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By Meredith Hodges
Across the United States and around the world, as mules are given more and more opportunities to perform in many diverse situations, they are exhibiting their exceptional beauty, athletic ability, endurance and intelligence. There are definite physical and psychological reasons for these outstanding abilities. It has been proven that the mule not only inherits the mare’s beauty, but is also more athletic than the mare out of which he came. The mule is an exceptional hybrid not only because he inherits these qualities from his dam, the mare, but he also inherits the best qualities from his sire, the jack who is responsible for his muscle structure, thickness of bone, strength and intelligence.
The muscle structure of a mule is noticeably different than that of a horse. His body is covered with masses of long, smooth muscle whereas the horse has more differentiated bulk muscle masses.
The most apparent example of this difference is seen in the chest of the mule. The horse’s chest has two distinct muscle groups, which creates a very distinctive line of separation in the middle of his chest. However, the mule’s chest is composed of one wide muscle mass that resembles a turkey’s breast, which greatly enhances the mobility of the front quarters. Another example is found in the mule’s hindquarters, where the long, wide and smooth muscles enable the mule to kick forward, backwards and sideways—he can even scratch the top of his head with a hind foot if he wants to! Mules are also quite capable of climbing under, over and through most kinds of fencing. Restraints that are used with horses often do not work with mules because of their astounding ability to free themselves from annoying circumstances with their strong, quick and agile movements. Because the hindquarters of the horse possess bulkier muscle masses, the horse does not have this incredible range of motion. The difference in muscular structure is similar to that of a ballet dancer versus that of a weight lifter—the ballet dancer’s longer, smoother muscles are more conducive to elasticity and agility.
In addition to this physical structure, which allows him more diverse range of movement, the mule also inherits from his sire (the donkey jack) the strength to tolerate prolonged and strenuous use of his muscles. One need only try to budge an unwilling donkey to realize his incredible strength! Donkeys traditionally possess an unbelievable vigor, and this vigor is passed on to the mule, adding to his superiority over the horse in strength and endurance. The donkey jack also contributes to the superior, tough hooves of the mule and a unique resistance to parasites and disease. Throughout their long history, the donkey’s natural ability to survive and thrive in habitats both desolate and unyielding guarantees that donkeys and their mule offspring are more sure-footed than other equines and masters of self-preservation.
Donkeys have long been referred to as “stubborn,” but this is a false and unjust perception. It is not stubbornness that causes an overloaded donkey to stop dead in his tracks to rest his body, but rather common sense and a strong desire for self-preservation. After all, would a sensible human being deliberately pack more than he could comfortably carry, and then continue a hike until he drops from heat and exhaustion? No. Would his refusal to do so be considered as being “stubborn?” Certainly not—it’s just common sense. The same common sense should be applied when understanding a mule or donkey’s behavior—and this holds true in any potentially dangerous situation a donkey may face. For example, when crossing a body of water, the donkey does not possess a human’s acute visual depth perception. Therefore, when he refuses to step into water that seems perfectly safe to us, it is because his depth perception is telling him to use caution and to take his time in evaluating the situation before he proceeds. His behavior is determined by the way he is asked to perform a task and by his concern for his welfare and safety.
As a rule, donkeys are equipped with the innate intelligence to sense that humans are not always concerned with what is really best for them, yet they are still willing to gives us the opportunity to convince them otherwise. Donkeys also have a natural social attraction to humans and, when treated with patience, kindness and understanding, they learn to trust and obey. On the other hand, if they are treated with pain and abuse, they are not likely to comply and can become very dangerous to handle. Mules and donkeys have an honest way of responding to our demands, so if your mule or donkey is not complying with your request, you need to review the clarity of how you are communicating your desire and adjust your approach accordingly. The intelligence of the donkey is no accident.
When a male donkey, with his traits of superior intelligence, strength and muscle structure is bred to a female horse with a calm disposition, good conformation and athletic ability, the result is an exceptional and incredibly beautiful animal—the MULE!
October 26th has been popularly designated as National Mule Appreciation Day, but anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to nuzzle a muzzle knows that these magnificent, gentle, bright, honest, upbeat, funny, patient and loyal friends need our appreciation and guardianship not just once a year but every day. Let’s spread the word whenever we can mules and donkeys are truly amazing!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 1985, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
When choosing a jack to breed to your mares and jennets, there are many important factors to consider. Conformation is the most obvious, but size, type, disposition and genetics are equally significant. As a direct result of the donkey’s evolution our choices in jacks are considerably limited these days. In the days when donkeys were widely used as beasts of burden, conformational soundness was an important consideration in their ability to do physical work. Today, the donkey is not as widely used in this manner, becoming more of an owner’s pleasure animal. In some cases, he is simply another pet. As a result, not much care has been taken to preserve his conformational integrity, thus limiting the availability of true breeding stock.
Although the conformation of the ideal jack can only be approximated, you should always try to choose a jack that is as close to the ideal as possible for your breeding programs. (Perpetuating undesirable conformation traits will only compound future breeding problems.) The first conformational consideration is the jack’s overall balance and proportion. His torso should be well connected to the front and rear quarters, with plenty of width and depth from heart girth to the flank, which allows for maximum efficiency of the heart and lungs. The topline from the withers to the tail should be relatively straight, with only a gentle slope from the withers to the croup, and neither excessively long nor short-backed. A longish back is acceptable, provided there is not a lot of distance between the last rib and the point of the hip, as this causes weakness through the loins. The unusually short-backed jack does not have adequate lateral and vertical flexibility in his movement. A rigidly straight back is discouraged, as is a back that sags too drastically in the middle (except in the case of an aged animal).
Proportionately, the jack should not be too narrow in the chest, through the rib cage and in the rear quarters—nor should he be too wide in these areas. These faults in proportion can interfere with his action, causing him to be “pin-toed” (splay-footed) or “pigeon-toed” (toed-in). The pin-toed jack will brush his knees and fetlocks together in deep footing, causing him to be a slow mover, or he may even cross his legs over one another, increasing the possibility of a fall.
The closest approximation to a 45-degree angle in the hips and shoulders is preferred, with an adequate balance of muscle and sinew in all four quarters. One of the most common faults in donkeys today is straight and slight shoulders and hips. The withers and croup should be even across the topline, and the jack with withers slightly higher than the croup is preferred over the opposite, as this could set the animal’s body weight too far on the forehand, making turns and stops more difficult. It could also increase the possibility of falling. The croup should be smooth and round over the rump, with a tail set neither too high nor too low.
The feet and legs of the jack are the foundation of his conformation. They should be straight and true, with flat bone and adequate angles at the shoulders, hips, stifles, and hock and fetlock joints. The foot should be trimmed and shaped to compliment the angles in his joints to maintain the good conformation that should be present in the four quarters of the animal. For example, on a jack with good shoulders, the slope of the pasterns should be parallel to the slope of the shoulders. When dropping a plumb line on the front legs, which should be neither too far forward nor too far underneath him, the plumb line should fall from the point of the withers to the ground, directly at the back of the front legs. When dropping a plumb line on the hind legs, it should fall from the base of the tail to the point of the hock, and straight down the back of the cannon bone to the ground.
As far as a donkey’s hoofs are concerned, the expression, “No foot, no donkey” is literally true. Faults such as buck-kneed, calf-kneed, tied-in at the knee, round bone, short straight pasterns, coon-footed, too-long cannon, sickle hocks, splay-footed, knock-kneed, bowlegged, pigeon-toed, broken forward or backward feet, or too straight through the stifle and hock are all serious faults and should be avoided when breeding. Being slightly cow-hocked behind can be overlooked, as this usually increases maneuverability. The hoof itself should not reflect a ribbed appearance — it should be smooth and inclined to look sleek and oily. Even on the donkey, the hooves should not be contracted, but well-sprung (although less sprung than a mule or horse), and supported with a well-extended, healthy frog. Donkeys have a multi-layered hoof wall that will shed off in the event of mild or even severe trauma to the coronet or hoof wall, so many donkeys exhibit a “peeling” or “scabbing” of the hoof wall. A jack with this damage to the hoof should be inspected carefully to determine the severity of the problem and the extent of possible weakness in the hoof itself. If it is a cosmetic problem, it can often be managed successfully by adding one ounce a day of Mazola corn oil to the diet. If it is a genetic problem, a jack with hoof problems should be avoided when breeding and should probably be castrated.
