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On November 22nd, of 2021, I posted, on my MEREDITH HODGES PUBLIC FIGURE Facebook page, information about how to maintain your tack and equipment, and how to keep a neat and tidy tack room. There were a lot of comments about it and many people indicated that they thought it would be easy if you had the staff that I have.
Just for the record, when it comes to my equines and their tack and equipment, I do most of the work myself. My TWO guys do clean the stalls and runs daily, and the larger dirt pens weekly when the animals are overnighted there, and they do feed in the mornings, midday and evenings. TWO of my girls take care of the inside and external cleaning of the multiple buildings that we have, and they condition the tack and equipment as needed, but mostly every three months because we clean things as we use them.
My THIRD girl assists me in the office checking the website and Social Media connections, making Social Media posts (with the exception of Facebook that I do myself), editing articles, advertising and the newsletter, fulfilling orders and MUCH more. TWO of the girls and I film and take photos of EVERYTHING we do so we have material for our posts, articles, video Training Tips and Documentaries. We put these together with our TWO remote videographers and we have ONE remote graphics artist that also assists with publications. Our JASPER MASCOT also doubles as a website tech person. So, we have a VERY SMALL staff to cover all the work that we do. We are prompt in doing what we do because we want to provide all of you the information that you need to have the same success with your equines that we have with ours. In this post, I will address how I efficiently keep all 17 of my equines clean and healthy.
I find that when you have a regular weekly grooming routine along with good environment cleaning practices, the animals do not seem to get as dirty as they would otherwise. Spring is obviously the most intensive time of the year because of mud and shedding, but during other times of the year, grooming can go quickly. During the summer months, they have short hair coats and will only need to have bridle paths trimmed, faces, ears and nostril cleaned, Johnson’s Baby oil in the manes and tails, Neosporin for any cuts and scratches, and a quick go-over with the Dandy brush. Since I keep them barefoot with regular trims every 6-8 weeks, they rarely need their feet cleaned. I carry the grooming tools in a bucket and visit them wherever they happen to be, either in their stalls or in turnout. Because they are all taught the same manners, they come to me and line up for their turn wherever they are.
We have had good weather this fall, but with the lack of moisture, they are all pretty dusty. Since we are using my Tack Barn as an art studio and getting the BELLE, JASPER, MOXIE & KYLIE bronzes ready to be cast for their placement in our newest project, the OLDE WESTERN TOWN OF ASSPEN here at the ranch, I opted to vacuum everyone in the alleyway of the barn.
The first thing I did was to have them exit their stalls and be tied in the alleyway. I brought in Augie, Spuds and Billy from their barn and added them to the eight mules from the South Barn. As I retrieve them, I ALWAYS open the door, ask them to come to me, reward them and then put on their halter. They learn to stand quietly and will not exit the stall until I give them permission to do so.
So I can be hands-free with the halter, I will often allow them to eat their reward directly from the fanny pack of crimped oats that I ALWAYS wear around my waist. If they get pushy, I will say, “NO!” and put my hand up like a stop sign and ask them to back off. If that doesn’t work, a quick slap to the side of their mouth after they have been asked does work. Consistency in MY behavior is key!
They have all been introduced to the vacuum cleaner and stand quietly while I go from one to the next. If they start picking at each other, I just holler the name of the perpetrator and say “NO!” VERY LOUDLY! They always stop because they know the next thing is a pop on the rump from me!
I am always aware of each animal, but I do not “move over” for them. I ask them to “move over” for ME. Then they are rewarded with crimped oats. Once they learn, for instance, that I need to return the vacuum to its spot, and that they will all get rewarded for standing quietly, they give me my space as I work around them, even during rolling up the extension cords!
Since I have so many animals, I do have to refill the fanny pack often, so I keep a full bucket available in a convenient spot for refills. Once they are all vacuumed, I ten move down the line and wipe everyone’s faces. They get their eyes, ears and noses cleaned thoroughly. They quickly learn to accept the process and then I reward them once they are all done. When I do them individually before riding, I will reward each immediately after each task. When they are all together, they will behave better when they have to wait to be rewarded when they are ALL done with each task. Then I go down the line and sprinkle Johnson’s baby oil in all their manes and tails and reward their good behavior when that is all done.
My 28 year old mule, Merlin, poked his eye on a tree branch when he was a yearling. I opted not to have his eye removed, so we have been treating it for 27 years. We keep him in a fly mask all the time to keep the dirt and debris from irritating it. Twice a day face wiping keeps it sanitary and it is easy enough to do at feeding time. We just carry a wet rag with us when we see him.
When they are all done, I lead them back to their stall, send them in while I stay at the door and ask them to turn back to me for their reward. As they chew their reward, I remove the halter and bid them a fond farewell!
With the 11 mules and mini donkeys finished in the South Barn, I next go to the North Barn to repeat the process with the remaining six animals, two Large Standard Donkeys (Wrangler & Chasity), a miniature mule (Francis), a miniature horse (Mirage) and two saddle mules (Jubilee & Brandy).
Again, I ask them to come to ME, give them their reward and then halter them as the chew. They are all happy to stand still until I tell them they can walk out the door.
I repeat the whole process with the vacuum cleaner and again, they have all been trained to accept it, so they stand quietly and happily. I do believe that they really DO enjoy being cleaned…even if they do go back and roll almost immediately…LOL!
Then comes the face-wiping followed by the Johnson’s Baby oil in the manes and tails. I do not cut their bridle paths in the winter. It gets very cold here and I don’t want them to lose heat from their bodies.
