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By Meredith Hodges
In 1986, when I first began using my mules in Dressage, you would never have convinced me that I would follow it up with jumping. I was fearful of jumping because of a few bad experiences I had with horses. However, once I took the time to learn to ride and train properly with Dressage and experienced the overall stability of a mule, my fear disappeared.
Nowadays, when people find out that I jump my mules, the response is often, “I didn’t know mules could jump!” Not only can mules jump, they are quite good at it. However, if a mule or any other equine is to have the strength and coordination they need for jumping, their training must be approached in a specific, practical and healthy way. Then they can learn to maintain good rhythm in all gaits between jumps, to jump only as high as needed to clear fences, and to adjust their strides to and away from jumps. Proper jumping training takes time and patience because there is much more to jumping than just making it over the fences.
If you speak to mule owners all over the world, you will hear at least one tale in ten about a mule jumping out of his pen. If they have the inclination, most mules have the ability to easily clear a fence up to and even over six feet high. The capability is certainly there, but in general, mules lack the motivation to expend the energy to actually jump out.
The muscle structure of a mule is a bit different than that of a horse—somewhat like the difference between the muscle structure of a ballet dancer and a weight lifter. A mule’s muscle structure (like that of a ballet dancer’s) is comprised of longer, smoother muscle with less bulky areas, a trait inherited from the donkey. This gives him a slightly more streamlined appearance than that of a horse. And like a ballet dancer, a mule can spring his body effortlessly into the air using the muscles in his hindquarters, giving him the ability to jump either from a standstill or while in motion. For the weight lifter or the horse, this maneuver is not as easy due to their particular muscle structure. So when selecting a horse for advanced jumping, it is wise to select a breed or type of horse that has less bulk muscle and more smooth muscle, like the mule.
When riding toward a jump, a mule’s approach can often interfere with his coursework because his impulse is usually to gallop to the jump, stop and then spring over the top. Horses, on the other hand, tend to naturally do their coursework more smoothly and in stride. The mule can learn to jump in stride if given the correct schooling to overcome his instinctive way of going.
Regardless of the mule’s inherent strength and endurance, in the beginning of jumping training, he will lack the muscle development and stamina required to negotiate a course of jumps effortlessly and in stride. Like any other living creature, he can only strengthen the muscles that he uses, so it is up to you to make sure he is doing specific exercises that pinpoint the correct sets of muscles so he can do his job over the jumps, between the jumps, before and after the jumps. These three tasks require different postures that need to be supported by different muscle groups, so work on training and strengthening the specific exercises as outlined in DVD #7 of my Training Mules and Donkeys series. A proper conditioning program of exercises for your mule will strengthen the muscles needed for jumping and will prepare him for a more polished performance. This is also a good opportunity to fine-tune all the muscles in your own body as you fine-tune those of your mule or any other equine.
While training your equine to jump, you must ask yourself some very important questions. Does my animal possess the strength of body to carry him from the hindquarters with sufficient impulsion, rhythm and balance? Can he readily lengthen or shorten his stride to accommodate the distance to his fences? Are these adjustments easily made, or does my equine tend to throw his weight onto his forehand during transitions between gaits and over fences? Remember, the animal that is well schooled in jumping will carry his body with ease and make smooth transitions from an uphill balance.
There are a series of exercises that will help to build your prospect into a beautiful, stylish and exciting jumper, but it will take time and patience— there just aren’t any shortcuts. Taking the time and exercising your patience will produce not only an animal that jumps properly, but one that is also strong and confident in his abilities. This can come in mighty handy later on when you find yourself in more demanding jumping situations. Having taught your equine to jump safely, you will have a more pleasurable and stress-free ride.
When initially riding a mule over jumps, you will notice the slightly “different” way that he feels in action, compared to a horse. If you are used to jumping horses, this may seem a little odd at first but you will soon find that the mule feels more sure and stable. To me, a mule seems more balanced and stronger throughout than does a horse, and so the chance of taking a misstep or crashing a jump is lessened. Should a loss of balance or error occur, the mule is usually able to more quickly recover than the horse, making for a safer ride.
For those of you who still don’t believe that mules can really jump, all I can say is, believe it! More than a few retired cavalry officers have personally told me about Hambone, the infamous jumping mule from Fort Carson, Colorado. They’ve also told me about jumping their mules Roman-style, which means standing with one foot on the rear end of each of a pair of mules while doing patterns and jumping obstacles!
Today, mules are jumped in all kinds of events, from Combined Training to Hunter/Jumper classes. Jumping mules adds excitement and variety to training events and events where mules jump in competition under saddle against each other, and even against horses. Coon hunters often display the mule’s natural ability to jump from a standstill by jumping them in-hand over fences, either on hunts or at shows, and some mule owners even try their luck at Fox Hunting. By any standards, the mule’s capacity to jump is unquestionable, and there is no doubt he will continue to climb the ladder of equine success.
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.
© 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of Equine Behavior: Look Who’s Talking, we discussed the evolution of man’s self-discovery and how he applied this to his approach to equines. If we want to manage our equines in a healthy way and accomplish even the most basic performance with them, there is much to consider during the training process. In the not-so-distant past, the prevalent belief was that, if you had a reasonably large patch of grass with a fence around it, you could have a horse. We now know it takes much more than this!
Following the assessment of Characterology and body-type, Structuralism developed from the concept that man’s attitudes and behaviors were not just a product of the things he experienced, but also the sensations he felt and the images that were produced in his consciousness. This expanded his understanding of ways to explore himself. From his own introspection, man began to perceive the equine in different ways that would be most beneficial to him, but failed to examine what would actually be most beneficial for the equine.
Born in Athens, Greece in 431 BC and referred to today as the original “Horse Whisperer,” Xenophon is considered to be the founder of military Horsemanship. He is credited with the beginning of structured, classical equine training over 1,000 years ago, when equines were trained with military defense in mind.1 The equine’s training was critical to the defense of his rider, and this meant that the animal had to be strong, healthy and obedient. Man discovered that when he paid attention to the mental and physical needs of the equine, he got a more willing and obedient response, and the result was a healthier and more protective companion than one that was forced into submission. Harnessing the defense mechanisms of the horse was not only awe-inspiring but effective.
Mules and donkeys became primarily “beasts of burden,” rather than the mount of choice, as it was more difficult to harness their independent nature without a full understanding of their character and personality. However, their ability to carry heavy loads and maintain footing in precarious places was unparalleled.
Functionalists regarded psychology as the study of man’s ability to adjust to his environment, of the instruments he developed to aid him in his adjustment, and of the ways in which he could improve his adjustment through learning. As man began to understand his relationship to his environment, so he began to study the equine’s adjustment to its environment.
As man’s environment changed, he changed with it. However, when dealing with equines, he neglected to realize that he had changed the equine’s natural habitat forever and had begun a compression of space and freedom that would ultimately result in anxious and nervous behaviors in the equine. The equine’s negative response to this environment was most obvious when he was subjugated by man. Man misperceived the equine’s adverse behaviors as deliberate disobedience.
This was still primarily an observational approach. Man did not give enough thought to the equine’s new environment and how it might be perceived by the equine. The equine wasn’t given adequate time to adjust to its new environment or situation, or time to react honestly to it.
Sometimes the response to a stimulus in the environment is predictable and sometimes it is not, so we need to be careful of stereotypical statements like “horses are wild and need to be mastered.” At one time, it was predictable that equines in the wild would take flight from a presumed predator and so would pose difficulty in training. But present-day “horse whisperer,” Monty Roberts, talked to mustangs in the wild and proved that, with patience, and given time, the equine might change this behavior and not run from a perceived human predator—he might actually “join up” with a human being. Equines possess a natural curiosity that can often override instincts when they perceive that they are safe. Thus, we can conclude that, perhaps, the natural instincts of the equine can be significantly changed and his adverse behavior may not be deliberate disobedience. We just need to start looking at the bigger picture—the equine as a whole being.
Behaviorism is a psychology based on stimulus and response. Behavior grows more complex through the process of forming new connections between stimuli and response originally unrelated. Americans were strongly influenced by their association with purely scientific testing with animals. However, man should not neglect the component of equine psychology, no matter how difficult the study. The unconscious of the equine is much like the unconscious of humans in that it is primarily instinctual and hereditary, and will always be present.
The learned behaviors coming from other sources such as environment do not replace but, rather, become yet another integral part of the whole equine. It is easy to believe that if you reward good behavior it will be repeated, but not so easy to identify all good behaviors and reward them promptly. It is even more difficult to learn to identify bad behaviors, punish them accordingly and re-route behavior to the positive again. This requires the handler to move away from an observational post and become involved and engaged with the equine on a whole new level.
As the study of psychology progressed, the Gestalt Theory emerged. It placed more emphasis on the whole of the pattern of behavior or experience, rather than breaking it down into elements. The whole of the experience of behavior is more than the sum of its parts. It has derived many of its principles from the Laws of Physics, especially those involving fields of force, which are believed to be more applicable to psychological events than the concept of connections between independent elements. Even elements take their character from the whole.
We can try to harness the ability of the equine, but, ultimately, the Laws of Physics will apply. If we ask too much from an equine at any given stage of training, we will experience resistance from the physical structure of the equine, resulting in adverse behavior. This is often mistaken for intentional disobedience. When we are in line with the Laws of Physics and in line with the body and mind of the equine, he develops properly through the attitude we have and the activities we ask from him. One then sees an entirely different sort of animal emerge with an entirely different attitude and movement. He begins to “speak to us” and we not only listen, but we actually “hear” what he is saying. We respond with our own voice and our own body language—with attention to his healthy physical development and not with some artificial device.
The sum total of the effect an individual has on others is referred to as his “social stimulus value.” The social stimulus value of a human being takes into account his or her height, hair color, general physique, vitality and so forth. It includes distinctive behavior patterns such as habits and mannerisms. The sum total of the effect an individual equine has on other equines is referred to as his “status in the pecking order.” It also includes distinctive behavior patterns such as habits and mannerisms.
When becoming involved with your own band of equines, you will begin to see these same elements emerge and determine status. I have observed, for instance, that equines do possess the same “racial” and “decisive” biases as we humans do. They form their own “cliques” that are often based on age, status and color. They will even form cliques of “oddballs” in certain situations. When left on their own, my dark mules would hang together, my bay mules would hang together and those who were not born here were ostracized by all the others regardless of age and hung together in their own “oddball herd.” I was eventually able to modify and change these “biases” in my equines during training with an emphasis on patience and good manners.
At first, it disturbed me when I could not turn my much older animals out with the adult male mules. I thought they should be able to get along, until I began to think of them in terms of rebellious teenagers who did not appreciate the sage advice of their elders. The “guidance” of the elder equines was not appreciated at all, so I separated the groups during turnout and later integrated them during training, after they had learned to be polite and considerate to the other equines.
Surprisingly, it worked well. They still needed to be grouped accordingly during turnout (their free time) but are now much more manageable and tolerant of each other during their workouts together. The younger ones actually do pay more attention to how the elders perform during the sessions, and even seem to learn from them.
Personality includes not only social stimulus value, but intrapersonal organization as well—how the person views himself from within. Without the evolution of training practices, it would be impossible to get any idea as to whether or not a horse actually possesses any introspection at all. Horses do exhibit timidity, but still provide reciprocal warmth and affection. Mules and donkeys demand a kind response from their human counterparts or they simply disengage. They are openly suspicious and great judges of character regarding their handlers. In my experience, I have noted significant changes in an equine’s facial and body expressions, especially those who have come from abusive situations. They will show either a clear sense of fear or stoic behavior in the beginning.
As they proceed through the training program, their expressions soften with acceptance. They then begin to show interest that ultimately results in an animal that is confident and trusting. You can see the soul emanating from their eyes and watch their overall carriage change to one of confidence and trust. These are simply behavioral manifestations of the equine’s introspection, or the way he perceives himself in his world. Change his world in a kind and understanding way and so will his perceptions change. The equine whose personality develops in a healthy way will exhibit more courage and less fear in the face of stressful situations and extreme weather conditions. The bond and trust in the handler is stronger than his sense of fear and you can see it in his face.
Why are equines so therapeutic? The answer is simple; it’s because they will communicate honestly with us if we open our hearts and minds and truly “hear” them. They will return the same acceptance, warmth and affection we give to them. In addition, we receive a physical benefit of exercise while working with them. Those who learn to interact with their equine during maintenance and grooming will have a better chance of getting to know the whole equine. They will learn how to give pleasure appropriately and elicit an honest response from the equine. The equine will give “hints” of pleasure with behaviors that will reinforce good behavior in the human as well. Those who do not become engaged and intimate with the animal will fall into habitual “use” of animals instead of learning to “care.”
Learning to be polite and considerate and giving pleasure with concrete reasons that are physical, mental and emotional in nature yield true health, and not just a perverse image. Be careful of arrogance. Arrogance stems from a masterful or Godlike approach, devoid of humility, that may elevate one’s ego, but invariably creates a “victim” equine instead of a willing and grateful partner and companion.
The benefits of therapeutic riding programs are more than just physical in nature. They provide a source for at-risk kids to experience warmth and validation of their existence. They get a true and honest response for their efforts and feedback that has been foreign to them. Animals are honest in nature and produce quick and honest reactions to a stimulus. Therapeutic Riding provides an exemplary teaching experience for both human and equine, and those of us with our own equines can derive much more from the relationship than we ever thought possible.
In Equine Behavior: Look Who’s Talking! Part 3, we will explore the ways in which you can enhance the relationship between you and your equine.
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.
© 2011, 2016, 2017, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
1Wikipedia and The Spanish Riding School:,Its Traditions and Development From the Sixteenth Century Until Today by Mathilde Windisch-Graetz, Barnes & Co., Inc., 1956
By Meredith Hodges
What kind of equine handler are you? When interacting with your Longears or any equine, are you an observer or a participant? Are you fully aware of the reasons for your equine’s behaviors? Behavior in general is most often motivated by a stimulus that elicits a response, yet the early years of physiological development are most dependent on heredity. Heredity includes not only physical characteristics, but mental, emotional and instinctual behaviors as well. We are taught that if an equine’s knees are beginning to fuse, he is ready for training. Is the animal really ready for training just because his knees are beginning to fuse? Physical development is called maturation, and we often determine the equine’s capabilities by maturation alone, with no consideration for the whole animal.
The mule inherits its incredible strength, intelligence and freeze reflex from the jack, and its athletic ability, beauty and the flight reflex from the horse. Some of these characteristics are physical, while others are instinctual, but each contributes to the animal as a whole being. Mental and emotional personality traits are not as easily defined in animals, since they do not speak the same language that humans do. So it makes sense that the equine is often first regarded as a large and potentially dangerous “beast.” In the past, those men who overpowered the “beast” and gained control were revered by others for their ability, no matter how cruel the approach. Because of the vast difference in size, man was viewed as the underdog and his conquests were celebrated.
Characterology, man’s first exercise in psychology, is based solely on casual observations of the personality and individuality of a human being. This is how man initially perceived equines as well as himself in the early days of psychology. The evolution of man’s understanding of himself is not that different from his understanding of equines. It began with casual observations. The equine was first regarded as an animal to be feared because of its potential to do great damage to a person’s physical being. However, no regard was given to the horse’s propensity toward timidity and vulnerability as a prey animal. Man eventually got close enough to the equine to realize there was far more to learn than what he could simply observe. Characterology has been found to be as unsatisfactory when describing the whole human as it has turned out to be with equines.
We’ve learned, through observation, the behaviors the equine will exhibit when left to its own devices in its own environment. In a herd of wild horses, the stallion is king and there is only one mature stallion per herd. He may allow other young stallions to stay to the outside of the herd, provided they show no aggression. But if they do show aggression, the two will battle it out until the weaker one is either run off or killed.
The actual leader of the herd is the most dominant mare in the herd, called the “boss mare.” When the stallion signals danger, it is this mare that will lead the herd, while the stallion generally brings up the rear. During estrus, the mare cycles every 21 days during the warmer months of the year. The mare accepts the stallion for only seven days out of the 21-day cycle. The stallion may cover her several times during that period and will do the same with the other mares in the herd. Not all mares will accept the advances of the stallion at certain times and, because they are as different as people are in their genetic makeup, not all of them will become pregnant every time.
