they were just three years old from an Amish Family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Both Rock and Roll were out of sister Belgian mares, and by the same jack. Rock and Roll mostly pulled a wagon for birthday parties for 6 yr olds at the ranch. They also pulled the wagon for a nearby church so they could sing Christmas carols in the towns of Elizabeth and Kiowa, Colorado, and were also used to pull Grand Marshalls and other dignitaries in local parades.
Rock and Roll, along with two other teams were well taken care of and loved deeply by the family who cared for the ranch. A ranch wife to one of the hands took the responsibility of scheduling routine farrier appointments and vaccinations for them and ten other ranch horses. Unfortunately the ranch was eventually in a position in 2002 when they had to be sold. The family who cared for them was “heart broke and sad.” At that point, they were healthy and weighed 2500 pounds each. What happened afterwards is still a mystery, but one thing was tragically clear—they were overworked, out of good posture and not properly fed. Many people just don’t realize that even big draft mules need the benefit of a healthy diet and a specialized exercise program, especially before starting work in harness.
Within days after changing their feed to our crimped oats mix with Sho Glo, Mazola corn oil and grass hay only, the two mules’ appetites improved. There was a drastic change in their coats and their eyes began to come alive. We gave them a small turnout area just off their runs and along the county road, so they could watch the people going by and the cattle grazing on the other side. Rock would go into the corner of the pasture and just stand and stare for hours, not moving until he was called back in.
I noticed that Rock did not lie down or roll, but considering how neglected they had been, this didn’t really surprise me. Because of the muscle atrophy in his right hip, we decided that we should get started with Rock immediately. So, the very afternoon they were delivered, Rock got his first massage. He was tolerant of the massage, but we soon discovered that touching his face was out of the question. Both mules would shy away if anyone so much as raised a hand or made any small abrupt movement in their presence. We also noticed that Rock had a perpetual and distinctive worried “V” in his eyebrows over both eyes. A health check with our veterinarian was scheduled and we continued equine chiropractic, using the same equine chiropractor that was used when Fran and Larry first got Rock and Roll. After a couple of months of chiropractics, regular farrier and vet visits with massage and physical therapy done on a weekly basis, Rock was finally able to get down on his left side and roll. He and Roll then began to play!
Our farrier Dean Geesen came out to the Lucky Three and gave both mules their first official trims. Our support team agreed that it would be a long time before their feet would begin to look normal. During a farrier visit in March, we discovered that Rock had two old abscesses in his left front hoof. Dean was guarded about whether or not Rock’s hooves would ever be okay again. But Rock was a real trooper and although it was very difficult for him, he managed to yield all four feet when asked.
When our veterinarian Greg Farrand checked his eyes, he found cloudiness and thickening over the corneas. He was put on a regimen of eye drops three times a day to stave off chronic abrasion of the eye. Within days, Rock was chasing bunnies around the small turnout pasture—no more standing in the corner! Greg also did a walking palpation to see if he could determine what was causing the lameness in Rock’s right hip. He thought he felt a fracture on the face of the pelvis, but there was no way to really tell exactly what was going on. To find out for certain, Rock would have to be taken to Colorado State University, sedated and turned upside down in order for any necessary radiograms or ultrasound tests to be performed. We all agreed that this process would be far too traumatic for him. We opted to just be
very careful and not to do any manual range-of-motion movements on that leg for fear of making it worse. Instead, I discovered a way to have Rock do range-of-motion exercises on his own during physical therapy and my adjustments worked well. Rock and Roll continued to improve. Roll even graduated from the leading core muscle exercises to the round pen core muscle exercises. Rock and Roll began to play and argue with each other. The pair seemed to be gaining strength and proprioception (body awareness), and both seemed to be feeling much better overall. After a very short time, both mules complied—on verbal commands alone—to correct their own balance and square up at every halt…because it felt good!
In mid-March, we had Rock’s feet x-rayed and it was found that there was 45 degrees of rotation in both hind feet. There was no rotation in front, although the front feet did have multiple stress rings, collapse of the hoof wall and were starting to exhibit seedy toes. Rock couldn’t stand on the four-inch blocks the vet used to x-ray him, so we made do with a couple of two-by–four boards. Even when the farrier worked on him, we would have to put Rock’s rear feet on an equine jack stand to trim him. After learning to successfully execute his balancing pattern during physical therapy, we noticed that the soles of Rock’s feet were beginning to wear away. When the x-rays came back, they showed that only a quarter of an inch of sole was left on the bottoms of each of his rotating hind feet. We then immediately got shoes on those back feet! We began a regimen of Thrush Buster and Rainmaker hoof dressing by Farnam on both mules’ hooves in order to help the hooves to begin to grow back in a healthy way. By April, Rock had grown three-eighths of an inch more sole on his hind feet and was actually trotting over his ground poles!
Now that Rock was feeling better, the worried “V” over his eyes began to disappear. He was actually getting up and lying down, but due to the difficulty he had, he began to get sores on his hocks that needed to be wrapped and tended with Panalog ointment. Although the sores were obviously very painful, Rock allowed me to wrap them and doctor them with little complaint. Once wrapped, he happily munched his oats reward for his stellar behavior and gently placed his forehead on my chest in a clear gesture of gratitude.
In Part 2 of Rock and Roll: Diary of a Rescue, Rock’s roller-coaster progress of victories and set-backs continues, as Roll slowly comes out of his shell and learns to trust us and—even more importantly—himself. Our regimen of compassion, patience and therapy goes on as Rock and Roll touch everyone’s soul by proving that they are ready and willing to give it everything they’ve got, right from their hearts.
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, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Jack Copp was a very special man with a very special mule. Jack was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, about 45 miles south of the Kansas border. His father worked with mules in the oil fields acquired
from the Osage Indians by the U.S. Government years before. Although his father was familiar with mules, Jack was enamored with horses and particularly with team roping. Jack, a congenial and responsible man, worked at his job for 27 years and roped steers in his spare time.
Then came the accident that changed his life. Jack was run over by a forklift that left him partially crippled for the rest of his life. He could no longer do the things he loved the most. In the midst of his depression, he met an old man who suggested that he get a couple of mules to mess with. “They’ll git you on your feet,” he said. Jack took the man’s advice and bought Joker, a sorrel yearling mule colt, and his sister, Sissy, a weanling molly mule in November of 1978. By May of 1979, Jack had taught Joker enough tricks to entertain the audience at Bishop Mule Days in California.
This was where I first saw them. In six short months Jack had Joker (only two years old) stretching, sitting, laying down, carrying his feed bucket, rolling a barrel with his front legs, and walking on his hind legs. What he had done with that handsome young mule was remarkable, but what Joker had done for Jack was even more amazing. Jack’s life was given new meaning and his faith restored by this long-eared, little red mule. Sissy, Joker’s sister, was sold and put into training with famed mule trainer Pat Parelli of California, while Jack and Joker became the very best of friends.
Joker was sired by a Spanish jack, called Red Fox, that was killed by a hunter, and out of a Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse mare. He captured the hearts of all who were fortunate enough to witness his performances. The bond between Jack and Joker was evident as spectators delighted in watching a repertoire of 30 tricks or more. As Jack is a bashful man, Joker often had to push him into the arena to get things started. They began with a good stretch to loosen up the muscles and then Joker was ready to show his stuff. In top condition, Joker showed he could walk on three legs, then on two legs. This was pretty tough for a mule, but he did it out of love for Jack. Joker had no qualms about carrying his feed bucket to remind Jack of dinnertime. But Jack was a demanding trainer and concerned parent and made Joker earn his dinner by rolling a barrel with his front feet. When rolling the barrel forward became boring, Jack taught him to roll it backwards with his hind legs. As if this weren’t tough enough, Joker later learned to roll the barrel both backwards and forwards while straddling it! All this work is sometimes tiring, so Jack thought a short nap would be in order. Joker obliged his command by lying down–his rump made a handy seat for Jack to also take a rest.
