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By Meredith Hodges
In the past, when equines ran free, they were unencumbered by human interaction and could build and condition their muscles naturally. Today, with increased population but reduced open lands, their activity is often restricted. It then becomes our responsibility to not only train them, but to prepare them physically to perform and keep them happy in their environment. This responsibility becomes even more important when we ask them to exert more energy than normal, in activities like long trail rides, endurance events, showing and equine-related work. Proper preparation for this modern-day lifestyle will help to minimize your equine’s stress, both physically and mentally.
Natural Horsemanship techniques, based on the equine’s natural behavior and status as a prey animal, promote an awareness we often overlook. They give us a wonderful way to learn how to connect with the equine mentally and communicate with him using our own verbal and body language. Many people get intimidated simply by the equine’s size. These techniques instill a sense of confidence and understanding, and without them, fewer people would take an interest in these animals and want to learn how to interact with them. A relationship with an equine can be incredibly satisfying, and equine companionship can enhance any life. This is why therapeutic riding programs for the disabled, at-risk youth, and those with other physical and mental disabilities are so successful.
Understanding the equine’s natural evolution and behaviors can help us give him what he needs to thrive in captivity. It would be nice if we could provide a habitat akin to what the wild equine used to enjoy: room to run, with an abundance of soft dirt and occasional hard ground under his feet. Unfortunately, today’s equine must deal with a multitude of unfamiliar challenges, including extreme activities, exposure to crowds of people, and more prolonged exposure to hard surfaces such as asphalt and cement, not withstanding the sometimes unrealistic demands that we put on him.
Understanding the prey-predator responses can help to guide us in the training of our equines, but because of the change in the environment, it shouldn’t completely define our training methods. The prey animal that is uncomfortable with making direct eye contact with the human “predator,” for instance, is virtually trapped in a confined environment in which he has no control and can therefore become anxious and difficult to handle. We are taught not to make eye contact with him until he is willing to face us. We are taught to “chase” him in a round pen until he does.
When he finally gains the confidence to approach, we are then taught to disengage his hind quarters and keep him at bay so he doesn’t breach “our space.” This can be very confusing to any intelligent being because you are telling him to “come” and then to “go away!” And, we are handicapping him by disengaging his survival ability for flight. His response over time is to give in, but under these circumstances, he will not always to learn to trust.
The equine’s natural flight reflex is strong and takes him away from conflict. However, when man intercedes without taking into consideration the physical, mental and emotional needs of the equine, it can result in resistance wherein the equine is trapped into conflict. He is then labeled disobedient and often punished for that perceived disobedience. For instance, the equine that is “trapped” on a lunge line and asked to reverse toward the handler will inadvertently be improperly set up to take the new trotting diagonal, or the new lead at canter, from a position that actually “tangles” his hind legs and causes him to fumble into the new diagonal or lead. This mistake can become painful and even detrimental to the stifles as he jumps out of the entanglement and can cause resistant behaviors which are often punished on top of the physical pain he is already experiencing.
The equine body needs to be properly prepared for his athletic endeavors, as does any athlete. We prepare our human athletes with exercises that address muscle groups throughout the whole body before they actually play the games to avoid acute injury to muscle groups that are not normally used in the game. Why would we not give our equines this same consideration? Teaching the reverse in the beginning should always be done in the round pen where you can ask him to turn away from you, which will set up his hind legs properly for the new direction and strengthen his body symmetrically in good equine posture. Once he has established good equine posture and balance over a long period of time doing appropriate exercises, he will then be better able to efficiently reverse towards you on the lunge line by changing direction from a position of balance rather than an awkward imbalance.
Despite the varied differences in personalities and approach, the one thing that we can all learn to do is to communicate with respect, set clear boundaries and apply good manners in order to make friends when we accept their true nature, respect it, understand it and negotiate rather than “command.” It really is that simple, although training ourselves to be that way isn’t always simple. Animals do this with each other all the time, but they are clear communicators where we humans are not always clear in our intent. That is why you will often see animals of completely different species getting along with each other, whether prey or predator.
