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By Meredith Hodges
No training series would be complete without examination of the principles and philosophy behind the training techniques. The philosophy of my training techniques is based on the principle that we are not, in fact, training our equines. In fact, we are cultivating relationships with them by assigning meaning to our own body language that they can understand.
Since our own level of understanding changes and grows over time, we must assume that so does that of our animals, and we must gauge our explanations accordingly. In the beginning, the emotional needs of the young equine are quite different from that of an older animal. They need to overcome a lot of instincts that would protect them in the wild, but are inappropriate in a domestic situation. In this case, our focus must be on developing friendship and confidence in the young animal, while establishing our own dominance in a non-threatening manner.
We do this through a lot of positive reinforcement in the beginning, with gentle touch, reassuring voice, and lots of rewards for good behavior. Our expressions of disapproval are kept at a minimum. As he grows with us, the equine will realize that we do not wish to harm him, and will next develop a rather pushy attitude in an attempt to assert his own dominance – once that he is confident that his behavior is acceptable. When this occurs, we must re-evaluate our reward system and save excessive praise for the new things as he learns them and allow the learned behavior to be treated as the norm, praised more passively, yet appreciated. This is the cultivation of a delicate concept of give and take in a relationship from the emotional standpoint. As in any good relationship, we must learn to be polite, considerate and respectful of our mules, donkeys, horses, ponies and hybrids. After all, as my grandmother used to say, “You can catch more flies with sugar that you can with vinegar!”
From the physical standpoint, there are also a lot of things to consider of both mule and trainer. In the beginning, unless you are a professional trainer with years of proper schooling, you are not likely to be the most balanced and coordinated of riders, lacking absolute control over your own body language. By the same token, the untrained equine will be lacking in the muscle coordination and strength to respond correctly to your cues that guide him to perform certain movements. For these reasons, we must modify our approach to fit each new situation and modify again to perfect it, keeping in mind that our main goal is to establish a good relationship with our equine and not just to train him! It is up to the trainer to decide the cause of any resistance, and to modify techniques to temper that resistance – be it mental or physical.
For instance, we had a 3-year-old mule learning to lunge without the benefit of the round pen. The problem was that she refused to go around you more than a couple of times without running off. Assess the situation first by brainstorming all the probable reasons she might keep doing such an annoying thing. Is she frightened? Is she bored? Is she mischievous? Has she been calm and accepting of most things until now? And most important, is my own body language causing this to occur?
Animals are all quite different, as are humans, and each individual will learn in his own way, as do humans. Once in a while, you meet an animal that is not able to learn things in a conventional manner. He perceives things just differently enough to make it extremely difficult. In the case of the mule that would not lunge independently on the line, we found that she needed additional learning aids. You can either put a round pen around the animal to “force” him to comply, or you can wait until he is broke to saddle before you try to lunge him again with just the line. If you only have an arena, you can lunge the equine in the corner and the two fenced sides will help him to stay on the circle. This certainly helped her!
I have worked with many mules that wouldn’t lunge first, but would ground-drive and accept a saddle and rider with no problem. After this they seem to lunge quite easily! Learn to be fair and flexible in your approach to problems as you would for anyone you were interested in getting to know. Be firm in your own convictions, but be sensitive to things that can change and be willing to make those changes as the occasion arises!
As mental changes occur, so do physical changes. As muscles develop and coordination gets better, the animal will gain confidence. As a trainer, you will need to do less and less to cause certain movements. For example, in the case of the leg yield, you may have to turn your mule’s head a little in the opposite direction to get him to step sideways and forward. As he becomes stronger, more coordinated, and understands your request, you can then begin to straighten his body more with less effort. Granted, we have begun by doing this the wrong way, yet we have put our mule “on the road” to the right way. We have assimilated an action in response to our leg that can now be perfected over time. In essence, you have simply said, “First you learn to move away from my leg, then you can learn to do it gracefully!”
The same concept works in the case of the trainer, or rider. Sometimes you must do things that are not quite right in the beginning to get your own body to assimilate correctness. As I have said, we all perceive things a little differently and it depends on how we are introduced to something whether or not we can understand or perform it. It is nearly impossible for the inexperienced horseman to perceive and control unused seat bones as a viable means of control of the equine. In the beginning, reins and legs are much easier to use to complete such a task.
In training horses and mules, there is really little difference in one’s techniques or approach, provided we maintain patience and understanding and a good rewards system. The major difference between these two equines is their ability to tolerate negative reinforcement, or punishment. The mule, being part donkey, does not tolerate punitive action very well unless he is fully aware that the fault was his own and the punishment is fair. For instance, you ask for a canter lead and your mule keeps trotting, one good smack with the whip, or one good gig with the spurs, is negative reinforcement that will bring about the desired response, but be careful of an over-reaction from an overdone cue. More than one good smack or gig could cause either a runaway or an extremely balky animal. This kind of resistance comes from the donkey and requires a much different approach when training donkeys. The horse part of the mule allows us an easier time of overcoming this type of resistance in mules, making them different and easier to train than donkeys.
