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MULE CROSSING: Keys To Successful Training, Part 2: Your Working Environment


By Meredith Hodges

The Work Station

It is important that your equine feels safe and comfortable in his surroundings. For this reason, you should use the same place each day to groom and prepare him for his lessons. In the beginning, use a small pen (approximately 400 to 500 square feet) that allows you access to your equine for imprinting, tying, leading and grooming, as described in DVDs #1 and #8 of my series, Training Mules & Donkeys (plus disc #9 when dealing with donkeys), and in Part 1 of Equus Revisited. All the while, you will also be teaching him good ground manners. Remember, routine fosters confidence and trust.

Once your equine has mastered tying and leading in the small pen, he can then move on to a designated work station where he will not only be groomed, but will also learn to accept tack in preparation for the round pen. This should be a place that has a good stout hitch rail and easy access to your tack and grooming equipment.

When working around your equine at the work station, pay special attention to his body language. If he becomes tense or skittish, acknowledge his concerns with a stroke on his neck, supportive words to him and a reward of crimped oats when he settles down. Always learn to wait for him to settle down before you proceed.

Don’t make too much out of unimportant details. For instance, if your equine is pawing the ground, don’t insist that he be still unless you need to approach him and do something specific with him. Many of your animal’s anxious behaviors get unintentionally rewarded by giving him too much attention, which can actually cause the behaviors to escalate. If you ignore pawing, cribbing, throwing of the head, pushing with the nose, stomping and other anxious behaviors, they will lessen over time, provided that you step in, ask him to stop and reward your animal, but only when he is being quiet.

Before you begin to groom your equine—whether you’re going to brush, vacuum or clip him—make sure you give him the time to figure out what you are going to do. He will exhibit his acceptance with a sigh, relaxation of his musclesor with a turn or dropping of the head. Once he has accepted the presence of the item to be used, such as a brush, vacuum or clippers, you can begin. Don’t forget to always start at the front and work your way back to the tail.

Keep an eye on the pressure you apply whenever using these various grooming tools. Different animals will have different sensitivity to these tools and will tolerate them better if they know you are not going to cause undue pressure or pain. Learn to brush the mane and tail starting at the bottom and working upward, and use a conditioner such as baby oil to keep from pulling or breaking the hair. (Baby oil will also keep other equines from chewing on the tail.) A shedding blade can be an uncomfortable grooming tool when used improperly. When using a shedding blade to remove mud around the head and ears and even on your animal’s body, be careful to minimize his discomfort by monitoring the pressure you apply to each area and working VERY slowly. When bathing him, be extra careful not to get water in his eyes or ears. These types of consideration for your equine’s comfort will help build his trust and confidence in you, and it will help make training easier and more enjoyable for both of you.

Tack and Equipment

In order to elicit the correct response from your equine, always make sure you are using the correct tack for whatever you are doing. If you are not sure about what tack to use when, go to the Lucky Three Ranch website for more detailed information, or ask the experts in your area. Make sure all tack and equipment fits your animal properly. If it doesn’t, it can cause adverse behaviors during training. 

In the Round Pen

Once your equine is leading well in the small pen, he should be in consistently good posture with square halts, easily negotiating trail obstacles in the open and relatively relaxed while at the work station, he is ready to move to the round pen.

Once in the round pen, you will have an opportunity to assess your animal’s progress so you can begin work on balancing on the circle in good posture and conditioning the hard muscle masses in preparation for performance. The size of your round pen is important—45 feet in diameter is ideal. If it is any larger, as you will have difficulty reaching him with the lunging whip, which means you won’t be able to have enough control over him. If your round pen it is any smaller, it will interfere with your equine’s balance and ability to develop the right muscle groups. It should be made with relatively solid walls and be high enough so your animal cannot jump out. Your round pen can be made of a variety of different of materials, such as 2-inch by 12-inch boards and posts or stock panels. Never use electric fencing, pallets, tires or other non-solid materials. The ground surface should be a three- to four-inch–thick base of soft dirt or sand.

While working in the round pen, be aware of how your own body language and verbal commands elicit certain behaviors in your animal. If something isn’t working right, look to yourself and ask yourself what you might be doing to cause the adverse behavior you are seeing. Equines are very honest about their responses, and if they are not doing what you expect, it has to be in the way you are asking. Also, don’t hurry your equine. When asking for the walk, make sure that the walk is even in cadence, balanced and regular—not hurried. Only after your animal is correct in his execution of one gait, should you move on to the next gait. When first introduced to the round pen, it is not uncommon for an equine to begin work at the trot and then, as he becomes more comfortable with the new area, at the walk.