The head and neck of the ideal jack should be attractive and set-in correctly, giving an overall balanced look to the animal. He should have good length to the ears, neither too far forward nor too far back, so the poll is clearly apparent. His eyes should be set so they give him a maximum field of vision forward, backward and peripherally. The eyes should not be set too high nor too low, which would offset the overall balance of the head. He should have adequate width and fine enough bone in the head, to allow for plenty of space for the brain and internal organs of the scull cavity. The length of his head should compliment the balance of his body and taper to a smaller and delicate muzzle. His jaw should be straight and aligned, showing neither a parrot mouth (under bite), nor be undershot (over bite, or buck toothed). This is critical for feeding and nutrition. The slightly dished-face, straight-faced or Roman-nosed jack should not be ruled out, provided the other criteria are met. The neck should be set in so that it flows easily into the withers and has adequate length for the ability to bend and maintain balance. He should have neither a U-neck nor an excessively crested neck. It should not be too wide, or too narrow, and should tie into the throatlatch in a trim and flexible way.
The basic conformation for the breeding jack should be the same regardless of size, although there are specific considerations with regard to type and use. The jack generally contributes more to the thickness of bone in his offspring, but not necessarily to their height. Therefore, when breeding for saddle mules and donkeys, the more refined-boned Standard or Large Standard jacks are preferred. On the other hand, when breeding for a draft mule or donkey, you would want to preserve more thickness of bone and use a stockier jack, such as a Large Standard or Mammoth. Use the same guidelines when breeding for miniatures; stocky begets stocky and refined begets refined. When breeding for saddle mules, you may want to keep the refinement, so you would use a Standard or Large Standard jack to breed to a saddle horse mare. However, if you wish to have a pack mule that is not overly tall, you might then want to breed a Mammoth jack to a saddle horse mare.
The genetic pool is a very important consideration when breeding. A particular jack may be a beautiful specimen, but, regardless of how lovely and balanced he may be, he may possess genes that produce offspring with many conformation faults. Since donkeys have been so inbred, this can happen more frequently than you might imagine. When choosing a jack to breed to your mares and jennets, it is wise, if possible, to take a look at some of his offspring from different mares and jennets, so you can better assess his stronger traits and determine which traits appear to be pre-potent. If this is not possible, your alternative is to breed him with only the best mare or jennet you own, in order to increase the odds for positive traits to come through in the offspring. Sometimes you can try to compliment the mare with the jack, such as a long-backed mare with a short-backed jack to get a medium-backed mule, but this doesn’t always work. A reputable jack owner should have records to show how and what his jack has produced and be able to attest to the consistency of his jack’s production. Granted, in the past this was virtually impossible, but today we have the American Donkey & Mule Society registry (and other Longears registries), and many conscientious breeders who realize the importance of recording their breeding information, thereby giving us all a better understanding of Longears production. So, don’t be afraid to ask the breeder whatever questions you may have.
Disposition is of the utmost importance when choosing a jack. However, there is a difference between the jack’s natural instincts, his personality and his acquired personal attitudes, so you should learn to distinguish between a natural instinct, a distinctive personality trait and behavior that was the result of improper handling. I have found most donkeys to be quite cooperative and affectionate when patiently and fairly treated, but some can also be more obstinate about things than others. Remember, in addition to the inherited traits of the jack, it is the mare, or jennet, from which the offspring learns most of his behaviors while he is growing up. So learn to make educated choices concerning your breeding stock and, in order to maintain the integrity of the breed, use only jacks with the best conformation for breeding.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 1986, 1991, 2012, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
1) North Africa 1943 (Library of Congress)
2) Sire-Supreme Little Jack Horner and Meredith Hodges
3) Lucky Three Excalibur
4) Lucky Three Blue Baron
5) Standard Jack, Colorado D.J.
6) Foundation Sire Windy Valley Adam
7) Don Mode driving Foundation Sire Black Bart
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.
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, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Do mules need to be shod? Those who are familiar with mules might be tempted to say, “No,” but the answer is a little more complicated than you might think. Although the mule generally has a tougher and more durable foot than the horse, all mules do not have the same feet, nor do all mules apply the same kind of stress to those feet. Therefore, each individual animal has to be considered when answering the question, “To shoe or not to shoe?”
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 mule 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.
Climate and weather greatly affect the condition of your mule’s feet. Damp weather and muddy footing will tend to soften the walls of any hoof, and perpetual exposure to mud and dampness can cause deterioration of his feet. With the light-colored hoof, which tends to soften more easily, this could spell disaster. It is wise, therefore, during damp weather or if you live in a damp climate, to provide a clean, dry place for your mule to stand. Conversely, extremely hot and dry weather can cause your mule’s feet to become dry and brittle, and they may start to crack due to contraction and expansion of the hoof. For this type of dry weather or climate, you may want to overflow your water tanks regularly so your mule has a place to “cool his feet.” If it is excessively dry, you may even need to manually lubricate your mule’s hooves as needed with one of the commercial products available. But before you use an artificial hoof lubricant, first check with your farrier to make sure that it is actually needed. Many people use hoof products too frequently, which can cause hooves to become too soft. When this begins to happen, you will see horizontal rings appear around the hoof wall, and sometimes, vertical lines. Try not to let the hoof get to this point by using lubricants sparingly, but if you see that these rings are beginning to appear, immediately discontinue use of the lubricant and allow the hoof to harden. Then check with your vet to make sure it is not a founder condition. It does not take much to adequately soften the hooves of an animal with rock-hard feet. During the really dry seasons, lubricant application once a week is usually sufficient.
Assuming that your mule has a normal set of dark, healthy hooves, he will probably not need to be shod, as long as he is used strictly for pleasure or only sporadically. However, if you are going to use your mule on excessively rocky or hard ground, you might want to look into getting shoes for him. Mules that repetitively participate in more stressful and demanding activities (such as parades, showing and endurance events) should be shod to protect their feet and to keep them healthy. Prevention of bruising or cracking and maintenance of good foot and leg posture is critical to the equine athlete.
The pack and pleasure mule that is not used much or is used on softer terrain and in places where he does not require shoes must still be trimmed for balance regularly to assure that his feet are evenly worn and that he is not putting undue stress on any joints, muscles or tendons. 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.
I believe that horses and mules, doing what they would naturally do alone—on terrain that is neither hard nor rocky—do not need to be shod. But mules that are asked to repetitively perform with a human on-board in varying surface situations should be fitted with the proper kind of shoes to help protect them from the additional weight and other demands that will be put upon their bodies. For example, my trail mules wear regular shoes on all four feet when they are being regularly used for trail riding and a variety of other activities, lessening the potential for injury. Then, when there is an occasional misstep on hard ground or rocks or when we trail-ride in the more challenging mountains, the shoes help to absorb some of the shock that would otherwise be absorbed by the hoof itself. It is my experience that young mules (and horses from two to four years of age) bear most of their weight on their front legs until their bodies are carefully and properly conditioned, and this is when you will see the most wear and tear on their feet. Because of this, my young mules that are just beginning saddle training wear regular shoes on the fronts only until their bodies are balanced and their activities clearly defined. Our broodstock, youngsters (under three years of age) and equines that are not used under
demanding conditions can go barefooted year-round, but they all still get regular trims every six to eight weeks.
