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MULE CROSSING: Maintenance & Grooming


By Meredith Hodges

Your equine depends upon you for his safety and well-being. The best feed in the world won’t keep him in good health if you neglect other important areas such as vaccinations and worming. It’s up to you to create a program to prevent disease and control parasites. Here are some suggestions for a general health program:

1) Cleanliness is very important. Make sure feed boxes are clean and manure is removed from stalls and paddocks. Do not feed hay or grain on the floor or anywhere it may become contaminated with manure. Similarly, small, heavily used pastures tend to build up a heavy parasite load. Pastures should be rotated and harrowed as frequently as possible to break the life cycle of the parasites.

2) Internal parasites are the most common danger to the health and well-being of your mule, and you must be prepared to wage a constant battle to control these worms. Follow your vet’s advice to set up a parasite-prevention and control program through regular worming. The drugs that are available today are very effective in removing parasites and breaking the cycle of re-infection. At Lucky Three Ranch, we worm every eight weeks in January, March, May, July and September with Ivermectin and then break the cycle and worm with Strongid in November. Don’t forget to watch out for bot eggs and remove them immediately.

3) Avoid letting your equine drink from public watering facilities. Use your own clean water buckets. Keep an eye out for anything that might injure your equine, and remove or repair it.

Proper treatment of diseases and injuries depends on two very important factors: correct diagnosis and knowledge of the proper treatment. Your job is to become familiar with equine diseases and their symptoms. In case of sickness or injury, know what to do for your animal before help arrives. Understand what simple treatments and remedies are safe to follow. Above all, know when to call a veterinarian.

4) There are many resources available to help you learn how to be better prepared including books, clinics and, especially, advice from an expert such as your own veterinarian or farrier.

Assemble your own equine first aid kit and, with the help of your veterinarian, learn the proper use of each item in the kit. Be prepared to handle the situation before the vet arrives.

When signs of infectious disease appear, isolate infected animals promptly and call your veterinarian right away.

5) Seek your vet’s recommendations for shots and immunizations, and faithfully follow an annual vaccination program. Make sure you keep good records of vaccinations and worming, and be sure to keep track of when they’re next due.

6) One of the best ways to monitor your equine’s health is by establishing a daily grooming routine. Not only will he be rewarded with a shiny coat, but you can watch for cuts and bruises and check the condition of the feet.

Basic grooming tools include a rubber currycomb to rough up the hair and bring dirt to the surface, a dandy brush to lift out the dirt, a body brush to smooth and shine, a hoof pick to clean the feet and a mane and tail comb and brush. A sweat scraper is handy to remove excess water during and after a bath, or sweat after a workout. A grooming cloth can be used to polish the coat and bring out the shine. In the springtime, a plastic multi-bristled hairbrush and shedding blade are also nice tools to have on-hand to remove dead hair, and a sponge can be used to clean muddy legs.

Begin your routine by using a hoof pick to clean the feet. Start with the near front foot, move to the near hind, then the off fore and off hind. If your young mule is skittish, work in whatever order he is comfortable. As he becomes accustomed to having his feet cleaned, you can do them in a consistent order. Clean from heel to toe and watch for infections like thrush and injuries from rocks or nails. This is also a good time to check his shoes. Mules should be shod (if working regularly on very hard surfaces), or trimmed, approximately every six to eight weeks according to use.

Next, begin to groom the body, starting on the left side at the head. Hold the currycomb in one hand, keeping the other hand on your animal to steady him. Gently curry in small circular strokes, working your way down and back, ending with the hind leg. Next brush vigorously, first with the hairbrush and then with the body brush. During springtime shedding, use your plastic bristle brush on the body to reach the dead hair in the undercoat before you use the shedding blade. Make sure that you apply only as much pressure as feels good to your equine (lighter pressure over bony areas). This should be an enjoyable experience for him.

After grooming the left side, move to the right side. Brush the head with a Dandy brush and use a multi-bristled human hairbrush on the mane and tail. By adding a little Johnson’s Baby oil to the mane and tail during grooming, you can train a mane to fall to one side and keep other equines from chewing on manes and tails. Finish with a soft body brush. Finally, use the grooming cloth to wipe around the ears, face, eyes, nose, lips, sheath (if it’s a male) and the dock of the tail.

While paying this much attention to your mule’s body, you will be sure to see anything abnormal such as an abscess, a cut, mites or insects, or a sore. Early discovery and treatment keep problems small.