When it is time for the foal to be born, the mare will go off by herself to birth the foal and then return when the foal has gained enough strength to run with the herd. Equines will always show aggressive behaviors in a herd. It is their nature and they learn their place (“pecking order”) within the herd through this process.
Donkeys are a little different in their herd behaviors and, although they do have a “pecking order,” they operate more like a family and it is not unusual to see multiple males in the family herd. Donkeys have a freeze reflex instead of a flight reflex and will stand their ground before wasting energy in flight. Donkeys seem to be loving and affectionate creatures at first glance, but they can be a formidable rival to most any other animal. In certain situations with a well-planned psychological approach, donkeys can make good guard animals for the very same smaller animals that they might otherwise chase.
Being a hybrid, the mule possesses behaviors from both the horse and donkey. It is in the mule and donkey’s nature to chase smaller animals such as dogs, cats, goats, etc. When supervised, they can be taught not to attack smaller animals, but if left alone, it IS in their nature to run these animals down and they will often kill them for sport. This is not seen as often in the females (it depends on personality as well), but it is still present and should be heeded.
A mule will pin its ears when it is concentrating very hard and when it is following you and wants attention. Mules and donkeys are basically very friendly and rarely lay their ears flat back in pure anger like a horse will. When they are angry, you will know it. Scratching in different areas will produce different results. If you scratch their jowls, for instance, they may perk their ears forward, but when you rub their forehead, they will lay their ears back. If you scratch the insides of the ears, some will like it and tilt the head sideways with quivering eyebrows while others will jerk away at your impolite intrusion.
Donkey jacks really should not be allowed to roam with the jennets and/or mares and pasture breed since they can get angry at the drop of a hat and kill a weaker animal in an instant. It is even more dangerous to leave jacks with foals and horses (they will go after adult horses as well!). Mules, being half horse, will usually only chase other horses if they are smaller or if they are males. Since their dam was a female horse, they will often unintentionally harass female horses, but unless the mares are smaller or weak, the mules will do little damage and are more likely to receive a smart kick to the chest for their insolent behavior. Horses have a flight reflex when they feel threatened…the donkey has a freeze and prepare-to-fight reflex…and mules can go either way depending on the situation.
All of these characteristics are part of the equine whole, but they do not explain who the horse, donkey or mule is as a personality. Most characteristics are a means by which we can judge predictable behaviors that would be considered normal. People possess predictable behaviors that do not change and are valuable in profiling. Profiling enables one to establish a base from which to begin to determine a positive plan of approach that will elicit a positive reaction with any given person. The same is true in the development of the human/equine relationship. But Characterology was not a scientific approach, so man continued to find other ways to investigate and challenge his knowledge of himself and the equine.
Phrenology followed and was regarded as a true science, putting forth the idea that personality was comprised of “faculties” that were housed compartmentally in the brain. Therefore, an individual’s personality could be identified by the shape of his or her head. These same scientific observations were also made in reference to the equine.
At first, Arabian horses were thought to be silly and difficult—not the ideal mount for the common man. Later, the intelligence of the Arabian was discovered and explained by saying that, because the Arabian’s eyes are set lower in the head and the forehead is broader than most other equines, there is more brain space in the skull. This is also true of most mules and, particularly, Arabian mules. Once man believed in the equine’s intelligence and had a scientific reason for it, training was modified and approached a little differently. Man was then able to learn even more about the horses he was training. It wasn’t long before man discovered that this didn’t always hold true and there had to be more to consider when assessing the whole human being and, consequently, the whole horse.
The idea that body type could reveal personality type evolved from man’s belief that certain personalities were characterized by certain body types. Man applied this knowledge of psychology and behavior to equines, and then made generalizations about certain breeds of equines according to their body type and temperament. For instance, the solid body type and quiet temperament of the Quarter Horse denoted a capable, willing and even-tempered personality, while the more lithe body, tall stature and flightiness of the Thoroughbred yielded a personality that was more suspicious, aloof and, sometimes, difficult to train.
Much time has passed and man has learned that there is a lot to consider if we want to manage our equines in a healthy way and accomplish even the most basic performance with them. In the past, the prevalent belief was that, if you had a reasonably large patch of grass with a fence around it, you could have a horse. We now know it takes a lot more than this! Stay tuned for Part 2 of Look Who’s Talking, when we further explore the equine personality and how to develop the best relationship you can have with them.
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.
© 2011, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
While doing the exercises in balance by riding without the aid of your reins as described in DVD #5, you probably discovered a lot more shifting of your own balance than you imagined. This nearly imperceptible shift of balance, however, can grossly affect the balance of your equine. Until now, I have always given the rider a visual point of reference by allowing you to glance down at the outside front leg. Now you will want to be more inwardly conscious of your own body position.
You need to repeat many of the previous exercises to cultivate this kind of sensitivity, but this time, close your eyes for brief periods of time to get the “feel” of each movement in your own body. Do not simply allow your equine to travel freely in any direction, because this will not give you an accurate feeling for any specific gait or task—you must plan your course of action. If, for instance, you set up your equine to bend through and come out of a corner with impulsion, you can close your eyes for a few seconds down the long side and feel the balance that comes out of that corner when the movement is executed correctly. In this particular situation, once you’ve closed your eyes, you may notice that your animal is starting to lean slightly to the inside. A squeeze/release from your inside leg, sending your mule forward and catching that balance with the outside rein, corrects the balance and keeps him going straight and erect down the long side.
Your seat bones are closest to your body’s center of gravity, making them the best sensors for balance. “Feel” the weight shift from one seat bone to the other through turns and circles, and then even out as you ride straight lines and diagonals. You will soon discover that, in order to do a circle in better balance, you must have slightly more weight on the outside seat bone and leg.
This situates your weight over the outside hind leg, which is the leg that initiates impulsion. Putting the weight over the outside hind leg clears the mule’s shoulders, allowing freer movement in front. If you ride on your inside seat bone, the weight begins to fall to the inside of the circle and puts pressure on the shoulder, inhibiting the upright, forward balance and this will put your animal on the forehand instead of engaging his hindquarters.
Remember to plan your course of action and use your half-halts between changes of direction and transitions from one gait to another. You cannot expect your equine to maintain his balance when he is constantly being surprised with changes of direction or gait. Look ahead (Do not look down!) and use your eyes correctly to enhance your balance and to help you more realistically plan your course. Teach yourself to be accurate with your eyes—look well ahead at all times and try to stay exactly on the lines and the arcs of your circles. When you plan a circle, look halfway around your circle so you can plan the arc more accurately, and then you can make the next half of the circle the same as the first half, in order to complete your circle with minimal trouble. Keep your eyes on a visual horizontal line that runs parallel to the ground. Remember—you have two eyes, and any movement as slight as a tip of your head to one side or the other can affect the upright balance of your equine. Dropping your eyes to the ground shifts your animal’s balance forward and onto his shoulders, again interrupting his balance.
Do small circles, but only as small as your equine can handle without losing his balance. Once he can easily maintain his balance without interruption, you can begin to decrease the size of the circles. Keep movements planned and large. This will give your equine plenty of response time through planned movements and will allow you to ride and correct the balance with more ease. If, for some reason, your animal loses his balance, falls out or rushes, stop him by using even pressure on both reins, with a squeeze/release action. Back him up slowly and deliberately, remembering to walk backward with your seat and legs, one step at a time, and then calmly go back and try to repeat the movement. If he makes the same mistake a second time, halt, back up and then walk through the area that is giving you the problem. Resume trotting or cantering when he complies. When you approach that area again, slow him down again, go through and resume your plan.
If he “ducks out” with you and begins to run, keep your connection on the rein that he has pulled as best as you can, and try to stop him by pulling on both reins together with a light squeeze/release action. Try to verbally calm him, and when he finally stops, let the reins go loose and praise him for stopping. Then, collect your reins again, turn him with the rein that he has just pulled out of your hand, and return him to the task. Do not try to pull him around with the other rein, because this will cause him to lose his balance and will frighten him even more. If he is praised for stopping, he will not be afraid to stop. If the reins remain tight and he’s punished for running, he may never want to stop.
The main goal is to cultivate an equine that is moving calmly between your two hands and your two legs and is responsive to changes in your aids—to your seat, to your legs and to your hands. If you keep your eyes focused well ahead and your hands and legs evenly balanced over your seat bones, you can strongly affect your animal’s vertical balance. Correct and repetitive use of the aids will eventually allow your equine to become lighter in the bridle and more responsive. In addition, his muscles will begin to be properly and symmetrically conditioned. An animal that is restrained and forced will develop muscles incorrectly. In turn, this will cause him stiffness through many movements. Most commonly, you see a slight “U” in the base of the neck in front of the withers. This is caused by stiffness in the poll from riding from front to back, rather than from back to front. Actually, the stiffness will transmit to other parts of the body and can cause chronic soreness as in the croup (hunter’s bump), but the most obvious signs show in the neck and poll. Incorrect development of the muscles will undoubtedly inhibit your equine’s best performance.
I ride my equines diagonally through the aids to get the best lateral and vertical response. I want to maintain a good forward movement, which means that the impulsion must come from the hindquarters and push forward. Think of your hands and legs as four corners of a box that contains your equine. If you push forward on one side at a time from, say, left leg to your left hand, it leaves the other whole side of the animal unchecked, and he will proceed forward with a tendency to drift into the “open” side. This is why you have to ride alternately and diagonally from the left leg to the right hand and from the right leg to the left hand. It is why you ride from back to front, leg to hand, in a diagonal fashion—it pushes your animal from the outside leg forward into a straight and balanced inside rein, and from the supportive inside leg to the outside rein—he remains upright on the arcs and sufficiently bent. The wider the space between your legs and between your hands, the more lateral “play” you will feel in your equine. If you keep your hands close together and your legs snugly around his barrel, there is a lot less lateral “play” and a great deal more accuracy when doing your patterns. Think of your legs and hands creating a “train track” with rails between which your animal must move. The wider the space between your hands and legs, the “snakier” his movements will become.
But what if he will not turn without you really pulling on the inside rein? He will turn if you do it correctly. Remember, it doesn’t matter how far you turn his head to the side. His head is not attached to the ground and he will only go where his legs go. You will be helpful to your mule and correct if you always try to keep his head and neck straight in front of his shoulders. When you wish to turn, give a slight half halt to slow for the turn. Be sure to support your equine with your legs as you do this—the inside leg should become stronger with each squeeze and give with each release. Keep your outside rein slightly checked back compared to your inside rein (which pulls and releases), and hold your hand in close to the withers on the outside. Do not check too hard or your equine will turn out instead of around the circle. Take your inside rein away from the withers a little to encourage the turn, but be careful not to take it any farther than necessary, because this will disconnect your animal’s hindquarters from his shoulders. As you repeatedly do this exercise, your equine will learn to lead with his shoulders, bend his body through his rib cage to the arc of the circle, and not just his head and neck. If necessary, you can counter bend his head and neck to move the shoulders onto the arc of the circle, but do not counter bend too much or you will get a turn instead. Hold his correct bend steady with your legs – the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg slightly back to encourage impulsion through the turn.
The finer you tune your own aids, the lighter and more responsive your equine will become. To summarize, before you begin, plan your course of action. Keep movements large and flowing, your eyes looking ahead and your aids even and close in. Employ the aids diagonally, while firmly encouraging forward energy horizontally from back to front while at the same time, encouraging vertical flexion over the topline. Do not be too concerned about where your equine’s nose is if his body movement is correct. As he becomes more confident, fit and relaxed, and as your aids become more correct, his head and neck will drop into the improved posture of their own accord. If you try to set the head and neck on the vertical before the body has been conditioned to balance and round, you will produce an animal with a hollow back and a lot of vertical and lateral stiffness. This will prevent him from correctly responding to your aids even if he wants to, because he will be physically unable to do so. It may take a little longer to correctly condition both your body and his, but the result is a sound, cooperative animal, possessing the mental and physical qualities necessary for the best performance upon your request. You may even experience the surprise of a better response to your aids and good posture, balance and strength in your own body, as well.
© 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This article is an excerpt from the book, Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, 2013.
By Meredith Hodges
Long before the Founding Fathers drafted our constitution, America began as a religious nation under God, and the mule has his roots in religion just as does the country he has helped to build. The mule of today’s ancestor is the donkey, mentioned in the Bible numerous times as an animal respected by God and blessed by Jesus Christ. The donkey was even chosen to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and, later, acted as the mount Jesus himself used for his ride into the city of Jerusalem.
Here is an ancient story, quoted directly from the Bible, illustrating the mule’s wonderful sense of humor: “So Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and the Cherethites, and the Pelethites, went down and caused Solomon to ride upon king David’s mule, and brought him to Gihon.” I Kings 1:38
“And Absolom met the servants of David. And Absolom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the Heavens and the earth, and the mule that was under him went away.” II Samuel 18:9.
Mules are the true professionals of slapstick humor and professional psychotherapy! When you get into an altercation with a mule, you will seldom get hurt, but you will surely be set straight in a most humiliating way.
In the early days of what was to become the United States of America, mules and horses perpetuated the expansion of the colonists into the Western territories of America. Since these early times, the American mule has acted not only as a pack animal for miners and fur traders penetrating the West, but it has also played an important part in our country’s defense, being able to cross terrain not accessible by any other means, and carrying and pulling heavier loads of weaponry than horses could even begin to carry.
When the fight for freedom from England’s rule was launched with the American Revolution, donkeys and horses were used in varying capacities to help win the battle for our country’s liberty.
Freedom was won as a result of the combined efforts of humans, animals and faith. One need only examine the humble traits and character of mules and donkeys to see that they indeed possessed the faith and the strong constitution to make some very important contributions to this country’s independence.
As they say, an army “marches on its stomach,” so it was a natural for Americans to progress further and delve into agriculture. Because of the extraordinary ability of mules to work for longer periods of time in sometimes harsh and unrelenting climates, their surefootedness and resistance to parasites and disease and with their ability to work long hours, the mule became the gem of agriculture. He learned his job quickly and put his heart and soul into every task.
When American coal mining was booming, the mule was such a valuable member of the mining process, that a good mining mule was considered to actually be more valuable than a human miner. Mining has always been a dangerous business, and the mining mule’s innate sense of self-preservation was well known. “Mules are very smart…They know what they can do and would never do anything they couldn’t or would not want to do. Mules were known to pull at least three full mine cars full of coal. If you hooked up a fourth car they would balk at any commands and just stand there. No way would they pull the fourth car!” 1
“Mules are the living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. Mules were the pack animals of Spanish padres and grizzled prospectors. These animals have a dominant place in frontier history. From 1883 to 1889, the 20-mule teams moved 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley, California, to Mojave—165 miles away—traveling 15 to 18 miles a day. The 20-mule teams, the dramatic solution of a transportation problem, soon became a world-famous symbol, the trademark first of the Pacific Borax Company and, today, of the many products made by U.S. Borax.” 2 So began the mule’s vital contributions to industry and the economy.
In 1976, under the direction of the North American Trail Ride Conference, the Bicentennial Wagon train became a notable event in American history. Commemorating the trek West that was made so long ago by brave and adventurous pioneers, the Bicentennial journey went from California east to Valley Forge, retracing the steps of these first U.S. settlers. The outriders brought back scrolls of signatures signed by enthusiastic citizens to reaffirm their belief in the principles upon which America was founded. State by state, wagons met up with the main train and joined the trek. No doubt, many of these Bicentennial wagons were pulled by our beloved mules. “Going through my deceased folks’ stuff, I found an ‘Official Souvenir Program’ of the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage. It’s interesting reading about the program in 1995–‘96, to have a Conestoga wagon or Prairie Schooner from each of the 50 states across the country on historic trails, ending up at Valley Forge on July third.” 3
Although some Americans have become concerned about the impact donkeys may have on the environment and, in particular, on our state parks, there is no evidence that the burro will reproduce at a rate that will threaten the ecosystem, especially that of the Grand Canyon. In fact, it is possible that the burros have already been in the Grand Canyon for centuries. There is evidence that the erosion attributed to the burros is more often due primarily to other invasive forces, such as humans and the natural erosion that occurs from geological forces and the canyon’s climate. There is also some concern that the donkeys pollute water holes, but the defecation of burros (and mules) has never actually been proven to pollute anything in their environment. Currently, there is an effort to prevent mules from being used in the Grand Canyon, but they are clearly the safest way to traverse and enjoy the beauty of this American natural wonder. Mules and donkeys learn their jobs well and cannot be dissuaded from their purpose of carrying inexperienced tourists to the bottom of the canyon and back up again—with a remarkable safety record. Their smaller hooves do little damage to the trails, and their handlers have the integrity to maintain the trails just as they maintain their precious mules. Cyclists, hikers and motorized vehicles in the parks have the potential to do much more irreparable damage to the environment than any mule or donkey. In truth, it is the human element, rather than mules and donkeys, which does most of the damage to our delicate ecosystem.