All my other stock is shod for the specific purpose for which they are used: The Reining mules wear slider plates during the competition season, and the jumpers are fitted with either regular shoes, a tap and die shoe with studs or a borium shoe for non-skid, depending upon the terrain they will be negotiating. If I were to ask one of my mules to race, I would fit him with the lighter-weight racing plates. Each equine athlete is given a set of shoes particularly designed for the best performance in his event, just as is the case with the human athlete. In the winter, if my mules have the need to wear shoes, I add rim pads to their shoes to help prevent “snowballing.”
Granted, there are a lot of mules that may not need to be shod, but there are also many that do need shoes, so each individual mule’s feet must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Because of this fact, the generalizations that “mules don’t need to be shod” and “all equines should go barefoot” are not always correct. You must take into consideration how your particular mule’s genetics affect his hooves, what he will be used for and how harsh the demands put on him will be on his feet. These important factors will determine whether or not he needs shoes, and if he does need shoes, what kind of shoes will best suit him. And don’t forget to check your mule’s shoes on a regular basis to make sure that all is well and that his shoes are staying on tight, but most of all, that he is comfortable and happy.
© 2014, 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
“Imprinting” is a natural process by which an animal (most typically, when young) comes to recognize another animal or a person as a parent or other object of habitual trust. Imprinting is also the way any equine is touched when he is a foal and handled throughout his entire life. It is never too late to use imprinting with your equine, and the way you do it will determine whether or not he develops a lifelong confidence and trust in you. NOTE: Imprinting should not be utilized only when your equine is a newborn, and then never utilized again. Imprinting should continue throughout his entire life.
Equine foals must be allowed to play—running, kicking and rolling. This is how they exercise so they can grow up to be healthy adults. Like any baby or toddler, a foal cannot be expected to have perfect manners, so keep lessons short (10-20 minutes every other day at the most) and use good judgment when you are with him to avoid being kicked or bitten. If he does kick or bite while you are doing things with him, use the flat of your hand and give him a quick thump on the rump for kicking or on the side of his mouth for biting, accompanied by a loud “No!” He will probably run off, but should be able to be coaxed back verbally and fairly easily with soothing language and an offer of crimped oats. When he finally does come back to you, reward him with a nice pat on the neck, and then leave him to play. By doing this, you are letting him know that it is okay to play, but not to kick or bite. He has learned that bad behavior will elicit an unpleasant touch while his good behavior will illicit kind touch and soothing words. You can resume more serious corrective lessons later.
The most important thing to learn when training your equine is to dispense the crimped oats reward promptly and generously in the beginning of training, and only when your equine is complying (do not use anything but crimped oats for rewards). This will solidify the connection between the two of you and begin to establish a strong and mutually satisfying relationship. If, when haltered, your equine tries to pull away from you, just let go of the rope, reach in your fanny pack and offer the crimped oats to coax him to return to you. Remember not to try to progress through lessons too quickly, as this is usually what causes disobedience. Never chase your equine! Whenever at all possible, allow him to come to you of his own free will.
Before you begin your equine’s leading lessons—and during “tying” lessons—your equine should be rewarded frequently and whenever he is not pulling against the rope. This will help him to understand that he will be rewarded when the rope is loose so he is more likely to follow you when you do untie him and try to lead him. This concept is the same for each new task in each new lesson. Each time he easily complies, he should be rewarded. At this point you can move on to new lessons, but, in order to set him up for success, be sure to break down each process into small steps. Remember to always be generous with the rewards. An equine that learns to take the oats reward politely from your hand is less likely to bite you than one who has not had enough practice getting rewarded with the oats from your hand. When the correction for biting is done properly, your equine will learn not to be aggressive toward the reward and will learn to take them more delicately and gently from your hand.
If, as an adult, your equine gets too close or pushy, slap him on the side of the mouth with an open hand and a very loud “No!” Then put your hand up like a stop sign in front of his face. He should then step back or fling his head back, at which point you immediately step toward him and say, “Good Boy (or Girl),” and give him a reward for giving you your space. The next time he gets too close or pushy, simply put your hand up like a stop sign with a loud and abrupt “No!” This should be sufficient. Your equine should then be willing to back up and wait for the reward. You still need to be very consistent about when the rewards are given and when the correction is truly needed. “No” is the only negative verbal command you should ever give and should be the only word that ever denotes your displeasure so there is never any confusion (do not use any other negative verbal words or noises).
NOTE: Never leave a halter on an unsupervised equine. This is very dangerous! The halter can easily become snagged on something and can result in severe injury, a broken neck, or even death.
When thinking about the way horses, and particularly mules and donkeys learn, consider the way human children learn: They cannot accomplish many different tasks all at the same time. When tasks are not taught one by one and in a natural and logical order, confusion and failure are almost certainly guaranteed. If you want to have good results, you need to be working in a natural and logical order, with small enough steps that make sense to your equine. When training your mule or donkey, use a fanny pack filled with crimped oats, but do not offer a bucket of oats.
You should not even try to put on a halter and lead until your equine lets you touch him all over. Then you can approach with the halter. For instance, before you even halter your equine, ask him to come to you and then reward him with crimped oats when he does come. When he is consistently coming to you, the next step is to carry the halter with you without put it on him. Reward his approach toward you and his acceptance of the halter being present. Let him sniff and investigate the halter as much as he wants. Once he shows no sign of being at all bothered by the presence of the halter, you can then put the halter on him. When doing so, remember to always be polite and gentle. Reward your equine for the acceptance of the halter, and then try to loop your arm over his neck while feeding the crown strap of the halter from your left hand (from under his neck) to your right hand that is looped over his neck. This way, even if he starts to slowly move away, you can pull him back towards you with the loop around his neck and finish the process by putting his nose through the noseband of the halter. However, if he quickly jerks away, just let go of the rope. Then show him the oats and encourage him to return and try again, but do not give him any oats until he comes all the way back to your hand. Anytime he moves away, just ask him to return, but never chase him. Always make sure he comes all the way to you for his reward.
If you find that you are having difficulty during leading training, your own body may be out of good posture, causing you to take too many steps before stopping to square up. First, make sure you are in good posture. Then give the verbal command to “walk on.” Walk a straight line, pointing to where you are going with your right hand and keeping the left hand securely on your left hip. Make sure your steps mirror his front legs. Then stop, face your equine, reward him for stopping, make him stand squarely, make sure you are still in good posture and reward him for squaring up. Now just stand still for a few minutes, giving your equine time to settle and process what has just happened. Then reward him for standing quietly for a few minutes.
Next, turn and face the next direction in which you will be going, point with your right hand, give the command to “walk on,” and repeat the exercise. If done correctly, there will be many chances to hesitate a bit or stop between actions. All of these hesitations and stops will force your equine to pay attention and be ready for your next move. If you are performing each task in these smaller increments, he will be less likely to forge ahead. It will also give you the opportunity to do things slowly enough to get it exactly “right” and through repetition, your equine will be able to transform learned behaviors into automatic behaviors. If you try to hold a move too long or, on the other hand, do things too fast, your animal may not have time to properly comply, causing him to get confused, lose interest and engage in avoidance behavior.
You should not need to tug, pull or push. Just stand still in good posture when you stop and immediately stick your hand into the fanny pack and offer the reward. If you are doing all of this correctly, your equine might turn his head into your hand and swing his hindquarters around so that he faces you instead of stopping in his tracks. Not staying straight in his tracks is a temporary problem that you can fix by simply squaring him up after he has stopped and been rewarded. If he is forging ahead, one or more things are going on; either you are not doing things in small enough steps, not rewarding promptly enough to make him turn into you, or you are not using the fanny pack. These problems can be fixed by being more attentive to your own good posture and your movements, and to the times when he does cooperate. Keep lessons in small enough steps so he can be rewarded. This is called “setting up for success.”