Then it is time for them to be returned to their stalls. I have two rescues (re-trains) in this group and they watch intently as the old troopers enter their stalls and behave impeccably!
When Chasity was returned to her stall, I asked her to walk through the narrow space between my truck and the wall of the barn. My assistant was filming from the bed of the truck and as I said earlier, we do not move over for them! Chasity walked quietly through the narrow space, did not rush or push me, but followed obediently. She was sent into her stall, turned around and got her reward. Then, it was Wrangler’s turn.
Francis is a mini mule that I got 10 years ago and to this day, she is still suspicious of humans, but is learning to trust. She can be fully groomed in her stall with no halter, but she can become quite a handful when outside the stall. Her natural reaction is to bolt and run any time she get the chance. When I return her to her stall, I set her up for success by looping the end of her lead rope around the stall bar so if she does bolt, she won’t be able to pull the lead rope from my hand and will be forced to turn around and face me. She didn’t even try to bolt this time, kept the rope loose and returned to me for her reward. Then I went and got Mirage, our 26-year-old miniature horse, and returned him to his stall. The grooming of all 17 animals only took me 2 hours! Organized practices and teaching good manners makes all the difference!
By Meredith Hodges
There is a lot of discussion about training mules versus training horses. There are some who say that mules are harder to train than horses and others who say just the opposite. It has been my experience that it isn’t really that one animal is more “difficult” than the other. They each have their own redeeming qualities and individual limiting factors. The people who are dealing with them also have their own redeeming and limiting factors. For instance, if you are leading a horse and he does not wish to follow you, because he hasn’t the strength in his head and neck as a donkey or mule and can be more easily bullied into complying with a quick jerk on the lead rope.
On the other hand, if you are leading a mule or donkey, they can easily jerk the rope right out of your hands because of the incredible strength they have in their head and neck. When you teach a mule or donkey something one day, he will ponder what he has been taught during the days in between lessons. He will comply more easily during the next lesson. Regardless of how many days or weeks have passed between lessons, the horse will tend to forget and will need to be reminded where the mule or donkey will not.
It makes sense that the handler needs to adjust his training program such that the horse has more frequent and consistent lessons to refresh his memory. The mule will only need lessons as frequently as it takes to maintain good physical condition. When applying lessons more frequently, the handler has the ability to make subtle adjustments to get the best from the horse. If he wants the mule or donkey to react properly, it is critical that he teaches the mule or donkey correctly the first time as they will learn EXACTLY what the handler teaches and will continue to repeat it. The option of changing your approach during the training sequence is limited. What this all amounts to is that one is really not more easily trained than the other. Rather, it is the experience and knowledge of the handler or trainer that really makes the difference.
Mules and donkeys, sensitive and intelligent creatures that they are, seem to be more concerned about the overall attitude of the trainer than are horses. With the intelligent use of negative reinforcement, a positive attitude and informed use of restraints, modifying the behavior of any equine becomes a lot easier.
When mules do not comply with our wishes, you need to get first his attention and do something to temper his defensive attitude. When we are intelligent about a situation, it minimizes the animal’s negative reactive responses. Our politeness and consideration promote an overall positive attitude on both parts, and opens the lines of communication. Since these animals outweigh us by several hundred pounds, careful and informed use of restraints must sometimes be used to perpetuate the close relationship between you and your mule or donkey (and sometimes horses) in the training environment. Restraints should be used to help “explain” what you wish your mule to do, but should not be used as a perpetual training “crutch.” Intelligence, attitude and restraints should always be used in conjunction with a “path of least resistance” to promote successful training sessions.
If we realize that correct development of mind and muscle takes time, we can relax, let the animal learn at his own pace, utilize these helpful restraints to minimize resistance in difficult situations and actually enjoy the training process with our animals. For example, in the case of Draw Reins, they should only be used lightly in conjunction with your regular reins and only when necessary. In the beginning, this might mean at every stride. It is rather obvious how the Draw Reins can be phased out over time, but what about a restraint such as the Scotch Hobble, which is a seemingly inflexible restraint?
The first time you use the Scotch Hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind foot so that it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quieter and more accepting of what you are doing, you can loosen the Scotch Hobble a little at each session. If your mule’s behavior is good, adjust the Scotch Hobble so that his toe rests on the ground. Next session, you might let him stand on all fours with the rope tied loosely into position, until he has complied to the point where the rope is actually around only the hind foot and is lying loosely on the ground. Naturally, if he becomes fidgety, just back up one step and tighten your connections on the rope.
There are many restraints available for use in the equine industry today: martingales, tie-downs, side reins, draw reins, hobbles and the list goes on. In my estimation, these restraints are being used much too freely as “crutches” and are responsible for terrible body posture and limited responsiveness among today’s equines. A restraint should be used only as a helpful tool to allow you to attain a certain positive response from the animal. Once you get the proper response, it is your responsibility to phase out the restraint in order to instill in your animal the correct behavior itself.
Early in a mule’s life, he should be taught to be calm in restraints, which makes daily tasks much easier. Your veterinarian and farrier will thank you and it may save your mule’s life if he should get caught in a fence, fall into a hole or encounter any other such potential for disaster. The goal is to teach him to think before he struggles or bolts and tries to run. Many Longears do this naturally, but it is always better to reinforce this pause for thought with lessons.
CAUTION: NEVER USE THE FACE TIE ON A HORSE.