America’s journey has been one of courage, determination and great faith. It has been defined by its sequential growth phases of religion, defense, freedom, agriculture, economics, industry and ecology. We have worked alongside mules and donkeys for centuries and have often taken their generous contributions for granted in the course of our fast-paced growth. But the mule and donkey are likely to remain with us as long as they can find a way to make their contributions to society.
Those of us who attend Bishop Mule Days every year and many Longears lovers across this country are very well-acquainted with the incredible assets of the mule, and look forward to singing his praises every year on October 26th, when Mule Appreciation Day rolls around. Let us never forget to thank our trusted equine companions for all they have done to make possible this great country of ours!
© 2012, 2016, 2019, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
1Mine Stories, The No. 9 Mine & Museum,Lansford, PA
2Mr. Longears, Volume 6, Number 21, Summer 1979
3ruralheritage.com email thread
By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of Rock and Roll: Diary of a Rescue, we learned about the discovery and rescue of Belgian draft mules, Rock and Roll, by Meredith Hodges and her team of experts. As the pair’s rehabilitation continues, the road to recovery gets tougher. But for every health setback, there is a personality breakthrough with these courageous and now-trusting gentle giants—and always a reason to hope.
By May of 2011, both mules were beginning to bond well with me and I was able to separate them during workouts. I knew I would have to develop a strong bond with Roll in case Rock didn’t make it, and we all knew the odds were not in Rock’s favor. Being alone with me in the round pen helped Roll to concentrate on the tasks at hand. His way of going was markedly improving with each new lesson.
Both mules could now square up properly and move in a much more balanced frame, although holding that balance was intermittent. The personality of each mule began to emerge and they became more willing to play games and to be touched and kissed about their heads. Rock was much more overt about his pleasure during the massages, and we could finally tell that they were beginning to trust us.
By mid-June, we were able to take the pads off Rock’s back feet and reset the shoes without the pads. He had grown three-eighths of an inch of sole on both hind feet and the rotation began to improve in one back foot. Both mules were feeling much better and were actually engaging in play during turnout. Next, we discovered that due to the concussion to his rear feet from improper use during driving in the past, Roll had side bones in his right hind foot. This caused him to twist that foot as it grew out between trims, so we put shoes on his back feet as well.
Rock loved our newly acquired mini donkeys and, during turnout, he would stand by their pen for the better part of the day. Here they all are on the Fourth of July, 2011.
By that time, Rock and Roll both looked magnificent! Considering the extent of Rock’s past neglect and injuries, he had gained incredible muscle tone and balance. His eyes were bright and alert, his coat was shiny and his feet were much improved (although they still exhibited a hint of chronic founder).
Roll’s fat and lumpy body had changed dramatically. Now his body was more symmetrical and balanced, and he also sported a shiny coat and balanced feet. His eyes were alert and his appearance of laziness had completely vanished.
However, by the end of July, Rock once again began to lose muscle tone over his right hip and his front feet became very sore. We thought he and Roll may have been playing too hard, which could have caused Rock to injure himself again, so we separated them into adjoining pastures during daily turnout. At night they remained in their respective stalls and runs, side by side. Custom-made boots were ordered for Rock’s front feet to help alleviate the pressure, but unfortunately we had to wait until the first of November for delivery of the boots. By the time they arrived, they were of use for only about two weeks before the weather changed. The wet snow and mud became packed in the boots, causing Rock too much pain on the dropped soles of his feet.
While Rock was on three weeks of rest during August, he developed swelling in his sheath. He was treated with an anti-inflammatory for two weeks, but the swelling didn’t go down. Since his front feet seemed better, I decided to resume his physical therapy. Although the structured movement helped the swelling go down, it migrated to the midline of his abdomen. After two weeks of hot packing the abdomen twice a day, the swelling finally disappeared. Because Rock was becoming stronger and getting up and down more often, he was beginning to develop sores on his knees, fetlocks and hocks, and “shoe boils” on his underbelly (pressure sores caused by his hooves when lying down), all of which needed to be frequently tended to.
In September, once again there was swelling on Rock’s underside midline, which also seemed to cause him to get weaker musculature in the hips. The swelling was hot-packed, and it disappeared fairly quickly this time. By mid-October, Rock was lying down for prolonged periods of time—unhealthy for an equine—so his support team of three veterinarians, two equine chiropractors, his equine masseuse and I got together to assess his condition. All 2000 plus pounds of his weight was being shifted off his three bad feet and onto his left hind leg, causing it to track behind the right front when he walked. We decided on a regimen of phenylbutazone (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), minimal exercise, plenty of rest and icing of his feet for 15-20 minutes twice daily. Things were not looking good.
No matter what was asked of him, Rock always gave it his all. We babied him through turnout, chiropractics, trims, and massage, but it finally got to the point where we could barely get his back feet off the ground to apply the hoof dressing. We decided to remove his shoes. That day, he was so weak in the hindquarters we could not replace them and couldn’t even trim the feet without running the risk of him falling down. We waited a couple of weeks before we trimmed his heels with the aid of a custom-made, six-inch equine jack stand. That seemed to help through November and part of December, but Rock still needed the Thrush Buster and Rainmaker for hoof health. He was able to tip his hind feet forward and let us have the bottoms of his feet for a few seconds at a time so the medication could be applied. Finally, he just couldn’t manage having his feet elevated at all—the pain was too great. Around this time, we noticed that the swelling had again cropped up in his midline abdomen, which led to another week of hot packing it twice a day.
After Christmas, I decided to resume a modified version of his physical therapy. Trooper that he was, he tried with all his might, but his hips were listing terribly to the left, and the first time he went over the three one-inch ground poles, he crashed into every one of them. His third time over, he grazed just one. When I put him back in his pen, he immediately laid down. I then noticed the bulging in the coronet band of his left hind foot. He was “sinking!” We immediately called the vet and he confirmed my fear. The lamina was pulling away from the hoof wall and allowing the bones to “sink” through the sole of Rock’s hoof. It wouldn’t be long before the other feet would quickly follow suit. It was clear that he was in agony and would have to be put down, so our vet came out the ranch, loaded Rock up with anti-inflammatory and pain medications and said he would be back the next afternoon.
Every day for a year, I prayed for a miracle for Rock and each time I prayed, he got better. I now wondered if God would give us yet another miracle and let him live—but it wasn’t meant to be. On December 27th, 2011, surrounded by his Lucky Three family, our beautiful Rock took his last steps. We all knew it was time for us to let him go. Rock was euthanized at home and died peacefully, with his head resting in my hands.
My vet Greg Farrand informed me that the president of Colorado State University had pulled together a team for Rock’s necropsy and the preservation of his skeleton as a teaching aid for the CSU Veterinary Sciences department.
When the necropsy came back, it showed not a single fracture of Rock’s pelvis, but rather multiple old fractures in the socket of the hip joint. The bottom of the socket was almost completely gone and there was a hole the size of a dime at the top of the socket. The head of the femur had no cartilage left and there was fibrosis and cysts full of fluid the entire length of the femur stem.
I have come to realize that our courageous and noble Rock gave us more than one miracle. He had been able to live one more year of life with a severely shattered hip joint and compromised femur. He proved that our balance and core muscle therapy can work wonders! And he lived long enough to give his half-brother, Roll, the chance to bond with people who will love and care for him for the rest of his life. Thank you and God bless you, Rock. We will miss you.
© 2012, 2016, 2020, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
No training series would be complete without examination of the principles and philosophy behind the training techniques. The philosophy of my training techniques is based on the principle that we are not, in fact, training our equines. In fact, we are cultivating relationships with them by assigning meaning to our own body language that they can understand.
Since our own level of understanding changes and grows over time, we must assume that so does that of our animals, and we must gauge our explanations accordingly. In the beginning, the emotional needs of the young equine are quite different from that of an older animal. They need to overcome a lot of instincts that would protect them in the wild, but are inappropriate in a domestic situation. In this case, our focus must be on developing friendship and confidence in the young animal, while establishing our own dominance in a non-threatening manner.
We do this through a lot of positive reinforcement in the beginning, with gentle touch, reassuring voice, and lots of rewards for good behavior. Our expressions of disapproval are kept at a minimum. As he grows with us, the equine will realize that we do not wish to harm him, and will next develop a rather pushy attitude in an attempt to assert his own dominance – once that he is confident that his behavior is acceptable. When this occurs, we must re-evaluate our reward system and save excessive praise for the new things as he learns them and allow the learned behavior to be treated as the norm, praised more passively, yet appreciated. This is the cultivation of a delicate concept of give and take in a relationship from the emotional standpoint. As in any good relationship, we must learn to be polite, considerate and respectful of our mules, donkeys, horses, ponies and hybrids. After all, as my grandmother used to say, “You can catch more flies with sugar that you can with vinegar!”
From the physical standpoint, there are also a lot of things to consider of both mule and trainer. In the beginning, unless you are a professional trainer with years of proper schooling, you are not likely to be the most balanced and coordinated of riders, lacking absolute control over your own body language. By the same token, the untrained equine will be lacking in the muscle coordination and strength to respond correctly to your cues that guide him to perform certain movements. For these reasons, we must modify our approach to fit each new situation and modify again to perfect it, keeping in mind that our main goal is to establish a good relationship with our equine and not just to train him! It is up to the trainer to decide the cause of any resistance, and to modify techniques to temper that resistance – be it mental or physical.
For instance, we had a 3-year-old mule learning to lunge without the benefit of the round pen. The problem was that she refused to go around you more than a couple of times without running off. Assess the situation first by brainstorming all the probable reasons she might keep doing such an annoying thing. Is she frightened? Is she bored? Is she mischievous? Has she been calm and accepting of most things until now? And most important, is my own body language causing this to occur?
Animals are all quite different, as are humans, and each individual will learn in his own way, as do humans. Once in a while, you meet an animal that is not able to learn things in a conventional manner. He perceives things just differently enough to make it extremely difficult. In the case of the mule that would not lunge independently on the line, we found that she needed additional learning aids. You can either put a round pen around the animal to “force” him to comply, or you can wait until he is broke to saddle before you try to lunge him again with just the line. If you only have an arena, you can lunge the equine in the corner and the two fenced sides will help him to stay on the circle. This certainly helped her!
I have worked with many mules that wouldn’t lunge first, but would ground-drive and accept a saddle and rider with no problem. After this they seem to lunge quite easily! Learn to be fair and flexible in your approach to problems as you would for anyone you were interested in getting to know. Be firm in your own convictions, but be sensitive to things that can change and be willing to make those changes as the occasion arises!
As mental changes occur, so do physical changes. As muscles develop and coordination gets better, the animal will gain confidence. As a trainer, you will need to do less and less to cause certain movements. For example, in the case of the leg yield, you may have to turn your mule’s head a little in the opposite direction to get him to step sideways and forward. As he becomes stronger, more coordinated, and understands your request, you can then begin to straighten his body more with less effort. Granted, we have begun by doing this the wrong way, yet we have put our mule “on the road” to the right way. We have assimilated an action in response to our leg that can now be perfected over time. In essence, you have simply said, “First you learn to move away from my leg, then you can learn to do it gracefully!”
The same concept works in the case of the trainer, or rider. Sometimes you must do things that are not quite right in the beginning to get your own body to assimilate correctness. As I have said, we all perceive things a little differently and it depends on how we are introduced to something whether or not we can understand or perform it. It is nearly impossible for the inexperienced horseman to perceive and control unused seat bones as a viable means of control of the equine. In the beginning, reins and legs are much easier to use to complete such a task.
In training horses and mules, there is really little difference in one’s techniques or approach, provided we maintain patience and understanding and a good rewards system. The major difference between these two equines is their ability to tolerate negative reinforcement, or punishment. The mule, being part donkey, does not tolerate punitive action very well unless he is fully aware that the fault was his own and the punishment is fair. For instance, you ask for a canter lead and your mule keeps trotting, one good smack with the whip, or one good gig with the spurs, is negative reinforcement that will bring about the desired response, but be careful of an over-reaction from an overdone cue. More than one good smack or gig could cause either a runaway or an extremely balky animal. This kind of resistance comes from the donkey and requires a much different approach when training donkeys. The horse part of the mule allows us an easier time of overcoming this type of resistance in mules, making them different and easier to train than donkeys.
It is the innate desire of all humans to control their own lives both emotional and environmental. When we cannot, we become panicked and confused about our situation. We doubt ourselves, our abilities, and our self-worth. If we do not maintain a sense of humor about those things that we cannot control and learn to accept that which we cannot change, we are doomed to a life of depression and failure. Horses can be controlled and even some mules can be controlled for the most part, but it is my experience that donkeys are only controlled when they so desire.
Donkeys are affectionate, amicable characters, and possess such a sensitive nature that one would think punishment a real deterrent from bad behavior – but when you punish a donkey, you will be met with a tough hide and unbelievable avoidance behaviors which often cause more resistance than it’s worth! As if this isn’t enough, if you do punish your donkey for something, the next time he even comes close to the same action, he may anticipate your punishment and go straight to the avoidance behavior before he actually makes the mistake. For this reason, it is better to try to ignore the mistakes, focus on the successes and reward the equine with lots of praise. If something in your training isn’t really necessary to your final objectives and you encounter this resistance, such as I did during lunging training, then just drop it and go on to something else that they can do easily. There is plenty of time to learn it at a later date.
© 1989, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Long before the Founding Fathers drafted our constitution, the roots of America were as a religious nation under God. Today’s mule also has his roots in religion. The mule’s ancestor—the donkey—is mentioned in the Bible numerous times as an animal acknowledged by God and blessed by Jesus Christ. The donkey was even chosen to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and, later, as the mount Jesus himself used for his ride into the city of Jerusalem.
Throughout the development of our country—one nation under God—the American mule has been used to pull the mighty Conestoga Wagons of the pioneering settlers moving Westward, as a pack animal for settlers, miners and traders, and as an important part of our country’s defense in times of war.
As early-nineteenth-century America continued to develop and its population grew, the American people came to depend more and more on self-sustaining agriculture. Because of the mule’s extraordinary ability to work long hours in sometimes harsh and unrelenting climates, his sure footedness which allowed them to cross terrain not accessible by any other means, and his resistance to parasites and disease, he became the prized gem of agriculture and remained so for the next hundred and fifty years.
From the day the Erie Canal first opened on October 26, 1825, mules and donkeys were always used to pull the heavy barges. Inevitably, songs like Thomas A. Allen’s “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” which praises a mule named “Ol’ Sal,” became part of America’s folk song tradition. In the early days of the Erie Canal, men and their mules lived side by side on the barges—the mules were even brought onboard when they were not towing, and safety ramps were placed at intervals up the banks of the canals, in case an unlucky mule accidentally slipped into the canal and could not negotiate its steep walls to climb back out.