Besides routine grooming, your equine’s longer hairs can be trimmed as often as needed. Clip the long hairs from the head, the outsides of the ears, on the jaw and around the fetlocks for a neat and clean appearance.

Mules and donkeys like to be dusty, but they also like to be clean. Bathing every so often will make your Longears look and feel better. All equines enjoy having all that itchy sweat rinsed off after a good workout. I don’t recommend bathing too often with soap because an equine’s skin is sensitive. Soap can irritate it as well as strip away the essential oils. Most of the time, a good rinse, while scraping the excess water off with a shedding blade, will maintain a clean, healthy coat. Of course it’s essential to have a spotless animal if you’re off to a show or parade.

Once your mule has been bathed and is spotlessly clean before the show, all you need to do to prepare him for your class is a quick once-over with a vacuum. Vacuum training is like anything else—take your time, be polite in your approach and make sure your mule understands that this strange, noisy monster is not going to hurt him. Soon he will learn to enjoy being groomed by the vacuum. The vacuum will also promote better circulation to the muscle tissue.


If you plan to show your mule, you might consider body clipping. If you clip in mid-April or May, you will expedite shedding and the hair that grows in will be more manageable than the heavy winter hair. Equines that are not going to be shown should be left with their natural hair coat, as it insulates them from both cold and heat, and protects them from invasive insects. Mules and donkeys shed more slowly than horses and are not usually fully shed out until late summer.

There’s a bonus to clipping a show mule or donkey—their hair won’t grow back as quickly as that of a horse. Just remember that clipped animals should be stabled and blanketed during cold weather. If you do blanket your mule, you must be ready to add or remove blankets and hoods as the weather changes each day. To keep the coat from growing back too quickly, it helps to have them under 16 hours of light (summertime light duration).

To body clip your mule, begin with a quick bath. Your clippers will last longer if your mule is clean. When he’s dry, use your rubber currycomb to bring any dirt and dead hair to the surface. Follow with a good brushing. If it’s too cold for a bath, use a vacuum to get him clean.

Begin clipping the legs and head, because these are usually the hardest areas to do. If he’s a little difficult, don’t hesitate to use the restraints you learned about in DVD #2. Use a twisted lead rope hobble to restrain the front legs, a scotch hobble for the rear legs, or a face tie for the head, but be sure to use them as described and don’t be punitive in your approach. Start with small clippers on the coronet band and fetlock, working your way up each leg.

Do the body last with large animal clippers. Clip against the lay of the hair. Start at the rear and work your way forward, clipping first one side and then the other. Pay special attention to the flanks, the mane and the fuzzy areas under the belly and around the forearms and buttocks.

If your mule has a nice mane, leave it and clip a bridle path. The length of the mane and the bridle path will depend on trends in the event you are participating in. For example, in English riding, manes are kept shorter to make braiding easier, but if your event is reining, keep the mane as long as possible. I like to grow the manes as long as possible (they help to keep flies and insects at bay), give crew cuts through the bridle path to the males and leave a foretop and bridle path on the females.

If you’re packing, you might want to shave or trim the mane short for the sake of simplicity. Many people shave the foretop and bridle path with a #10 blade, and then trim the rest of the mane to half an inch. You may trim the outside edges and backs of the ears, but leave the inside hair to prevent irritation from flies and bugs.

The tail is another area where there are many variations. I recommend applying Johnson’s Baby oil to the base during each grooming and letting the tail hair grow. This is a good idea if you compete in open events with horses. A second method is to shave the first two inches of the tail for a clean, well-groomed look (however, it does grow back even fuzzier!). A third variation is to “bell” the tail in three tiers. This looks best with a thick tail and is generally used for identification purposes by packers and the military, but is not recommended for normal grooming, as it is difficult to maintain.

Now you’re ready to trim the head. This will include trimming the bridle path, muzzle hairs, hair under the jaw, long hairs around the eyebrows and the backs and edges of the ears.

Lastly, remove chestnuts and ergots by soaking them with baby oil for about 30 minutes and peeling them off. If the ergots don’t peel off, you may cut them off with scissors or nippers.

Now you’ve got an equine that looks great! It will be easy to keep him looking good with a weekly trim that should include bridle path, ears, around the face and coronet bands.


