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MULE CROSSING: Leverage Versus Abuse

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By Meredith Hodges

“Leverage” equipment refers to any restraining device or substance that is used to get an equine’s attention and obtain compliance, but many leverage practices often have the reverse effect and have the potential to cause distress and pain. This includes harsh bits, chain leads, twitches, hobbles, stocks and even medications. There are times when our equines can really be a handful, so having a little leverage when needed can be a good thing. However, deciding which equipment to use and learning how to use leverage without it becoming abusive can be a bit daunting. There are so many different types of tack, equipment and restraints that it becomes difficult to determine which would be best to use on your equine to correct a particular problem, or if you really need to use anything at all. It may only be a case of needing to be clearer in your approach, in which case, leverage equipment may not be needed. It is important to make an informed decision when using any leverage equipment to be sure that what you are using is helpful and not abusive.

One very common behavioral problem that seems to identify the need for more leverage is the mule that bolts and runs when on the lead rope. This seems like an obvious disobedience to the handler, and the first thing that comes to mind is to use a lead shank with a chain to gain control of the mule. Normal use for a lead shank is during a showmanship class at a show and it should rarely be used in training unless the equine will be shown at halter and/or showmanship. And then, training with the lead shank should be done only after the animal is following well through all required movements while in his halter and on a lead rope.

Chains are severe and when not used properly, can damage the fragile bones in the underside of the jaw, and the cartilage and bone over the nose of the equine. If the chain is pulled while simply run under the jaw and attached to the ring on the opposite side, a quick jerk can bear down hard into the delicate mandible (jawbone). If the chain is run over the nose, when abrupt pressure is applied it can injure the nasal cartilage or the incisive bones. Because they occur internally, these injuries are often imperceptible to the human eye. The only thing you might see is broken skin, scabs or bumps that arise from repeated use. When properly fitted, the chain on a lead shank goes through the ring of the halter on the left side, threads under the chin and through the ring on the right side of the noseband, and is attached at the throatlatch ring on the right side. This keeps the halter balanced and the action of the chain less severe. When using the lead shank for leverage during training, it can work on some animals but others may decide to fight which can result in injuries such as fractures, causing more severe trauma to these areas. So it is best to avoid use of the lead shank until after completing leading training with the halter and lead rope. Even then, you should learn to use the lead shank properly with the least amount of pressure possible. Avoid using halters that are made with chains. Those types of halters should only be used when showing cattle and can do serious damage to equines.

If you train for leading with a step-by-step program that incorporates a reward system during training, the mule is much less likely to bolt and pull the lead rope from your hands, and horses will not need any more leverage at all. This kind of training invites the equine to remain with you and he is rewarded lavishly when he does. If a horse spooks, you can usually stand still in balance, hang onto the lead rope and quickly regain his attention by staying calm and deliberate yourself. Normally, mules learn to comply with the reward training. However, if a mule has been spooked, he may not care much about the reward in your fanny pack and you might have the need to use something with more leverage. In this case and in cases where a mule doesn’t always comply willingly, I use a new positioning of the lead rope called a “Quick Twist.”

To employ the “Quick Twist” restraint, just take your lead rope and create a loop and feed it through the noseband of your nylon halter (rope halters are too loose and do not work) from back to front and then over the mule’s nose. When you pull on the rope, it will tighten around the end of the his nose below the incisive bones and over the cartilage, making breathing just a little difficult. Don’t keep pulling—just stand quietly and hold the tension snug. Let the equine come forward to you and slacken the rope himself by coming forward and allowing a free flow of air through his nostrils. Then, if the mule does not follow, just walk a step or two, creating tension on the rope, and then stand still again. When he does come forward, stop long enough to reward him with the oats reward before you proceed forward again. Keep the lead rope short and stand still in a balanced way so he cannot get ahead of you and jerk you off your feet. If you are standing still in a balanced position, it will be difficult for him to jerk the lead rope from your hand and leave.