The following technique is useful when working around very young mules, although it works on adults as well. You must remember to step back if your mule begins to struggle—give him space to learn the situation.
To use the Face Tie:
- Wrap your lead around the hitch rail once until your mule’s face is over the rail and held tight against it.
- Slip the rope through the noseband of the halter and around the hitch rail again and secure it. For a more secure tie (or to keep your mule sideways to the rail for vaccinations), you can run the rope through the throatlatch and around the hitch rail again.
Use the Face Tie to aid in clipping your mule’s bridle path and other light weekly trimming to prepare him for show clipping later on. It can also be used to teach a difficult mule or donkey to be bridled.
If your mule is difficult to lead, you can use a Quick Twist in your lead rope to give you more leverage. Twist a loop in the lead rope and bring it behind the noseband of the halter. Slip the loop around your mule’s nose and pull it snug. Pull on the lead until it is tight around his nose, and then just stand still, holding the tension in the lead rope until your mule steps forward. Do not keep pulling or jerking on the rope or he will become resistant and go backwards instead. By using the Quick Twist, when you ask him to come forward, you are not just pulling the halter—you have more leverage. Repeat as necessary.
NOTE: Do not tie your animal up while using a Quick Twist. Remove the quick twist and use the face tie if needed when tying.
To further perfect your equine’s Showmanship technique, you can also use a Lead Shank with a chain under the jaw, but always tie him with the lead rope only—never with the Lead Shank.
A soft, three-foot (one-meter) rope can be used to make a set of front leg hobbles. Leather hobbles are generally considered an “appointment” (equipment accessory), and are sometimes attached to the saddle when showing in Western classes. They are dangerous and not very effective because they can easily break. So if you have a need for hobbles, be sure to purchase those that are meant to be used on the equine’s legs and not those made of thin leather that are meant only as an equipment accessory for your saddle. Be careful with nylon hobbles as they can chafe the equine’s pasterns if they are not lined with a softer material.
Probably the most helpful restraint there is when it comes to mules and donkeys is the scotch hobble. This restraint helps to facilitate good ground manners and prevent kicking by restraining one hind foot, causing the mule to stand still while you work on him, whether it’s clipping or shoeing him, or saddling him for the first time. But, as with any restraint, you should keep in mind that it must be phased out sooner or later. The first time a restraint is used, it will usually have to be used in its full capacity to get the desired response.
To make the 15-foot (5-meter) scotch hobble:
- Tie a nonslip knot around your mule’s neck.
- Take the excess rope down to the hind foot and around the pastern, then back up through the neck loop and back around the pastern a second time.
- Pull the rope just tight enough so that your mule must stand on his other three feet for balance.
- Wrap the excess around the ropes going to the foot and back up to the loop around the neck.
- Tie with a quick-release knot. By wrapping the ropes going to the foot, you prevent the foot from slipping loose.
The first time you use the scotch hobble, you will probably have to secure the hind leg so it cannot touch the ground. As your mule becomes quiet and accepting, you should loosen the hobble a little each time until you are not really using it at all. This is called “phasing (or fading) out the restraint.”
When he has learned to stand calmly in a scotch hobble, you can use a twisted lead rope (with no snap) in a figure eight to hobble his front legs with a safety knot. The same lead rope can be used to tie up one front leg by wrapping the rope around the bent leg, forcing the mule to keep all his weight on the other three legs. This type of hobbling is particularly useful when clipping the hair on the front legs of a mule. As you work on the leg that is not hobbled, your mule will quickly learn that with the other leg ties up, it is to his advantage not to try not to move the leg you are clipping.
On a difficult mule, you may have to use the twisted lead rope in conjunction with the scotch hobble. Adjust the scotch hobble so only your mule’s toe touches the ground for balance, but not enough to bear weight. Once he is accustomed to this restraint, you can safely put him in sheepskin-lined chain hobbles.
Do not use nylon hobbles—they can cause severe rope burns if they are not lined with a soft material! Leather hobbles are fine as long as they are intended for restraint use and not just as a saddle accessory. Now you can think about taking your mule into the high country, hobbling him and turning him loose to graze while you set up camp. You should be able to find and catch him the next morning, because mules generally do not wander far from their “families.” But keep in mind that mules are very smart and can quickly learn to hop along while hobbled. Also, if you have a horse with you that likes to wander, be sure to tie him up because mules will follow horses.
Choosing the right restraint for a given situation takes thought and consideration. You must ask yourself, which restraints are available to me? Which restraint will most likely bring about the response I desire from my mule? Will the response with this restraint come with little or no resistance and is it humane? Will it cause other more serious problems in the animal? And finally, can the restraint be phased out relatively easily?
Keeping these things in mind when using restraints will help to keep the relationship with your mule from becoming a battleground. Bear in mind that whichever restraint you use might vary from situation to situation and from animal to animal, so carefully consider your options. Remember, using intelligence, a good attitude and an informed use of restraints can greatly enhance your training experience together.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 1989, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Most equines can be taught to carry a rider in a relatively short time. However, just because they are compliant doesn’t mean their body is adequately prepared for what they will be asked to do and that they are truly mentally engaged in your partnership. We can affect our equine’s manners and teach them to do certain movements and in most cases, we will get the response that we want…at least for the moment. Most of us grow up thinking that getting the animal to accept a rider is a reasonable goal and we are thrilled when they quickly comply. When I was first training equines, I even thought that to spare them the weight of the rider when they were younger, it would be beneficial to drive them first as this seemed less stressful for them. Of course, I was then unaware of the multitude of tiny details that were escaping my attention due to my limited education. I had a lot to learn.