Depending on the event you plan to show in, treatment of the mane varies considerably. For Western pleasure, you may want to simply band the mane so it lies flat. The tiny rubber bands can be purchased in tack shops in colors to match your mule’s hair. Tradition dictates the braiding of the mane for hunters and English classes for a neat, clean appearance. A thick, heavy mane cannot be properly braided and must be thinned until all the hairs are about four to six inches long and lay flat on the neck. This is done by using a mane comb to pull out the long hairs from the underside of the mane. This can be a big job and it’s annoying to your equine, so limit mane pulling to a few minutes a day. Make sure the hair is the same length from poll to withers. Don’t even think about cutting it with scissors—it will just end up short but way too thick to braid.

You can spritz a little water and hair spray to make the hair easier to handle. The quickest way to secure the braids is by using tiny rubber bands. It’s also very easy to do and it’s great for one-day shows or quick changes between classes.

Sewing with thread or weaving yarn looks very professional and is more permanent, but it’s also more time consuming.

Once the braid is finished it should be folded once and fastened with either rubber bands or a piece of yarn or thread. It can also be rolled and tacked into place. How you finish your braid will depend upon the time you have and the look you want to achieve, as well as what looks good on your equine!

Braiding the tail begins with a clean, well-groomed tail. Even short hair can be braided if you use a lot of hair spray to make it sticky. Moisten all the hairs along the dock with a damp sponge and bring them forward. Take a section of hair from each side of the tail, as close to the top as possible, pulling the sections out from as far under as you can.

On a horse, you can pick up a third section from the middle of the tail, but on a mule’s thin tail, take the hair from the side. Cross it over one of the outer strands. Begin braiding with three strands down the center of the tail. With each twist of the braid, pick up a little more hair from either side or from the middle. Continue braiding until you reach the root of the tail, then don’t add any more hair, but braid until you reach the end.

Fasten the end of the braid with a tiny rubber band or a piece of yarn. Now fold the braid once and pull the end up into the braided root, tying it at the base with yarn or thread.

In showmanship and halter classes, it goes without saying that your equine must be groomed to perfection. This means that, for months prior to the show, you’ve given your equine a good brushing or vacuuming at least once a week. Brushing stimulates the skin and brings out the natural oils that make the coat shine. No amount of “shine in a can” will replace the natural luster of an equine that’s been brushed regularly.

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.

© 2023 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.



Mule Crossing: Moving Beyond Prey vs. Predator


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?4 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.

3Be 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, 2023 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Articlephoto Contemporary Mulesfinal

MULE CROSSING: Contemporary Mules


Artillery Pack Mule, 1940_CCMules played an important role in our country during the Reconstruction Period: they patiently worked the fields, packed necessary artillery for the army, and served as a durable riding and driving animal in the westward movement. With the coming of the industrial age, their uses were minimized and they were faced with the possibility of extinction in the march of progress. Today, through the persistent determination of mule enthusiasts, mules are once again emerging as a conceivable asset to our economy and a unique form of athletic achievement and entertainment.

With new and improved training techniques, the mules of today are known for their beauty and outstanding athletic ability, their durability and their intelligence. Their uses are limited only to the imaginations of their owners. It is now commonly known that with proper training, a mule can perform better than the horse it was bred from. Subsequently, mules are not only competing in mule shows, but horse shows as well—in events from cutting to dressage. Cattle ranchers have discovered the mule to be an important asset in their business. He can go all day without tiring and can cover terrain that might discourage a horse, not to mention that the ride is much more comfortable. Hunters caught in the heavy snows of the Rocky Mountains praise their mules for carrying out heavy game and blazing trails through treacherous snowy ground, leading them and their horses to safety. Sales persons are grateful to both mules and donkeys for their humorous contributions in advertising and children appreciate the companionship and affection that mules can offer. Even the army has conceded that mules could make their contribution to the economy through their use in mountain light infantry divisions. The only problem that arises is educating people on mule psychology so that they can train them properly.

Although mules look and often act a lot like horses, there is a vast difference between the two psychologically. If a horse is given green pastures, plenty of clear water, and friends of his own kind, he is generally contented; the mule needs more. He possesses a curiosity about the world around him that requires him to participate and interact. For instance, if you were to walk out into a field where horses were grazing, chances are they would give you a glance and continue their grazing with a certain amount of indifference. Mules, on the other hand, would be compelled to approach you and check you out. Turnout Loafing Sheds 8-12-16 118_CCThey will generally follow you around until you leave the field, begging for attention or simply observing you closely from a safe distance. Mules have a genuine desire to make friends with those other than their own species. Also, they are a very sensitive animal and can read your intentions through the tone of your voice and your body language.