By setting up our equine’s environment so he is able to relax, and by behaving in a polite, respectful and considerate way, the equine can learn to respond more appropriately. When we pay close attention to the healthy development of his body and provide the right kinds of exercises to strengthen his core muscles in good equine posture, we can ultimately gain the trust and respect from the equine that we need for him to deal with all situations and obstacles the same way every time—to trust and look to us for guidance before reacting. Everything that we do for him should make him feel good, and that is what real friends are for! The equine will bond to the person who trains him, so make sure you are honestly engaged with your equine.
Be a true leader and learn to set boundaries for your equine with appropriate corrections for bad behaviors (which can be found on our website and in our products). Make these corrections quickly and then immediately return to a clear definition of what you expect and make sure that it is easily doable for your equine at each step. Every animal on the planet will correct another’s misbehaving with a very clear and undeniable gesture that will stop the abuser promptly in their tracks. Take note. This is not abusive, but rather a very clear communication of what’s right and what’s clearly wrong. In fact, in the case of the mule attacking the puma that has circulated the internet for the past few years, it was clearly a case of the mule engaging in the hunt with his human “friend.” So, who is really prey and who is predator in this particular scenario? Sometimes we just need to change our perception or understanding of things and deny all-encompassing generalizations and stereotypes.
Reward good behaviors as per the laws of Behavior Modification, or “appropriate reward system training.” The oats reward that we use ensures that the good behaviors will be repeated and will become the animal’s new natural way of being. In the practice of true Behavior Modification, all five senses should be employed: sight, hearing (voice), smell, touch and taste. These are all innate ways to communicate effectively. Any distractions should be eliminated when communicating with your equine—put away the electronic devices, clickers and loud whips, and avoid abrupt noises.
The way that you manage and train your equine can be set up in a logical, sequential and predictable routine that your equine can rely on thereby dispelling his anxiety and maximizing his trust in you. Exercises that prepare his body slowly and over a long period of time to carry a rider ensure that he will not overexert or compromise muscles that could otherwise become sore, or worse. Interaction with him that is more conversational using the five senses will elicit a more conversational response from your equine, developing a close relationship comprised of negotiation and mutual respect where both partners participate on equal ground. We spend 12 years preparing our children to become responsible adults. How could it effectively take much less for our equines to learn to live and work in their new and more crowded environment? If you have any doubts about the real success of this kind of approach, you need only visit the Lucky Three Ranch where we all make direct eye contact with each other and see the results for yourself! When our equines are spooked into flight, they run towards us, then stop and ask, “What do we do now?!”
For more information about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive correspondence training program, Training Mules and Donkeys, please visit www.LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Also, find Meredith Hodges and Lucky Three Ranch on Facebook and Twitter. And don’t forget to check out her children’s website at www.JasperTheMule.com.
© 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Meredith Hodges
Lucky Three Sundowner was foaled at my mother’s Windy Valley Ranch in Healdsburg, California in June of 1980. Two weeks later he and his dam, Candy Etta, an AQHA registered mare, were shipped to the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, where we continued the superior mule breeding and training program that my mother had started. Sunny was a tall, gangly little bay mule foal with an affectionate and willing attitude.
His show career began at halter and progressed to Western Pleasure and Reining by the time he was three years old. He won the World Championship in Reining at Bishop Mule Days as a four year old in 1984. Although he did very well in these events, he still seemed tense and nervous. For the next two years, I decided to focus on more relaxing events for him in Western Pleasure, Trail and English Pleasure. People were not easily accepting mules in equine events that were reserved for horses and ponies. Mules were universally considered stubborn, uncooperative and only suitable for the activities of farming, packing and pulling heavy loads. I suspected that this was not true and set out to prove it by schooling my mules in every discipline possible. Sunny had won the World Championship in Reining. I believed that schooling in Dressage could only help him in other judged disciplines and I set out to prove it.