Because my equines reacted so well during training, I had no reason to believe that there was anything wrong with my approach until I began showing them and started to experience resistant behaviors in my animals that I promptly attributed to simple disobedience. I had no reason to believe that I wasn’t being kind and patient until I met my dressage instructor, Melinda Weatherford. I soon learned that complaining about Sundowner’s negative response to his dressage lessons and blaming HIM was not going to yield any shortcuts to our success. The day she showed up with a big button on her lapel that said, “No Whining” was the end of my complaining and impatience, and the beginning of my becoming truly focused on the tasks at hand. I learned that riding through (and often repeating) mistakes did not pose any real solutions to our problems. I attended numerous clinics from all sorts of notable professionals and we improved slowly, but a lot of the problems were still present. Sundowner would still bolt and run when things got a bit awkward, but he eventually stopped bolting once I changed my attitude and approach, and when he was secure in his core strength in good equine posture.
I thought about what my grandmother had told me years ago about being polite and considerate with everything I did. Good manners were everything to her and I thought I was using good manners. I soon found that good manners were not the only important element of communication. Empathy was another important consideration…to put oneself in the other “person’s” shoes, and that could be attributed to animals as well. So I began to ask myself how it would feel to me if I was approached and treated the way I was treating my equines. My first epiphany was during grooming. It occurred to me that grooming tools like a shedding blade might not feel very good unless I was careful about the way I used it. Body clipping was much more tolerable for them if I did the hard-to-get places first and saved the general body for last. Standing for long periods of time certainly did not yield a calm, compliant attitude when the more tedious places were left until last. After standing for an hour or more, the animal got antsy when I was trying to do more detailed work around the legs, head, flanks and ears after the body, so I changed the order. Generally speaking, I slowed my pace and eliminated any abrupt movements on my part to give the equine adequate time to assess what I would do next and approached each task very CAREFULLY. The results were amazing! I could now groom, clip bridle paths and fly spray everyone with no halters even in their turnout areas as a herd. They were all beginning to really trust me.
There was still one more thing my grandmother had said that echoed in my brain, “You are going to be a sorry old woman if you do not learn to stand up straight and move in good posture!” Good posture is not something that we are born with. It is something that must be learned and practiced repetitiously so it becomes habitual for it to really contribute to your overall health. Good posture begins at the core, “the innermost, essential part of anything.” In a human being, it lies behind the belly button amongst the vital organs and surrounded by the skeletal frame. In a biped, upon signals from the brain, energy impulses run from the core and up from the waist, and simultaneously down through the lower body and legs. The core of an equine is at the center of balance in the torso and energy runs primarily horizontally from the core in each direction. Similar to bipeds, they need the energy to run freely along the hindquarters and down through the hind legs to create a solid foundation from which to allow the energy in front to rise into suspension to get the most efficient movement. When their weight is shifted too much onto the front end, their ability to carry a rider efficiently and move correctly is compromised. To achieve correct energy flow and efficient movement, the animal’s internal supportive structures need to be conditioned in a symmetrical way around the skeletal frame. People can do this by learning to walk with a book on their head and with Pilates exercises, but how can we affect this same kind of conditioning in a quadruped?
The first thing I noticed is when we lead our animals with the lead rope in the right hand, we drop our shoulder and are no longer in good posture. When we walk, our hand moves ever so slightly from left to right as we walk. We inadvertently move the equine’s head back and forth. They balance with their head and neck and thus, we are forcing them off balance with every step that we take; and since movement builds muscle, they are being asymmetrically conditioned internally and externally with every step we take together. In order to correct this, we must allow the animal to be totally in control of his own body as we walk together. We are cultivating proprioception or “body awareness.”
During the time you do the core strength leading exercises, you should NOT ride the animal as this will inhibit the success of these preliminary exercises. It will not result in the same symmetrical muscle conditioning, habitual behavior and new way of moving. The lessons need to be routine and done in good posture from the time you take your equine from the pen until the time you put him away for the best results. Hold the lead rope in your LEFT hand keeping slack in the lead rope, keep his head at your shoulder, match your steps with his front legs, point in the direction of travel with your right hand and look where you are going. Carry his reward of oats in a fanny pack around your waist. He’s not likely to bolt if he knows his reward is right there in the fanny pack.
Plan to move in straight lines and do gradual turns that encourage him to stay erect and bend through his rib cage, keeping an even distribution of weight through all four feet. Square him up with equal weight over all four feet EVERY TIME you stop and reward him with oats from your fanny pack. Then wait patiently for him to finish chewing. We are building NEW habits in the equine’s way of moving and the only way that can change is through routine, consistency in the routine and correctness in the execution of the exercises. Since this requires that you be in good posture as well, you will also reap the benefits from this regimen. Along with feeding correctly (explained on my website at www.luckythreeranch.com), these exercises will help equines to drop fat rolls and begin to develop the top line and abdominal strength in good posture. The spine will then be adequately supported to easily accept a rider. He will be better able to stand still as you pull on the saddle horn to mount.
When the body is in good posture, all internal organs can function properly and the skeletal frame will be supported correctly throughout his entire body. This will greatly minimize joint problems, arthritis and other anomalies that come from asymmetrical development and compromises in the body. Just as our children need routine, ongoing learning and the right kind of exercise while they are growing up, so do equines. They need boundaries for their behavior clearly outlined to minimize anxious behaviors and inappropriate behavior, and the exercises that you do together need to build strength and coordination in good equine posture. The time spent together during leading training and going forward slowly builds a good solid relationship with your equine and fosters his confidence and trust in you. He will know it is you who actually helps him to feel physically much better than he ever has.