At coffee break time, Joker took his shorter rests in a sitting position. Considerate of Jack, as a best friend should be, Joker stretched, lowering his back so that Jack could reach the stirrup easily to mount. Joker knew that tires are for traveling, but his only use for one was to plant his front feet on it, traveling around it with his back feet; or to plant his back feet on it and travel around it with his front feet. At the “End of the Trail,’ Joker placed all four feet on the tire, exhibiting his excellent balance. Jack and Joker were patriotic Americans. Joker would fly the flag while walking on his hind legs. Then Jack would take the flag while Joker bowed to the audience in appreciation for the applause!
Not limited only to tricks, Jack removed the bridle and showed people how well trained Joker really was. Without the bridle, Joker performed pleasure, reining patterns, and trail obstacles with ease. No whips, no spurs, no bats–it’s all done with patience and love that you can feel as you watch them. They were quite remarkable! Jack believed that training a mule is like raising a child. If you slap them, bang on them, or worse, they will have no respect.
Mules will either be afraid of you or fight back. Of course, discipline is in order on occasion, but you don’t have to keep doing it. Once Jack began training Joker, Joker was not allowed to run with other animals. Jack was his only close companion. Others never distracted Joker from his best friend, Jack! Jack and Joker have performed at county fairs and shows throughout the U.S. and they were both loved and appreciated wherever they went. The fees for these shows were minimal–just enough to cover their traveling expenses. What a privilege it was to witness this incredible pair!
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.
© 1986, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
There is a lot of discussion about training mules versus training horses. There are some who say that mules are harder to train than horses and others who say just the opposite. It has been my experience that it isn’t really that one animal is more “difficult” than the other. They each have their own redeeming qualities and individual limiting factors. The people who are dealing with them also have their own redeeming and limiting factors. For instance, if you are leading a horse and he does not wish to follow you, because he hasn’t the strength in his head and neck as a donkey or mule and can be more easily bullied into complying with a quick jerk on the lead rope.
On the other hand, if you are leading a mule or donkey, they can easily jerk the rope right out of your hands because of the incredible strength they have in their head and neck. When you teach a mule or donkey something one day, he will ponder what he has been taught during the days in between lessons. He will comply more easily during the next lesson. Regardless of how many days or weeks have passed between lessons, the horse will tend to forget and will need to be reminded where the mule or donkey will not.
It makes sense that the handler needs to adjust his training program such that the horse has more frequent and consistent lessons to refresh his memory. The mule will only need lessons as frequently as it takes to maintain good physical condition. When applying lessons more frequently, the handler has the ability to make subtle adjustments to get the best from the horse. If he wants the mule or donkey to react properly, it is critical that he teaches the mule or donkey correctly the first time as they will learn EXACTLY what the handler teaches and will continue to repeat it. The option of changing your approach during the training sequence is limited. What this all amounts to is that one is really not more easily trained than the other. Rather, it is the experience and knowledge of the handler or trainer that really makes the difference.
Mules and donkeys, sensitive and intelligent creatures that they are, seem to be more concerned about the overall attitude of the trainer than are horses. With the intelligent use of negative reinforcement, a positive attitude and informed use of restraints, modifying the behavior of any equine becomes a lot easier.
When mules do not comply with our wishes, you need to get first his attention and do something to temper his defensive attitude. When we are intelligent about a situation, it minimizes the animal’s negative reactive responses. Our politeness and consideration promote an overall positive attitude on both parts, and opens the lines of communication. Since these animals outweigh us by several hundred pounds, careful and informed use of restraints must sometimes be used to perpetuate the close relationship between you and your mule or donkey (and sometimes horses) in the training environment. Restraints should be used to help “explain” what you wish your mule to do, but should not be used as a perpetual training “crutch.” Intelligence, attitude and restraints should always be used in conjunction with a “path of least resistance” to promote successful training sessions.
If we realize that correct development of mind and muscle takes time, we can relax, let the animal learn at his own pace, utilize these helpful restraints to minimize resistance in difficult situations and actually enjoy the training process with our animals. For example, in the case of Draw Reins, they should only be used lightly in conjunction with your regular reins and only when necessary. In the beginning, this might mean at every stride. It is rather obvious how the Draw Reins can be phased out over time, but what about a restraint such as the Scotch Hobble, which is a seemingly inflexible restraint?
The first time you use the Scotch Hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind foot so that it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quieter and more accepting of what you are doing, you can loosen the Scotch Hobble a little at each session. If your mule’s behavior is good, adjust the Scotch Hobble so that his toe rests on the ground. Next session, you might let him stand on all fours with the rope tied loosely into position, until he has complied to the point where the rope is actually around only the hind foot and is lying loosely on the ground. Naturally, if he becomes fidgety, just back up one step and tighten your connections on the rope.
There are many restraints available for use in the equine industry today: martingales, tie-downs, side reins, draw reins, hobbles and the list goes on. In my estimation, these restraints are being used much too freely as “crutches” and are responsible for terrible body posture and limited responsiveness among today’s equines. A restraint should be used only as a helpful tool to allow you to attain a certain positive response from the animal. Once you get the proper response, it is your responsibility to phase out the restraint in order to instill in your animal the correct behavior itself.
Early in a mule’s life, he should be taught to be calm in restraints, which makes daily tasks much easier. Your veterinarian and farrier will thank you and it may save your mule’s life if he should get caught in a fence, fall into a hole or encounter any other such potential for disaster. The goal is to teach him to think before he struggles or bolts and tries to run. Many Longears do this naturally, but it is always better to reinforce this pause for thought with lessons.
CAUTION: NEVER USE THE FACE TIE ON A HORSE.
The following technique is useful when working around very young mules, although it works on adults as well. You must remember to step back if your mule begins to struggle—give him space to learn the situation.
To use the Face Tie:
- Wrap your lead around the hitch rail once until your mule’s face is over the rail and held tight against it.
- Slip the rope through the noseband of the halter and around the hitch rail again and secure it. For a more secure tie (or to keep your mule sideways to the rail for vaccinations), you can run the rope through the throatlatch and around the hitch rail again.
Use the Face Tie to aid in clipping your mule’s bridle path and other light weekly trimming to prepare him for show clipping later on. It can also be used to teach a difficult mule or donkey to be bridled.
If your mule is difficult to lead, you can use a Quick Twist in your lead rope to give you more leverage. Twist a loop in the lead rope and bring it behind the noseband of the halter. Slip the loop around your mule’s nose and pull it snug. Pull on the lead until it is tight around his nose, and then just stand still, holding the tension in the lead rope until your mule steps forward. Do not keep pulling or jerking on the rope or he will become resistant and go backwards instead. By using the Quick Twist, when you ask him to come forward, you are not just pulling the halter—you have more leverage. Repeat as necessary.
NOTE: Do not tie your animal up while using a Quick Twist. Remove the quick twist and use the face tie if needed when tying.
To further perfect your equine’s Showmanship technique, you can also use a Lead Shank with a chain under the jaw, but always tie him with the lead rope only—never with the Lead Shank.
A soft, three-foot (one-meter) rope can be used to make a set of front leg hobbles. Leather hobbles are generally considered an “appointment” (equipment accessory), and are sometimes attached to the saddle when showing in Western classes. They are dangerous and not very effective because they can easily break. So if you have a need for hobbles, be sure to purchase those that are meant to be used on the equine’s legs and not those made of thin leather that are meant only as an equipment accessory for your saddle. Be careful with nylon hobbles as they can chafe the equine’s pasterns if they are not lined with a softer material.
Probably the most helpful restraint there is when it comes to mules and donkeys is the scotch hobble. This restraint helps to facilitate good ground manners and prevent kicking by restraining one hind foot, causing the mule to stand still while you work on him, whether it’s clipping or shoeing him, or saddling him for the first time. But, as with any restraint, you should keep in mind that it must be phased out sooner or later. The first time a restraint is used, it will usually have to be used in its full capacity to get the desired response.
To make the 15-foot (5-meter) scotch hobble:
- Tie a nonslip knot around your mule’s neck.
- Take the excess rope down to the hind foot and around the pastern, then back up through the neck loop and back around the pastern a second time.