If you just let your equine go in an unrestricted frame, he can build muscle incorrectly, which will most likely cause problems later on. To be sure you are building muscle evenly throughout his body, in the correct posture and on both sides, use the “Elbow Pull” self-correcting restraint I devised, as described in DVD #2 of Training Mules & Donkeys.

As explained in DVD #1 of Training Mules & Donkeys, while you were doing passive exercises on the lead rope in the small pen, you were also building the core muscle groups that are closest to the bone. Now that you are in the round pen, you will begin to build your equine’s bulk muscle in strategic areas that will strengthen him and make carrying a rider or pulling a cart a lot easier for him. It will also minimize the chance for soreness or injury, as well as resistant behaviors. Keep sessions short, 30-40 minutes, and only every other day at the most. When muscles are exercised, they need to be stressed to a point just before fatigue, and then rested afterwards for one day before repeating. This is the correct and safe way to build muscle. Any other approach will cause fatigue and actually start deteriorating muscle tissue. Remember to use relaxation techniques and warm-up and cooling down exercises with your equine before and after every workout.

In the Arena

The arena is the place to really start focusing on forward motion and lateral exercises to further strengthen your equine, and it is the place to begin fine-tuning his balance while he is carrying a rider. The arena is also a good place for you to fine-tune your own riding skills, so that you learn to help your equine maintain good balance and cadence, on straight lines and while bending through the corners. In order for your equine to correctly go through the corners, you will be asking him to bend the muscles through his ribcage so he can remain upright and balanced. Equines are not motorcycles and should not lean around the corners. The power should always come from the hindquarters to keep the front end light, supple and responsive to cues. If his front end is heavy and sluggish, your equine is not adequately stepping underneath with his hind legs and will thus, lose forward impulsion and power and will not properly condition his muscles.

Open Areas

Open areas are good for stretching and relaxing at all three gaits. They can be used for negotiation of obstacles and to execute large flowing patterns. You can also practice stretching exercises, as described in DVD #5 of Training Mules & Donkeys. Then proceed to working on more collection on the short sides of the arena, and go back to stretching exercises again before you quit the lesson. The open areas allow for a wide variety of training exercises by giving you the space to use numerous patterns and obstacles. Try using cones to mark your patterns—this benefits both you and your animal by helping you both stay focused. An arena without cones is like a house without furniture.

As far as the open road and in traffic, these areas are forseasoned animals only, so please do not even consider using these areas to school your equine—the results could be disastrous! With the heavy traffic these days, it is really safest to avoid heavily traveled roads entirely. For a pleasureable experience, stick to areas where you and your equine will be safe and comfortable.

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.

© 2004, 2005, 2013, 2016, 2018 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: The Importance of Good Manners When Training


By Meredith Hodges

When I was growing up, my grandmother constantly reminded me of the importance of good manners. She would say, “You will never get anywhere of any consequence in this world without good manners!” And she would add, “Without good posture and proper dress, you won’t live long enough to enjoy it!” She made me read Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette from cover to cover. In retrospect, although reading the entire book was a real chore, the respect for good manners that she passed on to me has been an extremely valuable gem in my training experience with equines.

I think that the concept of combining equine training techniques with lessons in good manners is one that many people do not pay as much attention to these days as they probably should. Putting an equine in good posture with respect to his physical comfort is the most obvious form of good manners when communicating with your equine. When you apply the elements of good manners during the training process, you facilitate body and verbal language that equines really appreciate, and when you apply your own good manners and teach good manners to your equine from the very beginning of the training process, you can continue to move forward much more easily than if you do not incorporate good manners between you and your equine. When you run into resistance from your equine, take it as a red flag that you’re missing something in your communication with your animal and change your approach.

A common problem equine owners share is catching their equines. One of the elements of good manners that will help you in this task is being considerate toward your equine. When you are considerate about his need to have a routine that he can count on, he will quickly learn to look forward to seeing you at specific times during each day (at the very least, at feeding time in the morning and evening). His anticipation of your visit may appear to be only for the food value. However, when you interact with him at these times, what you say and do will lay the groundwork for your working relationship going forward, the next time you need to catch him, and during lessons. The food reward becomes less important to him over time.

