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MULE CROSSING: Good Basic Training Includes Common Sense, Part 4


By Meredith Hodges

In Part3, your equine was properly strengthened and balanced in good posture during the more passive exercises in leading training over obstacles. Now, in the fourth and final part of this article, you and your equine will head to the round pen and learn how to balance correctly on the circle at the faster gaits. You’ll also learn the more advanced and quicker moves that are required under saddle and in harness.

Only after you have adequately completed lead line flatwork and obstacle training is your equine truly ready to move on to the round pen and begin lunging and learning to balance on a circle at the more active gaits. At this stage, he should be complying willingly, walking with the lead rope slung over his neck and with his head at your shoulder. By now, his core muscles should be properly conditioned and strong enough to support his skeletal system during more active use and more complicated movements. Note: The equine that has not had this prior lead line balance and good posture training will have difficulty in the round pen because he has not learned to stay erect and bend his body through the rib cage when on arcs and circles.

When you are lunging your equine, stand close to the center of the round pen, focus your eyes on the lower part of your equine’s haunches, and then give the verbal command to “Walk on.” Let your eyes and whip follow his haunches while you stand in the center of the round pen. If you want him to stop, say “Whoa,” and then move your eyes and body sideways so that you are more in front of him. Then raise your head and eyes to meet his eyes. If you want him to do a reverse, give the verbal command to “Reverse,” move your body sideways and crack the whip smartly in front of him. You should now be almost directly in front of him, looking him straight in the eye. It is the movement of your body that will make the difference between the halt and the turn. Notice how these subtle differences in your body affect what he does. If you practice these movements correctly and consistently, you will begin to see an improvement in your own body language and in your equine’s response. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does or says; you go right ahead and take the time you need to work out each maneuver with your equine. Accuracy is preferred over speed.

Lunging involves a lot more than just running your equine around in a circle. It affords you a tremendous opportunity to see the affect your body language has on your equine’s reactions. Lunging also helps you to understand how you can fine-tune the communication between the two of you while developing balanced, cadenced and rhythmic gaits in your animal. So start slow and don’t let things go beyond what you can easily control.

With the use of the “Elbow Pull” (instructions on how to make an “Elbow Pull” are given in the Equus Revisited DVD), your equine will begin to build muscle over a correct postural frame. This is much better than letting him develop muscle out of good posture, and then having to go back later and break down established muscle that is out of frame and causing problems. The “Elbow Pull” is not in any way abusive. It is, in fact, a “self-correcting” support, designed to simply suggest to an equine that he stay in good posture. If he stays in good posture, he feels nothing uncomfortable.  But if he gets out of good posture, it puts a humane but firm pressure on his poll, his bit, behind his forearms and over his back. This is not unlike the grandmother who insisted that, to assure good posture, you walk with a book on your head. It may have sounded silly at first, but as you got older, you were happy you did it because it taught you good posture that eventually became a healthy and habitual way of moving. The “Elbow Pull” serves the same purpose for your equine and provides support when he cannot consistently hold good posture—he learns a healthy and habitual way of moving.

Before your equine learns to balance with a rider, he must first build muscle so he can sustain his own balance on the circle before carrying a rider. This is also true if you want your animal to learn to lunge on a lunge line. An equine that has not had enough time in the round pen establishing strength, coordination and balance on the circle will have difficulty on the lunge line, because even the slightest pressure on the line will pull him off-balance. Loss of balance will cause stress and even panic in your equine, which can result in him pulling the lunge line right out of your hands and running off. This is not disobedience but rather, fear caused by a loss of balance so do not punish him for this reaction. The animal that has had strength built on the circle before lunging and riding will not exhibit these undesirable behaviors, which are often misinterpreted as disobedience.

Lunging will begin to develop hard muscle over the core muscles and tendons you have already spent so many months strengthening. It will further enhance your equine’s ability to perform and stay balanced in action. As this becomes his true way of going, you will notice that even his play patterns begin to change dramatically. Be sure to be consistent with your verbal commands during these beginning stages, as they set the stage for better communication going forward.