You need to lead your equine with your left hand and shorten the lead rope, so he carries his head next to your right shoulder and cannot slip his head behind your back. He may try to walk ahead of you, at which point you can use your right hand to push his nose back into position. This will be very awkward at first and it will take time for you both to learn to do it properly. If he knows you are carrying a fanny pack of oats, he will be more apt to go in front of you than to follow you from behind or pass you, because he will be looking for the fanny pack. Again, use your free right hand to push him back into the correct position.
Without the reward, there is no incentive for him to do a task correctly, so always remember to dispense the reward promptly and appropriately, accompanied by a verbal “Good Boy!” whenever he correctly does what you ask. Do not spend more than 15 to 20 minutes every other day on lessons, as your animal can get bored and frustrated if you drill. At first, just practice “walk” and “halt.” When he has learned to stay at your shoulder, you can progress to the next step of halting and setting him up to stand squarely. Once he does this correctly, you can move on to trotting and turns. Remember—breaking the lessons into small steps, maintaining good posture and quickly rewarding will help your equine to achieve small victories because you are setting him up for success!
© 2016, 2017, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
You really don’t want to desensitize your animals to everything. Here is Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of the word “desensitize”:
1) to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or non-reactive to a sensitizing agent.
Some people have the misconception that, in order to desensitize an animal, you have to make it numb to its surroundings and any stimulus it encounters. Not true! What you really want to do is sensitize your equine to different body language and cues from you, as the trainer. So “desensitization” does not mean achieving a total lack of sensitivity. Rather, it should be approached as a way of training your equine (in a way that is quiet and calm) to be less sensitive to certain objects or events that may be cause him to be fearful, so he can move forward with confidence and the right sensitivity toward the communication between the two of you.
When incorrect, harsh or overly aggressive desensitizing techniques are used on equines, the handler is met with either a very strong flight reflex or a stand and fight reflex. In either case, an equine will either put up a fight and be deemed a rogue and, therefore, untrainable, or eventually just “give up” and succumb to the trainer’s wishes. This is a sad situation because the equine is not given the opportunity to make reasonable choices in his relationship with his trainer. The equine’s instinct to warm up to the person training him is hampered by his fear of more desensitization techniques. Thus, he becomes resigned to his work and is not fully engaged in the training process.
Often, trainers will put obstacles such as a trailer, tire or tarp in an equine’s pen in the hope of getting him used to it by making him live with it. But ask yourself this: How much rest would you get if someone put a blaring radio in your bedroom to desensitize you to noise? Equines have many of the same reactions to their personal space that we do, and they do much better when their place of rest is just that—a place of rest and comfort. And when lessons are approached in a considerate, respectful and rewarding way, an equine is more likely to approach them with an eager and positive attitude that facilitates better learning. It is always better to turn your equine’s fear into curiosity than it is to just assault his senses.
When doing obstacle training, it is better to allow your equine a gradual approach with small steps and great rewards for his honest effort than to whip and spur him through just to get to the other side. When his fear is converted to curiosity, the chance of his refusal to go forward is lessened and his trust in you as the trainer allows you to, eventually, ride through any obstacle at the slightest suggestion. This is because he trusts your judgment and has not been frightened, hurt or made uncomfortable during the training process. This is your equine developing sensitivity to your demands and learning to willingly comply so he can become a participating partner in each activity.
Some trainers believe that breaking down tasks for the equine into tiny steps is a waste of time and that giving a food reward prevents an equine from learning to respect the trainer, but I disagree. When you break tasks down into understandable steps in the beginning stages of training, you will eventually begin to get solid, reliable behavior from your equine. You will have to pay attention to a lot of little details at the beginning stages of training (and that can seem overwhelming at first), but if you take the time to pay attention to these small steps in the beginning stages and through the ground work and round pen work that will follow, when you finally do move on to riding under saddle the lessons will go much more quickly.
Each stage of training should become easier for you and your equine to master. For instance, it actually takes you less time to train in something like a side pass if you have done your groundwork training with the lead line and drive-line lateral training before you even get into the saddle. It also follows that the side pass will come more easily for your equine if he has first learned to move on an angle in the leg yield before having to move straight sideways. This is an example of taking things in small, logical steps, keeping your equine sensitive to his surroundings and tasks without fear. It also greatly lessens the chance for a fear or anxiety-driven blow up from your equine later on.
There is a physical as well as mental aspect to all of this technique. While you are training your equine to perform certain movements and negotiations over obstacles, his muscles, ligaments and tendons are all involved in his actions. When an equine is asked to do a movement for which his muscles have not first been properly conditioned, he will not only execute the motion incorrectly, but his premature attempt will undoubtedly compromise his muscles, ligaments and tendons. Even if he can adequately assimilate a requested movement while he is young, he could easily be creating problems in his body and joints that will cause him escalating problems as he ages.
If you were asked to go on a 25-mile hike with a 50-pound pack on your back, how would you prepare in order to safely and successfully perform this task? You would break it down into small steps, working up to it by first running a short distance with a very light weight, and then gradually increasing the distance you run and the weight you carry, which may take as long as a couple of years of careful training and conditioning. But if you tried to prepare for this kind of grueling hike by simply walking around the block a few times for a couple of days, you’d wreck your muscles, compromise your health and probably fail—all because you attempted to do the task when you weren’t physically or mentally ready. And depending on how much you strained your body, you just might discover down the line that the damage is permanent and will worsen over the course of your life. I use this illustration to show that, just as with humans, when it comes to training and conditioning your equine, it’s always better to take it slowly—one step at a time. Your equine will learn to enjoy being a partner in your challenges and goals if you give him the time he needs to be able to do these activities comfortably and with success.
An equine that learns in this sensitized way can also make judgments that might even save your life when you might not be paying attention. This is because when your equine is calm and well rested, he actually seems to be able to anticipate consequences, making him more likely to stop and wait for your cue. The equine that is “forced” during training will most often become anxious about a challenging situation and will seldom stop and calmly alert you to a potential peril—and he most likely will not trust your judgment.
It is because I have trained my mules in this sensitized way that I once avoided going over a 100-foot drop up in the Rocky Mountains while on a trail ride. On that particular day, I was in front, riding my mule, Mae Bea C.T. with four horses behind us. When we came to a giant boulder semi-blocking the trail, I told the people on the horses to wait and rode ahead. I soon found that the trail had narrowed to an impassable two feet wide and a rockslide had wiped out the trail ahead completely! It was straight up 100 feet on one side of the trail and straight down 100 feet on the other side and there was no going forward. The horses behind me were still on the wider part of the trail on the other side of the boulder and were able turn around, so they were safe, but backing my mule around the boulder on that treacherous trail would be very dangerous. I thought we were stuck. At that point, my mule calmly looked back around at me as if to ask, “Well, Mom, what do we do now?” I thought for a minute and then shifted the weight in my seat toward my mule’s hindquarters. This movement from me allowed her to shift her weight to her hindquarters. Then, with pressure from my right leg, she lifted her shoulders, pivoted on her left hind foot and performed a 180-degree turn to the left on her haunches, and with her front feet in the air, she swept them across the open precipice of the cliff and turned us back around to face the wider (and safe) part of the trail. After completing the turn, she stopped again, looked back at me to see if everything was okay and waited for my cue to proceed back down. I believe, without a doubt, that my mule’s incredible and calm response to a life-threatening situation was the direct result of the sensitized training methods I used that created our unbreakable bond of trust.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
With the hectic schedule of spring and summer slowly tapering into fall, thoughts of cool, refreshing mountain streams, the sight of a massive bull elk, or the quiet majesty of the rugged mountain peaks on a relaxing trail ride, mountain hunt or pack trip begin to ease their way into our minds. What better time to share with your mule or donkey? What better place for him to show you what he was born to do? A mountain trail ride or pack trip are both perfect ways for you to get to really know your Longears and strengthen the bond between you.
