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MULE CROSSING: Understanding Behavior Modification

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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.

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 FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2005, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Do Mules Need to Be Shod?

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By Meredith Hodges

Do mules need to be shod? Those who are familiar with mules might be tempted to say, “No,” but the answer is a little more complicated than you might think. Although the mule generally has a tougher and more durable foot than the horse, all mules do not have the same feet, nor do all mules apply the same kind of stress to those feet. Therefore, each individual animal has to be considered when answering the question, “To shoe or not to shoe?”

It is commonly known that, when it comes to horses and mules, light-colored hooves are softer and more likely to break down under stress than are the darker, black hooves. Even though the
black hoof is naturally harder than the light-colored hoof, if it does not contain sufficient moisture, it can become brittle and can chip away as destructively as can the lighter hoof. Whichever breed of equine you own and whatever the color of their feet, remember that good hoof care is essential for all domesticated equines.

For better or worse, an equine inherits his hooves through his genes. If your mule has inherited good feet—black, oily-looking, and with good shape—then you are fortunate and hoof care and maintenance should be relatively simple. If he has inherited a softer or misshapen foot, you will need to discuss more specialized care with your farrier.

Climate and weather greatly affect the condition of your mule’s feet. Damp weather and muddy footing will tend to soften the walls of any hoof, and perpetual exposure to mud and dampness can cause deterioration of his feet. With the light-colored hoof, which tends to soften more easily, this could spell disaster. It is wise, therefore, during damp weather or if you live in a damp climate, to provide a clean, dry place for your mule to stand. Conversely, extremely hot and dry weather can cause your mule’s feet to become dry and brittle, and they may start to crack due to contraction and expansion of the hoof. For this type of dry weather or climate, you may want to overflow your water tanks regularly so your mule has a place to “cool his feet.” If it is excessively dry, you may even need to manually lubricate your mule’s hooves as needed with one of the commercial products available. But before you use an artificial hoof lubricant, first check with your farrier to make sure that it is actually needed. Many people use hoof products too frequently, which can cause hooves to become too soft. When this begins to happen, you will see horizontal rings appear around the hoof wall, and sometimes, vertical lines. Try not to let the hoof get to this point by using lubricants sparingly, but if you see that these rings are beginning to appear, immediately discontinue use of the lubricant and allow the hoof to harden. Then check with your vet to make sure it is not a founder condition. It does not take much to adequately soften the hooves of an animal with rock-hard feet. During the really dry seasons, lubricant application once a week is usually sufficient.

Assuming that your mule has a normal set of dark, healthy hooves, he will probably not need to be shod, as long as he is used strictly for pleasure or only sporadically. However, if you are going to use your mule on excessively rocky or hard ground, you might want to look into getting shoes for him. Mules that repetitively participate in more stressful and demanding activities (such as parades, showing and endurance events) should be shod to protect their feet and to keep them healthy. Prevention of bruising or cracking and maintenance of good foot and leg posture is critical to the equine athlete.

The pack and pleasure mule that is not used much or is used on softer terrain and in places where he does not require shoes must still be trimmed for balance regularly to assure that his feet are evenly worn and that he is not putting undue stress on any joints, muscles or tendons. Failure to have your mule’s hooves regularly trimmed in order to maintain their balance and shape can result in an imbalance in your mule’s feet, which will then cause an imbalance throughout his entire body, inhibiting his performance. However, if trimming is done consistently, the risk of imbalance, accident or injury will be greatly reduced.

I believe that horses and mules, doing what they would naturally do alone—on terrain that is neither hard nor rocky—do not need to be shod. But mules that are asked to repetitively perform with a human on-board in varying surface situations should be fitted with the proper kind of shoes to help protect them from the additional weight and other demands that will be put upon their bodies. For example, my trail mules wear regular shoes on all four feet when they are being regularly used for trail riding and a variety of other activities, lessening the potential for injury. Then, when there is an occasional misstep on hard ground or rocks or when we trail-ride in the more challenging mountains, the shoes help to absorb some of the shock that would otherwise be absorbed by the hoof itself. It is my experience that young mules (and horses from two to four years of age) bear most of their weight on their front legs until their bodies are carefully and properly conditioned, and this is when you will see the most wear and tear on their feet. Because of this, my young mules that are just beginning saddle training wear regular shoes on the fronts only until their bodies are balanced and their activities clearly defined. Our broodstock, youngsters (under three years of age) and equines that are not used under
demanding conditions can go barefooted year-round, but they all still get regular trims every six to eight weeks.

