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Wrangler always eagerly awaits his weekly lessons! When things are predictable and are not “drilled,” your equine will look forward to his time with you. I always try to keep lessons short (30-40 minutes), done in a logical order and consistent in the task executions. For instance, we always walk the same way, with the lead in my left hand, with a loose connection to his head to encourage self-carriage, repeated verbal commands and I walk with my feet in sync with his front legs. The gates are always executed the same way. He is rewarded with crimped oats from my fanny pack when halted and waits patiently while I close and latch the gate. Even though Chasity is tied outside of the Round Pen, Wrangler’s attention is 100% on me. Minimizing distractions by being consistent with the way we do things will create a solid base of habitually good behavior.
Wrangler continues to stand quietly while I make sure his saddle is centered in the middle of his back and the tension on the crupper is adequate, but not too tight. He should be able to relax his tail. I check both girths to make sure they are snug but not too tight (the front girth tighter than the rear girth), adjust the tension on the “Elbow Pull” and make sure the fleece at the poll is centered to prevent undue chafing when he has to “lean” on the “Elbow Pull.” The “Elbow Pull” will not tie his head down, but it will prevent him from raising his head so high that he inverts his neck and spine. It will assure that he is in a good balanced equine posture during his workout.
I first ask Wrangler to walk for five rotations before asking him to trot. Occasionally, he will be so full of energy that he offers the trot first. If he trots, I just adjust and let him do five rounds of trot first and let him walk five rotation afterwards. To start, I only asked for walk and trot until Wrangler began to break into canter by himself. I then added one rotation at canter after the five rotations at trot before allowing him to walk.
I will add one more rotation at canter in each of the upcoming lessons. Then his warm-ups will consist of five rotations of each…walk, trot, canter, walk…then a reverse, and the same progression in the opposite direction before mounting him. He should always slow to a walk before executing the reverse so it is done in good postural balance.
This will begin to improve his balance and build his bulk muscle symmetrically.
After checking both girths one more time, Wrangler stands stock still as I mount him. I offer his oats on both sides as I did in our first mounting session in the Tack Barn. This is to make sure I keep his attention on ME! The oats are taken politely. He fully understands that these are NOT treats, only REWARDS for good behavior.
Once mounted and and seated in balance, I ask Wrangler for a rein back with a few more steps than he had done in his previous lesson. He responds nicely to the squeeze/release motion of my lttle fingers.
I keep a very light contact with the bit as we proceed forward. We add circles at random points along the rail to add variety to the workout and keep it interesting. We work on staying erect while he bends to the arc of the circles through his rib cage.
Wrangler’s “Elbow Pull” remains consistently loose as he walks leisurely along the rail and executes the “S” turns for changes in direction.
Wrangler gives Chasity a wink as he passes the spot where she is tied along the rail. She is proud of how well her “beau” is doing and watches intently! Wrangler is soft, flexible and elastic in the bridle. This is exactly what I want from him. We will be able to graduate to a larger area next week!
Wrangler spotted a jogger coming toward us along the road and didn’t quite finish his square halt, but halted nevertheless. I prudently waited for the jogger to go by before I asked him for a rein back and he complied easily.
I think too many of us get in too much of a hurry to RIDE and forget that our equine athletes need the same consideration from us that human athletes get from their coaches. They need to do exercises that prepare their bodies for the “game.” When they are adquately prepared, their skeleton is symmetrically supported, joints are able to operate as intended and do not develop arthritis from uneven wear of the cartilage, and the internal organs can function in good health at maximum capacity. When we are patient and take the time to prepare our equines properly, there is much to be gained…a happy and willing equine companion that is capable of performing to their optimum ability. Training really CAN be safe and resistance-free! Being herdbound is not an issue because they really enjoy being with YOU as much as, if not more than, they enjoy being with their equine friends!
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.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In the many years of the management and training of equines, I have learned how much the details really count! I learned about how much easier things can be when you are open minded and allow your education to grow. For instance, I learned how to train without the bit and bridle, but then learned that in doing so, I was not able to control postural development in the equine’s body. Thus, I invented my “Elbow Pull” as a response to Richard Shrake’s “Rhythm Collector.” I also found out that my “Elbow Pull” could be used in conjunction with the mild Eggbutt snaffle bit in a multitude of different ways, even for tying an animal. It is practically weightless and easily slips through the bit rings for optimum adjustment while the equine is in motion. It does need to be adjusted differently with horses, but the results are amazing as you can see with Chasity’s physical improvement.
Chasity’s huge cresty neck is practically gone now and the neck sweat has not been needed since she graduated to the Round Pen. This was because I have been repetitious in the way we execute ALL movements, even going through gates, in good equine posture! When we do this, Chasity uses ALL the muscles in her body to do these moves, and in this case, stretches across her spine to pull the Supraspinous ligament back into alignment while reducing the fatty tissues with efficient metabolic circulation. She is a lot more comfortable in her body, so standing quietly is no longer an issue.
Chasity has learned her verbal commands and responds promptly and quietly. Since donkeys do not freely exhibit as much energy as horses and mules, I only ask for five rotations at walk followed by five rotations at trot. As she is better able to keep her balance in good posture, the “Elbow Pull” remains loose, with very little tension throughout her whole workout.
Only now, instead of halting, resting and then changing direction, I do the whole exercise with a reverse in the middle for the change of direction. Her core is becoming more stable in her self-carriage. The muscles across her spine are becoming stronger and better able to support the weight of a rider.
She is relaxed, moves freely forward and most of the time halts four-square. Since she was a bit sticky with the reverse under saddle during her last lesson, I will add a step and ask for the reverse from the ground first.
Chasity understands what I mean and backs easily upon the command to “Back.” I then walk to the other end of the Round Pen and ask her to come to me with a verbal “Come,” also using hand signals. There is nothing more important than communicating clearly.
I politely ask Chasity to “Whoa,” with my hand put up like a “Stop” sign, and then mount her while she stands still. I pay special attention to lowering my seat slowly onto her back.
As I did in the Tack Barn when I first mounted her, I lean over to both sides and offer her reward of crimped oats for standing still, sit quietly in the saddle while she chews and then asked her to first rein back. I keep my contact VERY light, with an alternating squeeze/release from my little fingers on the reins, and a backward motion from my legs and seat.
When ready to go forward, I nudge her with my legs and then WAIT for her response. If she does not move right away, I nudge her again after waiting a few seconds. It will often take donkeys a little longer to THINK about what you are asking. It is far more productive to give them that time. Chasity walks off obediently and keeps her mind on her work as she passes Wrangler, waiting patiently for HIS turn!
I now add small circles randomly as we walk around the Round Pen. We pay special attention to staying erect and bending through the rib cage. I keep things slow, controlled and accurate.
We do “S” turns through the middle of the Round Pen to change direction. Speed can come later as the strength in good posture is developed and the connection to her bit remains light at all times.
I have discovered with this approach, there is hardly ever (if ever) any resistance or bad behaviors. Lessons go smoothly and safely for both of you. This is something I greatly appreciate with age!
Chasity maintains her good balance and cooperative attitude as we ride for about 15 minutes, practicing the circles, halts, “S” turns and reverses. Chasity comes to a “square” halt. I wait quietly for a few seconds.
Then I ask Chasity for a rein back and she compies easily…still light in the bridle. I dismount and tell her how pleased I am with her. I playfully massage her upper gums to illicit a smile! They like having their gums rubbed!
It was a very satifsfying workout for us both! Chasity follows me as we exit the Round Pen and get ready for Wrangler’s turn! Allowing one animal to wait while another is worked, makes it easier to do the training. They seem to get support from their “Friends.” Occasionally working them alone as they gain confidence lets them know that being with you can always be fun and that you will always return them to their friends. This approach allows you to deepen the relationship between you, so you become as good a friend to them as their equine companions. This greatly eliminates the incidence of your equine becoming herdbound.