- Pull the rope just tight enough so that your mule must stand on his other three feet for balance.
- Wrap the excess around the ropes going to the foot and back up to the loop around the neck.
- Tie with a quick-release knot. By wrapping the ropes going to the foot, you prevent the foot from slipping loose.
The first time you use the scotch hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind leg so it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quiet and accepting, you should loosen the hobble a little each time until you are not really using it at all. This is called “phasing (or fading) out the restraint.”
When he has learned to stand calmly in a scotch hobble, you can use a twisted lead rope (with no snap) in a figure eight to hobble his front legs with a safety knot. The same lead rope can be used to tie up one front leg by wrapping the rope around the bent leg, forcing the mule to keep all his weight on the other three legs. This type of hobbling is particularly useful when clipping the hair on the front legs of a mule. As you work on the leg that is not hobbled, your mule will quickly learn that with the other leg ties up, it is to his advantage not to try not to move the leg you are clipping.
On a difficult mule, you may have to use the twisted lead rope in conjunction with the scotch hobble. Adjust the scotch hobble so only your mule’s toe touches the ground for balance, but not enough to bear weight. Once he is accustomed to this restraint, you can safely put him in sheepskin-lined chain hobbles.
Do not use nylon hobbles—they can cause severe rope burns if they are not lined with a soft material! Leather hobbles are fine as long as they are intended for restraint use and not just as a saddle accessory. Now you can think about taking your mule into the high country, hobbling him and turning him loose to graze while you set up camp. You should be able to find and catch him the next morning, because mules generally do not wander far from their “families.” But keep in mind that mules are very smart and can quickly learn to hop along while hobbled. Also, if you have a horse with you that likes to wander, be sure to tie him up because mules will follow horses.
Choosing the right restraint for a given situation takes thought and consideration. You must ask yourself, which restraints are available to me? Which restraint will most likely bring about the response I desire from my mule? Will the response with this restraint come with little or no resistance and is it humane? Will it cause other more serious problems in the animal? And finally, can the restraint be phased out relatively easily?
Keeping these things in mind when using restraints will help to keep the relationship with your mule from becoming a battleground. Bear in mind that whichever restraint you use might vary from situation to situation and from animal to animal, so carefully consider your options. Remember, using intelligence, a good attitude and an informed use of restraints can greatly enhance your training experience together.
© 1989, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
When equines are trained in a logical, consistent and respectful way beginning with detailed lead line training, even “cycling females” is not a problem. Appropriate lessons need to have a logical beginning and be taught in a sequential fashion. The logical beginning in any athletic conditioning program should be to strengthen the core muscles that support bony columns. The length of the lesson and order in which lessons are presented facilitate strength and balance at the core. Adequate length of each stage of training and the way the lessons are delivered instill a sense of security, confidence and trust in the handler that cements the relationship and become part of the equine’s automatic behavior.
Think of it in terms of teaching children. Children have difficulty learning and paying attention when they have not been eating in a healthy way or exercising properly, when the teacher is unclear in their delivery and the material does not flow together easily, when the teacher moves along too quickly, when there is too much repetition and when they have to stay in one position too long. When the teacher is more aware of the elements of learning, delivers the information in a logical and sequential manner with attention to mental and physical health, and provides solutions, the students will thrive!
We are often in too big of a hurry to ride and do not spend enough time at the lower-level stages of training. We don’t understand the implications of moving along too fast because these animals are so much larger than we are that we can’t imagine that they would have strength, balance and coordination issues that would be counter-productive to our expectations.
How could we even know? There are multiple trainers out there who believe that an equine can be ready to ride in 60-90 days. This is highly publicized and does not afford the average person to think any further than just being able to ride. However, if you ask yourself if you could be ready for a 25-mile marathon in 60-90 days, then the picture starts to become clear…there is much more to think about and it takes much longer to be ready for such activities. You cannot strengthen muscles, balance the body and instill body awareness adequately in this short period of time, and core muscle strength might not be addressed at all!
Leading training is not just teaching to follow and many people spend too little time on leading training. In leading training, the equine gets the benefit of isometric-type exercises that strengthen the muscles closest to the bone while you work on forward and backward straight lines, smooth arcs through the turns and square halts, all facilitating good balance and proprioception (body awareness). This promotes good core muscle strength that will enable your equine to move to the round pen stage of training and do remarkably well because he won’t be fighting his own awkwardness and lack of balance while trying to balance on the circle at all three gaits.
This kind of training requires that you really pay attention to your own good posture and execution of the tasks in leading training. You must be consciously aware of your own posture. Stand straight and tall, holding the lead in your left hand while using the right to keep the animal at your shoulder, not too far forward, not crowding you and not too far back. Wear your fanny pack full of crimped oats (the reward) to keep your equine interested in staying at your shoulder and not lagging behind.
When you walk, make sure your legs are following the movement of their front legs, stepping forward with your corresponding feet and not stepping any further forward than they do. When you stop, stop with your own feet together (in a balanced fashion), turn and face the equine’s shoulder and square up his feet every single time you stop. This causes the equine to be conscious about balancing weight over all four feet evenly that will result in the balance becoming steadier as the task demands and speed increases.
You can tell your equine is ready to move from the flatwork leading training to the obstacle leading training when you can throw the lead over his neck and you receive his compliance though all he has learned without you touching him. Next, we add the element of coordination during lead line training over obstacles. The first task of lead line obstacle training would be to introduce the obstacles and ask for reasonable negotiation of the obstacle to instill confidence in the equine and trust in you. The second stage would be to break the obstacles down into smaller steps to manipulate coordination and balance and to instill adequate self carriage through the obstacles.
Taking time to do these exercises correctly at the walk and trot on the lead line will help immensely before the equine goes to round pen training where the exercises become more active and demanding. The core base from which the animal must work will be much stronger and he will be better able to stay erect and bend through his rib cage on the circle in the round pen instead of leaning like a motorcycle.
When we finally do graduate to the round pen, it will become important to maintain good equine posture and balance. When equines are allowed to run freely in the round pen, they naturally get excited and want to hollow their neck and back. This is why we employ the self-correcting device I call the “Elbow Pull.” There are separate ways to adjust this, one is for horses and one is for mules and donkeys. More details about this and leading training can be found in my manual and DVD combo, “Equus Revisited.”
By the time you finally do ride, your equine will not only be strong, balanced and coordinated enough to do more complicated activities, but if you are unbalanced at all, he will be better able to cope with that as well. This is particularly important with cycling females as they already have a marginal, but normal amount of aches and pains while they cycle. If they are to maintain a good attitude and good balance with a rider, they need good core muscle strength, so they can overcome the normal menstrual aches and pains and deal with the rider in a reasonable way. They will also be more mentally and emotionally tuned into you and less likely to become disengaged. It is my observation that most disobedience is due to a lack of balance whether it is mental, emotional or physical.
With good core muscle strength, even cycling females will be better able to perform to their full potential at the time when you lower your expectations. The level of their mediocre performance will still be higher than most of their competitors. Equine mares are difficult enough, but jennets and mollies that are not trained in this logical way will be distracted, tune you out when they are cycling and revert to their instinctual behaviors like squatting, peeing, clacking their teeth and they will remain “on alert!” This can cause a lot of problems for the handler.
© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
The old saying, “No foot, no mule” is literally true, as it is in any nomadic animal. If the hooves are not trimmed and balanced properly, it will offset the balance of the equine’s entire body and can compromise longevity in the animal because his entire internal structure will be compromised. Most equines will need to be trimmed or shod every 6-8 weeks whether horse, mule or donkey.
Horse’s hooves in general are proportionately larger, rounder and more angled than that of the donkey or mule. The sole of the foot is flat on the ground promoting good circulation in the foot through the frog.