It is the innate desire of all humans to control their own lives both emotional and environmental. When we cannot, we become panicked and confused about our situation. We doubt ourselves, our abilities, and our self-worth. If we do not maintain a sense of humor about those things that we cannot control and learn to accept that which we cannot change, we are doomed to a life of depression and failure. Horses can be controlled and even some mules can be controlled for the most part, but it is my experience that donkeys are only controlled when they so desire.
Donkeys are affectionate, amicable characters, and possess such a sensitive nature that one would think punishment a real deterrent from bad behavior – but when you punish a donkey, you will be met with a tough hide and unbelievable avoidance behaviors which often cause more resistance than it’s worth! As if this isn’t enough, if you do punish your donkey for something, the next time he even comes close to the same action, he may anticipate your punishment and go straight to the avoidance behavior before he actually makes the mistake. For this reason, it is better to try to ignore the mistakes, focus on the successes and reward the equine with lots of praise. If something in your training isn’t really necessary to your final objectives and you encounter this resistance, such as I did during lunging training, then just drop it and go on to something else that they can do easily. There is plenty of time to learn it at a later date.
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, 2018, 2019, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
It is important to know the differences among rewards, treats, coaxing and bribing in order to correctly employ the reward system of training called Behavior Modification.
Rule Number One: Treats and bribery should never be used during training. However, the appropriate dispensing of rewards and coaxing will produce the correct behaviors.
In order to reward your equine correctly for performing tasks, it is important to know the difference between a reward and a treat, and between coaxing and bribing. Let’s begin with some basic definitions of these terms:
Reward: something desirable given for a completed task
Treat: an unexpected gift given simply because it will be enjoyed
Coax: to gently persuade without dispensing the reward
Bribe: to persuade the animal by indiscriminately dispensing treats
Remember to give your equine a reward only after a specific task you’ve asked for has been performed—or even an assimilation of that task, which means the taking of baby steps toward completing the task. The reward should be given immediately upon completion of the task and then your equine should be allowed time to enjoy his reward before moving on to the next task. If your equine is given a food reward for only good behaviors, he will be more likely to continue to repeat only those behaviors for which he is rewarded and you can begin to “shape” his behavior in a positive way.
Treats, on the other hand, are a food that your equine especially likes, which are given randomly and without purpose. Giving random treats during training can result in crossed signals and confusion in your animal. Treats such as peppermints and even “horse treats” are generally an inappropriate food source for equines and when dispensed too freely, have actually been known to cause equine health problems, so forego treats of any kind during the training process.
Coaxing and bribing can seem like the same thing, but they are not. Bribery suggests the actual dispensing of a reward before the task has been completed. Bribery is the indiscriminate dispensing of treats and is not the way to clearly communicate to your equine which is truly a positive behavior and which is not. Rewards and coaxing are often confused with bribery, but rewards are dispensed for a task only when it has been completed, and coaxing using the promise of a reward can often be used to help your equine to stop balking and attempt to perform the task you have requested. Then the reward is given only when he has completed the task.
As an example of coaxing, you can extend a handful of crimped oats to lure your equine closer to an obstacle, but he should not receive the handful of oats until he completes the required task or travels enough distance toward the obstacle to deserve a reward. If your equine just won’t come all the way to an obstacle, even to get a reward, you can modify the task by asking your equine to just come closer to the obstacle and then halt (but without backing up). Then the reward can be dispensed for the partial approach and halt, because these actions still qualify as an assimilation of the bigger task that is to be completed. If he backs away at all, he should not be rewarded and you will have to go back to the beginning of the task and try again.
A kind word or a pat on the head may be enjoyable for your equine, but it doesn’t necessarily insure that the desired behavior will be repeated. However, a food reward insures that desirable behaviors will be repeated, because food is a solid, tangible reward. The food reward will back up the petting, (the petting is something that you probably do all the time anyway). When you visit your equine, you most likely pat him on the nose or head and say hello, but there are no real demands for any particular task being asked of your equine—you and your equine are simply interacting. You’re getting him used to touch, discovering how he likes to be touched and learning about his responses, which is actually part of imprinting.
The problem with carrots, apples and other foods people use for treats is that they’re not something for which the equine will continue to work and are not healthy choices for your animal in large quantities. After a limited amount of time, equines can easily become satiated on most treats. It’s like a kid with a bunch of candy bars. Once they become full they don’t want any more candy and they’ll stop working for the treat. Many foods used as treats, when given too freely, may also cause your animal to become tense or hyperactive. However, it’s been my experience that an equine will continue to work for crimped oats as long as you dole them out. Crimped oats are healthy for the body and they don’t cause an equine to become tense and difficult to handle.