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!
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.
© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Wrangler has now completed his preparation for efficiently carrying a rider while staying in good equine posture with adequate core strength. Doing these kinds of logical and sequential exercises in a consistent manner makes all the difference in an equine’s physical development and mental attitude. Groundwork needn’t be boring for either you or your donkey. Doing these exercises the same way, every time, creates an unbreakable bond and deep understanding of what is expected between you. Before mounting your donkey in the Round Pen, there is one more interim step that needs to be done to keep your donkey standing still and his attention on you as you mount him. In the grooming area, I will mount the donkey and have him take oats from both sides of his body as we stand there. Then we will go to the Round Pen, do the preparatory lunging he has done before and mount in the same fashion. This will set up your donkey for success!
By now, your donkey should know his verbal commands and will not be complelled to just take off at the trot. He will walk leisurely along the perimeter of the Round Pen until you ask for the trot. He will remain in good posture and keep the “Elbow Pull” loose throughout his workout. He will have a rounded topline and overall balance that can easily support the added weight of a rider. Wrangler is doing beautifully!
After five rotations at walk and five rotations at trot, I ask Wrangler to slow to a walk. I then turn away from him in the opposite direction he is traveling and step in front of him to encourage him to reverse.
Then I send him to the rail for five more rotations at walk and then five at the trot. Wrangler is relaxed and moving freely forward. He is obviously strong in his balance and ready to be ridden.
I ask Wrangler to “Whoa,” reward him for his stellar performance and ask him to stand four-square with equal weight over all four feet in preparation for mounting. I do not want to throw him off balance as I pull my weight into the saddle. Most equines will move if they feel a loss of balance. I politely mount and settle my seat easily in the saddle. I do not rudely plop myself down on his back.
As soon as I was mounted, I balanced myself in the saddle and offered rewards for standing still from both sides. My first move while mounted was the rein back. This would get his attention off bolting and put his mind on a task he can easily do. He is then rewarded again and happy with his accomplishment.
We walked for two rotations tracking to the left and then did an “S” turn through the middle of the Round Pen to change directions. I paid special attention while bending his body through the “S” turn to keep Wrangler’s body erect. I encouraged him to bend through his rib cage to make the turn smooth, forward and fluid.
We did two more rotations at the walk, then I asked for a balanced and correctly executed reverse. It is important to pay attention to the minute details while working slowly. This will promote accuracy later when you speed things up.
I walked Wrangler into a smooth and balanced halt. I made sure my own body was over the center of balance and that my hands and legs were even on both sides. I waited quietly for a few second to allow him to settle.
Then I asked Wrangler for a rein back with a pull/release action on both reins, but added a little more alternate pressure from one side to the other in sync with the front legs that were coming backwards. Wrangler did very well for his first riding session, so I thought it best to quit while we were ahead. It is easier for your donkey to learn when you keep lessons short and productive. Drilling for hours never really works…they just get tired and can’t really listen or perform well.
Although Chasity waits calmly while she is tied and Wrangler is working, he has to play with the artificial flowers in the planter when it is his turn to be tied. Next time, I will remove the temptation of the flowers! After Chasity finished her workout, we all made our way back to the work station. It was another successful and enjoyable training session for all of us!
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.
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.
© 1989, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
Chasity has come a long way since the end of March. She has worked hard and is now enjoying true strength in a balanced and correct equine posture. Her health has greatly improved as has her mental attitude. She is happy to be working with her companion Wrangler and they both enjoy being able to share their lessons. Sometimes they are walked together to the Round Pen and sometimes they are taken separately. This promotes independence while preserving their friendships with each other. I do not believe in deliberately separating my equines from their equine friends as that will only create anxiety. I want them to know that I am also a friend that they would like to spend time with or without their other companions. Sometimes they are worked alone and sometimes they are worked together. Tying one outside the Round Pen while working the other teaches them to stand quietly while tied with purposeful patience. I leave nothing to chance, so I break everything down into doable steps to promote success. Chasity is mounted in the work station first and rewarded with crimped oats from her back. This routine will keep her attention when we finally go to the Round Pen as she is mounted.
Chasity executes the gate perfectly, stands quietly to have her “Elbow Pull” adjusted and is then sent on the rail to lunge in preparation for mounting. She is now keeping her “Elbow Pull” loose at all times. Her balance and good posture is exceptional now considering her imperfect conformational restrictions.
I slow Chasity to the walk before asking her to execute a nice balanced reverse and she complies easily. It is important in the beginning to keep things slow and accurate. Speed can come later with much better results.
Chasity will now walk on command and will not change her gait until she is asked. She fully understands the verbal commands. She has smooth, upward and downward transitions as she changes gaits. She promises to be a smooth ride!
I ask Chasity for a halt and offer her a reward for a job well done! She is patient and stands quietly as I mount.
As I did in the work station, I offer her a reward from both sides. When she has finished chewing her oats, I ask her for the rein back. I use an even squeeze/release on the reins with a bit more pressure on one side and then the other as each front leg comes back. Even one step is sufficient for now. Chasity will give more with each new lesson.
Chasity walks calmly forward and I sit quietly to allow her to balance my weight. She keeps her body erect and bends through her rib cage as she executes an “S” turn through the middle to change direction. It is important to execute these moves with the lightest pull from my little fingers on the reins to encourage Chasity to become ultra-light in the bridle.
Donkeys tend to “lean” on the bit, so doing this kind of work in the Round Pen is really important if you want your donkey to be light in the bridle and respond to the lightest pressure from your seat, fingers and legs.
Be prepared to spend a lot of time on this. It will enhance all your donkey’s responses to your cues. Chasity executes a nice reverse and maintains her ideal balance at the walk afterwards. This is not easy for her to do with her hips being higher than her shoulders, but I am very pleased with her progress. She will only get better!
Chasity does a perfect halt, but is a bit reluctant to rein back. This move is difficult for her, so I will just take my time and accept what she has to offer. I know she is always honest in her attempts. One step is good, so I call it quits and reward her efforts.
Wrangler is outside the Round Pen waiting patiently for his “Lady Love” to complete her lesson. Then we all head back to the work station after our enjoyable time together! More lessons will promote more learning and more refined performance! We all look forward to our time together!
By Meredith Hodges
A donkey jack can be your best friend or your worst enemy! Because he is a donkey, he possesses all the wonderful characteristics particular to donkeys—intelligence, strength, easy maintenance, suitability for many equine sports and, probably most important, an innate affectionate attitude. You must, however, realize that he is still an intact male, often governed by the hormones in his body. When nature takes over, the jack’s conscious thought is greatly diminished and he can become quite hazardous to your health. The jack’s aggressiveness is often masked by his sedate and affectionate attitude, but it can arise in a split second and do more damage than even a stallion. Usually, there is an awkwardness, or indecisiveness, in an agitated stallion that will allow you time to get out of the way, but the jack reacts strongly, swiftly and right on target, allowing you little or no time for retreat. By keeping a few simple things in mind, you can greatly reduce your chances of injury when handling jacks.
First, try to keep your jack in a comfortable atmosphere. Jacks can be great worriers, particularly about their mares and jennets. Ideally, you should keep the jack well out of sight and smell of the females, but this is not always practical. If he must be near females, make sure your jack has a roomy area, free of refuse and debris, and adequately fenced. The fences should be high enough to discourage his leaning over the top and strong enough to bear his weight on impact. Also, they must be constructed so that there are no protrusions that could cause him injury. If females (or other animals) are present, the jack may run back and forth along the fence and catch his head on anything that is protruding. Hot wires along the inside of a weaker fence will often serve this purpose. However, a hot wire used alone is not sufficient. If your jack becomes frightened, he could run through an electric wire before he even knows that it is there. Giving him a clean, comfortable area where his limits are clearly defined will help him to be a calmer and more manageable animal.