After your equine has learned verbal commands while lunging, your next step is to train him to be equally responsive to verbal commands in conjunction with the drivelines. This is done first in the round pen, and then in an open arena, (which will introduce him to a larger space where he will need to become even more responsive to your rein cues).

I have found that, in most cases, the larger the animal, the more docile the personality, which seems to be a general rule of thumb. I have also learned that, if a donkey or mule has a tendency to bolt and run, it’s because they don’t necessarily agree with what you are trying to do or how you are trying to do it. Even though horses usually comply fairly easily, it is important to remember that any disobedience on the part of any equine is ALWAYS the handler’s fault. Regardless of the personality type of an equine, he will always have an honest response to any stimulus. If you ask in the right way, you will get the desired response.

If your equine wants to bolt when you ground-drive from behind, walk beside him and gradually lengthen the distance, one inch at a time, until he has accepted the drivelines correctly—no matter how long it takes. But don’t work on lessons more than 20 to 40 minutes every other day, and make sure he gets his crimped oats reward for “Whoa” and “Back.” I give a lot of “Back” commands while ground driving close to an animal, and I repeat “Back” frequently at every increased or decreased distance behind him. Keep things at a very slow walk until you feel relaxation through the drivelines (there should be no hint of pulling). Stay calm and deliberate and go slowly—be willing to take all the time in the world, if necessary. Whether you are just beginning training, or are already working under saddle, while you and your equine are going to and from the work areas, and during any ground interaction, always review the lessons in showmanship covered in DVDs #1, #8 and #9 of my series, Training Mules & Donkeys before moving on to any new exercises. This will help your equine to really and truly bond with you on a very personal level. If you have multiple equines, be sure to treat every equine as your very favorite whenever you interact with them.

Certain personality types such as slow learners, over-achievers or sensitive individuals do take longer to come around, but when treated with plenty of patience, kindness, trust and respect, they usually do. These personality types may not necessarily be suitable for driving, but they can be quite suitable for under saddle. In fact, once they do come around, the more “difficult” equines, especially those that have previously been neglected or abused, often bond more strongly with you and look to you as their “protector.” They are grateful for your patience and kindness. These are sometimes the ones who will end up having more “spirit” and thus, more athletic tendencies and ability.

Because I have dealt with many animals that were high strung, I have learned that they require tremendous patience, but I also know that they can come around. You might just need to back up and do things even more slowly and more meticulously than you ever thought you would need to, but if you do, you should see some positive results. If you lower your expectations for a while and try to have more fun with the basics, chances are that your equine will, too.

Always make sure you work in areas that are adequately and safely fenced so that, if your equine bolts, you can more easily catch him again. If he bolts, DO NOT, under any circumstances, hold onto the reins, lead or drivelines. Just let go of the lead or drivelines if you are on the ground, and let the reins loose if you are in the saddle. Whether he is on the lead line, in the drivelines or under saddle, when your equine realizes that you aren’t going to play “tug-o-war,” that he will get a reward for staying put, and that it is a waste of his energy to keep running, he will bolt less and less until the unwanted behavior has stopped.

When ground driving, you should not worry about the whip while in the round pen, as the walls will help guide your animal in maintaining the correct position. What you really need to do is keep even contact on both lines (reins) when going in a straight line (or, when in the round pen, on the circle). To get your equine to begin stepping laterally, slightly tighten the outside driveline while maintaining contact on the inside driveline, so that he cannot complete the turn. Stay directly behind his haunches and urge him forward. This will cause him to begin to step sideways, with his face to the wall. Take only a couple of steps this way, and then slowly straighten him out again—you can build-in more lateral steps as he begins to understand what you want. Be sure to reward him with crimped oats every time you halt.