Core muscle strength and balance must be done through correct leading exercises on flat ground. Coordination can be added to his overall carriage with the addition of negotiating obstacles on the lead rope done the same way. Once familiar with the obstacles, you will need to break them down into very small segments where the equine is asked to randomly halt squarely every couple of steps through the obstacle. You can tell when you have successfully achieved core strength in good balance when your equine will perform accurately with the lead rope slung over his neck. He will stay at your shoulder, respond to hand signals and body language only and does what is expected perfectly. A carefully planned routine coupled with an appropriate feeding program is critical to your equine’s healthy development.
The task at the leading stage is not only to teach them to follow, but to have your equine follow with his head at your shoulder as you define straight lines and gradual arcs that will condition his body symmetrically on all sides of the skeletal frame. This planned course of action also begins to develop a secure bond between you. Mirror the steps of his front legs as you go through the all movements keeping your own body erect and in good posture. Always look in the direction of travel and ask him to square up with equal weight over all four feet every time he stops and reward him. This kind of leading training develops strength and balance in the equine body at the deepest level so strengthened muscles will hold the bones, tendons and ligaments and even cartilage in correct alignment. Equines that are not in correct equine posture will have issues involving organs, joints, hooves and soft tissue trauma. This is why it is so important to spend plenty of time perfecting your techniques every time you lead your equine.
The equine next needs to build muscle so he can sustain his balance on the circle without the rider before he will be able to balance with a rider. An equine that has not had time in the round pen to establish strength, coordination and balance on the circle with the help of our postural restraint called the “Elbow Pull” will have difficulty as he will be pulled off balance with even the slightest pressure. He will most likely raise his head, hollow his back and lean like a motorcycle into the turns. When first introduced to the “Elbow Pull,” his first lesson in the round pen should only be done at the walk to teach him to give to its pressure, arch his back and stretch his spine while tightening his abs. If you ask for trot and he resists against the “Elbow Pull,” just go back to the walk until he can consistently sustain this good posture while the “Elbow Pull” stays loose. He can gain speed and difficulty as his proficiency increases.
Loss of balance will cause stress, and even panic that can result in him pulling the lead rope, lunge line or reins under saddle right out of your hands and running off. This is not disobedience, just fear from a loss of balance and it should not be punished, just ignored and then calmly go back to work. The animal that has had core strength built through leading exercises, lunging on the circle and ground driving in the “Elbow Pull” before riding will not exhibit these seemingly disobedient behaviors. Lunging will begin to develop hard muscle over the core muscles and internal supportive structures you have spent so many months strengthening during leading training exrecises. It will further enhance your equine’s ability to perform and stay balanced in action, and play patterns in turnout will begin to change dramatically as this becomes his habitual way of going. Be sure to be consistent with verbal commands during all these beginning stages as they set the stage for better communication and exceptional performance later. Although you need to spend more time in his beginning training than you might want to, this will also add to your equine’s longevity and use-life by as much as 5-10 years. The equine athlete that has a foundation of core strength in good equine posture, whether used for pleasure or show, will be a much more capable and safe performer than one that has not, and he will always be grateful to YOU for his comfort.
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.
© 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
“Stubborn as a mule” is hardly an appropriate cliché to describe today’s mules who are sweeping the countryside with their remarkable abilities! But why now? Why haven’t mules been used successfully as saddle animals before this? My only guess is that in the past, we did not afford ourselves much leisure time out of necessity. Therefore, mules used for packing and farming had to be broke quickly to help with the work. They were generally trained by older and more experienced animals by working in teams. People did not have the time to spend training one horse, much less one mule! If an animal refused to learn under the “team” plan, he was quickly discarded for an animal that would. Today we find that to train mules successfully for a variety of uses, we must spend a lot of quality time with them to get the desired response. Mules do not profit from hasty or forced training. With this new approach to training mules, they are rapidly becoming a preferred saddle animal.
It does not seem strange to me that this phenomenon with mules is finally taking place. A mule usually inherits his strength and intelligence from the jack and his beauty and athletic ability from the mare. Of course, both the jack and the mare can contribute more and less, of each other’s major attributes varying the looks and abilities of the offspring. Still, the offspring of a given mare will exceed the abilities of that mare after adding the jack’s incredible strength and intelligence. It is no surprise, then, in the face of this evidence, that using an athletic, sport mare will produce a sport mule, and so on.
In Europe, the Equestrian Arts are revered and preserved on a majority basis. In the United States, equestrians are a minority, taking a back seat to baseball, football, and other sports of the “common man.” Still, there is a marked growth of equestrian skills and equine performance that CAN carry us into the future with added equestrian interest. The spectators of Equestrian Sports must be considered. It is the spectator who pays to support us and it is the nature of the spectator to want to be entertained. In order to preserve their interest, we must keep them abreast of new developments in our industry, new events, new people, and new animals that now include mules! Since mules are now successfully competing with and against horses, it only stands to reason that they can be an asset to the industry as new talent. A complete list of uses and accomplishments of the mule is still not possible since the mule has not been tested completely, but that which has been tested is positive, including testing as an embryo transplant recipient. The mule has many redeeming qualities that make him attractive to Equestrians: he is durable, intelligent, extremely surefooted and less expensive to maintain than are horses. An added bonus is the affectionate, mischievous nature of the mule when treated kindly and fairly.