Always make sure your jack’s pen is cleaned daily and that he has free access to clean water, a trace mineral salt block and good grass hay. If he gains too much weight with free choice grass hay, then simply limit his intake to two flakes at each feeding in the morning and evening. He can have a limited amount of oats during one feeding a day (preferably in the evenings), mixed with an appropriate vitamin supplement such as Sho Glo, and one ounce of Mazola corn oil (I suggest this particular brand—other brands of corn oils are not the same) for management of his coat, his feet and his digestive tract regularity. During feeding times, you should check him from top to bottom for any new changes to his body like cuts, bruises, lameness, etc. This is also a good way to reinforce his acceptance of being handled all over and to solidify your relationship with him. This consistent management practice paves the way for good manners in the jack, because he then knows with no uncertainty that you are a true friend and really do care about his well-being.
Many people opt to keep jacks in solitude, but this is not really good for them. Being a natural herd animal, they need social interaction. When they don’t have company nearby, jacks can become depressed (donkeys have actually been known to die from depression—they can stop eating and simply give up). To remedy this, jacks can be pastured or penned next to other animals, as long as the fencing is adequate between them. Of course, you also need to take into consideration the personality types of the animals involved, as well as being careful to make sure they are compatible. This can fulfill their need for companionship and keep them happy in confinement. As long as there are no cycling horse or donkey females around, jacks can be pastured next to mules of both genders. I had my own jack, Little Jack Horner, penned next to our teaser stallion for many years and they actually liked each other! We never had any trouble with them at all.
You can spend more time with your jack by using him for more than just breeding. Animals, like people, always do better when they have a regular job to do that affords them some purpose in life beyond propagation. Some sort of job will give your jack an alternative purpose, which can help to diffuse his obsession with the female. It will also attend to the strength of his core muscles that surround the skeletal system and vital organs and teach him self-discipline. And it affords more time for you to develop your relationship with him, have fun together and to deepen the bond between you, which helps the jack to develop a healthy mental attitude. There are many jack owners who use their jacks for riding and driving, as well as for breeding. This is an excellent and actually the best plan, but if you lack the time or inclination to use your jack this way and wish to use him exclusively for breeding, you should still take some time—at least two or three days a week—to work on halter training and groundwork, such as ground driving, for manageability. Teach your jack to walk, trot, whoa and stand still on the lead. During these sessions, keep a positive and relaxed attitude, with more emphasis on your rapport with him than on his performance. Be his friend so he has something to look forward to besides females and breeding, and he will have a much better attitude overall.
When he is flawless with his leading training, you can get him used to the bridle and a surcingle or lightweight saddle, and then move on to ground driving. Lunging is not as important, since most donkeys do not like to lunge. I suppose they don’t see much purpose in going around in a circle more than once to come back to the same place over and over again. Taking the time to properly train your donkey jack at halter and in the drivelines will enhance his obedience, and will make him more comfortable and relaxed. During the breeding process, it can even speed up his readiness.
When using your jack for breeding, develop a routine that he can count on every time. When you go to the stall or pen to catch the jack, wait for him to come to you at the gate or stall door, and then reward him with oats when he comes to you. Then put on the halter, ask him to take one step backwards, and then reward him again (which is very important to prevent him from running over you and barging through the gate or out the door). If you are going to breed him, the mare should first be prepared. Next, once you are both out the door, ask him to whoa and square up all four feet. Then you can lead him to the breeding area, where you can then tie him to the hitch rail a little ways away from the waiting mare. By being consistent in your manner of going from the stall to the breeding area, the jack will learn not to be pushy and aggressive toward you.
When in the breeding area, your jack must be taught patience and obedience. If the mare is left to stand just out of reach until he is ready to breed, he may consider this a tease and may become anxious and unruly. To clarify your intentions to him, you can take the cloth you used to clean the mare and place it over the hitch rail near your jack’s nose. This way, he can get a good, strong scent of the mare, which will more quickly ready him for breeding and substantially decrease his anxiety time. If he is an indifferent jack, this can actually increase his interest in the female and, in turn, shorten the actual breeding process time. The fact that you brought him the scent allows the jack to believe that it is your decision when to breed and not his and that he must remain obedient. Let him cover the mare only when he is fully ready and make him walk to her in a gentlemanly fashion. If he becomes too aggressive and starts to drag you just return him to his place on the hitch rail, hold him there for a minute, reward him when he stands still and then re-approach the mare.
Just to be on the safe side with your jack while breeding, use either a muzzle or a dropped noseband (snugly fit low on his nose)—this will prevent biting injuries to you or to the mare. When he is finished, make him stand quietly behind the mare while you rinse him off. Allow him that last sniff to the mare’s behind, and then take him back to his stall (or pen), ask him to stand still while you remove the halter and then let him go. That last sniff appears to be an assertion of his act and of his manhood. If you try to lead him away before he sniffs, he might not come with you and he might become even more aggressive toward the mare. Remember to do things with your jack in a routine way, and always with safety in mind—this will allow him to relax and use the manners he has learned. NOTE: Women who are menstruating should never handle jacks or stallions during that particular time, since the scent can trigger aggressive and dangerous behaviors in these animals.
When you are around a jack, you must always be alert and know what he is doing at all times. A jack can be the most adorable, loveable, obedient guy in the world, but you must realize that his natural instincts can arise at any time and, although he may not do it intentionally, he can severely hurt you just the same. And when observing a jack from the other side of the fence, always remember that he can come over the top of that fence, teeth bared, so don’t ever turn your back to him or become complacent around him!
Lastly, when putting on or taking off any of his headgear, watch your fingers—when a jack knows the bit is coming, he often opens his jaws to meet it (with anticipation of the bit on a bridle), and your fingers can easily get in the way. Rather than a standard lead rope, it is advisable to use a lead shank with stallions and jacks for the best control. However, I discourage running the chain of a lead shank either through the mouth or over the nose. The correct position for a lead shank is under the jaw. Run the end of the chain through the ring on the near side of the halter noseband, then under the jaw, then through the ring on the opposite side of the noseband, and then clip it to the ring at the throatlatch on the right side of his face. This gives you enough leverage to control him without the halter twisting on his face. If you have spent plenty of time and done your homework during his leading lessons, your jack will learn to be obedient on the lead shank, even during breeding.
Retired jacks still need regular attention and proper maintenance to stay healthy into their senior years. Donkeys that do not receive good core muscle maintenance throughout their lives will often begin to sag drastically in the spine as they age. Their gait then becomes stilted, because their balance and strength are severely compromised. They can no longer track properly while moving or square up correctly when at rest. This can lead to irregular calcification in the joints, depression because they don’t feel well and premature health problems. On the other hand, the jack who has had a consistent and healthy management and training routine will enjoy longevity. If you keep these basic management and safety factors in mind, you and your jack can have a long, happy and mutually rewarding relationship!
© 1990, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, we addressed the steps involved in employing the reward system of training properly whereby desired behaviors are rewarded promptly and negative reinforcement is quick, fair and used sparingly. In Part 2, I will explain how to break down more complex movements into smaller steps that are simple and easy to accomplish, and then how to string them together in order to get the desired response from your equine.
Shaping behaviors takes reinforcement to the next level. Now you are working with the tendency of an animal to perform in the right way and guiding that performance toward your ultimate goal. This is called successive approximation. For example, if you are teaching a turn on the haunches on the lead line, you must first ask for one step forward. Then walk toward your animal’s shoulder and ask for the turn. In order to teach him to plant his rear pivot foot before the turn, the process must be broken down into smaller steps. First, ask for the step forward and reward him immediately when he complies. Then move on and ask for one step forward and one to the side, rewarding him again when he’s successful. Then ask for one step forward and two to the side and reward, and so forth.