Once you begin ground driving in the open, you can then carry your whip in your right hand. Feed the line into your right hand under your third, fourth and fifth fingers, and then up between your thumb and index finger. The whip handle will be held in the palm and also come up between your thumb and index finger. Tilt this hand to tap the right and left sides of your animal’s body. The left-hand driveline is fed over the index finger and held by the thumb, and then falls down through the palm. To set the bend for the leg yield (opposite from the way your equine will be tracking), shorten the inside rein and hold it steady. Not too much of a bend—you just want to be able to see his eye on that side. Then squeeze and release the directing (right-hand) driveline to indicate that you want him to move in the direction you are squeezing and releasing. Be sure to give plenty of release between pulls so he doesn’t go too far sideways at first. This should be a leg yield action and not a “side pass.” The “side pass” will come later, as he better understands what you want. If he doesn’t follow your leading rein, you can encourage him to move over by tapping him gently on his opposite side. It can be very awkward at first, but with time and patience, these movements (both his and yours) will continue to improve.

Only after he is light and responsive to all commands in the round pen and he ground-drives well in the open arena, should you mount him and begin riding in the round pen. When he is light and responsive in the bridle in the round pen, you can then ride in the open, but continue to work in the open arena on perfecting his technique and his responsiveness in the snaffle bit.

You need to be willing to spend the time to teach these things slowly and in an order that will make sense to your equine, so he is not faced with learning too much too quickly. As you have probably already experienced, when you hurry through this process, he may be able to do certain movements, but he will not be responsive to your cues. Unresponsiveness is a sure sign that there has just not been enough time for the lessons he is learning to become his habitual way of responding.

If an animal is trained with sequential, resistance-free training techniques and is given adequate time on groundwork training (a minimum of one year on the lead line and a second year on lunging and ground driving), he will warm up to other people more easily and will be more “sensible” than those animals that are not trained this way. Each new owner should take the time to review these techniques with newly acquired equines, just to create their own personal relationship with that animal and dispel the negativity of any prior relationships the animal might have had. Spending time doing simple basic groundwork training before actually riding allows your relationship with your equine to develop in a safe and healthy way. It will teach both you (the handler) and your equine how to communicate clearly and effectively. The exercises described in this article will condition your equine’s body so he can more easily carry a rider (whether the rider is balanced or not), and help your equine to be more capable of executing whatever demands the future may hold.

Remember that patience, kindness, respect and consideration from you will yield the same qualities in return from your equine. When you take the time to cultivate a good relationship with him, you will find that you have a much safer and happier riding and driving companion.

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 new children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2015, 2016, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Good Basic Training Includes Common Sense, Part 3


By Meredith Hodges

In Part Two of this article, your equine was introduced to the ground rails, cavalletti and bridge obstacles. This helped develop his confidence and trust in you, his handler, while focusing on your animal just getting through each obstacle with true forward movement without hesitation. First, he learned the basics of negotiating these obstacles in Stage One. During Stage Two, when he went back through same the obstacles, he learned to do them in good posture and balance. Now, in order to continue your equine’s mental and physical conditioning, you are ready to proceed to more challenging obstacles.

The Tarp: The Tarp will dramatically affect your equine’s balance and coordination. Its uneven surface and the noise it makes when stepped on will typically put your equine off-balance and may cause him to veer from side to side as he crosses it. You can use the same “Stage One Obstacle” approach, as described in Part 2 of this article, to change his fear into curiosity. Again, as you did with the bridge, break this exercise down into small steps; stopping at the edge of the tarp, stopping with the front feet on the tarp, then all fours, then fronts off and hinds on, and then finally walking off the tarp to a complete halt and squaring up. Just learning to get through the obstacle will diminish your equine’s fear and replace it with curiosity and confidence. Then assume the showmanship position and do all obstacles again with Stage Two strength and balance, and with good posture in mind for both of you. You will know that your equine is ready to move on to the next stage of training in the round pen when you can toss the lead rope over his neck and he will negotiate all obstacles correctly, keeping his head at your shoulder and is showing no visible signs of a loss of balance, or any inability to obey your commands. He will then be placing his feet so that his balance is evenly distributed over all four feet and his foot placement is coordinated and deliberate. At this point, the obstacles in general should be an effortless task.

