MULE CROSSING: Train for the Pleasure of It

By Meredith Hodges

As humans, we tend to complicate our lives—filling them with people, things, goals and tasks, until we’re too busy to think. For a mule or donkey (and even other equines), it’s different. The equine has no “to do’s,” no “ought-have’s,” or “ought-to’s.” He takes things as they come, considers his response in the moment, and stays open to possibility. This year, why not resolve to be more like your mule or donkey? Consider your priorities and look at your relationship with him from his perspective. Stop to smell the roses, and during those inevitable challenging moments, put yourself in your mule’s shoes. Think like he does and you may be surprised at the response you get.

No doubt, this is a tall order. After all, we humans tend to begin with the end in mind, and the process is just a means to that end. Training, for example, is a process. We attempt to train with a goal in mind. Our goal at the Lucky Three Ranch is to improve the equine’s performance as well as our own. Most of us train with the expectation that improvement will occur, and most of us add the self-imposed pressure to improve within a certain amount of time. The notion that the training—the process itself—could be the goal is foreign to many of us. But consider it. What if we trained for the pure pleasure of spending time with our equine while using the values we hold dear like respect, kindness, consideration and consistency in our behavior? How different would the experience be for us and for him?

Today’s general horse training techniques do not generally work well with mules and donkeys. Most horse training techniques used today speed up the training process so people can ride or drive sooner and it makes the trainers’ techniques more attractive, but most of these techniques do not adequately prepare the equine physically in good posture for the added stress of a rider on his back. Mules and donkeys have a very strong sense of self preservation and need work that builds their bodies properly so they will feel good in their new and correct posture, or you won’t get the kind of results you might expect. Forming a good relationship with your equine begins with a consistent maintenance routine and appropriate groundwork. Most equines don’t usually get the well-structured and extended groundwork training on the lead rope that paves the way to good balance, core muscle conditioning and a willing attitude.  This is essential if he is truly expected to be physically and mentally prepared for future equine activities. With donkeys and mules, this is critically important.

No matter how old or how well trained the equine, they still need time doing the simplest of things to get to know you before they will learn to trust and have confidence in you. The exercises that you do should build the body slowly, sequentially and in good equine posture. No human or equine is born in good posture. It is something that needs to be taught and practiced repetitively if it is to become a natural way of moving the body.

When the body is in good posture, all internal organs can function properly and the skeletal frame will be supported correctly. Just as our children need routine, ongoing learning and the right kind of exercise while they are growing up, so do equines. They need boundaries for their behavior clearly outlined to minimize anxious behaviors and inappropriate behavior, and the exercises that you do together need to build their strength and coordination in good equine posture. The time spent together during leading training and going forward builds a good solid relationship with your equine and fosters his confidence and trust in you because you actually help him to feel physically better. A carefully planned routine and an appropriate feeding program is critical to healthy development.

I have found that equines, especially mules and donkeys, bond to the person who trains them. When they go away to other people, they do not get the benefit of this bonding and can become resistant over time when they return home. After all, you wouldn’t ask someone else to go out and make a friend for you, would you? This is the primary reason I put my entire training program in books and videos, in a natural order like grade school is for children, for people to use as a resistance free correspondence training course instead of doing clinics and seminars.

I embraced this philosophy long ago. Through a painstaking process that involved a fair amount of trial and error, I determined that my ambitions as a competitor made little impression on my equines and that it was the level of respect, compassion and empathy that I brought to my relationship with each one that served us best in the show ring. My animals would do anything for me, but not because they had the same lofty performance goals I had. It’s because we truly enjoy being together regardless of what we’re doing or working on. Really, it’s because we’re friends, and that’s what friends do for each other. It’s a very unselfish relationship.

My friendships with my equines are as integral to their outstanding performance and versatility as their physical training. In my training series, Training Mules and Donkeys, and the complementary  manuals and DVD series, Equus Revisited: A Complete Approach to Athletic Conditioning, I explain how to build that relationship even as you develop your equine’s physical foundation. Just as he learns to move in balanced frame day by day, moment by moment, your equine also grows to trust you and take pleasure in your mutual effort.  In fact, training for the pure pleasure of it is what your mule does. He’s not thinking about the next show, or how much better or worse so-and-so is. He’s not even pondering what happened yesterday or what might be coming down the pike tomorrow. He’s out there, with you, experiencing what’s going on right now, period. In that respect, he’s no different from his ancestors who spent their days roaming and grazing. So why not join him? Why not assume a degree of responsibility and respect for him that says: I will set my goals and work to achieve them, but never at the expense of our friendship.

We love our animals, but sometimes we forget to enjoy them! It’s my ultimate goal, to learn from them. I believe it’s our ultimate responsibility to let them be who they are and give them the care, love and respect that they so richly deserve.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com, MEREDITH HODGES PUBLIC FIGURE Facebook page, or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Pinterest, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube and Twitter.

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