Eventually, your animal will complete as many steps as you desire and, at the same time, learn to cross one foot over the other and only do as many steps as you ask. B.F. Skinner describes shaping behavior as a response that must first occur for other reasons before it is reinforced with a reward and becomes an operant or “action of choice.” A complex response such as executing the entire turn all at once would never occur naturally correct to be reinforced if you simply “turned the animal around.” He could not possibly understand that he must place the pivot foot before the turn is executed, and would most likely just “swap ends,” with no pivot foot placement and no finesse to the turn. However complex responses can be shaped by separately reinforcing their component parts. Then these parts can be put together in the final form of the operant or “desired action.”
An example of shaping a behavior by breaking it down into a string of very small steps is how I taught my donkey, Little Jack Hornerto canter. Although many people tried to tell me that donkeys don’t canter, I had seen donkeys canter when they ran free, so I knew it was possible. First, I set the goal of cantering a circle. No one could run ahead of my donkey fast enough to reward him with oats and negative reinforcement such as the crop didn’t work well at all, so I had to find another kind of reinforcement. Using the pleasure principle of finding the best motivation for an action, I put my cycling broodmares into a pen at one end of our hayfield and I took my jack to the other end. When asked to canter toward those mares, he did so eagerly. He first learned to canter in a straight line. I reinforced the action verbally with, “Good, good,” while we cantered, and then I gave him a food reward once we reached the pen.
The next time I did the same thing, but this time I turned my donkey in a large half-circle route to the pen, and I rewarded him again the same way. The third time, I asked for a little more of a circle and I got it. Several times later, I was able to get an entire circle before we ran the line to the pen with the mares in it. Once my donkey learned that he could canter easily with me on his back, I didn’t need the mares anymore.
I took Little Jack Hornerinto the arena and tried to canter the perimeter with him. At first he cantered a few strides and then dropped to trot. Each time he cantered, I praised him verbally, and when he broke to trot, I would finish the circle, stop him and praise him with the food reward. It was slow going the first few tries, until I started counting strides and realized the jack was adding one more stride at canter with each attempt. Before long, he was cantering the full circle with ease on command.
With training like this, my donkey jack, Little Jack Horner, has performed successfully in Trail, Reining (with spins, slides and flying lead changes), Second Level Dressage and even performed at Bishop Mule Days where he jumped four feet in exhibition —quite remarkable for a 13-hand equine, and a donkey no less!
The Ten Principles of Behavior Shaping
1) Establish and raise your performance criteria in increments small enough to give your animal a reasonable chance of success and create an opportunity for positive reinforcement. If the criteria are too challenging, the animal may fail and give up.
2) Train for one aspect of a behavior at a time. Do not try to teach several skills at once. When training for a dressage test, for example, do not practice the whole test every day. Take a few sections of the test and work on those. Practice going up and down the centerline in straight lines. Practice 20-meter circles. Practice going deep into the corners of the arena with the right amount of bend. Shape the ultimate result by gradually linking the components, and they’ll fit together nicely. Ride the test as a whole, and the quality of the smaller components will suffer.
3) Before you move to a new skill, put the current skill or behavior on a variable level of reinforcement. Use a fixed schedule of reinforcement on any new behaviors, rewarding verbally and with oats each time the behavior is performed, but once the animal “gets it,” reward less often and randomly. Then, as you add a new behavior, reinforce that behavior on a fixed schedule, while randomly rewarding learned behaviors.
4) When introducing new behaviors, relax expectations on the old ones. What was once learned is not forgotten, but under the pressure of assimilating new behaviors, the old behaviors sometimes temporarily fall apart.
5) Stay ahead of your trainee. Be prepared with what you will ask next, in case your animal has a sudden breakthrough and easily performs the next step. You must keep your equine challenged in order to maintain his interest.
6) Avoid changing trainers in midstream. The animal/trainer relationship is an integral part of the training. Changing trainers disrupts the training process until a new bonded relationship is formed. The owner should be doing the training with only guidance from a professional trainer as the animal will bond to the person who actually does the training.
7) If one shaping process is not working, try another. Individuals, whether animal or human, learn in different ways. Continue with the premise of reinforcement, but find what works best for your animal at any given stage. For example, if you cannot get your equine to back through barrels in a figure eight, simply begin by going forward and always start between the barrels to allay any fears he might have of them.
8) Do not interrupt the training process without cause—this constitutes a punishment. When you are training, try to avoid interruptions. When you train using the methods of behavior modification, you are obliged to reinforce the good behaviors. If you aren’t paying attention, you may inadvertently punish a desired behavior if you interrupt it. The most common example of an infringement would be talking to someone while you are training the animal. If you must talk to someone, simply include the equine in the conversation.
9) If a learned behavior begins to deteriorate, simply review and use fixed reinforcement until it is re-established. Sometimes side effects from negative reinforcement can cause this to occur, but if you remain calm and patient, the animal should relearn quickly.
10) Quit while you’re ahead. At the beginning of the each session, you will likely see improvement from where you were at the end of the session before. Drilling on a desired behavior will make the animal tired and less willing to perform. Better to quit with a good assimilation of the requested behavior, and work to refine it in subsequent sessions.
The Road to Success for You and Your Equine
As you begin to understand the principles of shaping and modifying behaviors, it is important to realize that it is a lot like dancing, cooking or any other learned skill—the only way forward is with practice. The more you practice, the better trainer you will become. You have the opportunity to practice positive reinforcement every moment of your life, reinforcing behaviors in everyone—the cat, the dog, your husband or wife, your children. It becomes a game of noticing and praising positive accomplishments while setting clear boundaries to all behaviors, large or small. With practice, you will increase your awareness and, thus, your skill. The success or failure of your efforts to shape behavior in any animal does not depend upon your expertise, but on your patience, respect, consideration and consistency during the process. This may not be the easiest way, but it is extremely effective—and it’s fun!
© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
By Meredith Hodges
“Throughout history, mules and donkeys have been pegged as being stubborn and therefore stupid, but I have found just the opposite to be true. They are intelligent, sensitive animals, and they have a particularly strong survival instinct. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid danger or what they perceive as danger, and the process of training a mule or donkey is the process of earning their trust.”
—Meredith Hodges, internationally recognized mule and donkey training expert
When I began working with mules and donkeys, I quickly realized there would be no shortcuts to successful training. I steered clear of fads, trends and shortcuts and, instead, based my training program on Behavior Modification techniques developed by world-famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner over a century ago. For many years now, I have used these techniques to successfully train my own champion mules and donkeys, and I continue to share my method with millions of people through my books, an award-winning DVD series, multiple television shows, my comprehensive website and on Social Media.
The techniques presented here work well with not only mules and donkeys, but also with horses and any other trainable animals (and even humans). The program is designed to be resistance free, and the goal is—and always has been—to help people get the best performance and most enjoyment from their animals and to insure that the animal receives the best treatment possible.
Behavior Modification Basics
As a young adult I worked as a psychiatric technician at Sonoma and Napa State Hospitals in California, and the Behavior Modification techniques I learned at that time proved ideal for my later equine training purposes for two major reasons:
˚The system in which the trainer sets performance goals and rewards positive behavior leading to achievement of those goals encourages “good” behavior instead of using fear-inducing punishment to suppress “bad” behavior.
˚The step-by-step approach that builds gradually on learned skills gives the animal a sense of security and achievement that encourages trust and helps minimize resistance.
Animals, like humans, need a predictable routine in order to learn. Just as children progress through grade school, building on their knowledge with each successive grade, animals learn best when a solid foundation is laid for each new skill. By creating a logical program from the outset, we avoid the confusion that can lead to resistance.