When you’re using rewards, always start with lavish rewards for all new behaviors. This means that, every time you teach something new, you’re going to give lavish rewards for even the slightest assimilation toward the correct behavior. For instance, if your foal is tied to the fence and upon your approach, he quits pulling, it’s time to try to walk away from the fence with him and see if he will follow you. In this first leading lesson, you’ll untie him and ask him to take a step toward you. If he does, lavishly reward that step toward you, wait for him to finish chewing his oats and then ask him to take another step forward and toward you. If he complies and takes another step forward, lavishly reward that step too. During the first lesson, you will be rewarding every single step he takes toward you. Remember to keep the lesson short (about 15 minutes) and ask for only as many steps as he willingly gives you.
Between lessons, let your equine have a day off in order to rest. When you return for the second lesson, tie him to the fence and review with him your last lesson from the very beginning. He should remember the previous lessons and be willing to follow you right away in order to be rewarded. If he seems willing to follow your lead, untie him and ask him to take a step forward just as he did before, but this time, instead of dispensing the food reward when he takes the first step forward, simply say, “Good boy” and ask him for a second step forward before you reward him with the oats. You will now be progressing from one step forward before you reward to two steps forward before you reward.
If he won’t take the second step forward, then give the reward for the first step, wait for him to finish chewing and ask again for two steps before rewarding him again. If he complies, you can then reward him every two steps during that lesson and quit after fifteen minutes. Give him another day between lessons and then proceed in the same manner, beginning with a review of the previous lesson, then a reward for the first step, and then for every two steps. During this lesson, you can now ask for three steps, and you can continue asking for three or more steps during this lesson, provided that he takes these steps willingly and then stops obediently on his own to receive his reward. You no longer need to count the steps as long as he is offering more steps between rewards each time. If, because of his enthusiasm, he begins to charge ahead, stop him and immediately reward him for halting. This will insure that he keeps his attention on you and the task at hand. This methodical, deliberate process is setting the stage for a positive and healthy working relationship with your equine.
This is how you begin with leading training, and also how you should proceed with all the new things that you will be teaching your equine. In the beginning of leading training, he gets rewarded for even an assimilation of what you’re asking. For example, when you get to negotiating obstacles, your goal may be to cross over a bridge, but when your equine sees the bridge ahead, he may stop or start backing up. At this point, allow him to back until he stops. Go back and repeat the steps you did prior to approaching the obstacle. Then, asking for only one step at a time, proceed as you did during his flatwork leading training toward the bridge, rewarding each step he takes. Tell him verbally how brave he is and continue to reward any steps he takes toward the obstacle before proceeding forward. Remember to stop at any interval where he becomes tense, ask for one more step to be rewarded, and then allow him to settle and refocus before asking any more from him.
Once he goes to the bridge without a problem, you no longer have to reward him all the way up to the bridge. Just reward him when he actually gets to the bridge. Next, step up onto the bridge and ask him to take a step up onto the bridge with his two front feet, which is another new task. If he puts one foot on the bridge or even tries to lift up a foot and put it on the bridge, make sure you reward that behavior. Once he has a foot firmly placed on the bridge, keep tension on the lead rope and ask for his other front foot to come up onto the bridge. If he places his second foot on the bridge, you can then reward him for having both front feet on the bridge. Next, you’re going to continue forward and just walk over the bridge to the other side, pause and reward. Then quit this lesson. In his next lesson, if needed, repeat the approach the same way if he starts to balk. If not, ask him to step both front feet up onto the bridge, stop, make sure he is standing squarely, and reward that behavior.
Now you no longer need to reward for one foot on the bridge. This is called “fading or phasing out” the reward for a previous behavior (one step), while introducing the new behavior of walking to the bridge, halting and then putting two front feet up on the bridge. Wait for a moment for him to chew his reward and then ask him to continue onto the bridge, stop and square up with four feet on the bridge and reward. If he does not comply and won’t stop on the bridge, just go back to the beginning, approach the bridge as described and try again until he stops to be rewarded with all four feet placed squarely on the bridge
Then you ask him, to place his two front feet on the ground while leaving his two back feet on the bridge. Then have him stop and square up to be rewarded. This is a difficult position and if he cannot succeed by the third attempt, you may have to step in front and aid in his balance, then reward him when he settles in this position.
The last step over the bridge is to bring the hind feet off the bridge, stop and square up one more time before he gets rewarded. This does two things. It causes your equine to be attentive to the number of steps you are asking and it puts him in good posture at each stage so that his body will develop properly. In future lessons, the steps in the approach to the bridge no longer need to be rewarded and as he becomes more attentive, he will learn to stop any time you ask and wait for your cue to proceed. After several months of this meticulous attention to these detailed steps, he will not necessarily need to be rewarded with the food reward each time—a pat on the neck and kind words of support should be sufficient. Rewards can then be given for whole “blocks” of steps when he successfully completes them.