Regardless of the size of the animal, the hooves of the mule will be smaller and more upright than that of a horse of equal size, and should be well sprung and supported, not contracted. They should have a smooth appearance and look sleek and oily. No ribbing should be apparent and the frog should be well extended, healthy and make adequate contact with the ground for good circulation to the hooves. The shape of the mule or donkey foot is more oval and the bottom of the foot is slightly “cupped” which accounts for the surefootedness in the mule and donkey. When being trimmed, the mule should be left with more heel than the horse to maintain the often more upright position that complements the shoulders and hips. If the mule or donkey has a better slope to the shoulders, he might have an angle that is similar to the horse, but he will still grow more heel than the horse. The shape and condition of the hooves of the jack and the mare are both equally important when considering foot development in the mule.
Because donkey and mule hooves are different from a horse’s hoof in that they are more oblong, cupped in the sole, they need more heel left during a trim than the round, flat sole and low heels on a horse. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule as there are in most generalizations. Most donkeys are relatively inactive and live on moderate ground, so they do grow out in that time period. Some donkeys, like my own Little Jack Horner, are much more active and will wear their feet down naturally.
Of course, those that do not have the benefit of good training and conditioning would still wear unevenly and would still need to be trimmed, however, with the correct training and conditioning, they may wear evenly and may not need to be trimmed more than once a year! The same goes for those who would live in rough terrain. They may wear their feet down, but they would still need to be trimmed for balance. Those who are moving correctly may wear down evenly and would not require trims as often.
Failure to have your mule’s hooves regularly trimmed in order to maintain their balance and shape can result in an imbalance in your mule’s feet, which will then cause an imbalance throughout his entire body, inhibiting his performance. However, if trimming is done consistently, the risk of imbalance, accident or injury will be greatly reduced.
There are a lot of things to consider when trimming and shoeing all equines. If the animal is to have shoes, for instance, then they would need to maintain the flat surface of the sole for the shoes to fit properly. It is important that the equine have relief from shoes when they are not being ridden as much. We usually take any shoes off during the winter which keeps the heels from becoming contracted from wearing shoes and promotes good circulation to the foot as the frog can then make contact with the ground more consistently than it can with shoes. A good understanding of the anatomical differences among horses, mules and donkeys is essential for healthy hoof care.
When your farrier is trimming your equine, he should take into account the angles of the shoulder, the forearm, the knees, the cannon bone, fetlock, pastern and the general angle to the entire body when at rest, not just trimming off the excess. This is an anatomical call and only people who are schooled and skilled in this profession should even attempt it or you could run the risk of injuring your animal.
It is commonly known that, when it comes to horses and mules, light-colored hooves are softer and more likely to break down under stress than are the darker, black hooves. Even though the black hoof is naturally harder than the light-colored hoof, if it does not contain sufficient moisture, it can become brittle and can chip away as destructively as can the lighter hoof. Whichever breed of equine you own and whatever the color of their feet, remember that good hoof care is essential for all domesticated equines.
For better or worse, an equine inherits his hooves through his genes. If your equine has inherited good feet—black, oily-looking, and with good shape—then you are fortunate and hoof care and maintenance should be relatively simple. If he has inherited a softer or misshapen foot, you will need to discuss more specialized care with your farrier. Beware of generalizations as they can often be misleading! Each animal should ultimately be assessed individually.
© 2016, 2019, 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!
© 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
You really don’t want to desensitize your animals to everything. Here is Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of the word “desensitize”:
1) to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or non-reactive to a sensitizing agent.
Some people have the misconception that, in order to desensitize an animal, you have to make it numb to its surroundings and any stimulus it encounters. Not true! What you really want to do is sensitize your equine to different body language and cues from you, as the trainer. So “desensitization” does not mean achieving a total lack of sensitivity. Rather, it should be approached as a way of training your equine (in a way that is quiet and calm) to be less sensitive to certain objects or events that may be cause him to be fearful, so he can move forward with confidence and the right sensitivity toward the communication between the two of you.
When incorrect, harsh or overly aggressive desensitizing techniques are used on equines, the handler is met with either a very strong flight reflex or a stand and fight reflex. In either case, an equine will either put up a fight and be deemed a rogue and, therefore, untrainable, or eventually just “give up” and succumb to the trainer’s wishes. This is a sad situation because the equine is not given the opportunity to make reasonable choices in his relationship with his trainer. The equine’s instinct to warm up to the person training him is hampered by his fear of more desensitization techniques. Thus, he becomes resigned to his work and is not fully engaged in the training process.
Often, trainers will put obstacles such as a trailer, tire or tarp in an equine’s pen in the hope of getting him used to it by making him live with it. But ask yourself this: How much rest would you get if someone put a blaring radio in your bedroom to desensitize you to noise? Equines have many of the same reactions to their personal space that we do, and they do much better when their place of rest is just that—a place of rest and comfort. And when lessons are approached in a considerate, respectful and rewarding way, an equine is more likely to approach them with an eager and positive attitude that facilitates better learning. It is always better to turn your equine’s fear into curiosity than it is to just assault his senses.
When doing obstacle training, it is better to allow your equine a gradual approach with small steps and great rewards for his honest effort than to whip and spur him through just to get to the other side. When his fear is converted to curiosity, the chance of his refusal to go forward is lessened and his trust in you as the trainer allows you to, eventually, ride through any obstacle at the slightest suggestion. This is because he trusts your judgment and has not been frightened, hurt or made uncomfortable during the training process. This is your equine developing sensitivity to your demands and learning to willingly comply so he can become a participating partner in each activity.
Some trainers believe that breaking down tasks for the equine into tiny steps is a waste of time and that giving a food reward prevents an equine from learning to respect the trainer, but I disagree. When you break tasks down into understandable steps in the beginning stages of training, you will eventually begin to get solid, reliable behavior from your equine. You will have to pay attention to a lot of little details at the beginning stages of training (and that can seem overwhelming at first), but if you take the time to pay attention to these small steps in the beginning stages and through the ground work and round pen work that will follow, when you finally do move on to riding under saddle the lessons will go much more quickly.
Each stage of training should become easier for you and your equine to master. For instance, it actually takes you less time to train in something like a side pass if you have done your groundwork training with the lead line and drive-line lateral training before you even get into the saddle. It also follows that the side pass will come more easily for your equine if he has first learned to move on an angle in the leg yield before having to move straight sideways. This is an example of taking things in small, logical steps, keeping your equine sensitive to his surroundings and tasks without fear. It also greatly lessens the chance for a fear or anxiety-driven blow up from your equine later on.
There is a physical as well as mental aspect to all of this technique. While you are training your equine to perform certain movements and negotiations over obstacles, his muscles, ligaments and tendons are all involved in his actions. When an equine is asked to do a movement for which his muscles have not first been properly conditioned, he will not only execute the motion incorrectly, but his premature attempt will undoubtedly compromise his muscles, ligaments and tendons. Even if he can adequately assimilate a requested movement while he is young, he could easily be creating problems in his body and joints that will cause him escalating problems as he ages.
If you were asked to go on a 25-mile hike with a 50-pound pack on your back, how would you prepare in order to safely and successfully perform this task? You would break it down into small steps, working up to it by first running a short distance with a very light weight, and then gradually increasing the distance you run and the weight you carry, which may take as long as a couple of years of careful training and conditioning. But if you tried to prepare for this kind of grueling hike by simply walking around the block a few times for a couple of days, you’d wreck your muscles, compromise your health and probably fail—all because you attempted to do the task when you weren’t physically or mentally ready. And depending on how much you strained your body, you just might discover down the line that the damage is permanent and will worsen over the course of your life. I use this illustration to show that, just as with humans, when it comes to training and conditioning your equine, it’s always better to take it slowly—one step at a time. Your equine will learn to enjoy being a partner in your challenges and goals if you give him the time he needs to be able to do these activities comfortably and with success.
An equine that learns in this sensitized way can also make judgments that might even save your life when you might not be paying attention. This is because when your equine is calm and well rested, he actually seems to be able to anticipate consequences, making him more likely to stop and wait for your cue. The equine that is “forced” during training will most often become anxious about a challenging situation and will seldom stop and calmly alert you to a potential peril—and he most likely will not trust your judgment.