Sometimes we humans fall into the belief that one breed is better than another (with mules at the bottom, of course?!!!) when we should actually be looking at the whole picture a lot more realistically! It really isn’t that one breed is better than another. Rather, there are individuals within every breed who will excel. Whether that individual is a Warm Blood or a mule, shouldn’t he have the support of the entire equine industry and not just the support of his own breed?! If we had not integrated baseball, or football, for example, do you think it would have grown into the industry that it is today?! Probably not! Together we stand, divided we fall. Bickering over such trivialities in or own industry creates dissention and separation of resources. Better to use all the resources we have available to us in a positive and favorable manner for the support and preservation of our entire equine industry. Let’s get our priorities straight and do it for the survival of our industry, do it to improve your own skills, and do it to improve your equine’s skills! Try to keep your personal feelings in check for the sake of the whole and appreciate the art and skill of all our equestrians in the learning process. We can all learn from each other. “Mules can make a viable contribution to equestrian events… if we only give them a chance!!!!”
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 1989, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Longears thrive with a routine management and training program. Their performance and longevity is greatly increased. Sir Lancelot is now a 27-year-old ranch mule that has had the benefit of my management and training protocol. Done over two years when he was much younger, the result of his postural core strength leading exercises, lunging, ground driving and later riding in my postural “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint is apparent in his youthful enthusiastic attutude and body structure. Since, I did not show Lance, I had no need to make the transition from the Eggbutt snaffle bit to the curb bit. He was extremely responsive in the snaffle bit all these years. Today, we are going to make the transition to the curb bit and document it as an addition to our training series.
Lance executes the gate perfectly! He stands quietly while I put on the “Elbow Pull with the curb bit that conveniently has a crosspiece connecting the two ends of the shanks where I can run it through (instead of running it through the snaffl rings as I did in the snaffle bridle). Commonly, the equine will raise his head during his first introducion to the curb bit. Lunging in the “Elbow Pull” will remind him of his good posture with the addition of the new bit.
Lance starts to raise his head, but almost immediately resumes his good posture. The “Elbow Pull” goes loose and he moves out nicely at the trot.
The canter poses no problem at all. Lance stands quietly after being called to halt while I change lungeline to the new side of his face.
Lance remains on the arc of the circle with a squeeze from closing my fist as his outside front leg comes into suspension, maintaining his balance and bending correctly through his rib cage as he first learned in the Round Pen.
Lance steps well underneath his body and maintains the critical upward balance intiated by hind quarter engagement.
Lance waits patiently as I roll up the lunge line, remove the “Elbow Pull” and then follows me obediently to the gate.
The mounting block was new, but he didn’t mind! He knows how to stand still. He followed my seat easily around the first turn, bending appropriately through his rib cage while staying erect in his posture around the cone.
I kept my hands in front of the saddle horn. On the straight lines I alternated leg pressure from side to side. Through the turns, I lightly squeezed/released the direct rein while continuously nudging the opposite side with leg pressure from my leg. Otherwise, I kept my hands quiet. Lance remained in good equine posture.
I verbally counted to Lance as he negotiated the Hourglass Pattern. On straight lines, I matched my alternate leg pressure with the verbal command, “One-Two, One-Two…” and on the turns, I matched the one-sided leg pressure with, “Two-two, Two-Two…” He halted with his hind quarters still engaged.
Lance kept his mouth quiet and responded well to my leg pressure with hardly any movement necessary on the reins. We finished with a bow (He really likes to bow!)! He then stoood quietly and waited for my next cue.
Lance was so proud of himself! When you take the time to break things down into very small steps so your intent is clear and concise to your equine, it is easy to successfully make the transition from one thing to the next during training, even when going from the snaffle bit to the curb while maintaining the same light and responsive contact with your equine’s mouth. Although it may take more time, the journey and the end result is much more relaxed and enjoyable. One learns to appreciate the “little” victories along the way. In turn, our equines appreciate US because they know in no uncertain terms that we have their best interest at heart and are the ones that keep them healthy and comfortable. This makes for a deep and abiding, everlasting partnership!
By Meredith Hodges
Just like humans, all equines have different personalities. They’re not cookie cutters and should not all be treated the same way, so observe your equine whenever possible and see what he naturally likes to do, and then adjust your training program accordingly. Although each animal must go through the same kind of basic training to make sure he is building good core muscle strength in balance and good posture, he will have his own way of learning, so your presentation of the tasks may differ from one animal to the next. When you have multiple animals, treat each one of them like he’s your favorite.
Before you invest a lot of time and effort deciding whether to continue training your equine or that he will be happier as part of the stud barn, take the time to evaluate his athletic potential. The principles discussed in this article—which are applicable to donkeys, mules or horses—were developed by my mentor, the renowned resistance-freehorse trainer, Richard Shrake.
First, let’s look at conformation. It goes without saying that your equine should appear wellbalanced and in good proportion, with flat knees and smooth joints. He should be free of unsoundness. There are published standards on most breeds, or you can pick up a good 4-H manual or a judging manual to give you an idea of what the ideal is for each breed with regard to conformation
Next, we’ll look at body measurements that are used to gauge your equine’s athletic ability. These measurements will help you assess the kinds of activities for which your animal is best suited, so you can plan whether or not to take his training beyond the basics.