These levels of achievement are at the heart of Behavior Modification as a training tool. Acceptable levels of behavior must be defined at each level of training, beginning with the simplest of expectations and working forward. At each level the animal must accomplish certain tasks, and each accomplishment must be acknowledged and reinforced. Also note that it is critical—especially if you are working with a mule or donkey—that you, the owner, participate in the training process. Mules and donkeys develop a strong bond with their trainer, and if they’ve learned from someone else, their performance for you may suffer in the long run. It is also advisable to consult with an experienced trainer in your area, and if you are working with my Training Mules and Donkeys training series, I am just a phone call away.
Everything we do, every behavior we choose, is based on an instinctual desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. Our choices reflect our experience. They are “reinforced” by the pain or pleasure they have given us in the past. Behavior Modification uses the same principles of positive and negative reinforcement with an emphasis on positive reinforcement.
In training, positive reinforcementis delivered in the form of rewards. We know that an equine, when rewarded for performing a certain task, will be willing to perform it again in anticipation of another reward. Note, however, that positive reinforcement is not bribery. The reward is not given as an inducement to perform the task, but as a reward for a task completed. The reward should be something the animal loves and will consistently work for, yet something that is nutritionally sound. In the case of equines, rolled or crimped oats work far better than rich snacks full of empty calories and are healthier for your equine.
Positive reinforcement also takes the form of verbal cues. When your animal performs the desired behavior, you should, simultaneously and with appropriate enthusiasm, say the word, “Good!” This works well when it isn’t possible to give a food reward right away. Clicker training, which has become a popular and effective means of audible reinforcement, is similar and applies the same concept. It’s immediate, it’s consistent, and it can be used with all mules, donkeys and horses to reinforce behavior. However, I feel that it is better to use your voice than a clicker, as the sound of your voice promotes engagement with your equine on a more intimate level, so your voice will yield better results than clicker training.
Negative reinforcement is used not to punish the animal but to encourage them to make a better choice. Negative reinforcement should be brief, to the point and used sparingly. It should never be of long duration or given arbitrarily. Negative reinforcement, such as a slap or a loud “No!” shouldn’t be used so often that it makes the animal unresponsive altogether. Remember that reinforcement by its very definition always strengthens behavior. Punishment is used to suppress behavior and may trigger other undesirable behaviors. B.F. Skinner himself said that positive reinforcement may take more patience, because the effect is slightly deferred, yet it can be as effective as negative reinforcement and has fewer unwanted residual behaviors. When you begin training, you will have to give a verbal and food reward every time the animal performs a desired response. Still, negative reinforcement is necessary to define boundaries.
As your equine learns certain behaviors, you can reinforce the learned behaviors less frequently and focus on frequently rewarding new achievements. Gradually, your animal will become satisfied with a verbal reinforcement for established behaviors, and he will comply for longer periods between food rewards. This shift from a predictable, or fixed, schedule of reinforcement to a variableschedule helps with skill progression. For example, in the transition from lunging when your animal was initially given a reward after each set of rotations in the round pen, to riding, he can eventually be ridden through his entire 30 to 40 minute session before receiving a reward.
Beware of the “delayed gratification” phenomenon, however. If your animal suspects that it will be too long before he receives a reward, he may be reluctant to even begin. Often a quick reward for a simple task at the beginning of a lesson is incentive enough to get him started. Also keep in mind that reinforcing too soon is ineffective. Your animal should be rewarded immediately after the correct behavior, not before. An animal rewarded too soon or too often can become aggressive and/or resistant to training. Remember, each of your own behaviors elicits a response from your animal. You must be meticulous in the way you ask your animal to perform, and always be aware of your own actions. In Part 2 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, I will explain how to break complex behaviors into small and simple steps to achieve the best results.
© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Wrangler has been a happy camper since we acquired Chasity. Before that, he was so rambunctious that there was no one else that could be in turnout with him and I had limited time to work with him. He and Chasity are the same size and the same age, so they do get along very well. I still have to make training judgments when working with them. He helped me to get Chasity moving freely in the Round Pen during her first lessons, but lately, he has been annoying her while lunging which does not allow her to relax in the “Elbow Pull” like she should. And, he doesn’t relax either because he is too busy showing off to her now! So, I had to modify my approach. I still take them out together and just tie one up while I am working the other. I find that this works very well. Wrangler is back to moving in a dignified manner!
I can say that showing off to her did have its benefits. It developed his agility and his eagerness to move more forward and into a canter. When working him alone, I did not have to tie his reins to the saddle to keep his head up as I did when I was working him with her, but I did leave them on the bridle and secured them around his neck in case I did need them. His trot was very nice this time, so I decided to actually give the command to “Canter” and Wrangler willingly complied!
As Wrangler passed Chasity, he did occasional do a little crow-hop to acknowledge her, but mostly he stayed in good balanced posture and exhibited core strength with a lot of agility and flexibility. I used to think I needed to tire my animals to make them behave, but I have since found that when I pay attention to their physical development as well as the tasks I want them to do they are much happier and willing to comply. I PREPARE them for performance and bad behaviors decrease exponentially because I make them FEEL good! Good behavior is ALWAYS rewarded!
Wrangler decided to spook at a small branch that was on the ground, so I picked it up and we played with it! Then we got Chasity after her turn at lunging and made our way to the dressage arena.
Although Wrangler does tend to get a bit distracted when I have Chasity along, he does stay in sync with my steps most of the time. This is important in order to have their full attention.
This is Wrangler’s first lunge line lesson in the open, so I began with the short line as I usually do, but when he circled around me, he got to the point where he was facing Chasity and bolted toward her!
Apparently, Wrangler did not want to jump the fence, so he headed for the opening in the fence and then ran around the dressage arena perimeter. I just let go of the lines and watched him as he ran. I stayed where I was and assessed his movement while he got his “jollies” out!
He got halfway around and decided he wanted to go back toward Chasity. I guess he is not a confident jumper because he slowed down and carefully WALKED over the fence…in good balance and then cantered in balance in her direction!
I blocked him from going to Chasity and he darted to the left and toward the other end of the dressage arena. I called his name and asked him to come back…and he did…at a full gallop!
He thought about running around me, but decided a reward was a much better idea! Chasity was impressed with his performance and so was HE! I was just happy that Wrangler had decided to go back to work!
So, we repeated the process and he did nicely tracking to the left and halted quietly upon command. I did not let the line out very far. We would add that step the next time. I rewarded his success!
We did, however, do the same thing in the opposite direction, and again, I did not press my luck and kept the line shortened and controlled. Next, Wrangler would get his ground driving lesson in the open arena…another first.
I employed my Ranch Manager, Chad, as an assistant to make certain that things did not get out of control. I wanted to set Wrangler up for success. He was just perfect through the Hourglass Pattern and over the ground rails in the middle of the pattern.
After tracking through the pattern in one direction with the halts and rein backs in their designated spots between the cones, then crossing the diagonal and completing it the same pattern in the other direction, Wrangler did a perfect halt and rein back, and was amply rewarded for his success! It was time to quit!
Chasity is in such good condition these days that I felt I could skip a week before engaging in her formal lessons again. She does get manual abdominal flexion exercises daily when she is fed. The beauty of postural core strength exercises is that they stay strong after the initial introductory work. It has been five months of this kind of exercise for Chasity, so if her workouts are only every other week, they are enough to sustain her strong core strength in good equine posture. The muscles, ligaments and tendons are now symmetrically strong around her skeletal frame. I decided to start in the Round Pen to allow her to move out before engaging in the more intense lunging and ground driving in the open arena again. Her posture and movement were impeccable!
The “Elbow Pull” is now staying loose most of the time. This means she is strong and balanced in good postural self-carriage. Her movement is confident and fluid. She executes the turns on the haunches perfectly upon command. The transformation in her whole body and strength has been exciting to witness! Her attitude has improved by leaps and bounds as her overall health improved. We are still treating the infection she has that seems to be systemic and in her glands. Our approach will be to continue a regimen of antibiotics, then when it is done, take her off of them until it appears to be trying to return. Then we will resume antibiotic treatment.