Here is a question a lot of people ask: “This is fine while my animal and I are still working from the ground, but what happens when I finally get on to ride? Do I keep rewarding every new behavior when I ride?” The answer to that question is, “No, you don’t.” If you do your ground work correctly, it will address all the things that you’ll be doing while you’re riding before you actually even get on. Your equine has been lavishly rewarded for stopping when you pull on the reins and the drive lines, and he’s been rewarded for turning and backing and everything else he needs to learn before you actually get on him, so the only thing left to get used to would be exposure to your legs on his sides. He will soon learn that your legs push him in the direction of the turn you are indicating with your reins. For this action, he does not need to be rewarded.
In the natural progression of correct training—including during mounting training—your equine should also be getting rewarded when you’re first getting him used to your being on-board. Give him the oats reward for standing still while you attempt to mount (i.e., walking toward him, holding the left rein and reaching for the saddle horn), and then when you hang from each side of his body with a foot in the stirrup (first on one side and then on the other side), and, finally, from each side of his body while you sit on his back. When you ask him to turn his head to take the oats from your hand, you can be sure his attention will be on you because this action will force him to look at you in order to receive his oats. Then reward him again for standing still as you dismount. Consequently, by the time you actually get to the point of riding in an open arena, he’s been rewarded for having you on his back and for behaving well through all the exercises demanded from him during round pen training.
You may first want to lunge your equine when you move into the open arena. Lunge him on the lunge line and reward him during that part of your arena workout. When you are ready to mount in the open arena, have a few oats in your pockets to offer him when you mount on each side the first few times. This will ensure that his attention stays focused on you. Once he is used to being ridden, you will no longer have to reward him in the middle of riding lessons. If he does not keep his attention on his work in the open arena, this signifies that not enough time has been spent on the ground work and you should back up your training regimen to the point that he is maintaining attentiveness and performing correctly, even if it means going back to the round pen or leading work. If, in the ground work stages, you give plenty of food rewards in the correct manner, by the time you groom and tack up, your equine should have been sufficiently rewarded and will not require another reward until after your workout when you return to the work station and un-tack him. This is called delayed gratification. When you un-tack him and do your last minute grooming before putting him away, again be generous with the crimped oats and praise your equine for a job well done. Rewards are dispensed very specifically and pave the road to a solid foundation of trust and friendship.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
My philosophy is based on the principle that I am not, in fact, “training” donkeys and mules. Rather, I am cultivating relationships and establishing a lifestyle with them by assigning meaning to my body language that they can understand, while I learn what they are trying to indicate to me with their body language.
In the same way that my own level of understanding changes and grows over time, I believe that my animals’ understanding grows, too. In the beginning, the emotional needs of a young mule or any equine are different from those of an older animal. The young animal needs to overcome many instincts that would protect him in the wild, but are inappropriate in a domestic situation. In a domestic situation, the focus must be on developing friendship and confidence in the young equine, while establishing my own dominance in a non-threatening manner. This is accomplished through the use of a great deal of positive reinforcement early on, including gentle touches, a reassuring voice and lots of rewards for good behavior. Expressions of disapproval should be kept to a minimum and the negative reinforcement for bad behavior should be clear, concise and limited.
As your young equine grows and matures, he will realize that you do not wish to harm him. Next, he will develop a rather pushy attitude in an attempt to assert his own dominance (much like teenagers do with their parents), because he is now confident that this behavior is acceptable. When this occurs, reevaluate your reward system and save excessive praise for the new exercises as he learns them. Note, however, that a gentle push with his nose might only be a “request” for an additional reward and a polite “request” is quite acceptable in building a good relationship and good communication with your equine. Allow the learned behavior to be treated as the norm, and praise it more passively, yet still in an appreciative manner. This is the concept, from an emotional standpoint, of the delicate balance of give and take in a relationship. As in any good relationship, you must remain polite and considerate of your horse, mule or donkey. After all, “You can catch more flies with sugar than you can with vinegar.”
Many details of both animal and trainer must also be considered from a physical standpoint. In the beginning, unless you are a professional trainer with years of proper schooling, you are not likely to be the most balanced and coordinated of riders, and you may lack absolute control over your body language. By the same token, the untrained equine will be lacking in the muscular coordination and strength it takes to respond to your request to perform certain movements. For these reasons, you must modify your approaches to fit each new situation, and then modify again to perfect it, keeping in mind that your main goal is to establish a good relationship with your animal and not just to train him. It is up to you, the trainer, to decide the cause of any resistance from your equine, and to modify techniques that will temper that resistance, whether it is mental or physical.