Begin with a six-foot piece of baling twine or string. The first measurement is from the poll to the middle of the withers. Then measure from the middle of the withers to the loin at the base of the rump. If these measurements are the same, you have a balanced animal that will be able to perform with more ease. If the neck is slightly longer, he will still be athletic because the head and neck are used for balance. But if the neck measurement is shorter, it will be difficult for your equine to balance through certain movements and transitions during all activities.
Next, measure your equine around the throatlatch. Then measure around the collar from the withers to the chest at the point of shoulder and back to the withers. This measurement should be twice that of the throatlatch, which indicates that your equine will be better able to flex at the poll,making him easier to collect and bring into the correct framefor optimum performance.
Now measure the top of the neck from poll to withers and the bottom of the neck from throatlatch to chest. The top line should be 1.5times that of the bottom, enabling your animal to perform nice, soft movements during all activities. A “u-necked”animal cannot bend properly and will never be able to achieve good collection in balance and good posture. His neck and back will be hollow, making it difficult for him to efficiently carry a rider, which can result in future soundness problems.
Next, measure the equine’s legs from the elbow to the coronet band, and then from the stifle to the coronet band. Both measurements will be the same in an evenly
balanced animal. This means he will be a good pleasure prospect, with smooth movements at the walk and trot. If he’s a bit longer in front, he will be a good prospect for Reining, jumping or Dressage because his trot and canter will be smooth,with greater impulsion from the hindquarters with an uphill balance. An animal that is higher in the rear will find it difficult to balance, so he’s probably not going to be a good athletic prospectbecause the weight will be unevenly dumped on his front quarters.
Ideally, your prospect should also be graced with 45-degreeangles at shoulder and hip,and with the same angle at his pasterns. This ideal angle will result in softer gaits and transitions, whereas a straighter hip and shoulder will result in abrupt transitions and a rougher ride. The higher the angle (90+ degrees), the longer the stride will be; and the shorter the angle (90- degrees), the shorter and quicker the stride.
Now let’s see how your prospect moves. Stick a piece of masking tape at the point of his hip as a visual reference point. Ask someone to assist you by trotting your equine on a lead as you watch the way he moves. Does his hock reach underneath and pass in front of the tape? If it does, his hindquarters will support strenuous athletic movements, his transitions will be more fluid and smoother, and his head and neck will stay level. If his hock does not reach underneath him sufficiently, he will be out of balance and must raise his head and neck through transitions.
Finally, ask the person assisting you to lead your equine while you watch him walk through smooth sand. Does his hind hoof fall into the track made by his front hoof? If he is exact, he is graced with the smooth, fluid way of going of a world-class pleasure animal. If he over-reaches the track, he has wonderful hindquarter engagement and you may have a candidate for Reining,Dressageor jumping. If he under-reaches the track, he is out of balance, causing him to raise his headand neck. He will have difficultythrough transitions and movements, which will undoubtedly make him unsuitable for advanced athletic activities.
These measurements can be quite helpful in determining your animal’s athletic future, and they can be trusted because the laws of physics are at work. But there is more to being a great athlete than just conformation. You must also assess at the personality of each individual animal. Again—these principles apply to mules, donkeys and horses.
First, let’s look at your animal’s trainability. One of the benefits of owning a registered animal is that you will have plenty of background information regarding his gene pool. Some lines are famous for being smart, athletic and good-natured. Some are known as being high-strung and nervous, perhaps making them inappropriate for certain riders. Plan to do your research before you look at a prospective animal being sold by a private owner or at an auction.
There are some practical tests you can do to help you assess an animal’s trainability. First, ask the person assisting you to hold your equine’s lead rope while you pick up a handful of sand, and then trickle the sand through your fingers near your animal’s head. Does he turn and look at you? If so, this is a good indication that he is interested in what you’re doing, which usually means he will be more trainable than an animal that ignores you.
The next test is to run your finger lightly from your equine’s girth, across the barrel to the flank. Do this on both sides. Does he tolerate this with little movement, or does he twitch and even flinch? This test will give you an idea of how he will react to your legs when you are riding. (The animal that is less touchy will be the one who learns your cues most efficiently, whereas the one that flinches is more likely to overreact.)
Now stand at your animal’s shoulder and gently put your hand over his nose, and then ask him—with a gentle squeeze and release action from your fingers—to bend his head and neck toward you. Do this on both sides. Does he bring his nose around easily or do you feel resistance? If he gives easily, it is a good indication that he is submissive and will be willing to learn more quickly.
The final check is a simple test to assess your equine’s reaction under pressure. Ask the person assisting you to hold the lead rope while you make an abrupt move, such as jumping and flapping your arms. What is your equine’s reaction? If he tries to run off, he’s probably not the best candidate for equine sports such as Side Saddle or driving, which require a steady animal. On the other hand, if he stops to look at you and tries to figure out what you’re doing, he may be a really great candidate for advanced training.
When you go through the basic exercises on the lead line and in the drivelines, there may be times when you experience resistance from your equine. Think of your animal’s resistance as a red flag that could be telling you that you either need to reassess your approach and consider a different path to the same end, or that you may simply need to break a current action down into smaller and more understandable steps. Don’t get caught up in the blame game (“It’s his fault, not mine.”) and lose your temper just because things aren’t going the way you expected. If, instead, you adopt the attitude that your equine is trying to communicate with you and that, when you meet with resistance, it is your responsibility to change what you are doing, you can avoid a lot of frustration during training and things will go more smoothly between the two of you.