If, after you’ve employed a kind, considerate and respectful approach along with a food reward, your equine is still being uncooperative, it may be appropriate to use equipment with more leverage such as the “Quick Twist,” but not necessarily chains. Chains do need to be used in some cases, such as with work harness (and most curb bits are now fitted with chains), but when not used correctly, these chains can be abusive. The chains on the pleasure driving harness should clear the legs and heels of the driving equine, and the chin chain on a curb bit should be adjusted so that it is twisted properly and lies flat against the animal’s jaw with an allowance of two fingers between the chain and the jaw, thereby minimizing any chance of injury. If you have a generally compliant equine, it is better to use a leather chin strap on your curb bit rather than a chain.

Old-time twitches were made with a chain that could be twisted around the upper lip and used to distract the equine from shots, tube worming and the like, but the main focal point for the equine then becomes the equipment and not the task and, in the wrong hands, this piece of equipment can do a lot of damage to the equine’s sensitive upper lip. Most often, the equine can be more easily distracted by a simple rap on his forehead using your knuckles. Using a twitch at all can become a source of confrontation for many equines. If a twitch must be used, choose a more humane one that is made from aluminum and has a smooth surface. This will clamp down tight enough to hold, but not so tightly on the upper lip that it causes pain or even injury.

A lot of activity when loading can cause the equine to become anxious and noncompliant and he becomes overstimulated. When having difficulty loading your equine, things will usually go better if you simply give him time to survey the situation and not allow him to back away from the trailer. One step at a time while offering a food reward (and a food reward waiting inside the trailer), with frequent pauses and encouragement to move forward from behind with a tap of the whip, will usually accomplish the task without confrontation. Most equines will willingly follow you right into the trailer if prior obstacle training has been done properly and successfully. Leverage equipment such as butt ropes only refocus the equine’s attention on the equipment and will result in confrontation.

Hobbles are another form of leverage equipment and there are many different kinds of hobbles for different purposes. The hobbles that have chains on them should be avoided, as the equine can become entangled and the chains can do damage to their legs. Thin leather hobbles or coarse rope can chafe the hair right off the skin around the pastern and can cause severe abrasions that may never heal. Thick leather hobbles are best, as they will break when under extreme stress, releasing before damage to the equine is done. If so inclined, all mules and some horses can gallop in hobbles, so hobbles really aren’t all that effective for leverage. Tying
onto a hyline (a rope suspended between two trees that acts as a hitching line for overnighting equines in the mountains) is a better choice, and if the horses are tied, then the mules should not have to be tied or hobbled because they will generally stay with the horses.

Sedation and tranquilizers are another form of leverage that is used all too often and, in some cases, can be very dangerous. Mules and donkeys may receive the correct dose, but they can be unaffected when they get over-stimulated, excited and confrontational. They can actually “pop out” of sedation if they get excited enough to release adrenaline in their bodies. In these cases, administering another dose of drugs can easily become an overdose and could result in death. Sedating an equine that is to be trimmed or shod can be dangerous for both the farrier and the equine because the animal is not able to stabilize his balance and his reactions are, for the most part, uncontrolled. The farrier may not have time to get out of the way and the animal could stumble into trouble.

Power tools can be of help to a veterinarian or an equine dentist when doing teeth. Old-fashioned rasps are safer than power tools, but they are clearly more of an aggravation to the equine. However, if power tools are to be used at all, they must be carefully monitored. When floating teeth, the equine dentist must be skilled in the use of his grinding tool and should do only what is necessary to remove sharp points on the equine’s teeth. Power tools can be a good thing when you are dealing with an equine’s mouth and jaw, as having their mouths held open for long periods of time is very tiring for them, so speed is essential, but accuracy and skill are also essential.

I do not approve of using power tools on the equine’s hooves at all. In order for the equine’s body to be properly balanced in good posture, the hooves must first be properly balanced. Power tools cannot possibly shape the hoof with proper curvature in the sole, alignment of angles and equal balance over the hoof walls with appropriate pressure to the heels and frog. This demands hands-on custom sculpting, as each foot on each equine will be different and all four feet need to be aligned with each individual’s legs and body in mind. The hooves are the basic foundation for the entire body, so they must be done correctly or everything else will be off. This is especially true with the tiny hooves of mini donkeys and mules. Minis can often be kept calm for trims simply by keeping things at their eye level and rewarding their good behavior with crimped oats.