Here is an example: I had a three-year-old mule that was learning to lunge without the benefit of the round pen. The problem was that he refused to go around me more than a couple of times without running off. I first needed to assess the situation by brainstorming all the probable reasons why he might keep doing such an annoying thing. Is he frightened? Is he bored? Is he mischievous? Has he been calm and accepting of most things until now? And, most important, is my own body language causing this to occur? Once I was willing to spend more time with regard to balance on the lead rope exercises and proceeded to the round pen to learn to balance on the circle, I soon discovered that developing good balance and posture was critical to a mule’s training. The reason my mule was pulling on the lunge line so hard was because he just could not balance his own body on a circle. Once I reviewed the leading exercises with him—keeping balance, posture and coordination in mind—and then went to the round pen to learn to balance on the circle, I noticed there was a lot less resistance to everything he was doing. I introduced the lunge line in the round pen and taught him how to circle with slack in the line. And, I realized that it was also important to time my pulls on the lunge line as his outside front leg was in suspension and coming forward. It didn’t make much difference in the round pen, but it was critical to his balance in the open arena so the front leg could be pulled onto the arc of the circle without throwing his whole body off balance. After learning that simple concept, lunging in the open arena on the lunge line was much easier and he did maintain the slack in the line while circling me.
Like humans, all animals are unique, and like humans, each learns in his own way. Learn to be fair and flexible in your approach to problems. It is best to have a definite program that evolves in a logical and sequential manner that addresses your equine’s needs physically, mentally and emotionally. Be firm in your own convictions, but be sensitive to situations that can change, and be willing to make those changes as the occasion arises. This is what learning is all about for both you and your equine.
Just as mental changes occur, so do physical changes. As your equine’s muscles develop and coordination improves, you will need to do less and less to cause certain movements. For example, in the case of the leg-yield, you may have to turn your animal’s head a little too far in the opposite direction to get him to step sideways and forward. You will need to guide him more strongly with the reins and kick harder. As he becomes stronger and more coordinated, and begins to understand your aids, you can then start to straighten his body more toward the correct bend and stay quieter with your aids. Granted, you began by doing things the “wrong” way by over-bending your equine and by over-using your aids, yet you put him “on the road” to the right way. You assimilated an action in response to your leg that can now be perfected over time. In essence, you have simply told your equine, “First you must learn to move away from my leg, and then you can learn to do it gracefully.”
The same concept works in the case of the trainer or the rider. Sometimes you must do things that are not quite right in the beginning to get your own body to assimilate correctness. In the beginning, a rider cannot “feel” the hind legs coming under his seat, so he needs to learn by watching the front legs moving forward along with his hands. With practice, the rider will develop the “feel” and will no longer need to watch the front legs moving forward. Remember, we all perceive things a little differently, and our perception depends on how we are introduced to something and on whether or not we can understand or perform a task.
It is nearly impossible for the inexperienced horseman to perceive and control unused seat bones as a viable means of controlling the animal. Reins and legs are much more prevalent. In order to help such a rider perceive their seat bones more clearly, it sometimes helps to start by involving the whole lower body. Earlier in this book, I suggested that, to begin facilitating this action, you pedal forward in conjunction with the front legs. Connecting this action with the front legs of the equine allows you to “see” something concrete with which you can coordinate, plus the pedaling encourages necessary independent movement in the seat bones from side to side and forward. When you begin to “feel” this sensation, you can begin to understand that when the foreleg comes back, the corresponding hind leg is coming forward under your seat bone. When you understand this, both mentally and physically, you can begin to pedal backward, which will cause you to be in even closer synchronization with your equine’s body. As your leg muscles become more stable, actual movement in your own body becomes less, more emphasis is directed toward your center of gravity and more responsibility is placed on your seat bones. Using this approach, your muscles are put into active use and coordinated with your animal’s body through gymnastic exercises, which will eventually lead to correct positioning and effective cueing.
Achieving balance and harmony with your equine requires more than just balancing and conditioning his body. As you begin to finish-train your equine, you should shift your awareness more toward your own body. Your equine should already be moving forward fairly steadily and in a longer frame, and basically be obedient to your aids. The objective of finish-training is to build the muscles in your own body, which will cause your aids to become more effective and clearly defined. This involves shedding old habits and building new ones, which takes a lot of time and should be approached with infinite patience. There are no shortcuts. In order to stabilize your hands and upper body, you need to establish a firm base in your seat and legs. Ideally, you should be able to drop a plumb line from your ear to your shoulder, down through your hips, through your heels and to the ground. To maintain this plumb line, work to make your joints and muscles in your body more supple and flexible by using them correctly. Don’t forget to always look where you are going to keep your head in line with the rest of your body.