In 1882, the Harmony Borax Works opened with one big problem—how to get their product 165 miles across the treacherous Mojave Desert from Death Valley to the nearest railroad spur. The answer? Mules! “The borax wagons were built in Mojave at a cost of $900 each…When the two wagons were loaded with ore and a 500-gallon water tank was added, the total weight of the mule train was 73,200 pounds or 36 and a half tons. When the mules were added to the wagons, the caravan stretched over 100 feet. The Twenty Mule Teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley between 1883 and 1889.” 1
When American coal mining was booming, the mule was such a valuable member of the mining process, that a good mining mule was considered to actually be more valuable than a human miner. Mining has always been a dangerous business, and the mining mule’s innate sense of self-preservation was well known. “Mules are very smart…They know what they can do and would never do anything they couldn’t or would not want to do. Mules were known to pull at least three full mine cars full of coal. If you hooked up a fourth car they would balk at any commands and just stand there. No way would they pull the fourth car!” 2
Because of their traits of strength, intelligence and loyalty, mules were a crucial part of our country’s greatest conflicts, from the Civil War through the Spanish American War, and in both World War I and World War II. A well-known tale from the Civil War states that, “In a battle at Chattanooga, a Union general’s teamsters became scared and deserted their mule teams. The mules stampeded at the sound of battle and broke from their wagons. They started toward the enemy with trace-chains rattling and wiffletrees snapping over tree stumps as they bolted pell-mell toward the bewildered Confederates. The enemy believed it to be an impetuous cavalry charge; the line broke and fled.” 3 During World War I, mules and horses were still the primary way that artillery was carried into battle. Although the 75mm Howitzers proved too heavy for most horses, it was a common sight to see the big guns strapped to the back of a sturdy mule.
One of the world’s greatest natural wonders, the Grand Canyon, has been home to mules since the 1800s. First brought in by prospectors, it was soon realized that the tourists wanted a way down to the Canyon floor, and so began the Grand Canyon mule pack trips. Famous mule-riding visitors to the Grand Canyon have included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft, famed naturalist John Muir and painter/sculptor Frederic Remington.
We Americans have worked alongside our mules and donkeys for centuries and have often taken their generous contributions for granted in the course of our country’s fast-paced growth, but the mule and donkey are likely to remain with us as long as they can find a way to make their contributions to society.
Those of us who attend Bishop Mule Days every year and many longears lovers across this country are very well-acquainted with the incredible assets of the mule, and look forward to singing his praises every year on October 26th, when Mule Appreciation Day rolls around. Let us never forget to thank our trusted companions for all they have contributed to building this great country of ours!
© 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
2 Mine Stories, The No. 9 Mine & Museum,Lansford, PA.
3 The Horse in the Civil War, by Deborah Grace
By Meredith Hodges
It is important to know the differences among rewards, treats, coaxing and bribing in order to correctly employ the reward system of training called Behavior Modification.
Rule Number One: Treats and bribery should never be used during training. However, the appropriate dispensing of rewards and coaxing will produce the correct behaviors.
In order to reward your equine correctly for performing tasks, it is important to know the difference between a reward and a treat, and between coaxing and bribing. Let’s begin with some basic definitions of these terms:
Reward: something desirable given for a completed task
Treat: an unexpected gift given simply because it will be enjoyed
Coax: to gently persuade without dispensing the reward
Bribe: to persuade the animal by indiscriminately dispensing treats
Remember to give your equine a reward only after a specific task you’ve asked for has been performed—or even an assimilation of that task, which means the taking of baby steps toward completing the task. The reward should be given immediately upon completion of the task and then your equine should be allowed time to enjoy his reward before moving on to the next task. If your equine is given a food reward for only good behaviors, he will be more likely to continue to repeat only those behaviors for which he is rewarded and you can begin to “shape” his behavior in a positive way.
Treats, on the other hand, are a food that your equine especially likes, which are given randomly and without purpose. Giving random treats during training can result in crossed signals and confusion in your animal. Treats such as peppermints and even “horse treats” are generally an inappropriate food source for equines and when dispensed too freely, have actually been known to cause equine health problems, so forego treats of any kind during the training process.
Coaxing and bribing can seem like the same thing, but they are not. Bribery suggests the actual dispensing of a reward before the task has been completed. Bribery is the indiscriminate dispensing of treats and is not the way to clearly communicate to your equine which is truly a positive behavior and which is not. Rewards and coaxing are often confused with bribery, but rewards are dispensed for a task only when it has been completed, and coaxing using the promise of a reward can often be used to help your equine to stop balking and attempt to perform the task you have requested. Then the reward is given only when he has completed the task.
As an example of coaxing, you can extend a handful of crimped oats to lure your equine closer to an obstacle, but he should not receive the handful of oats until he completes the required task or travels enough distance toward the obstacle to deserve a reward. If your equine just won’t come all the way to an obstacle, even to get a reward, you can modify the task by asking your equine to just come closer to the obstacle and then halt (but without backing up). Then the reward can be dispensed for the partial approach and halt, because these actions still qualify as an assimilation of the bigger task that is to be completed. If he backs away at all, he should not be rewarded and you will have to go back to the beginning of the task and try again.
A kind word or a pat on the head may be enjoyable for your equine, but it doesn’t necessarily insure that the desired behavior will be repeated. However, a food reward insures that desirable behaviors will be repeated, because food is a solid, tangible reward. The food reward will back up the petting, (the petting is something that you probably do all the time anyway). When you visit your equine, you most likely pat him on the nose or head and say hello, but there are no real demands for any particular task being asked of your equine—you and your equine are simply interacting. You’re getting him used to touch, discovering how he likes to be touched and learning about his responses, which is actually part of imprinting.
The problem with carrots, apples and other foods people use for treats is that they’re not something for which the equine will continue to work and are not healthy choices for your animal in large quantities. After a limited amount of time, equines can easily become satiated on most treats. It’s like a kid with a bunch of candy bars. Once they become full they don’t want any more candy and they’ll stop working for the treat. Many foods used as treats, when given too freely, may also cause your animal to become tense or hyperactive. However, it’s been my experience that an equine will continue to work for crimped oats as long as you dole them out. Crimped oats are healthy for the body and they don’t cause an equine to become tense and difficult to handle.
When you’re using rewards, always start with lavish rewards for all new behaviors. This means that, every time you teach something new, you’re going to give lavish rewards for even the slightest assimilation toward the correct behavior. For instance, if your foal is tied to the fence and upon your approach, he quits pulling, it’s time to try to walk away from the fence with him and see if he will follow you. In this first leading lesson, you’ll untie him and ask him to take a step toward you. If he does, lavishly reward that step toward you, wait for him to finish chewing his oats and then ask him to take another step forward and toward you. If he complies and takes another step forward, lavishly reward that step too. During the first lesson, you will be rewarding every single step he takes toward you. Remember to keep the lesson short (about 15 minutes) and ask for only as many steps as he willingly gives you.
Between lessons, let your equine have a day off in order to rest. When you return for the second lesson, tie him to the fence and review with him your last lesson from the very beginning. He should remember the previous lessons and be willing to follow you right away in order to be rewarded. If he seems willing to follow your lead, untie him and ask him to take a step forward just as he did before, but this time, instead of dispensing the food reward when he takes the first step forward, simply say, “Good boy” and ask him for a second step forward before you reward him with the oats. You will now be progressing from one step forward before you reward to two steps forward before you reward.
If he won’t take the second step forward, then give the reward for the first step, wait for him to finish chewing and ask again for two steps before rewarding him again. If he complies, you can then reward him every two steps during that lesson and quit after fifteen minutes. Give him another day between lessons and then proceed in the same manner, beginning with a review of the previous lesson, then a reward for the first step, and then for every two steps. During this lesson, you can now ask for three steps, and you can continue asking for three or more steps during this lesson, provided that he takes these steps willingly and then stops obediently on his own to receive his reward. You no longer need to count the steps as long as he is offering more steps between rewards each time. If, because of his enthusiasm, he begins to charge ahead, stop him and immediately reward him for halting. This will insure that he keeps his attention on you and the task at hand. This methodical, deliberate process is setting the stage for a positive and healthy working relationship with your equine.
This is how you begin with leading training, and also how you should proceed with all the new things that you will be teaching your equine. In the beginning of leading training, he gets rewarded for even an assimilation of what you’re asking. For example, when you get to negotiating obstacles, your goal may be to cross over a bridge, but when your equine sees the bridge ahead, he may stop or start backing up. At this point, allow him to back until he stops. Go back and repeat the steps you did prior to approaching the obstacle. Then, asking for only one step at a time, proceed as you did during his flatwork leading training toward the bridge, rewarding each step he takes. Tell him verbally how brave he is and continue to reward any steps he takes toward the obstacle before proceeding forward. Remember to stop at any interval where he becomes tense, ask for one more step to be rewarded, and then allow him to settle and refocus before asking any more from him.
Once he goes to the bridge without a problem, you no longer have to reward him all the way up to the bridge. Just reward him when he actually gets to the bridge. Next, step up onto the bridge and ask him to take a step up onto the bridge with his two front feet, which is another new task. If he puts one foot on the bridge or even tries to lift up a foot and put it on the bridge, make sure you reward that behavior. Once he has a foot firmly placed on the bridge, keep tension on the lead rope and ask for his other front foot to come up onto the bridge. If he places his second foot on the bridge, you can then reward him for having both front feet on the bridge. Next, you’re going to continue forward and just walk over the bridge to the other side, pause and reward. Then quit this lesson. In his next lesson, if needed, repeat the approach the same way if he starts to balk. If not, ask him to step both front feet up onto the bridge, stop, make sure he is standing squarely, and reward that behavior.
Now you no longer need to reward for one foot on the bridge. This is called “fading or phasing out” the reward for a previous behavior (one step), while introducing the new behavior of walking to the bridge, halting and then putting two front feet up on the bridge. Wait for a moment for him to chew his reward and then ask him to continue onto the bridge, stop and square up with four feet on the bridge and reward. If he does not comply and won’t stop on the bridge, just go back to the beginning, approach the bridge as described and try again until he stops to be rewarded with all four feet placed squarely on the bridge
Then you ask him, to place his two front feet on the ground while leaving his two back feet on the bridge. Then have him stop and square up to be rewarded. This is a difficult position and if he cannot succeed by the third attempt, you may have to step in front and aid in his balance, then reward him when he settles in this position.
The last step over the bridge is to bring the hind feet off the bridge, stop and square up one more time before he gets rewarded. This does two things. It causes your equine to be attentive to the number of steps you are asking and it puts him in good posture at each stage so that his body will develop properly. In future lessons, the steps in the approach to the bridge no longer need to be rewarded and as he becomes more attentive, he will learn to stop any time you ask and wait for your cue to proceed. After several months of this meticulous attention to these detailed steps, he will not necessarily need to be rewarded with the food reward each time—a pat on the neck and kind words of support should be sufficient. Rewards can then be given for whole “blocks” of steps when he successfully completes them.
Here is a question a lot of people ask: “This is fine while my animal and I are still working from the ground, but what happens when I finally get on to ride? Do I keep rewarding every new behavior when I ride?” The answer to that question is, “No, you don’t.” If you do your ground work correctly, it will address all the things that you’ll be doing while you’re riding before you actually even get on. Your equine has been lavishly rewarded for stopping when you pull on the reins and the drive lines, and he’s been rewarded for turning and backing and everything else he needs to learn before you actually get on him, so the only thing left to get used to would be exposure to your legs on his sides. He will soon learn that your legs push him in the direction of the turn you are indicating with your reins. For this action, he does not need to be rewarded.
In the natural progression of correct training—including during mounting training—your equine should also be getting rewarded when you’re first getting him used to your being on-board. Give him the oats reward for standing still while you attempt to mount (i.e., walking toward him, holding the left rein and reaching for the saddle horn), and then when you hang from each side of his body with a foot in the stirrup (first on one side and then on the other side), and, finally, from each side of his body while you sit on his back. When you ask him to turn his head to take the oats from your hand, you can be sure his attention will be on you because this action will force him to look at you in order to receive his oats. Then reward him again for standing still as you dismount. Consequently, by the time you actually get to the point of riding in an open arena, he’s been rewarded for having you on his back and for behaving well through all the exercises demanded from him during round pen training.
You may first want to lunge your equine when you move into the open arena. Lunge him on the lunge line and reward him during that part of your arena workout. When you are ready to mount in the open arena, have a few oats in your pockets to offer him when you mount on each side the first few times. This will ensure that his attention stays focused on you. Once he is used to being ridden, you will no longer have to reward him in the middle of riding lessons. If he does not keep his attention on his work in the open arena, this signifies that not enough time has been spent on the ground work and you should back up your training regimen to the point that he is maintaining attentiveness and performing correctly, even if it means going back to the round pen or leading work. If, in the ground work stages, you give plenty of food rewards in the correct manner, by the time you groom and tack up, your equine should have been sufficiently rewarded and will not require another reward until after your workout when you return to the work station and un-tack him. This is called delayed gratification. When you un-tack him and do your last minute grooming before putting him away, again be generous with the crimped oats and praise your equine for a job well done. Rewards are dispensed very specifically and pave the road to a solid foundation of trust and friendship.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
With the hectic schedule of spring and summer slowly tapering into fall, thoughts of cool, refreshing mountain streams, the sight of a massive bull elk, or the quiet majesty of the rugged mountain peaks on a relaxing trail ride, mountain hunt or pack trip begin to ease their way into our minds. What better time to share with your mule or donkey? What better place for him to show you what he was born to do? A mountain trail ride or pack trip are both perfect ways for you to get to really know your Longears and strengthen the bond between you.
Mules are remarkably strong and durable animals, making them excellent mountain partners. The cupped shape of their hooves allows them to track the rough mountain terrain with much more surefootedness than their counterpart, the horse. A mule’s superior intelligence and strong sense of survival help him to carefully negotiate the placement of his feet, insuring the safest ride possible. This is both important and comforting to know when heading for the mountains. The mule’s strength and endurance are sometimes unbelievable, but always dependable. On a hunting trip, he will take you through rough mountain terrain for days then pack out the “elk of your dreams” with the greatest of ease.
Around the campfire, he is wonderful company on those lonesome mountain nights. His blatant curiosity can make for some fun—and funny— situations, and his loving ways will win your heart. But first and foremost, he is a reliable companion when the going gets tough.
A few years ago, some close muleskinner friends of mine decided to take a hunting trip into the Rocky Mountains. Packing in, the weather was beautiful with warm temperatures, calm breezes, and not a cloud in the sky. After setting up camp and tending to their horses and mules, the hunters set off tracking elk. Hunting was good, but after a few days, the evening brought with it an unpredictable snowstorm of incredible intensity. The hunters crawled from their tents the next morning to discover their camp buried in more than four feet of snow!
With no chance of the storm lifting, the hunters packed up what they could on their horses and mules and quickly got under way. Since time was of the essence, tents and much of their gear had to be left behind. As they left the campsite, the snow deepened and the terrain underneath was steep, rocky and treacherous. They had gone only a short distance when the snow became so deep and the terrain so hazardous that the horses refused to go one step farther. Anxiety was high when the horses could not blaze a trail out. The hunters were worried they wouldn’t make it off the mountain alive.
In the face of this great danger, my friend asked his trusted mule, Goliath, to break trail for the others. With slow, careful, deliberate steps, this well-trained, loyal mule led them all down the mountain to safety. Once there, they freed their trucks and trailers, which were buried in snow, loaded them up, and made their way back to the lowlands to safety. The storms on the mountain worsened and it was spring before the hunters could return for the rest of their gear, but they were eternally grateful to Goliath the mule for leading them safely down the mountain!
There are many stories like this one, where mules and donkeys have emerged as heroes in precarious situations. However, if you prefer not to take risks like my hunter friends, there are other less daunting activities you can enjoy with your donkey or mule.
Why not take your longeared companion along to the mountains for a hike or a picnic? He would thoroughly love just being with you in those beautiful surroundings. While you walk the trails, enjoying the marvels of nature, your donkey or mule can carry the lunch essentials. While you enjoy the wildflowers or try your hand at fishing a mountain stream, you can be confident that your Longears will enjoy the peaceful solitude and be able to stay out of serious trouble at the same time.
If you question taking excursions such as these with your longears because of a lack of training, there are fellow Longears lovers who can help you. All over the United States, excellent mule trainers are available to help beginners. A Longears lover once told me that his love for burros and mules began years ago when he found Dusty, a three-month-old wild burro caught in a blizzard. He took her home and cared for her, and, a year later, he entered her in the National Western Fall Classic Donkey and Mule Show. He and Dusty were awarded the title of Reserve Champion Donkey of the Show! Ever since, he has sought to help others enjoy Longears and horses in any way he can. In addition to breaking and training wild mustangs at his Medicine Bow Stables, he has included free clinics for burro owners to teach them how to handle and care for their animals.