During our beginnings in Colorado, there were small mule shows and some schooling horse shows that we could attend to test our skills. However, most people really didn’t believe mules could do all the different events that horses could do and did not want us around. A picture of Colonel Alois Podhajsky hung over my bed since I was small and I have always been in awe of the supreme levels of horsemanship that Dressage horses could attain. My dream was to be able to dance with Sunny in Dressage, but without anyone to help us, how could we ever achieve that level?
In 1986, fellow mule lover Sally McClean and I attended the United States Dressage Federation Convention and asked that mules be accepted into Dressage schooling shows. We were met with resistance, but there were some who were empathetic to our plight and they agreed that we should be allowed to compete at the lower levels to be able to test our skills and be part of the Dressage community. Sunny and I began Dressage lessons with local United States Dressage Federation instructor/trainer, Melinda Weatherford in Fort Collins, Colorado. Since neither Sunny, nor I, were previously schooled in Dressage and because he was a mule, we were faced with a much harder journey than we ever imagined. Lindy certainly had her work cut out for her teaching the two of us!
With acceptance by the U.S.D.F. (United States Dressage Federation), I felt it was important that our World Mule Show in Bishop, California, offered classes in Dressage. There were now a few others who were starting their mules in Dressage and they would need a place to show their progress against their own kind. The Bishop Mule Days Committee agreed and Dressage was included as a part of this truly world-class mule show! With the addition of Dressage, Bishop Mule Days became a 5-day show. Today, Bishop boasts a full week of over 180 different mule and donkey events with over 800 entries each year. Dressage classes grew rapidly with increased interest! People were beginning to realize how much Dressage could influence their Longears’ performance in other classes. Even the donkey classes began to improve and more events were offered for them as well. My own Little Jack Horner was working at Second Level Dressage, which was unheard of for a donkey!
During Sunny’s first Training Level Dressage test in 1988, he got frustrated and ran off with me! Mules will sometimes do that! He scored 5’s and 6’s. The judge’s comment was, “This could be a nice mover if you can get his brain-by teaching him shoulder-in and leg yielding…” Unfortunately, we were eliminated. In 1988, he made his second debut at Training Level Dressage at Bishop Mule Days. He had much improved scores of 6 and 7. The comments, were, “Very pleasing ride, lovely mule, need to work on halts.” The progress Sunny made in just a month was phenomenal!
Sunny really enjoyed the predictable exercise routine and was soon much more relaxed and submissive although, we still had an occasional runaway during practice. It took me awhile to figure out just why Sunny was running off with me. During the Reining training as a three year old, Sunnyhad been forced to continue to gallop after missing his lead changes. From that time on, he would take off every time he thought he made a mistake, even when I didn’t think he had! He thought that was the right thing to do, so I patiently just rode out the runaways on a loose rein and kept asking him verbally to “Whoa.” Each time, the runaways got shorter.
I knew that it was important to make sure his foundation work was stable and consistent, so we spent 1 ½ years schooling at Training Level Dressage. I made sure that he was only schooled every other day, with a day of rest in between. This seemed to help him to relax and settle, but his rhythm and cadence were still irregular at times. Then I thought maybe riding to music might help both of us. So, I sat down in the evenings, watched his training videos and picked music that would fit his natural rhythm at all three gaits. I even wore my Top Hat for our dress rehearsals to help me to set the mood. This staging during practice sessions made a dramatic change in his attitude… and mine!
Suddenly, we both experienced the harmony that we had only heard about that could take place between rider and horse, or in our case, rider and mule! It took a bit longer than expected, but spending that extra time at Training Level really improved his forward motion with strong engagement of his hind quarters. This, in turn, enhanced the lengthening and shortening of his strides within the working and extended gaits. We were ready to ask our coach if we could proceed to the next level. We began work on Leg Yields and attempted a bit of Shoulder-in.
We continued our weekly lessons with Lindy and progressed to First Level Dressage. We learned to sustain good balance, rhythm and cadence at all three working gaits and to lengthen these gaits with alacrity and grace. People at the farm where we took lessons began to stop and watch us in awe! They had never seen such a thing! In May of 1989, he showed at Bishop Mule Days again with scores of 6 and 7. The comments, “Nice moving mule. Good impulsion, but unsteady at times. Good overall.” There were 10 entries that year and Sunny placed first! We were definitely making progress and people were beginning to notice!