Being the sensitive animal that they are, they have a low tolerance to pain. This contributes to their careful and deliberate way of going—a mule will do everything possible to keep himself safe. He is careful about his footing in treacherous terrain as well as careful about the feed he eats. Knowing this about mules can be a valuable aid in training. If a mule is not doing what you ask and you lose your temper, he will try anything and everything to escape the pain. This is where the old wives’ tales had their beginnings. Those who understand the mule’s low threshold for pain and understand his desire to please will either move on to something different if he is not giving the desired response, or introduce the lesson differently to clarify what is expected. In any case, beating a mule into submission will only cause fear and resentment, and being as intelligent as they are, they will only distrust you. Once they distrust you it is very difficult to make amends since they also possess an excellent memory!

In the early days, mules and horses had to be “broken” and trained quickly due to limited time for such matters. Trainers did not have the patience it takes to bring a mule along “right;” consequently the results were sayings such as: “Stubborn as a mule,” “Kick like a mule,” and “Get a mule’s attention with a two-by-four.” The old trainers may have succeeded in getting the mules to work, but they could never trust them… conversely, with broken spirits, the mules never trusted their trainers either.

Today good mule trainers apply the basic techniques of Behavior Modification (reward system training) in their programs. That is, getting the desired response through positive reinforcement and ignoring, as much as possible, the undesired behavior. Negative reinforcement, or punishment, is used sparingly and is never severe. Voice is an effective form of negative reinforcement. A firm “No” when he is misbehaving is generally sufficient, followed by a few minutes of ignoring him. If you have a mule that bites, a firm pinch on the nose, a “No,” then ignoring him for a bit should do the trick. If you have one who kicks, try your voice first. If he persists, quietly restrain a hind leg in a scotch tie while working on him. If he begins to kick in the scotch tie, stand back and ignore him until he has settled down. When he is settled, reward him by scratching his rear, and then resume your work. He will soon learn that he is responsible for causing his own pain and, preferring the reward, he should eventually cooperate.

Restraints are helpful in dealing with mules but must not be applied so they cause pain. Hobbles, leg straps, and scotch ties are generally all that is needed in dealing with difficult mules. Even if the mule has led a life of abuse, their ability to determine just who is responsible for their pain means that with love and kindness, they can be taught to trust again–it just takes a lot of time and patience. If you find restraints are not sufficient, you may be dealing with an outlaw, in which case it is best to put him out of his misery before he injures someone.

IMG_0038_CCStill, the most important thing to remember is to praise the mule with caressing and scratching when he does what you desire and back it up with the food reward. Mules love this kind of attention and will do their best to get it. If they are rewarded immediately when they are behaving as desired, the desired behavior will eventually become the norm. If bad behavior is ignored or gently reprimanded, it will fade to a minimum. The result is a pleasant, affectionate, and dependable animal.

Though we are still a busy society, with the help of technology we are more able to give the mule the time and appreciation he deserves. Consequently, we are continually discovering new uses for the much maligned mule, enjoying him more, and in the process, we’re putting the old wives’ tales to rest.

Yesterday’s mules sturdy and strong

The days in the fields were often quite long

The man with the whips sometimes evened the score

With a jolt to the head by a stout two-by-four.

“Understanding” a word not common for slaves

Caused many good mules to go to their graves

“Stubborn and cranky are mules,” said most men

Who used and abused them then were kicked or bitten.


When industry triumphed, the mules quickly faded

But the tales remained and were often quite jaded

Twas never the man with the stout two-by-four

Who was wrong from the start to push mules way too far

But the folks who were ignorant knew only what’s said

And since mules cannot talk, their reputation was dead

They’re known to be pushy, vengeful, and cross

So man abandoned the mule for his exquisite horse.


With more time to our leisure the mules of today

Are treated much better and perform just that way

The love and affection the mules can now give

Makes raising and training them a warm way to live.

To meet them and greet them, to own one or not

The mules of today exhibit just what they got!

We’ve banned the “Old Wives’ Tales” and made a new rule

If you aren’t too stubborn, why not ride a mule!

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.

© 1985, 2016, 2020, 2023 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

TT 73

LTR Training Tip #73: Follow the Leader


Following a seasoned animal through the hourglass pattern for their first time in the open arena will give your equine more confidence and decrease the incidence of resistance.