Getting proper training for your donkey or mule can only enhance your relationship with them and in turn, they will enrich your life. This fall, why not take the time to really get to know these remarkable animals by letting them share in the fun, be it hiking, hunting, packing, or picnicking. The life you enhance may be your own!
© 2010, 2016, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
My philosophy is based on the principle that I am not, in fact, “training” donkeys and mules. Rather, I am cultivating relationships and establishing a lifestyle with them by assigning meaning to my body language that they can understand, while I learn what they are trying to indicate to me with their body language.
In the same way that my own level of understanding changes and grows over time, I believe that my animals’ understanding grows, too. In the beginning, the emotional needs of a young mule or any equine are different from those of an older animal. The young animal needs to overcome many instincts that would protect him in the wild, but are inappropriate in a domestic situation. In a domestic situation, the focus must be on developing friendship and confidence in the young equine, while establishing my own dominance in a non-threatening manner. This is accomplished through the use of a great deal of positive reinforcement early on, including gentle touches, a reassuring voice and lots of rewards for good behavior. Expressions of disapproval should be kept to a minimum and the negative reinforcement for bad behavior should be clear, concise and limited.
As your young equine grows and matures, he will realize that you do not wish to harm him. Next, he will develop a rather pushy attitude in an attempt to assert his own dominance (much like teenagers do with their parents), because he is now confident that this behavior is acceptable. When this occurs, reevaluate your reward system and save excessive praise for the new exercises as he learns them. Note, however, that a gentle push with his nose might only be a “request” for an additional reward and a polite “request” is quite acceptable in building a good relationship and good communication with your equine. Allow the learned behavior to be treated as the norm, and praise it more passively, yet still in an appreciative manner. This is the concept, from an emotional standpoint, of the delicate balance of give and take in a relationship. As in any good relationship, you must remain polite and considerate of your horse, mule or donkey. After all, “You can catch more flies with sugar than you can with vinegar.”
Many details of both animal and trainer must also be considered from a physical standpoint. In the beginning, unless you are a professional trainer with years of proper schooling, you are not likely to be the most balanced and coordinated of riders, and you may lack absolute control over your body language. By the same token, the untrained equine will be lacking in the muscular coordination and strength it takes to respond to your request to perform certain movements. For these reasons, you must modify your approaches to fit each new situation, and then modify again to perfect it, keeping in mind that your main goal is to establish a good relationship with your animal and not just to train him. It is up to you, the trainer, to decide the cause of any resistance from your equine, and to modify techniques that will temper that resistance, whether it is mental or physical.
Here is an example: I had a three-year-old mule that was learning to lunge without the benefit of the round pen. The problem was that he refused to go around me more than a couple of times without running off. I first needed to assess the situation by brainstorming all the probable reasons why he might keep doing such an annoying thing. Is he frightened? Is he bored? Is he mischievous? Has he been calm and accepting of most things until now? And, most important, is my own body language causing this to occur? Once I was willing to spend more time with regard to balance on the lead rope exercises and proceeded to the round pen to learn to balance on the circle, I soon discovered that developing good balance and posture was critical to a mule’s training. The reason my mule was pulling on the lunge line so hard was because he just could not balance his own body on a circle. Once I reviewed the leading exercises with him—keeping balance, posture and coordination in mind—and then went to the round pen to learn to balance on the circle, I noticed there was a lot less resistance to everything he was doing. I introduced the lunge line in the round pen and taught him how to circle with slack in the line. And, I realized that it was also important to time my pulls on the lunge line as his outside front leg was in suspension and coming forward. It didn’t make much difference in the round pen, but it was critical to his balance in the open arena so the front leg could be pulled onto the arc of the circle without throwing his whole body off balance. After learning that simple concept, lunging in the open arena on the lunge line was much easier and he did maintain the slack in the line while circling me.
Like humans, all animals are unique, and like humans, each learns in his own way. Learn to be fair and flexible in your approach to problems. It is best to have a definite program that evolves in a logical and sequential manner that addresses your equine’s needs physically, mentally and emotionally. Be firm in your own convictions, but be sensitive to situations that can change, and be willing to make those changes as the occasion arises. This is what learning is all about for both you and your equine.
Just as mental changes occur, so do physical changes. As your equine’s muscles develop and coordination improves, you will need to do less and less to cause certain movements. For example, in the case of the leg-yield, you may have to turn your animal’s head a little too far in the opposite direction to get him to step sideways and forward. You will need to guide him more strongly with the reins and kick harder. As he becomes stronger and more coordinated, and begins to understand your aids, you can then start to straighten his body more toward the correct bend and stay quieter with your aids. Granted, you began by doing things the “wrong” way by over-bending your equine and by over-using your aids, yet you put him “on the road” to the right way. You assimilated an action in response to your leg that can now be perfected over time. In essence, you have simply told your equine, “First you must learn to move away from my leg, and then you can learn to do it gracefully.”
The same concept works in the case of the trainer or the rider. Sometimes you must do things that are not quite right in the beginning to get your own body to assimilate correctness. In the beginning, a rider cannot “feel” the hind legs coming under his seat, so he needs to learn by watching the front legs moving forward along with his hands. With practice, the rider will develop the “feel” and will no longer need to watch the front legs moving forward. Remember, we all perceive things a little differently, and our perception depends on how we are introduced to something and on whether or not we can understand or perform a task.
It is nearly impossible for the inexperienced horseman to perceive and control unused seat bones as a viable means of controlling the animal. Reins and legs are much more prevalent. In order to help such a rider perceive their seat bones more clearly, it sometimes helps to start by involving the whole lower body. Earlier in this book, I suggested that, to begin facilitating this action, you pedal forward in conjunction with the front legs. Connecting this action with the front legs of the equine allows you to “see” something concrete with which you can coordinate, plus the pedaling encourages necessary independent movement in the seat bones from side to side and forward. When you begin to “feel” this sensation, you can begin to understand that when the foreleg comes back, the corresponding hind leg is coming forward under your seat bone. When you understand this, both mentally and physically, you can begin to pedal backward, which will cause you to be in even closer synchronization with your equine’s body. As your leg muscles become more stable, actual movement in your own body becomes less, more emphasis is directed toward your center of gravity and more responsibility is placed on your seat bones. Using this approach, your muscles are put into active use and coordinated with your animal’s body through gymnastic exercises, which will eventually lead to correct positioning and effective cueing.
Achieving balance and harmony with your equine requires more than just balancing and conditioning his body. As you begin to finish-train your equine, you should shift your awareness more toward your own body. Your equine should already be moving forward fairly steadily and in a longer frame, and basically be obedient to your aids. The objective of finish-training is to build the muscles in your own body, which will cause your aids to become more effective and clearly defined. This involves shedding old habits and building new ones, which takes a lot of time and should be approached with infinite patience. There are no shortcuts. In order to stabilize your hands and upper body, you need to establish a firm base in your seat and legs. Ideally, you should be able to drop a plumb line from your ear to your shoulder, down through your hips, through your heels and to the ground. To maintain this plumb line, work to make your joints and muscles in your body more supple and flexible by using them correctly. Don’t forget to always look where you are going to keep your head in line with the rest of your body.
As you ride your equine through the walking exercise, try to stay soft, relaxed and flexible in your inner thighs and seat bones. Get the sensation that your legs are cut off at the knees, and let your seat bones walk along with your animal, lightly and in rhythm with his body. If he slows down, just bend your knees and bump him alternately with your legs below the knees, while you keep your seat and upper legs stable and moving forward. To collect the walk on the short side, just bend both knees at the same time, bumping your equine simultaneously on both sides, while you squeeze the reins at the same time. Your legs should always have contact with your animal’s body in a light “hugging” fashion and real pressure should only come during the cues.
In order to help you stay over the middle of your equine’s back on the large circle, keep your eyes up and looking straight ahead. Shift your weight slightly to the outside stirrup, and feel it pull your inside leg snugly against your animal. Be sure that your outside leg stays in close to his barrel as you do this. On straight lines, keep your legs even, but on the arc, and look a little to the outside of the circle. This will bring your inside seat bone slightly forward, allowing your legs to be in the correct position for the circle. This technique is particularly helpful during canter transitions.
Most people feel that they do not balance on the reins as much as they actually do. If you balance on the reins at all, your equine will be unable to achieve proper hindquarter engagement and ultimate balance. To help shift the weight from the hands and upper body to the seat and legs, first put your equine on the rail at an active working walk. On the long side, drop your reins on his neck and feel your lower body connect with his body as you move along. You will need to tip your pelvis forward and stretch your abdominal muscles with each step in order to maintain your shoulder to hip plumb line. If your lower leg remains in the correct position, your thigh muscles will be stretched over the front of your leg from your hip to your knee. There is also a slight side-to-side motion as your animal moves forward that will cause your seat bones to move independently and alternately forward. There is no doubt that you can probably do this fairly easily right from the start, but to maintain this rhythm and body position without thinking about it takes time and repetition.
When you are fairly comfortable at the walk, you can add some variation at the trot. Begin at the posting trot on the rail. When your equine is going around in a fairly steady fashion, drop your reins on his neck and continue to post. As you post down the long side, keep your upper body erect and your pelvis rocking forward from your knee. Your knee should be bent so that your legs are positioned on the barrel of your animal. Raise your arms out in front of you, parallel to your shoulders. If your equine drifts away from the rail, you need to post with a little more weight in your outside stirrup. As you go around corners, be sure to turn your eyes a little to the outside of the circle to help maintain your position. As you approach the short side of the arena, bring your arms back, straight out from your shoulders, and keep your upper body erect. As you go through the corners, just rotate your arms and upper body slightly toward the outside of your circle. When you come to the next long side, once again bring your arms in front of and parallel to your shoulders, and repeat the exercise.
Notice the different pressure on your seat bones as you change your arm position. When your arms are forward it will somewhat lighten your seat, while having your arms to the side will tend to exert a little more pressure. Consequently, you can send your equine more forward with your seat as you go down the long sides. On the short sides, you can shorten that stride with a little added pressure from the seat bones. When you wish to halt, put your arms behind you at the small of your back to support an erect upper body. Let your weight drop down through your seat bones and legs to total relaxation and an entire halting of movement. Remember to use your verbal commands—especially in the beginning—to clarify your aids to your animal. If your equine doesn’t stop, just reach down and give a gentle tug on the reins until he stops. Before long, he will begin to make the connection between your seat and your command to “Whoa,” and your seat will take precedence over your reins.
When you and your equine have become adept at the walk and the trot, add the canter. At the canter, however, keep your arms out to the side and rotate them in small backward circles in rhythm with the canter. Be sure to sit back and allow only your pelvis, your seat and your thighs to stretch forward with the canter stride. Keep your upper body erect and your lower leg stable from the knee down. Once your equine has learned to differentiate seat and leg aids in each gait and through the transitions on the large circle, you can begin to work on directional changes through the cones.
As you practice these exercises, you will soon discover how even the slightest shift of balance can affect your animal’s performance. By riding without your reins and making the necessary adjustments in your body, you will begin to condition your own muscles to work in harmony with those of your equine. As your muscles get stronger and more responsive, you will cultivate more harmony and balance with him. As you learn to ride more “by the seat of your pants,” you will encounter less resistance in your equine, because most resistance is initiated by “bad hands” due to an unstable seat. As you learn to vary the pressure in your seat accordingly, you will also encounter less resistance in your animal through his back. Having a secure seat will help to stabilize your hands and make rein cues much more clear to your equine. The stability in your lower leg will also give him a clearer path to follow between your aids. Riding a balanced seat is essential to exceptional performance.
© 1990, 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Imprinting is defined as “rapid learning that occurs during a brief receptive period, typically soon after birth or hatching, and establishes a long-lasting behavioral response to a person or object as attachment to a parent or offspring.” 1 When we speak of “imprinting” in the scientific sense, it is a reference to the way the brain accepts input. The brain compartmentalizes impressions and images, and the animal reacts to the stimulus that the image produces. A collection of “imprints and images” produces memories. Imprinting training with a foal of any breed will give him a jump-start on his life with human beings.
Imprinting is more than getting your foal used to people. He’s going to spend the rest of his life with human beings, so he should get used to your touch, your voice, your smell and, especially, your handling of him. Handling your foal the minute he is born is a wonderful way to bond with him, and you will learn how he likes to be touched in order to produce a positive response. This early imprinting lays a foundation of trust for the training to follow.
Although it is commonly accepted that initial imprinting on the foal’s brain occurs only during a brief receptive period when initial contact is made during the first few days of life, it does provide a foundation on which to expand exposure to a human being through your foal’s five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight that leave impressions on the equine brain and will affect the way he interacts with a handler beyond what his dam may teach him. If the initial contact with humans leaves a positive impression, a foal will be more likely to be curious about humans than afraid of them. Because of this early contact, continuing imprinting then becomes an ongoing process that builds on the initial imprinting that is introduced at birth.
A calm, well-mannered mother helps produce a well-mannered foal, so if your mare or jennet is not easy to handle, she needs imprint training before the foal is born. Mares, and particularly jennets, can become very aggressive in defense of their offspring, so it is advisable to imprint even a mature mare or jennet so she will be safe to be around when she finally foals.
When imprinting your foal, think about the kind of adult you want him to be. A foal is very similar to a human baby regarding emotional needs—both need attention, love, guidance and praise to become loving, cooperative adults. Start your relationship with a positive attitude and approach your foal with love, patience, kindness and respect. Be sure to set reasonable boundaries for his behavior through the way you touch him and speak to him, the facial expressions you use, and even how you smell when you are around him so he can learn to trust and respect you and be happy at the sight of you.
It doesn’t matter if your equine is a young foal or an older animal—he needs imprint training. It will set the stage for the way he relates to humans for the rest of his life. Imprinting stimulates all of his five senses: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. This leaves an indelible impression on your equine’s brain as to how you expect him to behave, which—over time and with repetition—becomes his new natural way of responding.
The most important sensation to which you can expose your equine is touch. If your touch is gentle and considerate, it will feel good to him and he will be interested in your attention. When you run your fingers over his body, being careful not to press too hard on sensitive areas, he will experience pleasure and begin to look forward to your visits. Learning how your equine likes to be touched will also help things go more smoothly when you begin grooming him and tacking him up and during his training lessons, when he must learn to take his cues from your hands, legs and other aids. Even how you mount and sit down in the saddle—for instance, how your seat is placed on his back—denotes your consideration of him through touch. The wrong kind of touch, no matter how slight, can be a trigger for adverse behaviors. However, the right kind of touch—done correctly—produces pleasure in your equine and instills a willingness to perform in a positive way each time you interact with him.
To begin imprinting training, run your hands all over your equine’s body and down his legs, and put your hands in his mouth and in his ears. His reactions will help you learn how he likes to be touched. Getting your equine used to touch in this way eventually evolves into exposing him to grooming and working with tack and equipment. You are continuing to build on the initial imprinting work, but now, when you are grooming, the grooming tools will become extensions of your hands, and when you introduce various tack and equipment like clippers, they will also become an extension of your hands. Allow your equine to use his sense of touch (usually with his nose) when introducing any new object. Work toward getting your equine’s response to your touch as highly sensitive as possible, so that he can use his own body language to communicate with you. NOTE: Many owners pat their equine on the top of the head with the flat of their hand as a sign of affection, without realizing that, as a rule, most equines don’t take kindly to people patting their foreheads or faces. A pat on the forehead works if you want to distract your equine, but save it for that purpose only. It is much better to show affection by stroking your equine (always in the direction in which his hair lies), in a soothing and reassuring manner.
The tone of your voice is another important element of imprinting. If your general tone is soothing and encouraging, he is more likely to comply. Then, when he needs to be disciplined, the change in your tone of voice will convey your disapproval before you even have to touch him to make a correction—giving him the opportunity to straighten up before you actually need to apply the physical backup of negative reinforcement. If, no matter what the situation, you always speak in low tones, he will not be able to differentiate between what’s acceptable and what is not, but if you modulate your voice to clearly express what you want to convey, your equine will be much better able to understand and react appropriately.