It is because I have trained my mules in this sensitized way that I once avoided going over a 100-foot drop up in the Rocky Mountains while on a trail ride. On that particular day, I was in front, riding my mule, Mae Bea C.T. with four horses behind us. When we came to a giant boulder semi-blocking the trail, I told the people on the horses to wait and rode ahead. I soon found that the trail had narrowed to an impassable two feet wide and a rockslide had wiped out the trail ahead completely! It was straight up 100 feet on one side of the trail and straight down 100 feet on the other side and there was no going forward. The horses behind me were still on the wider part of the trail on the other side of the boulder and were able turn around, so they were safe, but backing my mule around the boulder on that treacherous trail would be very dangerous. I thought we were stuck. At that point, my mule calmly looked back around at me as if to ask, “Well, Mom, what do we do now?” I thought for a minute and then shifted the weight in my seat toward my mule’s hindquarters. This movement from me allowed her to shift her weight to her hindquarters. Then, with pressure from my right leg, she lifted her shoulders, pivoted on her left hind foot and performed a 180-degree turn to the left on her haunches, and with her front feet in the air, she swept them across the open precipice of the cliff and turned us back around to face the wider (and safe) part of the trail. After completing the turn, she stopped again, looked back at me to see if everything was okay and waited for my cue to proceed back down. I believe, without a doubt, that my mule’s incredible and calm response to a life-threatening situation was the direct result of the sensitized training methods I used that created our unbreakable bond of trust.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Most equines can be taught to carry a rider in a relatively short time. However, just because they are compliant doesn’t mean their body is adequately prepared for what they will be asked to do and that they are truly mentally engaged in your partnership. We can affect our equine’s manners and teach them to do certain movements and in most cases, we will get the response that we want…at least for the moment. Most of us grow up thinking that getting the animal to accept a rider is a reasonable goal and we are thrilled when they quickly comply. When I was first training equines, I even thought that to spare them the weight of the rider when they were younger, it would be beneficial to drive them first as this seemed less stressful for them. Of course, I was then unaware of the multitude of tiny details that were escaping my attention due to my limited education. I had a lot to learn.
Because my equines reacted so well during training, I had no reason to believe that there was anything wrong with my approach until I began showing them and started to experience resistant behaviors in my animals that I promptly attributed to simple disobedience. I had no reason to believe that I wasn’t being kind and patient until I met my dressage instructor, Melinda Weatherford. I soon learned that complaining about Sundowner’s negative response to his dressage lessons and blaming HIM was not going to yield any shortcuts to our success. The day she showed up with a big button on her lapel that said, “No Whining” was the end of my complaining and impatience, and the beginning of my becoming truly focused on the tasks at hand. I learned that riding through (and often repeating) mistakes did not pose any real solutions to our problems. I attended numerous clinics from all sorts of notable professionals and we improved slowly, but a lot of the problems were still present. Sundowner would still bolt and run when things got a bit awkward, but he eventually stopped bolting once I changed my attitude and approach, and when he was secure in his core strength in good equine posture.
I thought about what my grandmother had told me years ago about being polite and considerate with everything I did. Good manners were everything to her and I thought I was using good manners. I soon found that good manners were not the only important element of communication. Empathy was another important consideration…to put oneself in the other “person’s” shoes, and that could be attributed to animals as well. So I began to ask myself how it would feel to me if I was approached and treated the way I was treating my equines. My first epiphany was during grooming. It occurred to me that grooming tools like a shedding blade might not feel very good unless I was careful about the way I used it. Body clipping was much more tolerable for them if I did the hard-to-get places first and saved the general body for last. Standing for long periods of time certainly did not yield a calm, compliant attitude when the more tedious places were left until last. After standing for an hour or more, the animal got antsy when I was trying to do more detailed work around the legs, head, flanks and ears after the body, so I changed the order. Generally speaking, I slowed my pace and eliminated any abrupt movements on my part to give the equine adequate time to assess what I would do next and approached each task very CAREFULLY. The results were amazing! I could now groom, clip bridle paths and fly spray everyone with no halters even in their turnout areas as a herd. They were all beginning to really trust me.
There was still one more thing my grandmother had said that echoed in my brain, “You are going to be a sorry old woman if you do not learn to stand up straight and move in good posture!” Good posture is not something that we are born with. It is something that must be learned and practiced repetitiously so it becomes habitual for it to really contribute to your overall health. Good posture begins at the core, “the innermost, essential part of anything.” In a human being, it lies behind the belly button amongst the vital organs and surrounded by the skeletal frame. In a biped, upon signals from the brain, energy impulses run from the core and up from the waist, and simultaneously down through the lower body and legs. The core of an equine is at the center of balance in the torso and energy runs primarily horizontally from the core in each direction. Similar to bipeds, they need the energy to run freely along the hindquarters and down through the hind legs to create a solid foundation from which to allow the energy in front to rise into suspension to get the most efficient movement. When their weight is shifted too much onto the front end, their ability to carry a rider efficiently and move correctly is compromised. To achieve correct energy flow and efficient movement, the animal’s internal supportive structures need to be conditioned in a symmetrical way around the skeletal frame. People can do this by learning to walk with a book on their head and with Pilates exercises, but how can we affect this same kind of conditioning in a quadruped?
The first thing I noticed is when we lead our animals with the lead rope in the right hand, we drop our shoulder and are no longer in good posture. When we walk, our hand moves ever so slightly from left to right as we walk. We inadvertently move the equine’s head back and forth. They balance with their head and neck and thus, we are forcing them off balance with every step that we take; and since movement builds muscle, they are being asymmetrically conditioned internally and externally with every step we take together. In order to correct this, we must allow the animal to be totally in control of his own body as we walk together. We are cultivating proprioception or “body awareness.”
During the time you do the core strength leading exercises, you should NOT ride the animal as this will inhibit the success of these preliminary exercises. It will not result in the same symmetrical muscle conditioning, habitual behavior and new way of moving. The lessons need to be routine and done in good posture from the time you take your equine from the pen until the time you put him away for the best results. Hold the lead rope in your LEFT hand keeping slack in the lead rope, keep his head at your shoulder, match your steps with his front legs, point in the direction of travel with your right hand and look where you are going. Carry his reward of oats in a fanny pack around your waist. He’s not likely to bolt if he knows his reward is right there in the fanny pack.
Plan to move in straight lines and do gradual turns that encourage him to stay erect and bend through his rib cage, keeping an even distribution of weight through all four feet. Square him up with equal weight over all four feet EVERY TIME you stop and reward him with oats from your fanny pack. Then wait patiently for him to finish chewing. We are building NEW habits in the equine’s way of moving and the only way that can change is through routine, consistency in the routine and correctness in the execution of the exercises. Since this requires that you be in good posture as well, you will also reap the benefits from this regimen. Along with feeding correctly (explained on my website at www.luckythreeranch.com), these exercises will help equines to drop fat rolls and begin to develop the top line and abdominal strength in good posture. The spine will then be adequately supported to easily accept a rider. He will be better able to stand still as you pull on the saddle horn to mount.
When the body is in good posture, all internal organs can function properly and the skeletal frame will be supported correctly throughout his entire body. This will greatly minimize joint problems, arthritis and other anomalies that come from asymmetrical development and compromises in the body. Just as our children need routine, ongoing learning and the right kind of exercise while they are growing up, so do equines. They need boundaries for their behavior clearly outlined to minimize anxious behaviors and inappropriate behavior, and the exercises that you do together need to build strength and coordination in good equine posture. The time spent together during leading training and going forward slowly builds a good solid relationship with your equine and fosters his confidence and trust in you. He will know it is you who actually helps him to feel physically much better than he ever has.
Core muscle strength and balance must be done through correct leading exercises on flat ground. Coordination can be added to his overall carriage with the addition of negotiating obstacles on the lead rope done the same way. Once familiar with the obstacles, you will need to break them down into very small segments where the equine is asked to randomly halt squarely every couple of steps through the obstacle. You can tell when you have successfully achieved core strength in good balance when your equine will perform accurately with the lead rope slung over his neck. He will stay at your shoulder, respond to hand signals and body language only and does what is expected perfectly. A carefully planned routine coupled with an appropriate feeding program is critical to your equine’s healthy development.