Chasity moves beautifully and stands stock still whenever we are working on her. This is a marked improvement from the “Nervous Nellie” that first arrived at the end of March this year.
After doing a bit of lunging, we are now going to review ground driving in the Round Pen before we go to the open arena for more practice. I want to get her light in the bridle now, so I begin with a rein back. Then we proceed forward at a relaxed pace.
Chasity does a very nice “S” turn through the middle for a change of direction. I try to keep my contact with her bit as light as possible, giving her cues with no more than vibrating little fingers.
Chasity is responding well to the drive lines and is getting lighter in the bridle. She halts and rein backs easily upon command to receive her reward for a job well done!
After lunging Chasity and Wrangler individually in the Round Pen, we are now headed for the dressage arena where they will each get their turn at lunging on the lunge line and ground driving. They both lead easily alone, or together, and walk in sync with me upon request. Sometimes Wrangler gets a bit distracted.
Chasity is always on alert, but does not tend to be silly about things. She remembers her lessons well and is always happy to please. I start her with the lunge line shortened and this time she does not pull at all, but stays on the circle with her intermittent squeeze/release cues from my little finger as her outside front leg comes forward and into suspension.
As she circles, I slowly let out the lunge line. I will not ask her to trot until she offers to so so. I don’t want to force speed and sacrifice precision. She is now stopping consistently in a goos balance.
After re-tying the lunge line to the bit ring on the other side, I reverse Chasity, ask her to go the other way and she complies nicely. Again, I start with a short line and let it out gradually.
At the end of several rotations, I ask her to “Whoa,” stretch down and then stand still while I roll up the lunge line and prepare to put on the drive lines. My Ranch Manager, Chad, is ready to assist with the ground driving this time after her bolting in the previous lesson when I ground drove her by myself.
I do not want Chasity to think she can run off every time we get into the open arena, so I will set her up to be successful right from the beginning with the assistant this time. She can run and play with Wrangler in turnout later. She does not seem to mind at all and is all business about her ground driving. She completed the Hourglass Pattern in one direction, crossed the diagonal and did it in the other direction and then did a very nice halt and rein back to end the lesson.
Chasity stood quietly while I removed the drive lines and rolled them up. Then we went to retrieve Wrangler from his place along the fence. After Chasity’s turn, Wrangler got his turn at lunging on the lunge line and ground driving. Then we all headed to the gate together.
When you are consistent in the way you do things with every animal, it is easy to lead, lunge and negotiate obstacles with multiple animals because they all know what to expect and there are no abrupt changes to the routine to cause adverse behaviors. Training can be fun for EVERYONE!
I’m not sure, Augie, but it must have something to do with those two big donkeys behind us! MMMM…oats!”
“Hi! I’m Wrangler and this is Chasity! You’ll have your turn to lunge when we get done! Here’s how we do it!”
“Yeah! We’ve been doing it longer than he has…and we’re a team…even at the halt, eh Spuds?!”
“That was really fun!! Isn’t she just beautiful, Augie?!”
“Hmmmmm…oh yeah, Spuds!!!”
After having a week off, Chasity returned to her lessons happy, refreshed and ready to go to work. I decided to go back to the Hourglass Pattern and do more leading exercises followed by lunging on the lunge line and ground driving in the open arena. She had two weeks of lessons in the Round Pen and I was curious to see how she would do on the single line, and then the drive lines, with lots of space around her. This can often be a whole new challenge! She seemed very relaxed as she fell into the familiar leading pattern.
As we negotiated the Hourglass Pattern, she easily matched me step for step, even over the ground rails. I asked her for a downward stretch and she was completely cooperative with that as well. The exercises she has been doing for the past four months have really changed her body shape and her strength. The thick crest on her neck is greatly reduced and is no longer hard, but soft and pliable to the touch. It won’t be long before it is completely gone. She is moving symmetrically, is much more agile and is in great athletic condition!
She was in good posture and stepped over the dressage arena fence gracefully without losing her balance at all as we went to retrieve the lunge line. She then stepped over it again as we re-entered the arena to begin lunging on the lunge line.
I started her on a short line to give her clear directions about what Iwanted. I made sure to give a short squeeze/ release on the lunge line each time her outside leg came forward into suspension like I had during Round Pen lessons. This caused her outside front leg to come toward me and keep her on the arc of the circle around me without getting into a pulling match. Pulling this way would not interfere with her balance and cause her to bolt.
As she circled, with each rotation, I let out the line a little bit more. I continued with the squeeze/release cue in sync with the outside front leg coming into suspension. Then before she got bored, I asked her to “Whoa.”
I gave Chasity her oats reward and waited for her to finish chewing before I retied the lunge line so we could go in the opposite direction. I tied the lunge line to the snaffle bit on the side I pull from and then left enough excess to go under her chin and snap to the ring on the other side. This keeps the bit from sliding through her mouth.
Again, I started her on a short line and let it out as she was compliant and stayed on the circle around me, always giving the squeeze/release cues in sync with that outside front leg. The I asked for a “Whoa” and a stretch down for her reward.
Chasity waited patiently as I put on the drive lines, always sporting a relaxed and happy face! We began ground driving at a pretty good clip. She was enjoying the open space! I stayed in sync with her back legs, but I was having to take very big steps to keep up with her!
Then as sometimes happens…she bolted. I knew she wasn’t really scared. She just felt GOOD! So rather than engage in a pulling match, I just let go. She took off, first at a very fast trot, then a lope….
…and finally she went into a full-fledged gallop! She stayed strong in her new-found good equine posture throughout! She galloped to the fence and made a nice 90-degree angle turn into a trot tracking right! She was clearly enjoying herself while I just waited on the sidelines for this moment to pass.
It was clear to me that she needed to just run and have a good time for a little bit. I watched as she traveled around the perimeter of the dressage arena. I was impressed with her improved way of going. She carried her head a bit high and was not as flexed at the poll as I would have liked, but what more could I have expected considering the short time she had been worked in the “Elbow Pull.” Enhanced grace would come later!
I was impressed with her form as she jumped over the dressage arena fence! As she executed THAT move, there was more flexion over her entire top line. This was a great improvement to the sway back she had when she first got here! She evntually slowed down and began to make her way toward me.
Since she had obviously decided to go back to work, I walked toward her and gave her a reward for returning to me!
I gathered the drive lines and instead of walking behind her, I kept them short and walked beside her for more control. I did not want another runaway! She did give a half-hearted pull, but when she discovered that I had more control, she decided to comply as I concurrently led/ground drove her back into the Hourglass Pattern
I proceeded this way over the ground rails and then toward the next corner cone. As I did, I gradually made my way more toward the hind qaurters while making sure I still had her attention. She was a little strong in the bridle, but did as I asked. We did have to circle the cone to keep this control.
As she came around the cone, she got more tractable and straightened out so I could ground drive her from her hip. We were definitely making progress!
We turned around the next cone and headed back toward the ground rails in the center of the Hourglass Pattern. At the point where we would nromally halt and square up when leading, when ground driving, we halt and normally do a rein back instead. This time, however, I would be content with the halt. I made a mental note that next time, I would use an assistant at her head with a lead rope to help her to be totally successful in the ground driving before we went solo again. I would hate to perpetuate any bad habits. One occurence like this is acceptable, but to allow it to continue would be a major mistake! Longears learn EXACTLY what you teach them!
By Meredith Hodges
The Work Station
It is important that your equine feels safe and comfortable in his surroundings. For this reason, you should use the same place each day to groom and prepare him for his lessons. In the beginning, use a small pen (approximately 400 to 500 square feet) that allows you access to your equine for imprinting, tying, leading and grooming, as described in DVDs #1 and #8 of my series, Training Mules & Donkeys (plus disc #9 when dealing with donkeys), and in Part 1 of Equus Revisited. All the while, you will also be teaching him good ground manners. Remember, routine fosters confidence and trust.