Equines have an excellent sense of smell—for instance, they can smell danger from miles away. They can also smell people, and they are much more likely to warm up to a person who smells “good” to them. Smelling good to an equine has nothing to do with soaps or perfumes or deodorants. Oats and hay are smells that all equines immediately recognize and love, so if you dole out oats rewards correctly and you actively participate in the feeding and care of your equine, you will mostly smell like crimped oats throughout lessons, making you VERY attractive to your equine!
The next sense to which you should appeal is your equine’s sense of taste (a no-brainer). When you dispense the oats reward for all of his new positive behaviors, he associates that wonderful taste with you and will follow you to the ends of the earth to get more oats.
When the equine’s five senses are truly pleased, the very sight of you will prompt the memories and impressions on his brain that you have instilled in him during imprinting. The impression you have left with him is positive, encouraging, kind, considerate and respectful, and his reactions to you will also be positive and willing.
As you begin your equine’s imprinting, make sure you include an equal measure of fun. As with children, if you make learning fun, it comes more easily. By encouraging your young foal or older equine’s enthusiasm for learning, you’ll cultivate and enhance your equine’s desire to please and to serve.
Imprinting training is truly an ongoing learning experience. When touching a newborn foal, keep in mind that the foal is coming out of the protected environment of the womb, where he’s had pressure from the amniotic fluid over his entire body. Suddenly, he’s born into an entirely foreign environment and, soon after, a human appears out of nowhere and begins touching him. Initially, this is like being tickled all over, so at this point, imprinting serves as a desensitization technique to human touch. Desensitization doesn’t mean you want your equine to become totally desensitized to you—just that you don’t want him to jump out of his skin every time you touch him. Always strive for a positive interaction between you and your equine.
Pay attention to the way your equine’s hair lays and stroke his coat in that direction only. There is more fatty tissue down the neck and over the back, so you can press a little harder when touching these areas. Going with the hair and using the flat of your hand, learn to gauge how much pressure you can apply to the fatty areas. Then, as you work your way down to where the fatty tissue becomes thinner, be sure to ease up on the pressure over the bony areas.
Always keep an eye on your equine and watch his face—he’ll let you know if he is experiencing pleasure or displeasure. If you observe wrinkling around his mouth, if his ears are laid back flat or if he stomps a foot, he is showing displeasure. A soft eye, a relaxed, contentedly chewing mouth and an absence of tension in his body denotes pleasure. So when you are engaged in training, pay special attention to your equine’s body language and adjust your own touch accordingly.
Work on evolving your own body language as a natural and truly wonderful way to “talk” with your equine. You can also use verbal language, but body language should be your primary form of communication.
Making use of your equine’s five senses to expand the meaning and benefit of imprinting can really work in your favor and will leave an indelible impression on your equine’s brain that will engage his attention and expedite the learning process. The result will be a deep and meaningful relationship with your equine not just now, but for the rest of his life.
© 2013, 2016, 2020, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Just how sensitive is a mule about having his ears touched? If a mule is handled often and properly, he should be no more sensitive about his ears than he is about any other part of his body. However, if he is rarely handled, mishandled or handled roughly, he can become quite sensitive about any part of his body and in particular, his ears. Bearing this in mind, take the time to desensitize your mule to touch and handling by paying attention to how he likes to be touched in any given area, and then by being polite about handling those more sensitive areas. This is an important part of any training program, both for general management and for safety purposes. This is the heart of imprinting.
The mule that has an aversion to having his ears handled poses a problem with management convenience, but more than that, he can be a safety hazard in many situations. Here are some examples of lack of desensitization causing inconvenience and possibly, a dangerous situation. Inconvenient: Your mule does not want his ears touched, so you have to disassemble his bridle each time you put it on him. Dangerous: Should you accidentally touch his ears while putting the bridle on him, he could possibly thrash his head around and knock you silly! Inconvenient: If you get into a difficult spot on a trail where you have to dismount and move quickly, you may be unable to take the reins over your mule’s head in order to safely lead him. Dangerous: While you try to get the reins over his head without touching his ears, your mule could inadvertently knock you down or lose his balance and fall down while trying to avoid you. The moral is this: If your mule is to be a completely safe riding animal, he must be appropriately desensitized all over his head and body—including his ears—and trust that you will not harm him.
Desensitization should be humane and considerate—never abusive. When we say we want to desensitize an animal, it simply means that we want him to become accustomed to touch and handling all over his body, particularly in areas such as his head, legs and rear quarters, where he is apt to be the most sensitive. An animal that has not been politely desensitized will tend to react more violently to touch. When properly teaching your mule to become desensitized, your touch should be presented in a pleasurable way, so that your mule not only learns to tolerate it, but to actually enjoy it and look forward to it. An old-time method such as “sacking out” is a somewhat crude technique that is used to desensitize an animal by tying the mule in a corner where he cannot flee, and then flinging a tarp or large canvas all over his body, including the head. Often times, it creates more problems than it can solve because it is rarely done politely. A mule that has been “sacked” about the head can actually become more sensitive because this inconsiderate approach teaches him that humans cannot be trusted. He perceives that they will fling things over his head, blinding him and causing him anxiety for no apparent reason. The mule will stand still only because he cannot move, but if he is given the opportunity to flee or fight back, he will more than likely do so. Thus, the old “obstinate mule” myths are actually most often the result of some fault of the trainer, and not the mule. Sacking out more politely will eliminate these kinds of potential bad habits.
Desensitizing a mule that is sensitive about his ears is a long-term process. First, you must maintain a firm, quiet and tolerant attitude. Nothing your mule does should make you angry enough to lose your temper or your patience. Make sure your mule is tacked with a stout, non-breakable halter and rope. While stroking his nose in a polite and soothing manner, ask your mule to come forward, one step at a time, to a stout hitch rail. If he won’t come easily, just snub your lead on the hitch rail so he cannot go backwards, and keep coaxing him forward until he comes. Take up the slack with each step and then hold until he takes another step forward toward the hitch rail. Wait as long as it takes for him to gain confidence enough to come forward. Do not get into a pulling or pushing match with him—you will only create resistance in him and perpetuate avoidance behaviors—and he will win because he is stronger and he weighs more!
When his nose is finally up to the rail, run your lead around the post and come through the noseband on his halter and around the post again. Then tie him off snugly, so that his nose is tied as closely as possible to the hitch rail, making sure there is no slack. Now begin softly stroking your mule’s nose, using gentle yet firm strokes. Next, work your way up his forehead, and finally toward his ears. NOTE: Remember to use soft, gentle yet firm strokes, going with the grain of the hair and never against it. Do not “pat” your mule—it’s too threatening.
Let the tips of your fingers find the base of your mule’s ear (away from the open side) and stroke upward, toward the tip. At this point, he will probably thrash his head back and forth to avoid your touch—just remain slow, deliberate, reassuring and gentle about your approach. When he has allowed you to stroke the ear, even if for only a couple of seconds, leave your hand resting on the ear and use your free hand to feed him an oats reward. Don’t take your hand away from the ear until he is chewing calmly and no longer worried about your hand on his ear. Do this with each ear no more than one or two times each session and then go to his shoulder and work your hand in a massaging fashion over his neck, toward his ears. While your thumb cradles an ear, let your fingers move over his poll. With your thumb, gently stroke upward on the back of his ear, while leaving the rest of your hand over his poll. If he jerks away, just keep going back to the same position of thumb cradling the ear and fingers moving over the poll.
When he will tolerate this, you can then cradle the ear in your fingers and with your thumb, begin to gently rub upward on the inside of the edge of his ear. Do not go too deep into the ear at first. After he is calm with this, you can begin rubbing downward into the ear with your fingers, while cradling the ear in your opposite hand, being very careful not to go too deep. Watch his eyes and allow him to “tell” you how deep to go. If it feels good, his eyebrows will raise and flicker. If he doesn’t like it, he will simply jerk his head away and that is your cue to lighten up. Most mules love to have the insides of their ears rubbed, so find the areas inside your mule’s ear that actually give him pleasure. Each individual mule will be different.
In the next step, you will be in the same position, but you will close your hand around your mule’s ear and hold it with just enough pressure that he cannot jerk your hand loose. Do not hold too tight, grab or pull the ear—just maintain a quiet, gentle hold on the ear and go with his movement. If he pulls away, just slightly tighten your grip on the ear until he stops pulling and then lighten your grip again. Tighten only when he pulls away, and then immediately release when he stops resisting—tighten and loosen your grip as needed, and be sure to follow his movement. He will soon learn that if he doesn’t fight it, there is no discomfort. Never tightly grip his ear and do not tighten your grip any more than you need to in order to hold onto the ear—you never want to induce pain. Once your mule is tolerant of you holding his ear in this fashion, you can introduce the clippers, should you desire, using the same guidelines of tightening gently yet firmly when he pulls and releasing when he submits. However, introduce the clippers only after he has completely accepted you holding his ears.
Introduce the bridle by holding your right hand flat on the poll between your mule’s ears, and by using your left hand to raise the crown piece over his nose and up to his forehead. Slide your right hand down his forehead a little to meet your left hand. When your hands meet, transfer the crown piece into your right hand, insert the bit with your left hand, and then raise the crown piece up to the base of his ears. Slowly transfer the crown strap back to your left hand. Gently cup the fingers of your right hand around the base of his right ear. Now bend the ear forward and under the crown piece and slide it over your hand (and the ear) into its position behind the ear. While keeping your palm firmly on your mule’s poll, slowly move to the left ear and repeat the same movements.
The bridle should now be in place and you can reward your mule. Do not put on and remove the bridle any more than once per session. Your mule needs to clearly know that this is not just some annoying past time you have discovered, but an act of necessity. He will soon learn that if he cooperates, it won’t take too long. Once the bridle is on, get right to the business at hand and forget the ears for a while.
When you return with the difficult mule, tie him as before, stand directly in front of him (with the hitch rail between you) and gently remove the bridle with both hands lifting and sliding the crown piece over both of his ears simultaneously, so there is little pressure on his ears as it slides over them. If he still holds the bit in his mouth, hesitate for a minute when the bridle is off his ears and allow HIM to drop the bit. Removing the bridle this way will help to avoid chafing the ears and will avoid the bit hitting his teeth before you remove the bridle the rest of the way. Always removing the bridle in this fashion will encourage him to drop his head and will prevent bad habits such as pulling away or flinging his head.
When your mule gets used to having his ears handled and being bridled while snubbed and haltered, you can then begin dropping the halter and loosely tying him while he is being bridled. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks before you can drop the halter—this will vary depending on the individual mule, so just be patient. Your quiet, gentle perseverance will eventually win out and your mule’s ears will be desensitized and quite manageable. After you have mastered his outer ear and inner ear, you may find that your mule actually enjoys having his inner ear stroked or scratched, and bridling becomes easy. Integrating washing his face and cleaning his nostrils and ears during the grooming process should further help him to accept having his ears handled. Handling your mule’s ears can actually become a truly pleasurable experience for your Longears.
© 1992, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
After discussing this with my veterinarian, Greg Farrand from Fort Collins, Colorado, we both agree that since horses, mules and donkeys are all equines, it would be difficult to make any distinction among these three types of animals with regard to their vital signs: pulse respiration and temperature. They would all fall within the designated ranges below that are excerpted from my book, “A Guide to Raising & Showing Equines.” The only real differences would be with regard to each individual equine and not among groups of equines. There has not been any credible scientific study to be able to differentiate the different types of equine groups in this manner and I would venture to guess that it would be the same with all equines, including zebras and hybrids. Therefore, I believe that citing the vital signs ranges would be appropriate, but not citing medians (modals).
- Daytime rectal temp mule foal/yearling 37.5C-38.5C normal range
- Pulse at rest – adult mule; normal 26-40
- Pulse at rest foals 2-4 weeks; normal range 70-90
- Pulse at rest mule 6-12 months; normal range 45-60
- Pulse at rest mule 2-3 years; 40-50
Actual differences would be as follows:
More bulk musculature
(like a weight lifter)
Awkward on uneven ground
Round platter-type hooves
Longer slope to shoulders and hips
Forgets what he learns
More reactive than intelligent
Neigh – exhale
Self-preservation not strong
Tolerant of humans
Expensive to maintain
Can have excessive vet bills
Constant hoof management needed
Cannot see their hind feet
Can only kick forward and Backwards
Colors strictly defined within the breeds
Mature at six years
Will fight if entangled
Low level training goes quickly,
but not necessarily remembered
Upper level training improves
generally at the same rate
Thinking & Reactive-freeze/flight reflexes
Tougher/more resistant to parasites
Predominantly smooth muscle with
some bulk (combination of
smooth & bulk muscle)
More sure-footed than a horse
Oval, narrow, more upright hoof
structure than a horse
Steeper shoulders and hips than horses
Remembers everything he learns
Neigh-bray or combination
thereof – inhale and exhale
Generally 63 chromosomes
Strong sense of self preservation
Suspicious, but very
affectionate toward humans
Cheaper to keep – more durable
Fewer vet bills
Tougher hooves – less management
Can see their hind feet
Can kick, forward,
backwards and sideways
More variations in color
contributed by both parents
Mature at eight years
Will wait to be rescued if entangled
Low level training take more time
Upper level training goes faster
Thinking equine-freeze reflex
Same as a mule (genetic contribution)
Predominantly smooth muscle
Oval, narrow, more upright
hoof structure than a mule
and hips than a mule
Virtually intolerant to stress
Most energy conserver
Remembers, but only
complies when he wants to
Bray-inhale and exhale
Ultimate sense of
Generally, very affectionate
Cheapest to keep – very durable
Least number of vet bills
Toughest hooves – least
Can see their hind feet
Same as the mule
Less variations in
color than the mule
Mature at eight years
Will break loose or wait
to be rescued if entangled
Low level training takes
the most time
Not necessarily interested
in upper level training
© 2014, 2016, 2019, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
In order to perform the shoulder-in properly, it is important to understand its purpose. The shoulder-in causes the equine to engage his hindquarters so that they carry the bulk of his weight, giving him more freedom and suppleness in his shoulders and front quarters. A strong base must be established to carry this weight forward while the shoulders remain light and free to proceed forward while tracking laterally.
The shoulder-in is done on a straight line. Normally, an animal traveling in a straight line makes two tracks in the dirt behind him, because the front legs are positioned directly in front of the back legs. In the shoulder-in, the shoulders are positioned so that they cause a three-track pattern behind—the inside front foot makes one track, the outside front foot and the inside hind foot make one track, and the outside hind foot makes one track.
Begin by walking your equine around the perimeter of the arena. When you reach the corner before the long side, make a ten-meter (30-foot) circle. As you close your circle at the start of the long side of the arena, maintain the bend that you had for the circle, using steady pressure on your inside rein. At the same time, nudge your equine with alternate leg pressure in synchronization with his hind legs as they each go forward. Squeeze your outside rein at the same time that you squeeze with your outside leg, and then release the outside rein. Ride the hindquarters straight forward from your seat and legs, as you offset the shoulders with your hands. Be careful that your inside rein is not so tight that your animal bends only his neck to the inside. As you squeeze with the outside aids, feel your equine rock his balance back to the hindquarters, giving you the sensation of pedaling backward on a bicycle. Simultaneously, you should feel the front quarters begin to lighten and become supple.
Take your time and don’t try too hard. Be content at first with two or three steps of shoulder-in and then straighten him down the long side of the arena. After a few accurate steps of shoulder-in, as he straightens his body, you will feel him surge forward with more energy. Collect and slow your equine’s gait through the short side of the arena and then repeat the exercise on the next long side. As your equine begins to understand the concept of rocking his balance to the hindquarters, the surge of energy that you feel when he straightens will become more and more powerful.
Much body strength and coordination is involved in this exercise and at first, you may feel like you are all thumbs. Time, patience and practice will bring about positive results, so stay with it. Over time, do this exercise at the walk, the trot and the canter, and do it the same way in both directions in the arena. Don’t forget to praise your animal for each correct step that he gives you.