As you ride your equine through the walking exercise, try to stay soft, relaxed and flexible in your inner thighs and seat bones. Get the sensation that your legs are cut off at the knees, and let your seat bones walk along with your animal, lightly and in rhythm with his body. If he slows down, just bend your knees and bump him alternately with your legs below the knees, while you keep your seat and upper legs stable and moving forward. To collect the walk on the short side, just bend both knees at the same time, bumping your equine simultaneously on both sides, while you squeeze the reins at the same time. Your legs should always have contact with your animal’s body in a light “hugging” fashion and real pressure should only come during the cues.
In order to help you stay over the middle of your equine’s back on the large circle, keep your eyes up and looking straight ahead. Shift your weight slightly to the outside stirrup, and feel it pull your inside leg snugly against your animal. Be sure that your outside leg stays in close to his barrel as you do this. On straight lines, keep your legs even, but on the arc, and look a little to the outside of the circle. This will bring your inside seat bone slightly forward, allowing your legs to be in the correct position for the circle. This technique is particularly helpful during canter transitions.
Most people feel that they do not balance on the reins as much as they actually do. If you balance on the reins at all, your equine will be unable to achieve proper hindquarter engagement and ultimate balance. To help shift the weight from the hands and upper body to the seat and legs, first put your equine on the rail at an active working walk. On the long side, drop your reins on his neck and feel your lower body connect with his body as you move along. You will need to tip your pelvis forward and stretch your abdominal muscles with each step in order to maintain your shoulder to hip plumb line. If your lower leg remains in the correct position, your thigh muscles will be stretched over the front of your leg from your hip to your knee. There is also a slight side-to-side motion as your animal moves forward that will cause your seat bones to move independently and alternately forward. There is no doubt that you can probably do this fairly easily right from the start, but to maintain this rhythm and body position without thinking about it takes time and repetition.
When you are fairly comfortable at the walk, you can add some variation at the trot. Begin at the posting trot on the rail. When your equine is going around in a fairly steady fashion, drop your reins on his neck and continue to post. As you post down the long side, keep your upper body erect and your pelvis rocking forward from your knee. Your knee should be bent so that your legs are positioned on the barrel of your animal. Raise your arms out in front of you, parallel to your shoulders. If your equine drifts away from the rail, you need to post with a little more weight in your outside stirrup. As you go around corners, be sure to turn your eyes a little to the outside of the circle to help maintain your position. As you approach the short side of the arena, bring your arms back, straight out from your shoulders, and keep your upper body erect. As you go through the corners, just rotate your arms and upper body slightly toward the outside of your circle. When you come to the next long side, once again bring your arms in front of and parallel to your shoulders, and repeat the exercise.
Notice the different pressure on your seat bones as you change your arm position. When your arms are forward it will somewhat lighten your seat, while having your arms to the side will tend to exert a little more pressure. Consequently, you can send your equine more forward with your seat as you go down the long sides. On the short sides, you can shorten that stride with a little added pressure from the seat bones. When you wish to halt, put your arms behind you at the small of your back to support an erect upper body. Let your weight drop down through your seat bones and legs to total relaxation and an entire halting of movement. Remember to use your verbal commands—especially in the beginning—to clarify your aids to your animal. If your equine doesn’t stop, just reach down and give a gentle tug on the reins until he stops. Before long, he will begin to make the connection between your seat and your command to “Whoa,” and your seat will take precedence over your reins.
When you and your equine have become adept at the walk and the trot, add the canter. At the canter, however, keep your arms out to the side and rotate them in small backward circles in rhythm with the canter. Be sure to sit back and allow only your pelvis, your seat and your thighs to stretch forward with the canter stride. Keep your upper body erect and your lower leg stable from the knee down. Once your equine has learned to differentiate seat and leg aids in each gait and through the transitions on the large circle, you can begin to work on directional changes through the cones.
As you practice these exercises, you will soon discover how even the slightest shift of balance can affect your animal’s performance. By riding without your reins and making the necessary adjustments in your body, you will begin to condition your own muscles to work in harmony with those of your equine. As your muscles get stronger and more responsive, you will cultivate more harmony and balance with him. As you learn to ride more “by the seat of your pants,” you will encounter less resistance in your equine, because most resistance is initiated by “bad hands” due to an unstable seat. As you learn to vary the pressure in your seat accordingly, you will also encounter less resistance in your animal through his back. Having a secure seat will help to stabilize your hands and make rein cues much more clear to your equine. The stability in your lower leg will also give him a clearer path to follow between your aids. Riding a balanced seat is essential to exceptional performance.
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.
© 1990, 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
When people think of Behavior Modification, most people think of the most basic idea of rewarding good behaviors with treats, which is called positive reinforcement. A common misconception is that if the positive behaviors are rewarded, then negative behaviors should not occur, but in reality, they do. Negative behaviors need to be negatively reinforced, but negative reinforcement should not be abusive. Learning how to employ Behavior Modification can be easy and fun.