The task at the leading stage is not only to teach them to follow, but to have your equine follow with his head at your shoulder as you define straight lines and gradual arcs that will condition his body symmetrically on all sides of the skeletal frame. This planned course of action also begins to develop a secure bond between you. Mirror the steps of his front legs as you go through the all movements keeping your own body erect and in good posture. Always look in the direction of travel and ask him to square up with equal weight over all four feet every time he stops and reward him. This kind of leading training develops strength and balance in the equine body at the deepest level so strengthened muscles will hold the bones, tendons and ligaments and even cartilage in correct alignment. Equines that are not in correct equine posture will have issues involving organs, joints, hooves and soft tissue trauma. This is why it is so important to spend plenty of time perfecting your techniques every time you lead your equine.
The equine next needs to build muscle so he can sustain his balance on the circle without the rider before he will be able to balance with a rider. An equine that has not had time in the round pen to establish strength, coordination and balance on the circle with the help of our postural restraint called the “Elbow Pull” will have difficulty as he will be pulled off balance with even the slightest pressure. He will most likely raise his head, hollow his back and lean like a motorcycle into the turns. When first introduced to the “Elbow Pull,” his first lesson in the round pen should only be done at the walk to teach him to give to its pressure, arch his back and stretch his spine while tightening his abs. If you ask for trot and he resists against the “Elbow Pull,” just go back to the walk until he can consistently sustain this good posture while the “Elbow Pull” stays loose. He can gain speed and difficulty as his proficiency increases.
Loss of balance will cause stress, and even panic that can result in him pulling the lead rope, lunge line or reins under saddle right out of your hands and running off. This is not disobedience, just fear from a loss of balance and it should not be punished, just ignored and then calmly go back to work. The animal that has had core strength built through leading exercises, lunging on the circle and ground driving in the “Elbow Pull” before riding will not exhibit these seemingly disobedient behaviors. Lunging will begin to develop hard muscle over the core muscles and internal supportive structures you have spent so many months strengthening during leading training exrecises. It will further enhance your equine’s ability to perform and stay balanced in action, and play patterns in turnout will begin to change dramatically as this becomes his habitual way of going. Be sure to be consistent with verbal commands during all these beginning stages as they set the stage for better communication and exceptional performance later. Although you need to spend more time in his beginning training than you might want to, this will also add to your equine’s longevity and use-life by as much as 5-10 years. The equine athlete that has a foundation of core strength in good equine posture, whether used for pleasure or show, will be a much more capable and safe performer than one that has not, and he will always be grateful to YOU for his comfort.
© 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
“Leverage” equipment refers to any restraining device or substance that is used to get an equine’s attention and obtain compliance, but many leverage practices often have the reverse effect and have the potential to cause distress and pain. This includes harsh bits, chain leads, twitches, hobbles, stocks and even medications. There are times when our equines can really be a handful, so having a little leverage when needed can be a good thing. However, deciding which equipment to use and learning how to use leverage without it becoming abusive can be a bit daunting. There are so many different types of tack, equipment and restraints that it becomes difficult to determine which would be best to use on your equine to correct a particular problem, or if you really need to use anything at all. It may only be a case of needing to be clearer in your approach, in which case, leverage equipment may not be needed. It is important to make an informed decision when using any leverage equipment to be sure that what you are using is helpful and not abusive.
One very common behavioral problem that seems to identify the need for more leverage is the mule that bolts and runs when on the lead rope. This seems like an obvious disobedience to the handler, and the first thing that comes to mind is to use a lead shank with a chain to gain control of the mule. Normal use for a lead shank is during a showmanship class at a show and it should rarely be used in training unless the equine will be shown at halter and/or showmanship. And then, training with the lead shank should be done only after the animal is following well through all required movements while in his halter and on a lead rope.
Chains are severe and when not used properly, can damage the fragile bones in the underside of the jaw, and the cartilage and bone over the nose of the equine. If the chain is pulled while simply run under the jaw and attached to the ring on the opposite side, a quick jerk can bear down hard into the delicate mandible (jawbone). If the chain is run over the nose, when abrupt pressure is applied it can injure the nasal cartilage or the incisive bones. Because they occur internally, these injuries are often imperceptible to the human eye. The only thing you might see is broken skin, scabs or bumps that arise from repeated use. When properly fitted, the chain on a lead shank goes through the ring of the halter on the left side, threads under the chin and through the ring on the right side of the noseband, and is attached at the throatlatch ring on the right side. This keeps the halter balanced and the action of the chain less severe. When using the lead shank for leverage during training, it can work on some animals but others may decide to fight which can result in injuries such as fractures, causing more severe trauma to these areas. So it is best to avoid use of the lead shank until after completing leading training with the halter and lead rope. Even then, you should learn to use the lead shank properly with the least amount of pressure possible. Avoid using halters that are made with chains. Those types of halters should only be used when showing cattle and can do serious damage to equines.
If you train for leading with a step-by-step program that incorporates a reward system during training, the mule is much less likely to bolt and pull the lead rope from your hands, and horses will not need any more leverage at all. This kind of training invites the equine to remain with you and he is rewarded lavishly when he does. If a horse spooks, you can usually stand still in balance, hang onto the lead rope and quickly regain his attention by staying calm and deliberate yourself. Normally, mules learn to comply with the reward training. However, if a mule has been spooked, he may not care much about the reward in your fanny pack and you might have the need to use something with more leverage. In this case and in cases where a mule doesn’t always comply willingly, I use a new positioning of the lead rope called a “Quick Twist.”
To employ the “Quick Twist” restraint, just take your lead rope and create a loop and feed it through the noseband of your nylon halter (rope halters are too loose and do not work) from back to front and then over the mule’s nose. When you pull on the rope, it will tighten around the end of the his nose below the incisive bones and over the cartilage, making breathing just a little difficult. Don’t keep pulling—just stand quietly and hold the tension snug. Let the equine come forward to you and slacken the rope himself by coming forward and allowing a free flow of air through his nostrils. Then, if the mule does not follow, just walk a step or two, creating tension on the rope, and then stand still again. When he does come forward, stop long enough to reward him with the oats reward before you proceed forward again. Keep the lead rope short and stand still in a balanced way so he cannot get ahead of you and jerk you off your feet. If you are standing still in a balanced position, it will be difficult for him to jerk the lead rope from your hand and leave.
If, after you’ve employed a kind, considerate and respectful approach along with a food reward, your equine is still being uncooperative, it may be appropriate to use equipment with more leverage such as the “Quick Twist,” but not necessarily chains. Chains do need to be used in some cases, such as with work harness (and most curb bits are now fitted with chains), but when not used correctly, these chains can be abusive. The chains on the pleasure driving harness should clear the legs and heels of the driving equine, and the chin chain on a curb bit should be adjusted so that it is twisted properly and lies flat against the animal’s jaw with an allowance of two fingers between the chain and the jaw, thereby minimizing any chance of injury. If you have a generally compliant equine, it is better to use a leather chin strap on your curb bit rather than a chain.
Old-time twitches were made with a chain that could be twisted around the upper lip and used to distract the equine from shots, tube worming and the like, but the main focal point for the equine then becomes the equipment and not the task and, in the wrong hands, this piece of equipment can do a lot of damage to the equine’s sensitive upper lip. Most often, the equine can be more easily distracted by a simple rap on his forehead using your knuckles. Using a twitch at all can become a source of confrontation for many equines. If a twitch must be used, choose a more humane one that is made from aluminum and has a smooth surface. This will clamp down tight enough to hold, but not so tightly on the upper lip that it causes pain or even injury.