The next exercise to enhance hindquarter engagement and lengthen the stride is quite simple, yet still a little tricky because lengthening your mule’s stride means covering more distance yet maintaining the same rhythm and cadence. It does not mean speed up, although that is what most equines will try to do. Track the perimeter of the arena again. This time, collect the trot on the short sides, and then urge your equine to lengthen his trot down the long sides. To add variation, ask him to lengthen across the diagonals (from corner to corner) as well. Your equine’s first impulse will probably be to shift his weight to the forehand and just speed up. For this reason, do not push him too hard too soon. At first, just ask for a little more energy—be aware that your rhythm and cadence will not be lost as his stride increases. He will just be spending more time in suspension. Keep the forehand light and free while you ride the hindquarters. Let your hand open slightly with the foreleg going forward on the same side, and close as the leg comes back. This will help you to determine how far you can let that stride go before the balance begins to shift forward. It will also allow you to check the balance with your hands before it begins to shift. If he has too much difficulty, you should go back and practice lengthening over ground rails again to gain more strength and coordination.
As your equine gains strength in the hindquarters and is better able to carry your weight, his lengthened gaits will continue to improve until, perhaps a year or so later, he will be able to fully extend his stride at the walk, trot and canter. I caution you, however, that if your animal begins to rush, ask for less.
Another exercise that is helpful in lengthening the trot is to canter your equine around the arena, then cross half of your diagonal at the canter. Break to the posting trot and finish the diagonal. After the diagonal, sit the trot through the short side of the arena, pick up the canter on the long side again, and then cross the next available diagonal again and repeat the pattern. The drive that an equine gets from his hindquarters in the canter will carry through into the trot for the few strides on the diagonal and will create the true lengthening. This also holds true when teaching the lengthened walk (add trot work and back to walk) and the lengthened canter (add galloping and back to canter). This is your opportunity to tell your equine, “Yes, yes, this is what I want when I urge you on!”
Learning to ride from back to front (from the hindquarters forward) will greatly improve the harmony between you and your equine. Loss of balance seems to be the single most common cause of disobedience and problems with riding and driving animals. Carrying your weight and his in a properly balanced posture minimizes the chance for a loss of balance, and recovery from such a loss is much easier. Your equine will soon discover that your aids are indeed for his benefit as well as for your own, and he will become more accepting of them over time. As he becomes more balanced, you will find a world of different activities that you and your equine can do!
© 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This article is an excerpt from the book, Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, 2013.
By Meredith Hodges
The old saying, “No foot, no mule” is literally true, as it is in any nomadic animal. If the hooves are not trimmed and balanced properly, it will offset the balance of the equine’s entire body and can compromise longevity in the animal because his entire internal structure will be compromised. Most equines will need to be trimmed or shod every 6-8 weeks whether horse, mule or donkey.
Horse’s hooves in general are proportionately larger, rounder and more angled than that of the donkey or mule. The sole of the foot is flat on the ground promoting good circulation in the foot through the frog.
Regardless of the size of the animal, the hooves of the mule will be smaller and more upright than that of a horse of equal size, and should be well sprung and supported, not contracted. They should have a smooth appearance and look sleek and oily. No ribbing should be apparent and the frog should be well extended, healthy and make adequate contact with the ground for good circulation to the hooves. The shape of the mule or donkey foot is more oval and the bottom of the foot is slightly “cupped” which accounts for the surefootedness in the mule and donkey. When being trimmed, the mule should be left with more heel than the horse to maintain the often more upright position that complements the shoulders and hips. If the mule or donkey has a better slope to the shoulders, he might have an angle that is similar to the horse, but he will still grow more heel than the horse. The shape and condition of the hooves of the jack and the mare are both equally important when considering foot development in the mule.
Because donkey and mule hooves are different from a horse’s hoof in that they are more oblong, cupped in the sole, they need more heel left during a trim than the round, flat sole and low heels on a horse. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule as there are in most generalizations. Most donkeys are relatively inactive and live on moderate ground, so they do grow out in that time period. Some donkeys, like my own Little Jack Horner, are much more active and will wear their feet down naturally.
Of course, those that do not have the benefit of good training and conditioning would still wear unevenly and would still need to be trimmed, however, with the correct training and conditioning, they may wear evenly and may not need to be trimmed more than once a year! The same goes for those who would live in rough terrain. They may wear their feet down, but they would still need to be trimmed for balance. Those who are moving correctly may wear down evenly and would not require trims as often.
Failure to have your mule’s hooves regularly trimmed in order to maintain their balance and shape can result in an imbalance in your mule’s feet, which will then cause an imbalance throughout his entire body, inhibiting his performance. However, if trimming is done consistently, the risk of imbalance, accident or injury will be greatly reduced.
There are a lot of things to consider when trimming and shoeing all equines. If the animal is to have shoes, for instance, then they would need to maintain the flat surface of the sole for the shoes to fit properly. It is important that the equine have relief from shoes when they are not being ridden as much. We usually take any shoes off during the winter which keeps the heels from becoming contracted from wearing shoes and promotes good circulation to the foot as the frog can then make contact with the ground more consistently than it can with shoes. A good understanding of the anatomical differences among horses, mules and donkeys is essential for healthy hoof care.
When your farrier is trimming your equine, he should take into account the angles of the shoulder, the forearm, the knees, the cannon bone, fetlock, pastern and the general angle to the entire body when at rest, not just trimming off the excess. This is an anatomical call and only people who are schooled and skilled in this profession should even attempt it or you could run the risk of injuring your animal.
It is commonly known that, when it comes to horses and mules, light-colored hooves are softer and more likely to break down under stress than are the darker, black hooves. Even though the black hoof is naturally harder than the light-colored hoof, if it does not contain sufficient moisture, it can become brittle and can chip away as destructively as can the lighter hoof. Whichever breed of equine you own and whatever the color of their feet, remember that good hoof care is essential for all domesticated equines.
For better or worse, an equine inherits his hooves through his genes. If your equine has inherited good feet—black, oily-looking, and with good shape—then you are fortunate and hoof care and maintenance should be relatively simple. If he has inherited a softer or misshapen foot, you will need to discuss more specialized care with your farrier. Beware of generalizations as they can often be misleading! Each animal should ultimately be assessed individually.
© 2016, 2019, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Disaster is not always predictable, or even expected. We all know the weathermen are not always right, yet they are usually somewhere in the ballpark concerning what is about to happen. This summer has been unusually HOT and on this particular evening I was glad to be able to settle down in my pajamas and watch a movie. Although we have stalls for everyone in our two barns, we often opt to leave the eight mules from the South Barn in the dirt pen overnight when the weather is good. This makes for a lot less stall-and-run cleaning in the morning. I no sooner settled on the sofa when I heard a very peculiar noise coming from all around and on top of the house. HAIL, I thought, and got up to look. There was a lot more than just hail headed this way! Dark, ominous clouds slowly made their way across the sky, sheeted in lightning with loud roaring thunder. The hail, mixed with sheets of rain, began coming down faster and harder. I looked out the sliding glass door of the back deck and noticed my mules were running and dodging all over the dirt pen. They ran for the shed, but the wind was pushing the hail into the shed, and they bolted right back out again. They would need to be brought in to the barn! This wasn’t going to let up any time soon.
I waited until the hail had subsided a bit and made my way to the Grain Room where I filled a bucket with oats to put in the South Barn feeders. I always reward my mules for coming in when they are called! I couldn’t get all the way to the main South Barn doors because the guys had been doing some serious trenching to replace the existing water lines that had gone bad and sprung leaks everywhere. The black poly pipe was put in 20 years ago with non-galvanized clamps that were now rusting. We would be replacing the poly with Pex, but for now the trench was wide open with huge piles of dirt along the edge, most of the way down the road and in front of the South Barn doors. I did manage to get to the north end of the South Barn runs, went through the gate and into the closest pen, just as the thunder rolled and the lightning began again overhead. Instantly, down came a torrent of rain and hail!
When I got inside the barn, I went directly to the light switches…no lights…DANG! The only light in the barn was coming from the outside doorways when the lightning flashed. Thankfully, it was sheet lightning and not lightning bolts! As my eyes adjusted to the dark alleyway in the barn, I could make out the feeder doors, so I began dumping oats into the feeders and left the feeder doors open. They provided a bit more light into the alleyway…not much light, but it was better than pitch black! I no sooner finished dumping the oats into the feeders than the sky really opened up and let go with full force rain and hail! I just stood in the middle of the rough cement alleyway, lightning flashes all around me! I waited, afraid to touch the metal building, until I realized the building was grounded and shouldn’t necessarily pose a problem. So, I opened the stall door at the middle of the barn, entered the stall, and stood in the doorway to the run to watch the spectacle…pretty amazing show! I prayed for an opening to make my way across the pen, through the gate and alleyway between the barns to the next pen off the North Barn where mini donkey, Spuds, was housed. Things toned down a bit and I took advantage of the lull in the storm. I ran to the gate at the end of the pen, but I forgot, it was Lindy’s pen and she digs deep holes in front of her gate!
I tripped as I went into the hole, but luckily saved myself by grabbing the gate! Quickly as I could, I unlocked the chain (you have to have chains if you have Longears!), then made my way to Spuds’ pen across the lane. I unchained his gate and closed it behind me. I didn’t want an escapee! Spuds was waiting just inside the doorway to his stall, so I went to his inside stall door, grabbed his halter that was hanging just outside the door (good place for it in case of emergency!), put it on him and led him into one of the empty stalls on the north side of the North Barn. We keep those stalls empty when we can, so we can block the heavy winds by closing all the doors on the north side. It keeps the inside of the North Barn calm on the south side, and even blocks the winds from going all the way through to the South Barn.
By the time I got inside the North Barn to turn on the lights (Luckily they worked!), the rain, lightning and thunder had revved up again! I would need to pause before taking my side trip to the house to get my flashlight, before retrieving the mules from the dirt pen across the north road. My only thought was that it would be difficult to tell them apart in the darkness of the South Barn alleyway with no lights. I never doubted for a minute that they would behave. We have a very predictable routine that makes handling them very easy and stress-free no matter what the conditions might be. However, if I couldn’t tell them apart in the dark, I might put them in the wrong stalls and they would not like that. Even that would be hard to do because they each know which stall is theirs, but any mistake on my part could cause resistance and bad behaviors on their part. So, I would need my flashlight!
The downpour finally let up, so I ran as fast as I could back to the house for my flashlight. I got it and was back to the North Barn just in time for another downpour that lasted about three minutes. The lightning was getting more extensive and lit up the whole sky above. Hmmm! I didn’t relish the thought of running into the open area on the north side of the barn…the last leg of my journey to the dirt pen. There were four gates to latch back to open the MULE CROSSING from the dirt pen to the barns. I opened the stall door at the far, east end of the north barn. As soon as it looked safe to proceed, I made my way to the first gate where I could see all eight mules waiting patiently for me at the second gate across the road. I quickly opened the gate in front of me and sighed with relief to see that two ends of the double gates ahead on either side were already in place. I just had to swing the other sides to meet them, and get them chained together. Finally…the last gate was ready to be opened and as I opened it, the mules came sedately through the gate and walked to the stall door I had opened at the far, east end of the North Barn. I signaled Lance to take them all in while I brought up the rear and closed the gates behind me. I didn’t want anyone turning back. Merlin and Vinnie decided we were going through the wrong stall door into the North Barn and stood at the far west stall door. That is the one they usually use when we let them back and forth to turnout.
I made a feeble attempt to “herd” them toward the east door, but they were having no part of being “herded,” so I just gave up and told them to follow me…or NOT! Before I even made it to the doorway, I could hear the storm surging again. I politely stood to the side when I heard Merlin and Vinnie come running to the door. They slowed as they passed by me and went through the doorway and into the North Barn…at a walk. Inside the North Barn, all eight mules were bunched up in the alleyway. Spuds loudly brayed his dissatisfaction at being put in a strange stall. It’s amazing that the smallest donkey on the place has the LOUDEST voice! Then I remembered…I had not opened the gate at the end of Spuds’ run after I had put him in the other stall. That is why everyone was still bunched up in the North Barn alleyway between the stalls. I called Lance to come with me (He’s the leader) and went to open the gate. He was followed by Lindy (his girlfriend), April (Her sister) and Sassy (Lance’s sister)…while Merlin lagged behind. We proceeded through Spuds’ pen, across the lane between the barns, through Lindy’s pen (after traversing the big hole!) through her stall, then into the dark alleyway of the South Barn. I led Lance to his stall by his fly mask, opened the door and let him go in. April was next, but she had a hard time seeing her door with her fly mask on, so I just pointed the flashlight at it, and she went in. Sassy took that opportunity to dash into the barn and trot to her stall door where she waited for me to come and open it. I didn’t even need the flashlight for her!
When I went back to Lindy’s stall, she was threatening Merlin who was standing right outside her back door under the overhang. I took her out of her stall and put her in an empty one across the alley, so I could retrieve Merlin and the last three mules from the North Barn. The storm was building up again. Merlin was happy to be in the safety of his own space. I could see the last three mules eating hay and oats from the floor in the North Barn two runs away. I would need to wait again before crossing. I tried calling, but they could not hear my voice due to the incredible decibels of the roaring thunder. It took another four, or five, minutes before it subsided this time. When it finally did, I ran across the runs and into the North Barn. The mules just looked at me inquisitively as if to say, “What?!” I just told them, “Quit eating and get your butts to the South Barn!” They immediately complied and walked through the two runs into the South Barn, and into the dark!
I came behind them with the flashlight and pointed it at each of their stalls. Guy went first, looking for his Lady Love, Sassy. He was happy to be back next to her. Angel looked stoic and lost at the west end of the barn. She wasn’t too far from her stall, but could not make out the door in the dark. I walked up to her, slid the door open and pointed the flashlight to show her the inside of her stall. Then she abruptly woke up and quickly entered her stall, relieved to be in her own familiar surroundings. She peeked out the doorway in time to see another sheet of lightning flash though the clouds and across the sky! That was when I noticed that Vinnie was really disoriented at the east end of the barn. He didn’t even notice the feed cart stacked with hay with my oats bucket perched on top! Ordinarily, he would be the first to make a beeline for any bucket! I hurried to his stall, opened the door and pointed the flashlight inside, but he just stood there…frozen. I gave a short tug on his fly mask and he then stepped into his stall…also relieved to be HOME! Lance peered out the back door of his stall and watched as the rain persisted. There was so much lightning outside that it looked like daylight at times. I went to the empty stall retrieve Lindy and put her back into her own stall. She was happy to go back to her feeder to finish the oats.
I used to take off their fly masks each night, but I began to notice there were benefits to leaving them on. Merlin poked his eye on a tree when he was a yearling and almost blinded himself. For twenty-seven years, he has had to wear his fly mask to protect that eye from dirt, debris and flies that were attracted to the medication we were using on him. The fly mask never posed a problem as long as we kept it clean. When the weather got hot in the springtime, we used the fly masks on those mules that had sensitive skin around the eyes and who were prone to sunburn. They never had a problem seeing anything because looking through the fly mask was like looking through a screen door. During the storms like this one, the mask protected their faces from the pelting rain and hail. The rain actually washed the fly masks clean. When we have no rain, we just wash the masks as needed. Putting them back on when they are still damp, keeps the mules’ foreheads cooler in hot weather. At night, when they lie down in the deeply bedded stalls, the fly masks keep the shavings from irritating their eyes. With hygienic practices in the environment and regular stall cleaning and grooming, parasites and flies have ceased to be a problem. I have never had to put fly masks, or leg protection of any kind, on my donkeys or horses. In the case of this disaster, the fly masks came in pretty handy to safely lead them to their stalls…in the dark!
I walked through the barn one last time and checked to make sure everyone was okay. They were all drenched, but not stressed, as they munched their oats. I still wasn’t able to go out the front doors, so I made my way through Lindy’s stall. I had to wait another three minutes for the storm to subside again before traversing Lindy’s pen to the gate…side-stepping her huge hole…and then latched and chained her gate behind me. I could hear Spuds calling from the stall in the North Barn, “Hey, don’t forget ME!” I latched and chained the gate on his pen and went to the barn to fetch him. He was also a VERY happy Mini Donkey to be snugly tucked into his own “bed” for the night. I made the rounds in the North Barn to make sure everyone got their measure of oats before I left for the night. I took one last look and turned off the lights. I waited through yet another downpour before I closed the main doors of the barn behind me and headed for the house. It was 10:30 p.m. when I walked into the house. Whew! What a night!