And remember, just because a certain approach worked with one equine doesn’t mean it will work the same way with a different equine, so treat each animal as an individual and stay on your toes. Equines are as diverse in their personalities as humans and each individual may have a different way of learning from one to the other. Look at training as the cultivation of the relationship you want to have with each individual animal and adjust your own actions accordingly.
Keep in mind that, regardless of conformation and trainability, when you do the right kinds of exercises toward good posture and balance in their correct order—and with adequate time spent at each stage—and adjust your approach to the training of each individual, the result will be that your equine will feel much more comfortable. He will recognize your efforts on his behalf and, as he progresses, training will come more easily for both of you.
© 2014, 2016, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Roll is standing quietly as he usually does while I was speaking to a tour group with the gate wide open, but this was not always the case with him. He used to hide behind Rock and snort at me when he first arrived with Rock in December of 2010.
Behavior Modification is a reward system of training that requires that the trainer has the ability to distinguish between good and bad behaviors, to reward them promptly and appropriately…and, to do it politely with respect for the animal. The oats are a reward that is both safe and enjoyable for equines, and is something that they will continue to work for.
When dealing with an equine that is easily ten times your own weight, it is hard to imagine that the way we talk, touch and interact with our equine would really need to be ultra considerate, light and reassuring. However, if you want their complete cooperation, that is exactly what needs to happen. For instance, when applying fly spray talk gently and calmly, and be careful not to get the spray in their eyes…or it will burn and they will be less likely to comply the next time!
The same consideration hold true when bathing. Be careful not to get water in the ears, eyes and nostrils…and accustom the equine to cold water by spraying the feet and front legs first and work your way up to the face.
When you are kind and considerate, and give the equine time to adjust, even mechanical equipment like a massage thumper for muscle relaxation, or an equine vacuum cleaner used not only to clean but also to promote better circulation, can become a real source of pleasure and enjoyment for your equine.
When the equine is relaxed and accepting of the equine chiropractor, veterinarian and farrier, they are better able to do their jobs with maximum efficiency and successful outcomes.
And jobs you have to do like clipping, bridling and taking off the bridle all get much easier, preserving the trust between you. Now at 26 years old, Roll is a NEW draft mule!
After being off last week, Roll was more than happy to come with me today. The air was brisk with a bit of a breeze and Roll was even a little snorty walking up to the work station. We spent a good amount of time with the Goody hairbrush getting the undercoat loose and I then went over him with the shedding blade to get the excess on top. He was still shedding hair all over, so I decided to go ahead with the vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner serves a dual purpose: it pulls the remaining loose hairs from his coat while stimulating the capillaries to come to the surface of the skin. This increased circulation makes for an extremely soft and healthy coat. He still has a lot left to shed, but his hair now feels silky to the touch. I then put Roll in his surcingle, Eggbutt Snaffle bridle and “Elbow Pull” for his core muscle, postural leading lessons.
Roll practically pulled me down the alleyway to the dressage arena, but was very well behaved when we stopped to give Augie and Spuds a treat of oats. Roll was okay with sharing as long as I gave him more oats, too!
Roll and I then walked to the gate and he went through beautifully as always.
We marched along the pens and gave treats to all the mules who would be his audience.
Roll launched into the hourglass pattern on the lead rope with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He squared up easily, but was still reluctant to put all the appropriate weight on his right hind foot.
He kept an upright balance through the turns and was markedly better in balance over the ground rails.
He even trotted a bit along side of the pens once I got out in front of him, but when I asked him to trot back to the gate, he was too tired! The chiropractor had come out to see him last week and said that he was locked up in his right hip, so it may be he needs another chiropractic visit this week as well.
At any rate, I was pleased with his progress and even though he missed his lesson last week, he still did better than in prior weeks. The hind feet were no longer twisting after his trim on May 19th.
It may very well be that he can graduate to the round pen soon for bulk muscle building. His core is solid now and after his workout, he was much tighter in the abs and filled in nicely over his topline.
Roll is carrying just a little more weight than I would like to see, but he did look less obese after his lesson and when we begin the bulk muscle building, it should disappear rapidly as the fat evolves into muscle. At twenty-six, Roll is doing so much better than I ever would have expected given his questionable history.
Roll was a muddy mess when I went to get him today. He had been lying down and decided to roll in the wet dirt and pea gravel. Thank heavens it wasn’t all mud! I did my best to get most of it off of him, but clearly, the vacuum cleaner was not going to work for anything but getting the hair off the floor. I first went over his body with the hairbrush, then the shedding blade and afterwards, the dandy brush. Then I baby-oiled his mane and tail, put on his gear and we were good to go.
Roll seemed happier today than he had been last week. Roll was walking better and appeared to have gained some core strength back.
Instead of being really off behind, he was only slightly off and did not want to bear weight on the right hind in his squaring up…until the last one when he finally weighted the foot entirely.
Roll’s rein back was much better than last week. I had him checked by our resident farrier, LTR Ranch Manager Chad in case he was developing fungus in that foot (after his bout with White Line in his left hind). better to be safe than sorry, but he showed nothing but a packed-up foot, and that very well could have been the culprit since we just had a really good rain and everything was muddy in the arena where we were working.
It is truly amazing how slight, but visible his improvement has been from week to week. His whole body looked much more symmetrical this time. It is awesome to be able to celebrate each of Roll’s “little victories” along the way at 26 years old! However, Roll wasn’t too sure if he wanted to share his rewards with Sir Guy!!!
Roll decided that celebrating with a friend is probably okay and back to the work station we went to untack and then it was time for turnout!