A lot of activity when loading can cause the equine to become anxious and noncompliant and he becomes overstimulated. When having difficulty loading your equine, things will usually go better if you simply give him time to survey the situation and not allow him to back away from the trailer. One step at a time while offering a food reward (and a food reward waiting inside the trailer), with frequent pauses and encouragement to move forward from behind with a tap of the whip, will usually accomplish the task without confrontation. Most equines will willingly follow you right into the trailer if prior obstacle training has been done properly and successfully. Leverage equipment such as butt ropes only refocus the equine’s attention on the equipment and will result in confrontation.
Hobbles are another form of leverage equipment and there are many different kinds of hobbles for different purposes. The hobbles that have chains on them should be avoided, as the equine can become entangled and the chains can do damage to their legs. Thin leather hobbles or coarse rope can chafe the hair right off the skin around the pastern and can cause severe abrasions that may never heal. Thick leather hobbles are best, as they will break when under extreme stress, releasing before damage to the equine is done. If so inclined, all mules and some horses can gallop in hobbles, so hobbles really aren’t all that effective for leverage. Tying
onto a hyline (a rope suspended between two trees that acts as a hitching line for overnighting equines in the mountains) is a better choice, and if the horses are tied, then the mules should not have to be tied or hobbled because they will generally stay with the horses.
Sedation and tranquilizers are another form of leverage that is used all too often and, in some cases, can be very dangerous. Mules and donkeys may receive the correct dose, but they can be unaffected when they get over-stimulated, excited and confrontational. They can actually “pop out” of sedation if they get excited enough to release adrenaline in their bodies. In these cases, administering another dose of drugs can easily become an overdose and could result in death. Sedating an equine that is to be trimmed or shod can be dangerous for both the farrier and the equine because the animal is not able to stabilize his balance and his reactions are, for the most part, uncontrolled. The farrier may not have time to get out of the way and the animal could stumble into trouble.
Power tools can be of help to a veterinarian or an equine dentist when doing teeth. Old-fashioned rasps are safer than power tools, but they are clearly more of an aggravation to the equine. However, if power tools are to be used at all, they must be carefully monitored. When floating teeth, the equine dentist must be skilled in the use of his grinding tool and should do only what is necessary to remove sharp points on the equine’s teeth. Power tools can be a good thing when you are dealing with an equine’s mouth and jaw, as having their mouths held open for long periods of time is very tiring for them, so speed is essential, but accuracy and skill are also essential.
I do not approve of using power tools on the equine’s hooves at all. In order for the equine’s body to be properly balanced in good posture, the hooves must first be properly balanced. Power tools cannot possibly shape the hoof with proper curvature in the sole, alignment of angles and equal balance over the hoof walls with appropriate pressure to the heels and frog. This demands hands-on custom sculpting, as each foot on each equine will be different and all four feet need to be aligned with each individual’s legs and body in mind. The hooves are the basic foundation for the entire body, so they must be done correctly or everything else will be off. This is especially true with the tiny hooves of mini donkeys and mules. Minis can often be kept calm for trims simply by keeping things at their eye level and rewarding their good behavior with crimped oats.
There are things that may seem to allow for shortcuts through certain tasks, but when you are dealing with living creatures there really are no shortcuts. It is always better to take the necessary time to implement training techniques that allow your equine to learn and grow in a logical, step-by-step process that will not overwhelm him or bombard him with too much stimulus at any stage, so that he can become a comfortable and cooperative individual. If you use the correct methods right from the beginning, the need for excessive retraints (that can cause pain and even more resistance) will be greatly diminished and the long-term results will be undeniably better.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
As humans, we tend to complicate our lives—filling them with people, things, goals and tasks, until we’re too busy to think. For a mule or donkey (and even other equines), it’s different. The equine has no “to do’s,” no “ought-have’s,” or “ought-to’s.” He takes things as they come, considers his response in the moment, and stays open to possibility. This year, why not resolve to be more like your mule or donkey? Consider your priorities and look at your relationship with him from his perspective. Stop to smell the roses, and during those inevitable challenging moments, put yourself in your mule’s shoes. Think like he does and you may be surprised at the response you get.
No doubt, this is a tall order. After all, we humans tend to begin with the end in mind, and the process is just a means to that end. Training, for example, is a process. We attempt to train with a goal in mind. Our goal at the Lucky Three Ranch is to improve the equine’s performance as well as our own. Most of us train with the expectation that improvement will occur, and most of us add the self-imposed pressure to improve within a certain amount of time. The notion that the training—the process itself—could be the goal is foreign to many of us. But consider it. What if we trained for the pure pleasure of spending time with our equine while using the values we hold dear like respect, kindness, consideration and consistency in our behavior? How different would the experience be for us and for him?
Today’s general horse training techniques do not generally work well with mules and donkeys. Most horse training techniques used today speed up the training process so people can ride or drive sooner and it makes the trainers’ techniques more attractive, but most of these techniques do not adequately prepare the equine physically in good posture for the added stress of a rider on his back. Mules and donkeys have a very strong sense of self preservation and need work that builds their bodies properly so they will feel good in their new and correct posture, or you won’t get the kind of results you might expect. Forming a good relationship with your equine begins with a consistent maintenance routine and appropriate groundwork. Most equines don’t usually get the well-structured and extended groundwork training on the lead rope that paves the way to good balance, core muscle conditioning and a willing attitude. This is essential if he is truly expected to be physically and mentally prepared for future equine activities. With donkeys and mules, this is critically important.
No matter how old or how well trained the equine, they still need time doing the simplest of things to get to know you before they will learn to trust and have confidence in you. The exercises that you do should build the body slowly, sequentially and in good equine posture. No human or equine is born in good posture. It is something that needs to be taught and practiced repetitively if it is to become a natural way of moving the body.
When the body is in good posture, all internal organs can function properly and the skeletal frame will be supported correctly. Just as our children need routine, ongoing learning and the right kind of exercise while they are growing up, so do equines. They need boundaries for their behavior clearly outlined to minimize anxious behaviors and inappropriate behavior, and the exercises that you do together need to build their strength and coordination in good equine posture. The time spent together during leading training and going forward builds a good solid relationship with your equine and fosters his confidence and trust in you because you actually help him to feel physically better. A carefully planned routine and an appropriate feeding program is critical to healthy development.
I have found that equines, especially mules and donkeys, bond to the person who trains them. When they go away to other people, they do not get the benefit of this bonding and can become resistant over time when they return home. After all, you wouldn’t ask someone else to go out and make a friend for you, would you? This is the primary reason I put my entire training program in books and videos, in a natural order like grade school is for children, for people to use as a resistance free correspondence training course instead of doing clinics and seminars.
I embraced this philosophy long ago. Through a painstaking process that involved a fair amount of trial and error, I determined that my ambitions as a competitor made little impression on my equines and that it was the level of respect, compassion and empathy that I brought to my relationship with each one that served us best in the show ring. My animals would do anything for me, but not because they had the same lofty performance goals I had. It’s because we truly enjoy being together regardless of what we’re doing or working on. Really, it’s because we’re friends, and that’s what friends do for each other. It’s a very unselfish relationship.
My friendships with my equines are as integral to their outstanding performance and versatility as their physical training. In my training series, Training Mules and Donkeys, and the complementary manuals and DVD series, Equus Revisited: A Complete Approach to Athletic Conditioning, I explain how to build that relationship even as you develop your equine’s physical foundation. Just as he learns to move in balanced frame day by day, moment by moment, your equine also grows to trust you and take pleasure in your mutual effort. In fact, training for the pure pleasure of it is what your mule does. He’s not thinking about the next show, or how much better or worse so-and-so is. He’s not even pondering what happened yesterday or what might be coming down the pike tomorrow. He’s out there, with you, experiencing what’s going on right now, period. In that respect, he’s no different from his ancestors who spent their days roaming and grazing. So why not join him? Why not assume a degree of responsibility and respect for him that says: I will set my goals and work to achieve them, but never at the expense of our friendship.
We love our animals, but sometimes we forget to enjoy them! It’s my ultimate goal, to learn from them. I believe it’s our ultimate responsibility to let them be who they are and give them the care, love and respect that they so richly deserve.
© 2007, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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.