Mules are remarkably strong and durable animals, making them excellent mountain partners. The cupped shape of their hooves allows them to track the rough mountain terrain with much more surefootedness than their counterpart, the horse. A mule’s superior intelligence and strong sense of survival help him to carefully negotiate the placement of his feet, insuring the safest ride possible. This is both important and comforting to know when heading for the mountains. The mule’s strength and endurance are sometimes unbelievable, but always dependable. On a hunting trip, he will take you through rough mountain terrain for days then pack out the “elk of your dreams” with the greatest of ease.
Around the campfire, he is wonderful company on those lonesome mountain nights. His blatant curiosity can make for some fun—and funny— situations, and his loving ways will win your heart. But first and foremost, he is a reliable companion when the going gets tough.
A few years ago, some close muleskinner friends of mine decided to take a hunting trip into the Rocky Mountains. Packing in, the weather was beautiful with warm temperatures, calm breezes, and not a cloud in the sky. After setting up camp and tending to their horses and mules, the hunters set off tracking elk. Hunting was good, but after a few days, the evening brought with it an unpredictable snowstorm of incredible intensity. The hunters crawled from their tents the next morning to discover their camp buried in more than four feet of snow!
With no chance of the storm lifting, the hunters packed up what they could on their horses and mules and quickly got under way. Since time was of the essence, tents and much of their gear had to be left behind. As they left the campsite, the snow deepened and the terrain underneath was steep, rocky and treacherous. They had gone only a short distance when the snow became so deep and the terrain so hazardous that the horses refused to go one step farther. Anxiety was high when the horses could not blaze a trail out. The hunters were worried they wouldn’t make it off the mountain alive.
In the face of this great danger, my friend asked his trusted mule, Goliath, to break trail for the others. With slow, careful, deliberate steps, this well-trained, loyal mule led them all down the mountain to safety. Once there, they freed their trucks and trailers, which were buried in snow, loaded them up, and made their way back to the lowlands to safety. The storms on the mountain worsened and it was spring before the hunters could return for the rest of their gear, but they were eternally grateful to Goliath the mule for leading them safely down the mountain!
There are many stories like this one, where mules and donkeys have emerged as heroes in precarious situations. However, if you prefer not to take risks like my hunter friends, there are other less daunting activities you can enjoy with your donkey or mule.
Why not take your longeared companion along to the mountains for a hike or a picnic? He would thoroughly love just being with you in those beautiful surroundings. While you walk the trails, enjoying the marvels of nature, your donkey or mule can carry the lunch essentials. While you enjoy the wildflowers or try your hand at fishing a mountain stream, you can be confident that your Longears will enjoy the peaceful solitude and be able to stay out of serious trouble at the same time.
If you question taking excursions such as these with your longears because of a lack of training, there are fellow Longears lovers who can help you. All over the United States, excellent mule trainers are available to help beginners. A Longears lover once told me that his love for burros and mules began years ago when he found Dusty, a three-month-old wild burro caught in a blizzard. He took her home and cared for her, and, a year later, he entered her in the National Western Fall Classic Donkey and Mule Show. He and Dusty were awarded the title of Reserve Champion Donkey of the Show! Ever since, he has sought to help others enjoy Longears and horses in any way he can. In addition to breaking and training wild mustangs at his Medicine Bow Stables, he has included free clinics for burro owners to teach them how to handle and care for their animals.
Getting proper training for your donkey or mule can only enhance your relationship with them and in turn, they will enrich your life. This fall, why not take the time to really get to know these remarkable animals by letting them share in the fun, be it hiking, hunting, packing, or picnicking. The life you enhance may be your own!
© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
There is a lot of discussion about training mules versus training horses. There are some who say that mules are harder to train than horses and others who say just the opposite. It has been my experience that it isn’t really that one animal is more “difficult” than the other. They each have their own redeeming qualities and individual limiting factors. The people who are dealing with them also have their own redeeming and limiting factors. For instance, if you are leading a horse and he does not wish to follow you, because he hasn’t the strength in his head and neck as a donkey or mule and can be more easily bullied into complying with a quick jerk on the lead rope.
On the other hand, if you are leading a mule or donkey, they can easily jerk the rope right out of your hands because of the incredible strength they have in their head and neck. When you teach a mule or donkey something one day, he will ponder what he has been taught during the days in between lessons. He will comply more easily during the next lesson. Regardless of how many days or weeks have passed between lessons, the horse will tend to forget and will need to be reminded where the mule or donkey will not.
It makes sense that the handler needs to adjust his training program such that the horse has more frequent and consistent lessons to refresh his memory. The mule will only need lessons as frequently as it takes to maintain good physical condition. When applying lessons more frequently, the handler has the ability to make subtle adjustments to get the best from the horse. If he wants the mule or donkey to react properly, it is critical that he teaches the mule or donkey correctly the first time as they will learn EXACTLY what the handler teaches and will continue to repeat it. The option of changing your approach during the training sequence is limited. What this all amounts to is that one is really not more easily trained than the other. Rather, it is the experience and knowledge of the handler or trainer that really makes the difference.
Mules and donkeys, sensitive and intelligent creatures that they are, seem to be more concerned about the overall attitude of the trainer than are horses. With the intelligent use of negative reinforcement, a positive attitude and informed use of restraints, modifying the behavior of any equine becomes a lot easier.
When mules do not comply with our wishes, you need to get first his attention and do something to temper his defensive attitude. When we are intelligent about a situation, it minimizes the animal’s negative reactive responses. Our politeness and consideration promote an overall positive attitude on both parts, and opens the lines of communication. Since these animals outweigh us by several hundred pounds, careful and informed use of restraints must sometimes be used to perpetuate the close relationship between you and your mule or donkey (and sometimes horses) in the training environment. Restraints should be used to help “explain” what you wish your mule to do, but should not be used as a perpetual training “crutch.” Intelligence, attitude and restraints should always be used in conjunction with a “path of least resistance” to promote successful training sessions.
If we realize that correct development of mind and muscle takes time, we can relax, let the animal learn at his own pace, utilize these helpful restraints to minimize resistance in difficult situations and actually enjoy the training process with our animals. For example, in the case of Draw Reins, they should only be used lightly in conjunction with your regular reins and only when necessary. In the beginning, this might mean at every stride. It is rather obvious how the Draw Reins can be phased out over time, but what about a restraint such as the Scotch Hobble, which is a seemingly inflexible restraint?
The first time you use the Scotch Hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind foot so that it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quieter and more accepting of what you are doing, you can loosen the Scotch Hobble a little at each session. If your mule’s behavior is good, adjust the Scotch Hobble so that his toe rests on the ground. Next session, you might let him stand on all fours with the rope tied loosely into position, until he has complied to the point where the rope is actually around only the hind foot and is lying loosely on the ground. Naturally, if he becomes fidgety, just back up one step and tighten your connections on the rope.
There are many restraints available for use in the equine industry today: martingales, tie-downs, side reins, draw reins, hobbles and the list goes on. In my estimation, these restraints are being used much too freely as “crutches” and are responsible for terrible body posture and limited responsiveness among today’s equines. A restraint should be used only as a helpful tool to allow you to attain a certain positive response from the animal. Once you get the proper response, it is your responsibility to phase out the restraint in order to instill in your animal the correct behavior itself.
Early in a mule’s life, he should be taught to be calm in restraints, which makes daily tasks much easier. Your veterinarian and farrier will thank you and it may save your mule’s life if he should get caught in a fence, fall into a hole or encounter any other such potential for disaster. The goal is to teach him to think before he struggles or bolts and tries to run. Many Longears do this naturally, but it is always better to reinforce this pause for thought with lessons.
CAUTION: NEVER USE THE FACE TIE ON A HORSE.
The following technique is useful when working around very young mules, although it works on adults as well. You must remember to step back if your mule begins to struggle—give him space to learn the situation.
To use the Face Tie:
- Wrap your lead around the hitch rail once until your mule’s face is over the rail and held tight against it.