I am so grateful that I have always been consistent and routine about the way I handle my equines. Handling them through this incredible storm was a piece of cake! Being consistent and routine about my actions wasn’t an easy task to learn, but through self-discipline and persistence, in the end, I was able to be consistent and win their trust! Now, my equines all know exactly what to expect from me and never get anxious about anything I ask of them. In the middle of a disaster such as this, they know undeniably that I will be there to rescue them and make them comfortable again. They don’t have to hurry; they don’t have to rush, just behave and do what I ask…and everything will be okay. When things are done haphazardly, equines get anxious. They never know what to expect and can become difficult during stressful situations. When you discipline yourself to be kind, respectful and reliable, they know they can TRUST you! And, TRUST goes a long way toward cooperation and safety for all of you!
© 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. MULE CROSSING All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Mules and donkeys are wonderful animals. They’re strong, intelligent and what a sense of humor! But training a mule or donkey is different from training a horse. They require love patience, understanding and a good reward system. Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly and only to define behavioral limits. The result is an animal that is relaxed, submissive, obedient, dependable and happy with his work.
Mule and donkey owners find it difficult to find trainers for their Longears because most horse trainers are unfamiliar with the psychological needs required by Longears to invoke positive responses from them. Those trainers who are capable are few and far between, making it difficult for inexperienced owners in remote areas to get their animals trained properly. Many people attempt to train their own animals and achieve a certain level of success despite the trials and tribulations of trial and error. This can be a long and frustrating road.
We are fortunate enough today to have all kinds of books and videos available on training Longears. However, it wasn’t that long ago when there was virtually nothing published on this subject. Those of us who were training needed to use educational resources published on horse training and modify those techniques to better suit our Longears. This still left a lot of room for trial and error…and frustration for both the trainer and the animal.
Interest in Longears has grown tremendously over the past 50 years. With this increased interest has come an increase in the numbers of animals that need to be trained each year. The few trainers who are competent with Longears could not possibly train even most of the animals that need it, even if it were geographically possible—which it isn’t. Owners usually need to travel distances to visit an animal in training, which limits their own ability to learn with their Longears. This can also become a problem when the animal returns home.
Seminars and clinics are helpful, but they cannot replace the day to day routine that helps produce a safe, obedient and dependable animal. Mules and donkeys bond to the person or persons who train and work with them. They develop a warmth and affection for them, and a desire to please and to serve. Without this bond, mules and donkeys will often comply, but without commitment to their work. Subsequently, when the pressure is on, they may “quit” on you in an instant.
Many people have complained about sending their animal to a trainer for as long as two years, only to have the animal return home and become a problem within as little as three months. It is important to take an active part in the training of your Longears. The more you can be a part of the training, the better for both you and your animal. Even if your mule or donkey is with a competent trainer, you need to plan on spending at least two days a week with your animal and the trainer so that your animal learns to trust you as well as the trainer. Being present and interactive with your animal at feeding time will solidify the trust he gains.
A lot of people ask me why I quit taking outside Longears for training here at the Lucky Three Ranch. In all honesty, I had developed a waiting list I could not possibly have fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time. I would, however, really like to see more people having fun and enjoying their Longears as much as I do. I considered doing clinics like so many trainers do, but I felt I could reach more people through a video and book training program with my technical support only a phone call away. Hence, I developed my training series, “Training Mules and Donkeys. Time and time again, my training series proves that this was a great way to reach people and help them to reach new levels of communication with their animals. People who never before had the courage nor confidence to even attempt such a thing are discovering the self satisfaction and elation of training their own mules and donkeys. Most people tell me it is the best part of their day when they can work with their animals. They are quite surprised at how easy it is to establish a routine that fits with their other weekly activities…thanks to the intelligence and forgiveness of these wonderful animals.
I had been involved with training horses most of my natural life before I began training mules at my mother’s Windy Valley Ranch in Healdsburg, California almost 40 years ago. I knew nothing of Longears at the time I started there. I tried all kinds of “suggestions” from other people and by trial and error—and a lot of resistance—I somehow managed to get a lot of mules trained, but I knew there had to be an easier way. I have to applaud the forgiveness of these mules in the face of my own impatience and ignorance. They let me know when my approach to training was unrealistic and punitive, and did so in a knowing and careful way. My lessons with them were proportionate to my mistakes, so I was lucky enough not to experience anything like head injuries or broken bones. When these kinds of injuries occur, there is something grossly wrong between the animal and the person who has been injured. It could be a lot of reasons, but the one thing of which I can be sure is that the animal acted appropriately for himself, and the problem occurred because there was a lack of communication.
When we raise our children, we begin with nurturing, love, affection and play. The way we play outlines certain behavioral limits for our children and helps them to develop and learn to socialize in a positive and healthy manner. As the child grows, family interaction helps him to define for himself his place in the world. Appropriate physical activities help the child’s body to develop in a slow and healthy way. School, in its natural and logical order helps the child to understand and learn to react appropriately in society and in the world. It helps to develop the confidence on which his self image and self worth is built. Physical activities increase with intensity, strengthening the physical well being of the child. This takes longer than 18 years. How can we, in all good conscience, expect our young Longears to develop in a healthy way, both physically and mentally, if we expect them to learn the same kinds of things in so much less time?
At first, you might think there just isn’t enough time to spend with your animal to accomplish all this, but somehow we all manage to make time for these things when we have children. We learn to experience and grow with our children, as we can also do with our animals by being realistic with our expectations at each stage of growth and training. We give ourselves the time to do this without the pressure of being hurried. There are few times in this world when we are really able to “stop and smell the roses.” Longears can afford us this very special time if you only let them. Look upon the time with your donkey or mule as you would look upon the time you spend with your child. Some days will be for learning and some for just plain fun. When there are learning days, try to make them fun and stress-free. Someday you’ll find yourself saying: “I can’t believe he has turned out to be so good. I never really felt like I was ‘training’ him!”
© 2000, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2018, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Proper conditioning of the young equine through a carefully sequenced program of gymnastic exercises is essential to the proper development of his mind and body. Spending time cultivating a smooth, fluid forward motion with rhythm and cadence will help him to develop properly and enable him to perform difficult movements more easily. Work with ground rails and cavalletti helps to build muscle, particularly in the hindquarters, which will help him carry your weight more easily through lateral movements, stops and lengthenings. Proper preparation minimizes resistance and frustration which will be apparent by the way your animal carries his tail. You may have noticed after the introduction of a few simple lateral movements, that your equine’s forward motion has become a little shaky again. It is now time to clarify to your animal the connection between forward motion and lateral motion. With his increased understanding of your seat and legs and by using a few simple exercises, this should be a fairly simple process.
Ask your equine to walk a 20-meter (approximately 60 foot) circle, maintaining rhythm, cadence, proper flexion and bend. Then, in rhythm, change your aids to a slight counter bend and ask for a turn-on-the-forehand, sending his haunches in toward the center of the circle until he is reversed. At the precise instant he is in position to start following the circle in the opposite direction, release your pressure on the reins and send him forward again with your legs onto the new circle in the opposite direction.
You will find that you must hold him back a little with the reins through the turn-on-the-forehand to keep his weight on his hindquarters through the turn, but to maintain the forward motion, it is critical that the release comes at the instant he has completed the 180 degree turn. While executing the turn-on-the-forehand, do not hold back on the reins with steady pressure.
Instead, complete the turn with a series of half-halts with your seat and a squeeze/release action with the reins. If you do this, your final release will come as a natural sequence to the turn and it will be in rhythm and harmony with your equine. You can do this exercise at the walk, trot and canter, slowing to the walk each time for the turn-on-the-forehand.
Next, you will begin to cultivate the turn-on-the-haunches. (Your equine’s lateral work on the Side Pass T-poles will have given him a little understanding of what this is all about.) Again, walk him on a 20-meter circle. Then, when you are ready to make the turn, nudge your equine rhythmically and hard with your outside leg, keeping your weight centered over his body with a passive inside leg.
Maintain contact with your outside rein so that his head remains straight, and lead him into the new direction with a squeeze/release action on your inside rein and back it up with a rhythmic squeeze-release from you leg on the opposite side from the leading rein. Be careful not to inhibit his forward motion. It is better that he do small circles to complete the turn than to fall back over his haunches into a reinback. As in the turn-on-the-forehand, nudge and give, squeeze and release—a Longears (mule or donkey) will lean hard against continuous pressure. Keep practicing this exercise, maintaining his body between your aids.
When he does well at the walk, you can move on to the trot and canter, slowing to the walk for the turn. And even if your equine makes a mistake, remember to praise him for his effort and go on. If you do this, you will find him to be a much more cooperative partner and eventually you will succeed at what you have set out to accomplish.
Once your equine gets his footwork figured out through these turns, and has had the chance to build up his body physically, you can think about increasing the demand for speed and finesse in the turn-on-the-haunches , but that will come much later. To attempt any more than this right now will most likely destroy his forward motion, cadence and rhythm, and will cause much frustration and fatigue. Working a mule along the fence will help him to keep his pivot foot planted throughout the turn. It is an excellent exercise for improving the quality of the turn-on-the-haunches for Reining and cow work, but because of the sensitive nature of the animal and his slow physical maturation, it usually causes too much stress and frustration on younger animals if attempted too early. The equine may even perform well for a couple of years after quicker training, but before long he will sour on the movements. He will anticipate and possibly even
begin to run off with you to avoid doing them. It’s better to take it slow and easy and maintain your rapport and understanding with him. After all, equines that are brought along slowly will generally live a lot longer, so why get impatient and try to do too much too soon? Wouldn’t you rather have a long-lasting and pleasant relationship with a animal that is happy with his work?
Your equine will not require the crimped oats reward while he is under saddle, but be sure to give him plenty of oats BEFORE the ride and then again afterwards to make sure he understands that he has done well. This will assure that his good behaviors will be repeated. When you praise your equine lavishly for successes, and stroke him gently and calmly if he makes a mistake, you will solidify the relationship between you!
© 1989, 1992, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
You really don’t want to desensitize your animals to everything. Here is Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of the word “desensitize”:
1) to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or non-reactive to a sensitizing agent.
Some people have the misconception that, in order to desensitize an animal, you have to make it numb to its surroundings and any stimulus it encounters. Not true! What you really want to do is sensitize your equine to different body language and cues from you, as the trainer. So “desensitization” does not mean achieving a total lack of sensitivity. Rather, it should be approached as a way of training your equine (in a way that is quiet and calm) to be less sensitive to certain objects or events that may be cause him to be fearful, so he can move forward with confidence and the right sensitivity toward the communication between the two of you.
When incorrect, harsh or overly aggressive desensitizing techniques are used on equines, the handler is met with either a very strong flight reflex or a stand and fight reflex. In either case, an equine will either put up a fight and be deemed a rogue and, therefore, untrainable, or eventually just “give up” and succumb to the trainer’s wishes. This is a sad situation because the equine is not given the opportunity to make reasonable choices in his relationship with his trainer. The equine’s instinct to warm up to the person training him is hampered by his fear of more desensitization techniques. Thus, he becomes resigned to his work and is not fully engaged in the training process.
Often, trainers will put obstacles such as a trailer, tire or tarp in an equine’s pen in the hope of getting him used to it by making him live with it. But ask yourself this: How much rest would you get if someone put a blaring radio in your bedroom to desensitize you to noise? Equines have many of the same reactions to their personal space that we do, and they do much better when their place of rest is just that—a place of rest and comfort. And when lessons are approached in a considerate, respectful and rewarding way, an equine is more likely to approach them with an eager and positive attitude that facilitates better learning. It is always better to turn your equine’s fear into curiosity than it is to just assault his senses.
When doing obstacle training, it is better to allow your equine a gradual approach with small steps and great rewards for his honest effort than to whip and spur him through just to get to the other side. When his fear is converted to curiosity, the chance of his refusal to go forward is lessened and his trust in you as the trainer allows you to, eventually, ride through any obstacle at the slightest suggestion. This is because he trusts your judgment and has not been frightened, hurt or made uncomfortable during the training process. This is your equine developing sensitivity to your demands and learning to willingly comply so he can become a participating partner in each activity.
Some trainers believe that breaking down tasks for the equine into tiny steps is a waste of time and that giving a food reward prevents an equine from learning to respect the trainer, but I disagree. When you break tasks down into understandable steps in the beginning stages of training, you will eventually begin to get solid, reliable behavior from your equine. You will have to pay attention to a lot of little details at the beginning stages of training (and that can seem overwhelming at first), but if you take the time to pay attention to these small steps in the beginning stages and through the ground work and round pen work that will follow, when you finally do move on to riding under saddle the lessons will go much more quickly.
Each stage of training should become easier for you and your equine to master. For instance, it actually takes you less time to train in something like a side pass if you have done your groundwork training with the lead line and drive-line lateral training before you even get into the saddle. It also follows that the side pass will come more easily for your equine if he has first learned to move on an angle in the leg yield before having to move straight sideways. This is an example of taking things in small, logical steps, keeping your equine sensitive to his surroundings and tasks without fear. It also greatly lessens the chance for a fear or anxiety-driven blow up from your equine later on.
There is a physical as well as mental aspect to all of this technique. While you are training your equine to perform certain movements and negotiations over obstacles, his muscles, ligaments and tendons are all involved in his actions. When an equine is asked to do a movement for which his muscles have not first been properly conditioned, he will not only execute the motion incorrectly, but his premature attempt will undoubtedly compromise his muscles, ligaments and tendons. Even if he can adequately assimilate a requested movement while he is young, he could easily be creating problems in his body and joints that will cause him escalating problems as he ages.
If you were asked to go on a 25-mile hike with a 50-pound pack on your back, how would you prepare in order to safely and successfully perform this task? You would break it down into small steps, working up to it by first running a short distance with a very light weight, and then gradually increasing the distance you run and the weight you carry, which may take as long as a couple of years of careful training and conditioning. But if you tried to prepare for this kind of grueling hike by simply walking around the block a few times for a couple of days, you’d wreck your muscles, compromise your health and probably fail—all because you attempted to do the task when you weren’t physically or mentally ready. And depending on how much you strained your body, you just might discover down the line that the damage is permanent and will worsen over the course of your life. I use this illustration to show that, just as with humans, when it comes to training and conditioning your equine, it’s always better to take it slowly—one step at a time. Your equine will learn to enjoy being a partner in your challenges and goals if you give him the time he needs to be able to do these activities comfortably and with success.
An equine that learns in this sensitized way can also make judgments that might even save your life when you might not be paying attention. This is because when your equine is calm and well rested, he actually seems to be able to anticipate consequences, making him more likely to stop and wait for your cue. The equine that is “forced” during training will most often become anxious about a challenging situation and will seldom stop and calmly alert you to a potential peril—and he most likely will not trust your judgment.
It is because I have trained my mules in this sensitized way that I once avoided going over a 100-foot drop up in the Rocky Mountains while on a trail ride. On that particular day, I was in front, riding my mule, Mae Bea C.T. with four horses behind us. When we came to a giant boulder semi-blocking the trail, I told the people on the horses to wait and rode ahead. I soon found that the trail had narrowed to an impassable two feet wide and a rockslide had wiped out the trail ahead completely! It was straight up 100 feet on one side of the trail and straight down 100 feet on the other side and there was no going forward. The horses behind me were still on the wider part of the trail on the other side of the boulder and were able turn around, so they were safe, but backing my mule around the boulder on that treacherous trail would be very dangerous. I thought we were stuck. At that point, my mule calmly looked back around at me as if to ask, “Well, Mom, what do we do now?” I thought for a minute and then shifted the weight in my seat toward my mule’s hindquarters. This movement from me allowed her to shift her weight to her hindquarters. Then, with pressure from my right leg, she lifted her shoulders, pivoted on her left hind foot and performed a 180-degree turn to the left on her haunches, and with her front feet in the air, she swept them across the open precipice of the cliff and turned us back around to face the wider (and safe) part of the trail. After completing the turn, she stopped again, looked back at me to see if everything was okay and waited for my cue to proceed back down. I believe, without a doubt, that my mule’s incredible and calm response to a life-threatening situation was the direct result of the sensitized training methods I used that created our unbreakable bond of trust.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.