There are things that may seem to allow for shortcuts through certain tasks, but when you are dealing with living creatures there really are no shortcuts. It is always better to take the necessary time to implement training techniques that allow your equine to learn and grow in a logical, step-by-step process that will not overwhelm him or bombard him with too much stimulus at any stage, so that he can become a comfortable and cooperative individual. If you use the correct methods right from the beginning, the need for excessive retraints (that can cause pain and even more resistance) will be greatly diminished and the long-term results will be undeniably better.

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.

© 2013, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Understanding the Use of Cruppers and Breeching

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By Meredith Hodges

The purpose of tack and equipment has always been to give man leverage against the equine’s resistance during training, but I believe that the equine is “talking” with his resistance and this is a cue to find another alternative to achieve harmony when something isn’t working. There is an ongoing discussion about the use of cruppers and breeching when riding mules and donkeys, and even some horses. The purpose of both is to keep the saddle from sliding forward when the equine is in motion, whether he is tracking on flat ground or going up and down hills. Inappropriate use of both devices could give the equine problems. Whether or not to use a crupper or breeching is not an either/or decision. My equines taught me that in order to make an educated decision about which to use, one needs to take into account the anatomy of the equine and the effect that each has on his body in motion during different activities.

Good conformation is important in allowing the equine to perform to the best of his ability, but the tack we use has an effect on the equine’s movement in spite of his shape. In order to obtain freedom of movement, the elements of the equine’s anatomy must be allowed to move freely through every joint of his body. Energy and blood circulation finds open tracks throughout the body and when unobstructed, will run freely from the core of the body to the extremities in a healthy equine. Core and bulk muscles that are developed symmetrically support the skeletal frame, the cartilage and ligaments that surround the joints, and the tendons that tie the skeletal frame together. All work to support the proper internal organ functions and when the equine in good posture with symmetrical strength, they are unobstructed.

Many people have approached me with questions about cruppers. Their primary concern is that the crupper can break the tail when under pressure. If there is enough pressure put on the crupper to break a tail, then the crupper should break first! When the skeletal system is adequately supported with symmetrical muscle strength and especially over the top line, the animal is better equipped to use his body efficiently, tucking his tail and using leg muscles to support his own weight while his spine remains flexed upward along the top line to support the weight of the rider. The extremities have full range of motion so he can pick each step with confidence and no obstructions. An animal with insufficient conditioning will hollow his back and neck and try to compensate for his inefficiencies in muscle conditioning and movement. When pressure is put on the crupper of an animal with inadequate muscling, there is weakness over the top line and tail that will not support heavy weight of going downhill and could possibly do damage to the spine at the dock of the tail. Just for the record, I have done lots of trail riding and three years of cross country (3 miles, up and down hills, over twenty jumps) and have always ridden with a crupper on all of my mules with nary an incident.

Breeching originates with pack and driving animals and has a distinctive purpose to keeps loads from shifting on pack animals and to provide “brakes” for those in harness. Breeching generally has a “crupper” built in with straps on both sides to attach to the saddle and help to stabilize the load. But in each case, the breeching is being used with an inanimate object that will not resist against any adjustments or corrections that the animal might make in his own body. An unbalanced rider is more difficult for the animal to balance than an inanimate load. The equine can adjust his load with his own body movements, but he cannot easily adjust a live load that works against his balance like an unbalanced rider would inadvertently do. If using a crupper, the animal has full range of motion in his body and legs with the maximum strength to back up any movement that would help to correct the rider’s position and keep him over the equine’s center of balance.

The problem with breeching on a saddle equine is in the configuration and the way it sits anatomically. When going downhill, the breeching must be snug to do its job properly and it will keep the saddle from sliding forward. However, it also compresses the biceps femoris, a large muscle in the hindquarters that functions to extend the hip and hock joints, and also causes a flexion of the stifle, and a rotation of the leg inward. When pressure is applied to this area, it restricts circulation and extension of the hind leg backwards and causes compromises in the muscles groups resulting in asymmetrical conditioning. This doesn’t pose a real pressure problem going downhill. The stifle joint is configured so it can lock when needed through a stay mechanism between the stifle and hock, but it should still have the freedom of full range of motion if it is to function properly and not get unduly locked up. When the actions in the animal’s body remain symmetrical and orderly all of the joints, including the stifle, are able to function properly. The stifle will usually get locked up only when there are chaotic and unsupported directional actions coming through the joint.