- Slip the rope through the noseband of the halter and around the hitch rail again and secure it. For a more secure tie (or to keep your mule sideways to the rail for vaccinations), you can run the rope through the throatlatch and around the hitch rail again.
Use the Face Tie to aid in clipping your mule’s bridle path and other light weekly trimming to prepare him for show clipping later on. It can also be used to teach a difficult mule or donkey to be bridled.
If your mule is difficult to lead, you can use a Quick Twist in your lead rope to give you more leverage. Twist a loop in the lead rope and bring it behind the noseband of the halter. Slip the loop around your mule’s nose and pull it snug. Pull on the lead until it is tight around his nose, and then just stand still, holding the tension in the lead rope until your mule steps forward. Do not keep pulling or jerking on the rope or he will become resistant and go backwards instead. By using the Quick Twist, when you ask him to come forward, you are not just pulling the halter—you have more leverage. Repeat as necessary.
NOTE: Do not tie your animal up while using a Quick Twist. Remove the quick twist and use the face tie if needed when tying.
To further perfect your equine’s Showmanship technique, you can also use a Lead Shank with a chain under the jaw, but always tie him with the lead rope only—never with the Lead Shank.
A soft, three-foot (one-meter) rope can be used to make a set of front leg hobbles. Leather hobbles are generally considered an “appointment” (equipment accessory), and are sometimes attached to the saddle when showing in Western classes. They are dangerous and not very effective because they can easily break. So if you have a need for hobbles, be sure to purchase those that are meant to be used on the equine’s legs and not those made of thin leather that are meant only as an equipment accessory for your saddle. Be careful with nylon hobbles as they can chafe the equine’s pasterns if they are not lined with a softer material.
Probably the most helpful restraint there is when it comes to mules and donkeys is the scotch hobble. This restraint helps to facilitate good ground manners and prevent kicking by restraining one hind foot, causing the mule to stand still while you work on him, whether it’s clipping or shoeing him, or saddling him for the first time. But, as with any restraint, you should keep in mind that it must be phased out sooner or later. The first time a restraint is used, it will usually have to be used in its full capacity to get the desired response.
To make the 15-foot (5-meter) scotch hobble:
- Tie a nonslip knot around your mule’s neck.
- Take the excess rope down to the hind foot and around the pastern, then back up through the neck loop and back around the pastern a second time.
- Pull the rope just tight enough so that your mule must stand on his other three feet for balance.
- Wrap the excess around the ropes going to the foot and back up to the loop around the neck.
- Tie with a quick-release knot. By wrapping the ropes going to the foot, you prevent the foot from slipping loose.
The first time you use the scotch hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind leg so it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quiet and accepting, you should loosen the hobble a little each time until you are not really using it at all. This is called “phasing (or fading) out the restraint.”
When he has learned to stand calmly in a scotch hobble, you can use a twisted lead rope (with no snap) in a figure eight to hobble his front legs with a safety knot. The same lead rope can be used to tie up one front leg by wrapping the rope around the bent leg, forcing the mule to keep all his weight on the other three legs. This type of hobbling is particularly useful when clipping the hair on the front legs of a mule. As you work on the leg that is not hobbled, your mule will quickly learn that with the other leg ties up, it is to his advantage not to try not to move the leg you are clipping.
On a difficult mule, you may have to use the twisted lead rope in conjunction with the scotch hobble. Adjust the scotch hobble so only your mule’s toe touches the ground for balance, but not enough to bear weight. Once he is accustomed to this restraint, you can safely put him in sheepskin-lined chain hobbles.
Do not use nylon hobbles—they can cause severe rope burns if they are not lined with a soft material! Leather hobbles are fine as long as they are intended for restraint use and not just as a saddle accessory. Now you can think about taking your mule into the high country, hobbling him and turning him loose to graze while you set up camp. You should be able to find and catch him the next morning, because mules generally do not wander far from their “families.” But keep in mind that mules are very smart and can quickly learn to hop along while hobbled. Also, if you have a horse with you that likes to wander, be sure to tie him up because mules will follow horses.
Choosing the right restraint for a given situation takes thought and consideration. You must ask yourself, which restraints are available to me? Which restraint will most likely bring about the response I desire from my mule? Will the response with this restraint come with little or no resistance and is it humane? Will it cause other more serious problems in the animal? And finally, can the restraint be phased out relatively easily?
Keeping these things in mind when using restraints will help to keep the relationship with your mule from becoming a battleground. Bear in mind that whichever restraint you use might vary from situation to situation and from animal to animal, so carefully consider your options. Remember, using intelligence, a good attitude and an informed use of restraints can greatly enhance your training experience together.
© 1989, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, we addressed the steps involved in employing the reward system of training properly whereby desired behaviors are rewarded promptly and negative reinforcement is quick, fair and used sparingly. In Part 2, I will explain how to break down more complex movements into smaller steps that are simple and easy to accomplish, and then how to string them together in order to get the desired response from your equine.
Shaping behaviors takes reinforcement to the next level. Now you are working with the tendency of an animal to perform in the right way and guiding that performance toward your ultimate goal. This is called successive approximation. For example, if you are teaching a turn on the haunches on the lead line, you must first ask for one step forward. Then walk toward your animal’s shoulder and ask for the turn. In order to teach him to plant his rear pivot foot before the turn, the process must be broken down into smaller steps. First, ask for the step forward and reward him immediately when he complies. Then move on and ask for one step forward and one to the side, rewarding him again when he’s successful. Then ask for one step forward and two to the side and reward, and so forth.
Eventually, your animal will complete as many steps as you desire and, at the same time, learn to cross one foot over the other and only do as many steps as you ask. B.F. Skinner describes shaping behavior as a response that must first occur for other reasons before it is reinforced with a reward and becomes an operant or “action of choice.” A complex response such as executing the entire turn all at once would never occur naturally correct to be reinforced if you simply “turned the animal around.” He could not possibly understand that he must place the pivot foot before the turn is executed, and would most likely just “swap ends,” with no pivot foot placement and no finesse to the turn. However complex responses can be shaped by separately reinforcing their component parts. Then these parts can be put together in the final form of the operant or “desired action.”
An example of shaping a behavior by breaking it down into a string of very small steps is how I taught my donkey, Little Jack Hornerto canter. Although many people tried to tell me that donkeys don’t canter, I had seen donkeys canter when they ran free, so I knew it was possible. First, I set the goal of cantering a circle. No one could run ahead of my donkey fast enough to reward him with oats and negative reinforcement such as the crop didn’t work well at all, so I had to find another kind of reinforcement. Using the pleasure principle of finding the best motivation for an action, I put my cycling broodmares into a pen at one end of our hayfield and I took my jack to the other end. When asked to canter toward those mares, he did so eagerly. He first learned to canter in a straight line. I reinforced the action verbally with, “Good, good,” while we cantered, and then I gave him a food reward once we reached the pen.
The next time I did the same thing, but this time I turned my donkey in a large half-circle route to the pen, and I rewarded him again the same way. The third time, I asked for a little more of a circle and I got it. Several times later, I was able to get an entire circle before we ran the line to the pen with the mares in it. Once my donkey learned that he could canter easily with me on his back, I didn’t need the mares anymore.
I took Little Jack Hornerinto the arena and tried to canter the perimeter with him. At first he cantered a few strides and then dropped to trot. Each time he cantered, I praised him verbally, and when he broke to trot, I would finish the circle, stop him and praise him with the food reward. It was slow going the first few tries, until I started counting strides and realized the jack was adding one more stride at canter with each attempt. Before long, he was cantering the full circle with ease on command.
With training like this, my donkey jack, Little Jack Horner, has performed successfully in Trail, Reining (with spins, slides and flying lead changes), Second Level Dressage and even performed at Bishop Mule Days where he jumped four feet in exhibition —quite remarkable for a 13-hand equine, and a donkey no less!