The Trailer: The Trailer should be considered just another obstacle, requiring the same basic approach as the bridge. Mules and donkeys are no-nonsense kinds of guys and become suspicious of intimidating techniques such as feeding them in the trailer. This would be bribing and it is quite different from rewarding for a task well done. The equine learns instead to distrust due to the sneaky approach that is used to get them in there. We would rather teach our equines to be trusting and willing by developing their confidence in the handler. When we begin leading training, the equine is introduced to all kinds of obstacles. In Stage One of obstacle training, we first approach the obstacle and encourage them to investigate, changing their fear into curiosity and instilling confidence in them and in their handler. When they are compliant, they are rewarded with crimped oats and praised for being so brave. By the time they have learned to confidently negotiate other obstacles, the trailer is no longer a threat to them. They will most often just follow you right in, knowing (since they have never been trapped into complying) that there is a crimped oats reward waiting for them. For those animals that are still hesitant about the trailer and just won’t follow, we use a second method that restricts backward movement and this is explained in detail in DVD #1 of my series, Training Mules and Donkeys. When your equine willingly enters the trailer, you can employ Stage Two and ask your equine to step to the entrance of the trailer and square up, then enter with the front feet and leave the back feet on the ground and square up again, then all four feet in the trailer, square up, and, finally, when tied off inside the trailer, square up yet again. Backing out is also broken down into the same small steps to rebalance the same way on the way back out. This builds muscle correctly and enhances your equine’s proprioception (body awareness).

Jumps: Jumps are a good exercise to do on the lead line, but you must be careful not to over-jump your animal in the beginning. Because they are large, they must have great strength in the hindquarters to boost their heavy bodies over a jump, and if they are not strong enough, they can easily pull a muscle or worse. Jumping should be done only after all other obstacles have been thoroughly mastered. In Stage One, approach the jump the same way you would any other obstacle, building confidence and trust. Then use Stage Two to finesse your equine’s movements. Mules have the ability to jump from a standstill, so you can still use the stop, square up, wait for the command to jump, jump, stop and square up again on the other side. This ability allows you to maintain control of your mule when on the ground with the lead line or in the drivelines. If you are training a horse or a donkey, use a longer lead rope, so after squaring up about four feet in front of the jump, he can get a trotting start to the jump. Whatever equine you are training, be sure to keep the jumps very low in the beginning.

If you want your equine to jump on the lead line, you must go over the jump yourself for the first few sessions, or he will not really understand what you want and may start dodging the jump. Ask him to stand still while you cross the jump to the other side, and then ask him to come. (Remember that a mule can stand closer to the jump, but a horse or a donkey will need some trotting space in order to make the jump). Once your equine takes the jump with no problem, you can teach him to go over the jump ahead of you on a longer lead line. Start off with very small jumps and understand that an equine will jump higher than he needs to jump the first few times. When he is finally tucking his knees under and just barely clearing the top, he is then ready for the jump to be slightly raised. Raise your jumps in three-inch increments and repeat the exercise until your equine is properly clearing each height and not over-jumping before you raise the height again. The lead line stop-and-jump procedure will help strengthen and develop your animal’s hindquarters and will begin to teach him to lengthen and compress his body as needed to control his stride.

The Back Through “L”: The Back Through “L” will fine-tune your equine’s response to “Whoa,” and he will learn to allow you to adjust the different quarters of his body and move each of them independently. First, walk forward through the obstacle, then stop at the end and turn around to face backward. Then, slowly and steadily, back through the entire obstacle. Once he has gotten this down fairly well, you can then go back to the beginning, and back one step (but only one!). Then proceed forward to the middle of the first straightaway, stop, back up two steps and square up. Go forward again to the angled rails where they begin the turn, halt, and then move his front feet one or two steps sideways with gentle pulls on your lead line at the halter, into the middle of the second straightaway, and halt. Then ask for one or two steps forward into the second straightaway and halt. His back feet will be cutting the corner into the 90-degree turn, so after he halts, tap him lightly on the hip with the end of your lead rope to move the hindquarters over one or two steps to straighten him into the center of the second straightaway, halt and square up again. Finish the obstacle by walking to the end of the straightaway, halt and square up again. Now do the same series of steps in reverse. This exercise teaches him to maintain his focus and balance throughout the obstacle and to learn to wait for you to move his front and rear quarters into any position required, taking only as many steps as you request. This will improve his negotiation of forward and backward movement, as well as beginning to strengthen the hard-to-condition inside forearm, gaskin and stifle muscles.