All my other stock is shod for the specific purpose for which they are used: The Reining mules wear slider plates during the competition season, and the jumpers are fitted with either regular shoes, a tap and die shoe with studs or a borium shoe for non-skid, depending upon the terrain they will be negotiating.  If I were to ask one of my mules to race, I would fit him with the lighter-weight racing plates. Each equine athlete is given a set of shoes particularly designed for the best performance in his event, just as is the case with the human athlete. In the winter, if my mules have the need to wear shoes, I add rim pads to their shoes to help prevent “snowballing.”

Granted, there are a lot of mules that may not need to be shod, but there are also many that do need shoes, so each individual mule’s feet must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Because of this fact, the generalizations that “mules don’t need to be shod” and “all equines should go barefoot” are not always correct. You must take into consideration how your particular mule’s genetics affect his hooves, what he will be used for and how harsh the demands put on him will be on his feet. These important factors will determine whether or not he needs shoes, and if he does need shoes, what kind of shoes will best suit him. And don’t forget to check your mule’s shoes on a regular basis to make sure that all is well and that his shoes are staying on tight, but most of all, that he is comfortable and happy.

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 FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2014, 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Chasity’s Farrier Visit 5 22 20 12

CHASITY’S CHALLENGES: Chasity’s Farrier Visit: 5-22-20

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5-22-20

When Chasity first arrived, her hooves were inordinately long in front with Borium shoes and her back feet were worn unevenly and at the wrong angles. Because her body was in such bad posture and her hooves so out of balance, we knew it would take quite a while and lots of frequent trims to get her hooves balanced and aligned properly. This would have to be done in conjunction with getting her body into good posture with the core strength to support that good equine posture. This would be Chasity’s  challenges!

Chasity is now standing quietly and picking up her feet easily, but she still wasn’t sure about standing still without being tied up. A small challenge for her would be to learn to stand quietly in the alleyway of the barn while our farrier, Dean Geesen works on her instead of being at her work station in the Tack Barn. Because she stood still, she was rewarded with her favorite crimped oats. The misshapen hoof is beginning to rotate into a more balanced position, but we still have a lot of work ahead before the hoof will be correct.

Dean is a therapeutic corrective farrier that is familiar with Longears. This is a critical element in your Longears’ welfare. Longears have angles and hoof construction that is quite different from a horse and it takes a knowledgeable farrier to keep from doing them harm. Chasity feels the difference in the balance of her feet, however slight, and it affects her whole body!

Chasity’s hind feet appear as if they have been done like a farrier would do a horse. Her rear hooves are not as upright as they should be with insufficient heels. Dean leaves the heels, rasps the front feet and rolls the toes a bit to promote more proper action and healthy growth. As long as I have had donkeys, I have never had to put shoes on them. It is my experience that when they are in good postural balance in their body, they generally wear their feet evenly and vice versa. When fed properly, the hooves remain hard and balanced. They don’t even need to be trimmed all that often if they are not consistently standing on soft ground, or in mud. We use pea gravel in our runs and driveways. In the runs, we put about four inches down. It drains well, is hard enough to promote hard hooves, is rounded and does not chip the feet and is soft enough for the equines to lie down comfortably.

Chasity is tolerates yielding her back feet much better after having a chiropractic adjustment in her pelvis and hip joints yesterday. This is a dramatic beginning for her toward MUCH better balance and posture. She had to be a very sore and uncomfortable animal when she first arrived. She is now feeling some relief and is much more cooperative.

The front hoof on the opposite side reveals the compromised imbalance that she had when she came to us. However, the first trim put her on the road to recovery and her feet are beginning to grow in the correct direction. She has gained a lot more heel in the rear in the past eight weeks.

Chasity has learned to be sent into her stall and then to turn and square up for her reward! Her gait has improved substantially in the past two days with chiropractic work and another trim!