© 2013, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
As the lines between suburbia and rural living continue to blur and subdivision dwellers encounter the sights, smells and sounds of farm and ranch life, lifestyles collide and questions arise about how to treat both sides fairly. There are no easy answers, but one important point to consider, as city and county councils all over the country debate these issues, is the great benefit equine centers in particular can provide for their communities.
Anyone who’s fortunate enough to have exposure to equines knows that time spent with these animals is the best antidote to the stress of today’s world. For young and old alike, the therapeutic benefit of equines is undeniable. Working with horses, mules and donkeys promotes:
Boarding and training facilities, therapeutic riding centers and other equine-related facilities are part of our national landscape both literally and figuratively. The suburban resident whose house abuts a horse, donkey or mule farm might not enjoy the animals’ early-morning vocalizations or the pungent smell of manure, but we can only hope he or she can appreciate the value of a young person learning to be a better communicator, a diligent worker and a dutiful caretaker for another being. This must be considered during discussions of ways to regulate these equine businesses so they are not constrained to the point where they cannot sustain themselves.
My Colorado-based Loveland Longears Museum and Sculpture Park at Lucky Three Ranch is located only a short distance from a rapidly increasing sub-urban community and was recently involved in this kind of discussion in my county. As a trainer, author, producer and advocate for equines and especially Longears, I know the immeasurable value of the time I’ve spent with these animals. Through my support of Hearts & Horses, Northern Colorado’s renowned therapeutic riding center, I have developed a profound appreciation for their work and the work of other facilities like them.
These businesses and organizations don’t have big budgets. Yet, they provide an incredibly valuable service to the community, and we should be diligent about making sound decisions where they are concerned and promote sponsorships and donations on their behalf to keep these valuable services going forward into the future.
Urban growth continues to be an issue, but just as developers are increasingly called upon to give wetlands and natural habitats a wide berth, they should also give equine facilities the same consideration. Developers who bulldoze the countryside without a true understanding of the nature of the land do a disservice not only to rural inhabitants but also to the very consumers they serve. Developers know their job, but rural people know their land and animals. They know that you don’t build next to ponds and reservoirs unless you want an annual invasion of mosquitoes and possible flooding. They know that weeds don’t distinguish between one property and another and, if not managed properly, can easily jump the fence to infiltrate the neighbor’s hayfield. Rural farmers and ranchers know about water, about waste, about food production—the list goes on. It just makes sense that we should provide greater leniency in the regulation of equine business owners, not only for what they do but also for the knowledge they possess.
Because I am someone that has operated an equine training and breeding facility for more than four decades, my interest in rural education is paramount. In addition to management and training books, DVDs and television shows, I produced Walk On: Exploring Therapeutic Riding as part of my documentary series, Those Magnificent Mules. This therapeutic riding television program and DVD drew an enthusiastic response from therapeutic riding program operators and participants all over the country, thanking me for shining a positive light on these organizations. We also offer tours of my ranch to help educate a public that might not be familiar with ranch life and rural art.
Visitors who come to meet my animals and tour the grounds invariably gain a new perspective on equine training and the facilities where it’s done. They are enamored by the life-sized bronzes of all kinds of Longears that grace the ranch. By highlighting the benefits of these kinds of facilities to our communities, we might change people’s aggravation to smiles when they hear the sound of a donkey’s bray coming through the window bright and early in the morning!
© 2014, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
In the beginning, my home, Lucky Three Ranch was a 10-acre sheep ranch with a small house and hay barn, an old Quonset hut, a feed barn, four three-sided sheds, and a perimeter fence made from sheep fencing with barbed wire on top. It was crossed-fenced around the sheds with some heavily chewed board fences and anything else the previous owner thought could be used for fencing. I’d already had experience with horses, but it wasn’t until my first mule, Lucky Three Sundowner and my first donkey jack, Little Jack Horner, finally arrived at the new Lucky Three Ranch that my lessons with Longears really began!
One of the first things I found out about Longears is that they are incredible artists, and they will “sculpt” anything and everything they can get their teeth, rumps or hooves on! My Longears immediately set to work sculpting the posts on three sheds that were near the house and the fence posts around them. We tried everything to get this to stop, but to no avail, and in three short years, we ended up with posts that were no bigger than toothpicks in some places and marvelously contoured from top to bottom, into all kinds of remarkable shapes. We hated to put a cramp in our mules’ artistic style but, clearly, the wooden posts and sheds had to be replaced.
By now, we had bred three more mules, so while we were working on replacing the three sheds, we put the whole herd of mules and mares into a five-acre pasture. One day, while we were working on the new sheds, the whole herd suddenly showed up behind us! Apparently, one of our equines had pulled a “Houdini,” opening the gate and letting everyone out of the pasture. Being the affectionate and curious animals they are, our Longears (and horses) then decided they’d better come see if we needed any help.
When we rounded up the herd and took them back to the pasture, we almost fell over! The herd had sculpted all three support posts on the last existing shed that was in the pasture, so it now looked just like the other three sheds we had just replaced!
With all this creative woodworking going on, we realized the new barn would have to be made of steel. We built a 14-stall, Port-A-Stall barn with steel panels in the runs, and stall floors six inches higher than the floor of the barn alleyway to help keep it from flooding. We added four inches of pea gravel in the runs for good drainage but, after several seasons, the runs on the north side of the barn began to get soft and muddy again and more pea gravel was needed. Rather than doing the runs one run at a time, the seven mules on the north side of the barn were turned out, and we took down only the panels on the north side, so the delivery truck could dump the pea gravel directly on the site. The remaining mules on the south side of the barn were left in their stalls and runs.
It took us all day long to take down the panels, and by the end of the day, we were pretty exhausted. The truck would be bringing the additional pea gravel the next day, so we wrapped up the chores and went to bed. What I didn’t know was that Lucky Three Eclipse (aka “Ely” in the last stall on the south side) had been watching us all day long through the openings in the barn doors. When we came out in the morning, we found that Ely had pulled the pins from the side panels, and by putting his head through the bars of each panel, had arranged them into a huge pen for himself that ran the full length of the barn, trapping the other mules and the stallion in their stalls! Now that the south side pens were also opened up, we decided to use the first truckload of pea gavel on the south side pens and ordered yet another load of pea gravel for the north side pens. After we got the pea gravel in place on the south side, we put the panels back where they belonged, freeing the other mules and stallion on the south side from their stalls. We then put Ely back where he belonged in his stall and pen on the far end, finished the north side pens, returned all the mules from the north side of the barn back into their stalls and runs, and finally got things settled down. I can guarantee you we all had a new appreciation for Ely’s ingenuity!
We spent the next several years taking down barbed wire, mending old field fences and replacing the old sheds with steel Port-A-Stall sheds, replacing cross fences with vinyl, building two more steel barns and lining our indoor arena with steel. As we all know, Longears are very intelligent, and they will use their “smarts” to figure out a way to simplify a task. If you want to step over a fence but it’s a little too high, what do you do? Well, if you’re a mule, you sit on it to push it down, and then you can step over it. Although the horse fencing we used to replace the sheep fencing was fairly high, my Longears still managed to sit on the middle of it, bowing it out into incredible, irregular shapes…after they had first shorted out the hotwire, of course. This was their daily ritual. Maybe they had a crew meeting first thing every morning and planned how they’d do it. Who knows?
But to this day, I still don’t know how they shorted out the hotwire! One thing my Longears have taught me through our years together is that, if you are going to have mules, you’d better learn to have a good sense of humor or you will never survive their pranks! We learned to drill holes in the posts for a hotwire across the top of the new vinyl fencing and that worked very well, but that was only after they had removed all the vinyl rails from the fence overnight. They were delighted that I had given them their own “Tinker Toy” set. They never left the pen, although they could have! Each time our mules have made “art,” pulled pranks, or managed amazing escapes, we learned how to improve our system and materials, until finally upgrading to an all-steel facility with vinyl fencing topped with a relatively inaccessible hotwire. Now we no longer need to worry about what the mules and donkeys might do…until the next time. (PLEASE don’t tell Ely I said that!)
© 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 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.