Once your equine has mastered tying and leading in the small pen, he can then move on to a designated work station where he will not only be groomed, but will also learn to accept tack in preparation for the round pen. This should be a place that has a good stout hitch rail and easy access to your tack and grooming equipment.
When working around your equine at the work station, pay special attention to his body language. If he becomes tense or skittish, acknowledge his concerns with a stroke on his neck, supportive words to him and a reward of crimped oats when he settles down. Always learn to wait for him to settle down before you proceed.
Don’t make too much out of unimportant details. For instance, if your equine is pawing the ground, don’t insist that he be still unless you need to approach him and do something specific with him. Many of your animal’s anxious behaviors get unintentionally rewarded by giving him too much attention, which can actually cause the behaviors to escalate. If you ignore pawing, cribbing, throwing of the head, pushing with the nose, stomping and other anxious behaviors, they will lessen over time, provided that you step in, ask him to stop and reward your animal, but only when he is being quiet.
Before you begin to groom your equine—whether you’re going to brush, vacuum or clip him—make sure you give him the time to figure out what you are going to do. He will exhibit his acceptance with a sigh, relaxation of his musclesor with a turn or dropping of the head. Once he has accepted the presence of the item to be used, such as a brush, vacuum or clippers, you can begin. Don’t forget to always start at the front and work your way back to the tail.
Keep an eye on the pressure you apply whenever using these various grooming tools. Different animals will have different sensitivity to these tools and will tolerate them better if they know you are not going to cause undue pressure or pain. Learn to brush the mane and tail starting at the bottom and working upward, and use a conditioner such as baby oil to keep from pulling or breaking the hair. (Baby oil will also keep other equines from chewing on the tail.) A shedding blade can be an uncomfortable grooming tool when used improperly. When using a shedding blade to remove mud around the head and ears and even on your animal’s body, be careful to minimize his discomfort by monitoring the pressure you apply to each area and working VERY slowly. When bathing him, be extra careful not to get water in his eyes or ears. These types of consideration for your equine’s comfort will help build his trust and confidence in you, and it will help make training easier and more enjoyable for both of you.
Tack and Equipment
In order to elicit the correct response from your equine, always make sure you are using the correct tack for whatever you are doing. If you are not sure about what tack to use when, go to the Lucky Three Ranch website for more detailed information, or ask the experts in your area. Make sure all tack and equipment fits your animal properly. If it doesn’t, it can cause adverse behaviors during training.
In the Round Pen
Once your equine is leading well in the small pen, he should be in consistently good posture with square halts, easily negotiating trail obstacles in the open and relatively relaxed while at the work station, he is ready to move to the round pen.
Once in the round pen, you will have an opportunity to assess your animal’s progress so you can begin work on balancing on the circle in good posture and conditioning the hard muscle masses in preparation for performance. The size of your round pen is important—45 feet in diameter is ideal. If it is any larger, as you will have difficulty reaching him with the lunging whip, which means you won’t be able to have enough control over him. If your round pen it is any smaller, it will interfere with your equine’s balance and ability to develop the right muscle groups. It should be made with relatively solid walls and be high enough so your animal cannot jump out. Your round pen can be made of a variety of different of materials, such as 2-inch by 12-inch boards and posts or stock panels. Never use electric fencing, pallets, tires or other non-solid materials. The ground surface should be a three- to four-inch–thick base of soft dirt or sand.
While working in the round pen, be aware of how your own body language and verbal commands elicit certain behaviors in your animal. If something isn’t working right, look to yourself and ask yourself what you might be doing to cause the adverse behavior you are seeing. Equines are very honest about their responses, and if they are not doing what you expect, it has to be in the way you are asking. Also, don’t hurry your equine. When asking for the walk, make sure that the walk is even in cadence, balanced and regular—not hurried. Only after your animal is correct in his execution of one gait, should you move on to the next gait. When first introduced to the round pen, it is not uncommon for an equine to begin work at the trot and then, as he becomes more comfortable with the new area, at the walk.
If you just let your equine go in an unrestricted frame, he can build muscle incorrectly, which will most likely cause problems later on. To be sure you are building muscle evenly throughout his body, in the correct posture and on both sides, use the “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint I devised, as described in DVD #2 of Training Mules & Donkeys.
As explained in DVD #1 of Training Mules & Donkeys, while you were doing passive exercises on the lead rope in the small pen, you were also building the core muscle groups that are closest to the bone. Now that you are in the round pen, you will begin to build your equine’s bulk muscle in strategic areas that will strengthen him and make carrying a rider or pulling a cart a lot easier for him. It will also minimize the chance for soreness or injury, as well as resistant behaviors. Keep sessions short, 30-40 minutes, and only every other day at the most. When muscles are exercised, they need to be stressed to a point just before fatigue, and then rested afterwards for one day before repeating. This is the correct and safe way to build muscle. Any other approach will cause fatigue and actually start deteriorating muscle tissue. Remember to use relaxation techniques and warm-up and cooling down exercises with your equine before and after every workout.
In the Arena
The arena is the place to really start focusing on forward motion and lateral exercises to further strengthen your equine, and it is the place to begin fine-tuning his balance while he is carrying a rider. The arena is also a good place for you to fine-tune your own riding skills, so that you learn to help your equine maintain good balance and cadence, on straight lines and while bending through the corners. In order for your equine to correctly go through the corners, you will be asking him to bend the muscles through his ribcage so he can remain upright and balanced. Equines are not motorcycles and should not lean around the corners. The power should always come from the hindquarters to keep the front end light, supple and responsive to cues. If his front end is heavy and sluggish, your equine is not adequately stepping underneath with his hind legs and will thus, lose forward impulsion and power and will not properly condition his muscles.
Open areas are good for stretching and relaxing at all three gaits. They can be used for negotiation of obstacles and to execute large flowing patterns. You can also practice stretching exercises, as described in DVD #5 of Training Mules & Donkeys. Then proceed to working on more collection on the short sides of the arena, and go back to stretching exercises again before you quit the lesson. The open areas allow for a wide variety of training exercises by giving you the space to use numerous patterns and obstacles. Try using cones to mark your patterns—this benefits both you and your animal by helping you both stay focused. An arena without cones is like a house without furniture.
As far as the open road and in traffic, these areas are forseasoned animals only, so please do not even consider using these areas to school your equine—the results could be disastrous! With the heavy traffic these days, it is really safest to avoid heavily traveled roads entirely. For a pleasureable experience, stick to areas where you and your equine will be safe and comfortable.
© 2004, 2005, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Establishing a bond – Are you having problems getting the same response from your equine that trainers do? This two-part article is designed to help you learn to successfully train your own equine.
Training isn’t just a way to teach your equine to do certain “movements,” but a way for you to help him to grow physically and mentally healthy, and to enable him to learn to cope with the demands that will be put on him during his lifetime—much like raising a child to grow up to be a healthy and productive adult.
The subtleties in your attitude and approach, along with a solid knowledge base, can make all the difference in your training program. Whether your equine is a foal or an older animal that you have just obtained, whether he is trained or untrained, the process is the same and it’s never too late to get started with the right kinds of expectations in mind. You are creating a bond, developing the foundation for a healthy friendship, and setting the ground rules that will dictate the positive extent of your continuing relationship with your animal. It is important to be an active participant in your animal’s training. After all, you wouldn’t have someone else make a friend for you. You’d do it yourself—one-on-one.
Feeding – What you feed your equine and how well his health is maintained will determine how responsive he will be to training. Although some popular feeds may build body mass more rapidly and may seem to be promoting healthy physical development, these high-protein feeds can also have negative effects, especially on Longears. Often, with high-protein feeds, an equine’s physical growth is accelerated and becomes disproportionate to his normal growth on simple equine feed like oats and grass hay. His mental growth may also be adversely affected with high-protein feeds, as they can cause anxiety and limited attentiveness. If the animal is feeling anxious or inattentive, or if parts of his body become sore from unnatural growth spurts or inappropriate exercise, he may be less likely to perform in an enthusiastic and energetic way.