If your equine spends most of his time in the pasture, the good manners of promptness and reliability on your part are critical, as it is the only time you will have during the day to really spend time with him, and he’ll count on you to show up on time each day. What you’ll get out of being prompt at feeding times is a self-discipline that will carry over into everything that you do and will determine whether or not you are a reliable partner in the relationship with your equine. When you feed the oats mixture at night and none in the morning, it gives your equine a reason to come to you after breakfast when you offer oats to catch him, and gives him a reason to come back in off the pasture after being turned out for only a short time in the spring when pasture time needs to be limited. Doing something when it is convenient rather than considering the equine’s need for reliability in the trainer is a recipe for chaos and causes anxiety in both the equine and the trainer. However, having a predictable structure to your routine will allow both you and your equine to remain calm and clear in your communication with each other.

If you want your equine to come to you, rather than chasing him, simply stand at the gate or doorway and ask him to come to you, offering the oats reward when he does. If you are kind, patient and consistent, he will most likely always oblige you.

Put on the halter politely, being careful not to make any abrupt moves and always being protective of his ears. Before you exit the pen or stall, give him a reward of oats for standing still and waiting for you to finish putting on the halter. Then give him another mouthful, which will keep him busy so you can exit the pen before he does. This teaches him to always stop and wait for your invitation to exit any area. Now he is learning the good manners of allowing you to go through any gates first, and the chances of his becoming a bully will be greatly lessened. When you have multiple animals in a pen and want only one at a time through the gate, just be sure to reward the others for standing back after you have rewarded the one you want for allowing you to halter him. This will also avoid anxiety in the one you are haltering, because he knows you will protect him and wave back the others who might otherwise crowd him or kick at him. The ones you wave back will learn that if they comply, a reward is coming.

During grooming, be polite and considerate about how you touch your animal over every part of his body. Pay special attention to sensitive areas (which is a part of imprinting), how you use your grooming tools regarding pressure over bones and around sensitive areas, and how much disciplinary pressure can be applied if your equine becomes agitated and uncooperative. This is the way to sensitize him to communicate with his trainer. When you are polite and considerate, your animal will learn to trust you and be curious rather than afraid of what is going to happen next. If he paws and shows anxious behavior, ask him to stand still only when you are directly working on him, and then allow him expression of his anxiety in between times. If you pay attention to these negative behaviors, they will only escalate, but when you don’t react to the anxious behaviors he may show at times, the behaviors will eventually subside with age and maturity.

Don’t expect to be able to control your equine’s vocal expressions. Allow him his vocal expression and feel free to engage in the “discussion” he is initiating. Eventually, his vocal expressions will become predictable (upon your approach, answering your responses, at feeding time, etc.) because you acknowledge his polite vocal requests for attention.

Being in good posture feels good to all of us and allows all the organs in the body to work correctly. When one is comfortable and amply prepared for physical activity, it is always more enjoyable. This is no different for equines. When you don’t consistently pay attention to your own good posture, neither will your equine pay attention to his. His movements will tend to be difficult and unpleasant, and the relationship between the two of you may begin to erode. But when your equine is encouraged to be in good posture during training, it feels good to him and, over time, will become his normal way of moving and resting. He will also be grateful for your kindness and consideration, and he will look forward to the activities he gets to do and the time he spends with you. When you pay attention to your own good posture right from the beginning of leading training and every time you work with your equine, he will be able to mirror your good posture. The result will be his own good posture, which will result in more comfort for him.

Being in good posture is not a natural thing for anyone—humans or equines—it must be consciously learned. So through self-discipline, you as the trainer, become the role model for the equine. When you work together like this, you both learn to be in good posture. However, if you are not in good posture, then it will adversely affect both of you, and your equine will be unable to find his own good posture, which will in turn, negatively affect his performance. In order for training to go forward smoothly from one step to the next, both you and your equine need to learn how to walk in good posture.

There will be times when it is necessary to employ negative reinforcement to stop bad behaviors that can escalate and become truly dangerous behaviors before they become persistent and uncontrollable. These corrections, which are covered in DVD #2 of my Training Mules and Donkeys series, are the equivalent of a firm and definite “No!” and help define the boundaries of your relationship with your equine. When boundaries are not clearly set, the result is disrespect from your animal, but when boundaries are clearly set and are consistently maintained right from the start, the incidence of bad behavior from your equine is greatly reduced.

It is critical for your equine to break things down into very do-able steps for which he can be rewarded. For the best and safest results in this kind of equine training and management, it is vitally important that you use good manners yourself to teach your equine good manners, and employ both good manners and good posture throughout your entire relationship with your equine. If you always practice good manners when communicating with your equine, you might even get a “Head Hug!”

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, 2015, 2016, 2018 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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