Later in the summer of 1989, Sunny and I began to work at Second Level Dressage and entered some local schooling shows against horses to measure our progress. He did very well and was rapidly becoming the “Dressage Spokesperson” for mules! In 1990, he took first in the Bishop Mule Days Second Level Dressage Class. He was honored by Bishop Mule Days when asked to do a special demonstration for their Sunday afternoon performance. Sunny wowed the crowd with his sensitivity, agility and graceful performance!
By May of 1991, Sunny was finally beginning to work at Third Level Dressage. Bishop had no Third Level Dressage class. So, they allowed Sunny to compete at Second Level Dressage again that year against four other mules and Dolly Barton who was rapidly becoming a Dressage champion herself – a mule bred by Bonnie Shields, the Tennessee Mule Artist!
Dolly placed first and Sunny placed second. Again, he scored 6’s and 7’s and the comments read, “Very nice ride! Needs more bending through turns and circles and scores will be higher.” Since both mules would be moving up another level by the next year, I went back to the Bishop Mule Days Committee and requested a Third Level Dressage class for 1992. They were so impressed with Lucky Three Sundowner and Dolly Barton that they agreed.
At Bishop Mule Days 1992, Sunny placed first against Dolly Barton in the Third Level Dressage class with scores of 6 and 7. I don’t think he liked being beat by a girl the year before! By 1993, Sunny was working at Fourth Level Dressage. It was at this time that I attempted to change his bridle, from the Eggbutt Snaffle Flash bridle, to a Weymouth Bridle with the curb action Weymouth and Bradoon. He reacted violently to the additional restriction from the Deluxe Weymouth Bridle. He was always compliant and responsive in his Eggbutt Snaffle Bridle, so I opted to go forward in the same bridle to keep him relaxed and happy with his work. He then competed a second year at Bishop Mule Days at Third Level Dressage, where he easily won being the only mule in the class. He had won respect from the horse community and had clearly surpassed his peers!
Quietly at home, with only a few onlookers, Sunny and I danced together to The Emperor’s Waltz by Johann Strauss with Canter Pirouettes, Half Passes, Passage and Piaffe. OUR DREAM TO DANCE TOGETHER HAD FINALLY COME TRUE! Lucky Three Sundowner passed away in October of 2015 at the age of 35 years, but his legacy remains. Dispelling all the old rumors about mules and donkeys, the memories we made together were priceless and paved the way for many more Longears athletes to “strut their stuff” in the equine industry of today! It took 18 years for mules to finally be accepted in the United States Dressage Federation Dressage Division in 2004, but nothing pleases me more than to see Longears successfully competing in the U.S.D.F. Dressage Finals against horses in Lexington, Kentucky! Long live our beloved Longears!
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 Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
© 2007, 2016, 2019, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The “Elbow Pull” is a self-correcting restraint that encourages the equine to use his entire body to go forward in a relaxed and correct postural frame. It promotes the stretching and strengthening of the topline and results in the hind legs coming well under to support the body and to keep the hind quarters (motor) providing active impulsion. In the “before” pictures, the equines are simply moving their front and back legs underneath the torso, but the torso is not really moving due to inactivity in the rib cage muscle groups. In the “after” pictures, you see that the equine posture has dramatically changed and now produces an active and “rippling” effect throughout the rib cage muscle groups (which can be seen in the moving videos). This is the basic difference between a really good dressage prospect and one that might be passed over.
“Hey, Augie! Where are we going today?”
“Isn’t there a better way to go than up the steps?”
“Really Augie, do you always have to be so cooperative?”
“Okay, what’s up now?”
“Oats are always good!”
“Are you kidding me? You really think that book will help?”
“Augie, do you always have to be such a show-off?”
“If you took the time to study, Spuds, things might be a lot easier for you!”
“Maybe you’re right, Augie!”
“I like how the book says we’re different, Augie. The family that grazes together, stays together!”