The Ten Principles of Behavior Shaping
1) Establish and raise your performance criteria in increments small enough to give your animal a reasonable chance of success and create an opportunity for positive reinforcement. If the criteria are too challenging, the animal may fail and give up.
2) Train for one aspect of a behavior at a time. Do not try to teach several skills at once. When training for a dressage test, for example, do not practice the whole test every day. Take a few sections of the test and work on those. Practice going up and down the centerline in straight lines. Practice 20-meter circles. Practice going deep into the corners of the arena with the right amount of bend. Shape the ultimate result by gradually linking the components, and they’ll fit together nicely. Ride the test as a whole, and the quality of the smaller components will suffer.
3) Before you move to a new skill, put the current skill or behavior on a variable level of reinforcement. Use a fixed schedule of reinforcement on any new behaviors, rewarding verbally and with oats each time the behavior is performed, but once the animal “gets it,” reward less often and randomly. Then, as you add a new behavior, reinforce that behavior on a fixed schedule, while randomly rewarding learned behaviors.
4) When introducing new behaviors, relax expectations on the old ones. What was once learned is not forgotten, but under the pressure of assimilating new behaviors, the old behaviors sometimes temporarily fall apart.
5) Stay ahead of your trainee. Be prepared with what you will ask next, in case your animal has a sudden breakthrough and easily performs the next step. You must keep your equine challenged in order to maintain his interest.
6) Avoid changing trainers in midstream. The animal/trainer relationship is an integral part of the training. Changing trainers disrupts the training process until a new bonded relationship is formed. The owner should be doing the training with only guidance from a professional trainer as the animal will bond to the person who actually does the training.
7) If one shaping process is not working, try another. Individuals, whether animal or human, learn in different ways. Continue with the premise of reinforcement, but find what works best for your animal at any given stage. For example, if you cannot get your equine to back through barrels in a figure eight, simply begin by going forward and always start between the barrels to allay any fears he might have of them.
8) Do not interrupt the training process without cause—this constitutes a punishment. When you are training, try to avoid interruptions. When you train using the methods of behavior modification, you are obliged to reinforce the good behaviors. If you aren’t paying attention, you may inadvertently punish a desired behavior if you interrupt it. The most common example of an infringement would be talking to someone while you are training the animal. If you must talk to someone, simply include the equine in the conversation.
9) If a learned behavior begins to deteriorate, simply review and use fixed reinforcement until it is re-established. Sometimes side effects from negative reinforcement can cause this to occur, but if you remain calm and patient, the animal should relearn quickly.
10) Quit while you’re ahead. At the beginning of the each session, you will likely see improvement from where you were at the end of the session before. Drilling on a desired behavior will make the animal tired and less willing to perform. Better to quit with a good assimilation of the requested behavior, and work to refine it in subsequent sessions.
The Road to Success for You and Your Equine
As you begin to understand the principles of shaping and modifying behaviors, it is important to realize that it is a lot like dancing, cooking or any other learned skill—the only way forward is with practice. The more you practice, the better trainer you will become. You have the opportunity to practice positive reinforcement every moment of your life, reinforcing behaviors in everyone—the cat, the dog, your husband or wife, your children. It becomes a game of noticing and praising positive accomplishments while setting clear boundaries to all behaviors, large or small. With practice, you will increase your awareness and, thus, your skill. The success or failure of your efforts to shape behavior in any animal does not depend upon your expertise, but on your patience, respect, consideration and consistency during the process. This may not be the easiest way, but it is extremely effective—and it’s fun!
© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
By Meredith Hodges
“Throughout history, mules and donkeys have been pegged as being stubborn and therefore stupid, but I have found just the opposite to be true. They are intelligent, sensitive animals, and they have a particularly strong survival instinct. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid danger or what they perceive as danger, and the process of training a mule or donkey is the process of earning their trust.”
—Meredith Hodges, internationally recognized mule and donkey training expert
When I began working with mules and donkeys, I quickly realized there would be no shortcuts to successful training. I steered clear of fads, trends and shortcuts and, instead, based my training program on Behavior Modification techniques developed by world-famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner over a century ago. For many years now, I have used these techniques to successfully train my own champion mules and donkeys, and I continue to share my method with millions of people through my books, an award-winning DVD series, multiple television shows, my comprehensive website and on Social Media.
The techniques presented here work well with not only mules and donkeys, but also with horses and any other trainable animals (and even humans). The program is designed to be resistance free, and the goal is—and always has been—to help people get the best performance and most enjoyment from their animals and to insure that the animal receives the best treatment possible.
Behavior Modification Basics
As a young adult I worked as a psychiatric technician at Sonoma and Napa State Hospitals in California, and the Behavior Modification techniques I learned at that time proved ideal for my later equine training purposes for two major reasons:
˚The system in which the trainer sets performance goals and rewards positive behavior leading to achievement of those goals encourages “good” behavior instead of using fear-inducing punishment to suppress “bad” behavior.
˚The step-by-step approach that builds gradually on learned skills gives the animal a sense of security and achievement that encourages trust and helps minimize resistance.
Animals, like humans, need a predictable routine in order to learn. Just as children progress through grade school, building on their knowledge with each successive grade, animals learn best when a solid foundation is laid for each new skill. By creating a logical program from the outset, we avoid the confusion that can lead to resistance.
These levels of achievement are at the heart of Behavior Modification as a training tool. Acceptable levels of behavior must be defined at each level of training, beginning with the simplest of expectations and working forward. At each level the animal must accomplish certain tasks, and each accomplishment must be acknowledged and reinforced. Also note that it is critical—especially if you are working with a mule or donkey—that you, the owner, participate in the training process. Mules and donkeys develop a strong bond with their trainer, and if they’ve learned from someone else, their performance for you may suffer in the long run. It is also advisable to consult with an experienced trainer in your area, and if you are working with my Training Mules and Donkeys training series, I am just a phone call away.
Everything we do, every behavior we choose, is based on an instinctual desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. Our choices reflect our experience. They are “reinforced” by the pain or pleasure they have given us in the past. Behavior Modification uses the same principles of positive and negative reinforcement with an emphasis on positive reinforcement.
In training, positive reinforcementis delivered in the form of rewards. We know that an equine, when rewarded for performing a certain task, will be willing to perform it again in anticipation of another reward. Note, however, that positive reinforcement is not bribery. The reward is not given as an inducement to perform the task, but as a reward for a task completed. The reward should be something the animal loves and will consistently work for, yet something that is nutritionally sound. In the case of equines, rolled or crimped oats work far better than rich snacks full of empty calories and are healthier for your equine.
Positive reinforcement also takes the form of verbal cues. When your animal performs the desired behavior, you should, simultaneously and with appropriate enthusiasm, say the word, “Good!” This works well when it isn’t possible to give a food reward right away. Clicker training, which has become a popular and effective means of audible reinforcement, is similar and applies the same concept. It’s immediate, it’s consistent, and it can be used with all mules, donkeys and horses to reinforce behavior. However, I feel that it is better to use your voice than a clicker, as the sound of your voice promotes engagement with your equine on a more intimate level, so your voice will yield better results than clicker training.
Negative reinforcement is used not to punish the animal but to encourage them to make a better choice. Negative reinforcement should be brief, to the point and used sparingly. It should never be of long duration or given arbitrarily. Negative reinforcement, such as a slap or a loud “No!” shouldn’t be used so often that it makes the animal unresponsive altogether. Remember that reinforcement by its very definition always strengthens behavior. Punishment is used to suppress behavior and may trigger other undesirable behaviors. B.F. Skinner himself said that positive reinforcement may take more patience, because the effect is slightly deferred, yet it can be as effective as negative reinforcement and has fewer unwanted residual behaviors. When you begin training, you will have to give a verbal and food reward every time the animal performs a desired response. Still, negative reinforcement is necessary to define boundaries.