When going uphill, however, the breeching must still be snug to do its job, but the animal is not allowed full extension of the hind legs, so more pressure is put between backward motion of the femur and the breeching. This results in compromised circulation, restricted movement in the hind legs and an inability to control hind quarter foot placement. In a crupper, the animal going uphill has full extension in his hind quarters, an ability to maintain good posture and balance and this results in exact foot placement to maintain that balance comfortably and safely.

The weight and ability of the rider will determine how much pressure is put against the animal and how much resistance it will cause. Even though mules can carry proportionately more weight than a horse of the same size, this doesn’t mean you can indiscriminately weight them down until their knees are shaking. Be fair and responsible and do your part in the relationship. Do not expect the animal to carry an obviously overweight body that doesn’t know how to control itself! Participate in training activities that prepare you both, first with groundwork and later under saddle. As you learn to ride correctly and in balance, you also learn how to ride supportively and take the stress out of going uphill and downhill. You will then find the crupper much safer and more efficient when riding in all kinds of terrain…even if you are a little heavier than you should be. You and your animal will be conditioned properly and he will be able to pick his way efficiently, safely and unobstructed!

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.

© 2017, 2018, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. MULE CROSSING All Rights Reserved.

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Wrangler’s Donkey Diary: First Lesson Day

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4-3-18

Needed to correct following from behind

 

First time in the “Elbow Pull” – Track Left Walk

 

Exit Gate

 

Remove Saddle – Learn to stay quiet

Posture at the gate is a bit slouchy

 

First time in the “Elbow Pull” – Track Right Walk

 

Exit Tack Barn

 

Enter Tack Barn

 

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What’s New with Roll? A Walk in the Jump Course

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5-8-18

After about an hour of shedding grooming with the hairbrush, shedding blade and then the vacuum, Roll and I headed out for a walk around the jump course. We started at the Tack Barn and walked through the alleyway between the buildings.

We stopped occasionally along the driveway to square up and he seemed to be reluctant to weight the right hind again, but after a few times, he did better. We stopped at the MULE CROSSING sign for a photo-op.

Then we went down the beautiful tree-lined driveway on our way past the mules in the dirt pen having lunch, and past Jasper Bunkhouse, to the jump course area.

We stopped again at the statue of Lucky Three Eclipse, my hunter champion, situated behind our equipment barn where all the hay equipment is stored. Roll was more interested in the “Ely” statue than he was with the photo-op!

The grass was pretty tall and made for difficulty walking through it, but Roll was willing and did not dive for the grass, but obediently kept his head up, moving freely forward.

As long as he was walking, he was obedient. Then when I stopped him and asked him to square up, he became more interested in the grass and was not that willing to stand still for very long each time he stopped.

I guess the temptation was just too much for him, so I let him have a nibble! The reins tied up to the surcingle only allowed him to crop the ends off the tall grass.

We then walked on a little farther, enjoying the sunshine, the beautiful Rocky Mountains in the background, and the warm weather.

We stopped for another photo-op in the grass, but he did not stay squared up for the picture. He was still slightly distracted by the grass and apparently moved, but at least he wasn’t being pushy about it and smiled for the camera!

He really didn’t want to leave the grass, but he followed me nevertheless and squared up again on the road. At 18 hands, it’s a good thing he is as obedient as he is or he could have dragged me back into the grass!

We stopped again to see the Mae Bea C.T. statue. Roll had to reach out and take a good look at her pretty face!

He did pretty well overall. The walk was just enough to tune up his core. It’s hard to believe that he has now been with me for 8 years considering he was a rescue and supposedly a lost cause when I got him.

Roll is now 26 years old and I hope he still has many good years to come. It was a beautiful day and we both thoroughly enjoyed our walk together. Maybe next time, we’ll go for a ride!

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