Five or Six Tires on the Ground: Five or Six Tires on the Ground (3×2 or 3×3) is an obstacle which is used to help develop proprioception (deliberate and balanced foot placement) and coordination, as equines have so many different places to put their feet when walking through tires. Although they will want to waver and step out of the sides, you want them to maintain deliberate foot placement, so carefully plan each step. With each step, stop for a moment and then reward after the completed step. This will break the task down into doable stages and will help to keep your animal in a straight line while you both move through the tires. You can stagger the tires in a number of different ways, giving your equine multiple options for foot placement. He needn’t place his feet in the middle of each tire, but he must move straight forward in balance, correctly and in good posture. This exercise keeps him alert and careful about foot placement while it fine-tunes his proprioception and balancing capabilities.

The Tractor Tire: The Tractor Tire is a wonderful advanced exercise in coordination. The first task (Stage One) is to ask your equine to adjust his stride and simply walk through the middle of the tractor tire. After he is comfortable walking through it, break it down into smaller steps in Stage Two: stop before the tire, then one foot in the tire, then two front feet in the tire, then allow the front feet out and the back feet in and then exit.

When he is calm with this, you can add to the exercise by stopping him when his front feet are in the middle of the tire and asking him to do a turn on the forehand. While watching his legs, make sure he is properly executing the turn by crossing his near hind in front of the far hind, as he turns without stepping his front feet out of the center of the tire. Allow him to adjust his front feet back to the center of the tire if they get too close to the edge. Just stop moving the hindquarters, halt, adjust the front legs, halt and begin moving the hindquarters again—only one step at a time. In the beginning, be sure to reward every step. As he understands and complies more easily, he can be rewarded less often within the task.

When he can easily do this exercise, you can then put his hind feet in the middle of the tire and do the turn on the haunches, crossing over in front of the hind pivot foot and the inside front foot as he makes the turn. Again, if the hind legs need to be adjusted back to the center of the tire, stop, correct the hind legs, stop again and then continue. In order to maintain his attentiveness and control, always teach general negotiation first for curiosity and confidence (Stage One), followed by breaking the obstacle down into small and doable steps to be rewarded in good posture and balance, and with coordination (Stage Two). The Tractor Tire is a great coordination exercise because it not only addresses forward motion, but simple lateral motion as well. These exercises will begin to strengthen the hard-to-condition inside forearm, gaskin and stifle muscles.

Side Passing the “T”: Because Side Passing the “T” is a complicated and advanced obstacle, it is important that your equine execute the straight forward obstacles and lateral Tractor Tire obstacles before attempting to do the “T.” The “T” is a great way to fine-tune truly sideways lateral motion, where both front and back feet are crossing over diagonally and simultaneously in a balanced fashion, moving the equine laterally to the right and to the left as he negotiates the three different rails in the obstacle. In the same obstacle, you will be breaking the simultaneous motion into a turn on the forehand and a turn on the haunches in the middle of the obstacle, in order to make the turns into the next lateral motion down the next rail. This obstacle uses all the elements that have been taught in previous obstacles. It also lays the groundwork for perfect communication between you and your equine. In order to correctly execute this obstacle, he must pay attention to you at every step.

In the beginning, you will need to teach your equine to side pass by moving first the front quarters, then the hindquarters at each step to maintain straightness of the body throughout the obstacle. But as he gains more balance and coordination, he will be able to move the feet—both front and back—simultaneously along the side pass rails. This is where the inside forearm, gaskin and stifle muscles will begin to develop properly.

Again, you will know when you have spent adequate time on “Stage Two Obstacle Training” for your equine’s best conditioning when you can throw the lead rope over his neck and without you touching him and with his head at your shoulder, he will easily follow your hands and body language through all obstacles, displaying strength, coordination and balance in good posture and will stay focused throughout.

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 new children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2015, 2016, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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