As your equine learns certain behaviors, you can reinforce the learned behaviors less frequently and focus on frequently rewarding new achievements. Gradually, your animal will become satisfied with a verbal reinforcement for established behaviors, and he will comply for longer periods between food rewards. This shift from a predictable, or fixed, schedule of reinforcement to a variableschedule helps with skill progression. For example, in the transition from lunging when your animal was initially given a reward after each set of rotations in the round pen, to riding, he can eventually be ridden through his entire 30 to 40 minute session before receiving a reward.
Beware of the “delayed gratification” phenomenon, however. If your animal suspects that it will be too long before he receives a reward, he may be reluctant to even begin. Often a quick reward for a simple task at the beginning of a lesson is incentive enough to get him started. Also keep in mind that reinforcing too soon is ineffective. Your animal should be rewarded immediately after the correct behavior, not before. An animal rewarded too soon or too often can become aggressive and/or resistant to training. Remember, each of your own behaviors elicits a response from your animal. You must be meticulous in the way you ask your animal to perform, and always be aware of your own actions. In Part 2 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, I will explain how to break complex behaviors into small and simple steps to achieve the best results.
© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved
By Meredith Hodges
Establishing a bond – Are you having problems getting the same response from your equine that trainers do? This two-part article is designed to help you learn to successfully train your own equine.
Training isn’t just a way to teach your equine to do certain “movements,” but a way for you to help him to grow physically and mentally healthy, and to enable him to learn to cope with the demands that will be put on him during his lifetime—much like raising a child to grow up to be a healthy and productive adult.
The subtleties in your attitude and approach, along with a solid knowledge base, can make all the difference in your training program. Whether your equine is a foal or an older animal that you have just obtained, whether he is trained or untrained, the process is the same and it’s never too late to get started with the right kinds of expectations in mind. You are creating a bond, developing the foundation for a healthy friendship, and setting the ground rules that will dictate the positive extent of your continuing relationship with your animal. It is important to be an active participant in your animal’s training. After all, you wouldn’t have someone else make a friend for you. You’d do it yourself—one-on-one.
Feeding – What you feed your equine and how well his health is maintained will determine how responsive he will be to training. Although some popular feeds may build body mass more rapidly and may seem to be promoting healthy physical development, these high-protein feeds can also have negative effects, especially on Longears. Often, with high-protein feeds, an equine’s physical growth is accelerated and becomes disproportionate to his normal growth on simple equine feed like oats and grass hay. His mental growth may also be adversely affected with high-protein feeds, as they can cause anxiety and limited attentiveness. If the animal is feeling anxious or inattentive, or if parts of his body become sore from unnatural growth spurts or inappropriate exercise, he may be less likely to perform in an enthusiastic and energetic way.
I have found that equines do best on a mixture of crimped oats (1-2 lbs. for the average-sized saddle equine) mixed with a vitamin concentrate such as Sho-Glo (1 oz.), and Mazola corn oil (1 oz.) for hooves and coat, and for digestive tract regularity. Draft animals would get twice as much and minis get ¼ to ½ as much. This once-a-day oats mix regimen should be fed in the evenings and supplemented with grass hay twice a day, with the amount of hay being increased or decreased to monitor desired weight gain or loss. As a reward for positive responses in training, your animal should get the additional crimped oats so he will get immediate energy when he needs it the most, during the training process. Crimped oats, unlike any other equine reward, is also something that the animal will continue to work for without tiring of it.
Apples, carrots, horse treats and the like are things on which they can get sated and are not necessarily good for your equine in excess. Some of these “treats” can even have the same effect that candy has on children. An animal may experience residual affects such as an upset digestive tract, a short attention span or even hypertension, all of which can have a negative affect on training. Feeding the same way, and at the same times each day, is not only healthy, but it fosters confidence and trust within your animal because it makes him feel good. He learns without question that he can depend on you for his welfare and that his efforts will be rewarded with his favorite reward of crimped oats.
Consideration – Being patient, kind and considerate toward your equine and spending a little more time developing a good solid foundation with him before moving on to more elaborate maneuvers will yield better results. Remember to always be aware of your equine’s physical, mental and emotional responses during training. For instance, you may think that, once your mule is moving around the round pen at all three gaits with a reverse, he is ready to begin riding, but this may not necessarily be true. Considering that it takes years to really condition muscles to their maximum strength, six to eight months of doing round pen exercises is not really that long a period of time. If you don’t spend at least six months on flatwork leading training and six months on obstacle leading lessons to promote strength and balance in good posture, you can greatly hinder your equine’s ability to perform in the round pen on the circle. In turn, spending less than six to eight months in the round pen will not produce the best results in muscle development. If you move through conditioning too fast, it will affect your animal’s mental attitude toward training and he will very likely experience soreness and emotional depression. As a result, he will most likely become resistant to training.
Pay attention to how many laps your equine does in each direction and at each gait: how many reverses to the left, and then how many to the right. Take this opportunity to assess whether he will need a few more laps on the side that is weaker. If you make these things your priority, when you finally do start riding him, his straight lines will be straighter, his turns smoother and his reverses and stops more balanced, and with minimal effort. As your equine grows stronger and more mentally and physically confident, the upper-level movements will come faster and easier than did the basic foundation training, which is why it’s so important to take your time and be patient—especially during foundation training. Another way to show consideration for your animal is to investigate valuable therapeutic tools like equine massage and chiropractics.
Structured exercises – Even if you do not plan to show your equine, he must be strong enough to be able to perform easily, even on something as seemingly simple as trail riding. Different exercises build different muscle groups, so it is important to know what exercises you should begin with and which exercises should follow. Don’t let yourself get sucked into drilling on something that just isn’t working. If you run into problems and things aren’t working out properly, just go back and try something that is similar in its demand but simpler for you and/or your equine to execute. Sometimes, it is just a manner of approaching the problem differently or leaving it to another day. Like humans, equines have their own individual ways of learning and it’s up to you to figure out what works best with your particular equine on any given day. You can find my suggested approaches to this in my DVD series, Training Mules & Donkeysand Equus Revisited. Note: Don’t forget to reward your animal for positive behavior.
Body language and verbal communication – Learn to be consistent with your verbal commands and don’t leave them out. Most equines can learn to identify words and will usually respond much more readily to verbal commands than to cues alone, so give your equine this “verbal cue” advantage.
In the beginning, keep your words simple and consistent (“walk,” “trot,” “canter,” “reverse,” “whoa”). As your equine becomes more familiar with them, you can include additional words (“move over,” “go to the rail,” “easy,” and so forth). By the time he is an adult and has gone through this kind of training, he should begin to understand almost anything you might have to say. It is much like a child who first learns his ABCs, then words, then sentences and, eventually, entire paragraphs. Pay attention to yourself as you are training. How you feel affects your animal, which will dictate how he reacts to you. For instance, if you are a little nervous about being around your equine, he will sense this and may think there is a reason for him to be nervous, too. If you are happy, relaxed and patient about doing things, you will elicit a better response from your equine. Attitude is everything, so do whatever you need to do to keep the experience interesting and enjoyable for both of you.
Benefits of group lessons – Equines can learn from each other, so it can be beneficial to work them together. When you are working with foals, it is helpful to take “Mom” along or have her tied nearby during training sessions. Green animals often do better on the trails during the first year if they are ridden along with well-trained trail animals. If you have multiple animals to keep conditioned, you can even lunge them together, provided your work in the round pen has been consistent with each of them separately from the beginning. In driving training, the “group lesson” idea of hitching young animals with the “old pros” has been a common practice for many years. Speaking of “old pros,” it is to your advantage to find a local instructor/trainer with whom you can periodically take lessons. This gives you a way to check to make sure you stay on the right track and continue to improve your own skills. Lists of trainers and instructors can be obtained from the United States Equestrian Federation and from the American Donkey & Mule Society. In Part 2 of Keys to Successful Training, I’ll go into further detail regarding ground training as well as the actual physical training areas, and many of the other important components that contribute to a successful and rewarding training program.
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