Scientifically speaking, Behavior Modification is a direct and literal translation of stimulus and response. Given a certain stimulus, a living being will respond in a predictable manner. This is the essence of communication. Communication is comprised of a lot of elements that all play an important part in the receiver’s ability to understand. When trying to communicate, one needs to realize the many different perceptions that can arise from the receiver’s ability to comprehend. They may perceive from a purely technical level, a scientific level, an emotional level, a physical level, or any combination of a multitude of perceptions depending on their life experience. It is the same for all living creatures. Finding the right stimulus for each individual and implementing it properly is the key to good communication and a satisfying response.
When using Behavior Modification, one needs to take into account all the things that can make that individual a comfortable and happy individual. In the case of equines, we need to take into account the feeding and nutritional programs we use. Certain feeds can actually cause problems like nervousness, anxiety and hypertension that result in an inability to be calm and receptive to incoming information. From this evolves negative behaviors that further block the learning process.
In addition to feeds and nutrition, we need to take into account the anatomical ramifications of the way we are physically conditioning the animal. The healthiest way to condition an animal is slowly, and in an order that builds muscles layer by layer, beginning with core muscles. If you take the time and effort to approach training in that way, it promotes healthy organ function and a happy mental attitude. When doing this, one should allow the animal to perform freely, without constraint. When they feel good physically, they are more than halfway to a good mental attitude. A program of physical exercise that is taxing and stressful may produce the appearance of the right results, but there are deeper problems that can surface at a later date.
This is easy for natural athletes, but as I said, we are dealing with individuals. Not all individuals are physically able to carry their bodies in good equine posture and perform athletic movements correctly without guidance. When they do not carry themselves in the correct posture, certain muscle groups are not conditioned symmetrically throughout the body, causing compensation from other muscle groups that will eventually become over stressed and will give way to soreness, lameness or worse. The uncomfortable individual will begin to exhibit negative behaviors.
Herein lays the value of using certain kinds of restraints, such as the “Elbow Pull” that we use in DVD #2 of my resistance-free training series. This restraint is used to keep the equine in good posture while exercising, so that all muscle groups are worked symmetrically throughout the body. Of course, it is the trainer’s responsibility to make sure that they are also worked evenly on both sides of the body, forward and backward, since the restraint is only addressing the posture and not the directional movement of the muscles. The “Elbow Pull” is not in the hands of the trainer, but rather a self-correcting device so that the animal himself makes the corrections toward good posture during basic foundation work. An animal that does not have naturally good posture will soon give to the device because he will feel more comfortable than he has ever been in the incorrect posture. Restraints play an important role in the hands of competent trainers, but they should only be used to “suggest” certain behaviors, and then should be “faded or phased out” over time.
There are certain individuals who are not all that coordinated and have difficulty attaining balance in good equine posture. For this reason, it is important to start slow and gradually ask for more speed and more difficult movements only as they are able to perform. First, the equine’s balance needs to be attained at the slower gaits and with simple movements in order for the coordination to become repetitive, habitual and comfortable. This not only pertains to the animal in training, but to the trainer as well.
Verbal communication is not exclusively for the animal to learn commands. It has a two-fold purpose. For the animal, it is a way for the animal to understand what the trainer is asking when the body language is unclear. For the trainer, it is a reminder to synchronize his own body language with what he is asking from the animal so his signals are clear. This is especially important for novice trainers and animals.
In Behavior Modification, we use the animal’s natural instincts and movement to assimilate the things we wish them to do so that they can be rewarded. The reward needs to be something for which the animal is willing to work for long periods of time, something of which he will never tire and something that will not cause adverse, negative behaviors. In the case of equines, this is crimped oats. Equines that are “overindulged” or bribed will not respond the same way.
Horses have a very strong flight reflex, donkeys have a strong freeze reflex, and mules are a combination of both. All three have a strong sense of self-preservation that drives their behaviors. If you want to have an equine that enjoys his work, it is important to bolster his confidence and trust in you. This requires setting up the training environment in a safe and non-threatening manner. For instance, if you begin training a foal, or have a new equine, it would be practical to approach the animal at a time when the flight reflex is at its lowest…feeding time!
Of course, this is only practical when it comes to imprinting, haltering and simple tasks like brushing and picking up the feet. This also sets up the foundation for reward system training. When he has finished his oats mix, he will be happy to know there is an easy way to get a little bit more and will appreciate, perform and bond to the person who gives it. Chasing the equine is not an option at any time. We want him to want to come to us of his own free will. When this is done correctly, you should never have to chase your animal to catch him. He will always look forward to being with you.
During this time, your equine’s ground manners will begin to develop. If you are consistent with what you ask and the rewards are promptly and appropriately given, you should experience minimal adverse behaviors.