I have found that equines do best on a mixture of crimped oats (1-2 lbs. for the average-sized saddle equine) mixed with a vitamin concentrate such as Sho-Glo (1 oz.), and Mazola corn oil (1 oz.) for hooves and coat, and for digestive tract regularity. Draft animals would get twice as much and minis get ¼ to ½ as much. This once-a-day oats mix regimen should be fed in the evenings and supplemented with grass hay twice a day, with the amount of hay being increased or decreased to monitor desired weight gain or loss. As a reward for positive responses in training, your animal should get the additional crimped oats so he will get immediate energy when he needs it the most, during the training process. Crimped oats, unlike any other equine reward, is also something that the animal will continue to work for without tiring of it.
Apples, carrots, horse treats and the like are things on which they can get sated and are not necessarily good for your equine in excess. Some of these “treats” can even have the same effect that candy has on children. An animal may experience residual affects such as an upset digestive tract, a short attention span or even hypertension, all of which can have a negative affect on training. Feeding the same way, and at the same times each day, is not only healthy, but it fosters confidence and trust within your animal because it makes him feel good. He learns without question that he can depend on you for his welfare and that his efforts will be rewarded with his favorite reward of crimped oats.
Consideration – Being patient, kind and considerate toward your equine and spending a little more time developing a good solid foundation with him before moving on to more elaborate maneuvers will yield better results. Remember to always be aware of your equine’s physical, mental and emotional responses during training. For instance, you may think that, once your mule is moving around the round pen at all three gaits with a reverse, he is ready to begin riding, but this may not necessarily be true. Considering that it takes years to really condition muscles to their maximum strength, six to eight months of doing round pen exercises is not really that long a period of time. If you don’t spend at least six months on flatwork leading training and six months on obstacle leading lessons to promote strength and balance in good posture, you can greatly hinder your equine’s ability to perform in the round pen on the circle. In turn, spending less than six to eight months in the round pen will not produce the best results in muscle development. If you move through conditioning too fast, it will affect your animal’s mental attitude toward training and he will very likely experience soreness and emotional depression. As a result, he will most likely become resistant to training.
Pay attention to how many laps your equine does in each direction and at each gait: how many reverses to the left, and then how many to the right. Take this opportunity to assess whether he will need a few more laps on the side that is weaker. If you make these things your priority, when you finally do start riding him, his straight lines will be straighter, his turns smoother and his reverses and stops more balanced, and with minimal effort. As your equine grows stronger and more mentally and physically confident, the upper-level movements will come faster and easier than did the basic foundation training, which is why it’s so important to take your time and be patient—especially during foundation training. Another way to show consideration for your animal is to investigate valuable therapeutic tools like equine massage and chiropractics.
Structured exercises – Even if you do not plan to show your equine, he must be strong enough to be able to perform easily, even on something as seemingly simple as trail riding. Different exercises build different muscle groups, so it is important to know what exercises you should begin with and which exercises should follow. Don’t let yourself get sucked into drilling on something that just isn’t working. If you run into problems and things aren’t working out properly, just go back and try something that is similar in its demand but simpler for you and/or your equine to execute. Sometimes, it is just a manner of approaching the problem differently or leaving it to another day. Like humans, equines have their own individual ways of learning and it’s up to you to figure out what works best with your particular equine on any given day. You can find my suggested approaches to this in my DVD series, Training Mules & Donkeysand Equus Revisited. Note: Don’t forget to reward your animal for positive behavior.
Body language and verbal communication – Learn to be consistent with your verbal commands and don’t leave them out. Most equines can learn to identify words and will usually respond much more readily to verbal commands than to cues alone, so give your equine this “verbal cue” advantage.
In the beginning, keep your words simple and consistent (“walk,” “trot,” “canter,” “reverse,” “whoa”). As your equine becomes more familiar with them, you can include additional words (“move over,” “go to the rail,” “easy,” and so forth). By the time he is an adult and has gone through this kind of training, he should begin to understand almost anything you might have to say. It is much like a child who first learns his ABCs, then words, then sentences and, eventually, entire paragraphs. Pay attention to yourself as you are training. How you feel affects your animal, which will dictate how he reacts to you. For instance, if you are a little nervous about being around your equine, he will sense this and may think there is a reason for him to be nervous, too. If you are happy, relaxed and patient about doing things, you will elicit a better response from your equine. Attitude is everything, so do whatever you need to do to keep the experience interesting and enjoyable for both of you.
Benefits of group lessons – Equines can learn from each other, so it can be beneficial to work them together. When you are working with foals, it is helpful to take “Mom” along or have her tied nearby during training sessions. Green animals often do better on the trails during the first year if they are ridden along with well-trained trail animals. If you have multiple animals to keep conditioned, you can even lunge them together, provided your work in the round pen has been consistent with each of them separately from the beginning. In driving training, the “group lesson” idea of hitching young animals with the “old pros” has been a common practice for many years. Speaking of “old pros,” it is to your advantage to find a local instructor/trainer with whom you can periodically take lessons. This gives you a way to check to make sure you stay on the right track and continue to improve your own skills. Lists of trainers and instructors can be obtained from the United States Equestrian Federation and from the American Donkey & Mule Society. In Part 2 of Keys to Successful Training, I’ll go into further detail regarding ground training as well as the actual physical training areas, and many of the other important components that contribute to a successful and rewarding training program.
© 2004, 2005, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Donkeys love it when you keep things easy, fresh and interesting! Chasity has been doing so well with her lessons with Wrangler lately that I thought we could change things up a bit and add a LITTLE excitement to their routine by adding the mini donkeys, Augie and Spuds! If this is to be a safe endeavor, I will have to break things down into small introductory steps and make frequent evaluations as to what is safe to do and what might not be safe. I want them all to enjoy this time together with me! Seeing the mini donkeys in the Tack barn work station, Chasity is getting already started with a smile on her face!
First, I lunged Chasity by herself to see how she would respond in her “Elbow Pull” and to see whether she would maintain her good postural balance during this lesson. She did lovely at an energized and forward working walk! I was very pleased.
Chasity then bucked up her working trot and although she raised her head just a bit, she kept the “Elbow Pull” loose almost all the time…she is truly improving rapidly!
Next, I ground drove her and again, she did everything just right and maintained her good posture and balance…through the reverses and in both directions!
Chasity’s contact with my hands was steady and light, and she easily did her “S” turns through the middle of the Round Pen gracefully and accurately.
Chasity did a square halt and did the rein back much more easily that she had in prior lessons. She is making marked improvement every week! Yes, we only do these lessons once a week for about 20-30 minutes to get these amazing results!
Chasity and Wrangler always enjoy lunging together, but sometimes he will get a bit slow and cause her to raise her head behind him and put more tension on the “Elbow Pull” than she would do if he was not there. Wrangler spotted Augie and Spuds tied outside and did not want Chasity anywhere near them! That was when I made the decision that now would not be the right time to lunge FOUR donkeys together!
Instead, I tied Wrangler outside and introduced Chasity to Augie and Spuds…they liked each other, so I began lunging them all together! Chasity loved it!
The donkeys, large and small, tracked left and then did a perfect halt…all three of them! As they stood stock still, I rewarded them each one for a job well done!
Chasity surprised me by doing a perfect reverse and then walked behind Augie and Spuds to show them the new direction. Then they too, reversed and followed her obediently! I had to chuckle…who’s in charge here?! Wrangler just hid his face behind the post outside of the Round Pen, hoping no one would notice how left out he felt! Even though Wrangler was a bit miffed, they all had a very good time! At least he was not completely left out! Friends really LIKE to work together!