As he gains confidence, it is the equine’s natural instinct to become playful. In this controlled environment, you are able to set limits to these negative behaviors in the form of non-abusive punishment. The most common expression of playfulness is to turn, buck, and kick at the trainer. If a foal does this, you would simply give him a smart slap to the rump, step back and say, “No!” He might be startled, but he will turn and look at you, displaying curiosity, and when he does, you would say, “Good boy (or girl),” and then offer a reward (for paying attention) and give it to him when he approaches again. We want to encourage this curiosity.
If an adult equine turns his haunches to you and threatens to kick, you would say “No,” and use a whip (as an extension of your arm), and strike him smartly on the fetlocks only once for each kick, pausing afterwards to give him a chance to turn his head to you so you can then offer the reward the same way as you would with the foal. The strike of the whip on the fetlocks will not hurt him. It will only startle him, as will your voice when you say, “No,” and will cause a behavior in him (the turning of his head to you) that can be rewarded. Biting is handled the same way with a slap of the hand smartly to the side of the mouth, a loud “NO!” and then put your hand up like a stop sign in front of his face. He will then raise and turn his head to flee at which time you simply step forward and offer the oats reward for giving you your space. The next time he becomes aggressive (and he will), you will only have to put up you hand as the stop sign and he should step back to receive his reward. The first-time slap applied smartly was simply to clearly set boundaries. So, if you do not want to slap him again, it must make an impression the first time. It is well worth the few minutes of training that it takes in the beginning to assure that your animal will not become dangerous later. This may literally make the difference between life and death.
The result of this early limiting of the negative behaviors of biting and kicking will pave the way for you to set boundaries to any other bad behaviors that may arise in the future with a raising of the hand and a firm, “No.” It teaches the equine to think before he acts, and in the case of mules, it might mean the difference between a real bite and a soft nudge, or a kick and a soft shove with the hind foot if he experiences discomfort. Early negotiation of obstacles on the lead line will also help to engage his curiosity, help to solidify his responses for reward, passively build and condition muscles closest to the bone, and will encourage trust in the trainer. Now we can safely proceed to a more open area to play and learn with our equine.
In the round pen, we will begin to use the flight reflex as a platform for reward. The equine is already comfortable with you and knows you mean him no real harm. In the round pen, he may be averse to circling and may want to just stand. If he does, raise the whip and strike the ground behind him, or even his rump. If he still won’t move, back up, lower your body and shuffle your feet on the ground as you approach again, and he should take off. If he is the type to take off alone, just stand in the middle and wait until he slows and stops. When he does, say “Whoa,” and offer the reward.
The same goes for the equine that had problems getting started. Send him back to the rail again and build the number of rotations slowly and over time, being consistent with your rewards for the “Whoa.” Learning a consistent “Whoa” will give you a safe zone from which to work and play. This will translate to trust and confidence, and will temper the flight reflex to a controllable level. It can make the difference between freeze and flight reflex if they are spooked under saddle.
The equine that is brought along with this kind of training will pause and give his attention to the rider for guidance before reacting to a “spook.” Any bucking and kicking while circling in the round pen should be ignored and the reward should be postponed until he has regained his composure and has done what was expected. Bucking and kicking should be allowed because many times it is merely a moment of confusion, or the need for a physical adjustment on the part of the equine at this stage of training. It is rarely an exhibition of meanness. Once they sort this all out, they will want to be with you and will use their good manners because it is the best place to be!
Whether they realize it or not, most trainers use some form of Behavior Modification in their training programs. There is so much to learn about communication to achieve balance and harmony that one person could not possibly know it all. For this reason, it is important to know and appreciate the work of others who are giving of their knowledge and assess the techniques they offer that might fit in your training program. As they say, “You can learn something from everyone.” It is our job to sort through what only works for the short term and what really works best for long term success. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s just another way to learn. The more we know, the more we learn that there is so much more to learn.
Behavior Modification is an ongoing, careful balance of communication between living creatures. It works because both parties opt to listen and learn from each other. At each stage, there are tasks to perform that need to be balanced and refined by both the trainer and the trainee. Behavior Modification is not controlling. Rather, it is a guidance system by which positive behaviors are rewarded and thus, more likely to be repeated and become habitual. The parties involved are both rewarded each time they are together because each time they are together, they learn a little more about each other in an enjoyable and appreciative manner.
Over time, with practice and this kind of understanding comes harmony and mutually satisfying performance. In the beginning, it may seem overly simple, but as you practice and learn more, your proficiency will increase gradually over time, and the results you will witness are amazing! This is why Behavior Modification is so successful not only with people and equines, but is also the method of choice in the training and treatment of zoo animals and aquatic mammals.
© 2005, 2016, 2020, 2021 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.
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