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MULE CROSSING: Dancing with Mules


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 FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2007, 2016, 2019, 2021, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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By Meredith Hodges

Many common horse training techniques used today work well on either horses or mules. However, being creative and using less technique with a more logical approach to training works better with donkeys. In the case of the “rein back,” the problems are universal. Some equines seem to “rein back” more easily than others. Similarities exist within the equine species regarding personality types, but there are also differences in environmental behavior during training. Horses that are resistant to backing either shake their heads violently from side to side or rear up and try to throw themselves over backwards. Resistant mules try to walk sideways or forward, and resistant donkeys are either stone statues or terrific “leaners.” All of these tendencies are an expression of discomfort in the equine and can pose serious problems for the trainer.

In order to get the best results, before teaching an equine to “rein back” you must understand the animal’s body mechanics and his mental attitude. The “rein back” is a reverse, two-beat, diagonal gait. When executing a straight “rein back,” the equine is unable to see what is directly behind him, but he can see peripherally on both sides. Because of the way the eyes are set in their head, mules can actually see all four feet when facing straight forward where a horse cannot. The depth perception of an equine is questionable at best, but when an equine must “rein back,” his vision is even more impaired because he can’t see directly behind him. This causes him to become tense because the equine must trust the trainer not to back his precious little rear into anything that might hurt him! If the trainer has been even a little abusive in the past, the equine will not be able to trust and will become resistant. On the other hand, if the animal has been brought along well and is being asked to “rein back” on the long lines, he may simply not want to “back over” the trainer. This could be perceived as disobedience when it is only consideration for the trainer.

In order to execute a straight and smooth “rein back,” the equine must be able to lower his head, round his back and step back and underneath himself easily with the power initiated from his hindquarters. If the rider has not prepared his equine for the “rein back” by allowing the animal to take one step forward first and round under his seat, the animal will be resistant. This is why one step forward before executing a “rein back” is essential. Otherwise, the equine may raise his head and hollow his back, making it very difficult, at best, to perform the “rein back.” If you have trouble visualizing this, get on your hands and knees and try it yourself to see how it feels, first with a hollowed back and then with an arched back.

Before you begin to “rein back,” take that extra couple of seconds to relax and prepare your animal. First, let him take one step forward. Then, alternately, squeeze your reins and ask him to lower his head a little (not too much at first). Keep your legs snugly hugging his barrel, and lift your seat ever so slightly by leaning forward just a little. Check over your shoulder to be sure that he won’t back into anything. Then, with corresponding rein and leg cues, squeeze and release alternately from side to side: first, right rein, right leg; then, left rein, left leg. By pulling first on one side and then the other, you actually allow him to see more directly behind, thus eliminating much of the apprehension that he feels when he cannot see. Pretend that you are pushing him backward with your legs, directly after giving a gentle tug on the corresponding rein. In the beginning, be satisfied with one or two steps, and don’t forget to praise him.

Do this exercise in a two-beat fashion, with the squeeze/release action on the rein coming only a split second sooner than the corresponding leg. This prevents the hindquarters from resisting, and it is here where most resistance in backing originates. If you pull both reins at the same time, the hindquarters are not affected and this may cause considerable resistance. Animals that learn to “rein back” correctly will eventually learn to “rein back” on a mere tug of the reins and a shift of your body weight, but that is not the way to begin. Speed comes much later.

Horses and mules learn to “rein back” more easily than donkeys. As far as donkeys are concerned, why go backward when you can turn around to go forward? Because donkeys have a natural agility, this is not such a far-out way for them to think. However, if a donkey tried to turn around on a narrow trail with a rider aboard, his balance could be severely affected. Chances are, the donkey would make it, but the rider might not. The donkey needs to learn to “rein back” on command, because safety is of the utmost importance.

The simplest way to encourage your donkey to “rein back” is to ride or drive him into a three-sided tie stall, or anywhere that he has no way to escape but backward. Ask him to “rein back” with the cues outlined, and praise him for each step backward. If you are ground driving, just alternate long line pressure while you step backwards in unison with his back legs. Keep your squeeze/release action on the long lines minimal—pulling on your donkey’s mouth too much will only defeat your purpose. If your donkey is hitched to a vehicle, make sure that the weight of the cart or carriage that he has to push is not too heavy for him to manage. Adjust the breeching tightly enough so that your donkey can lean into it with his rear, and be sure that it is not so low that it will inhibit the motion of his upper hind legs.

If you have checked all of these factors and your donkey still will not back out of the stall, ask someone to act as your assistant, and have them wave a fearful object (such as a brightly colored scarf or plastic bag) low and in front of your donkey. He should dip his head to focus on the object (arching his back) and begin to “rein back,” apply the proper squeeze/release cues and after a few steps, reward him. You have set up a situation in which you can predict that his reaction will be the correct one. Once he has done this a few times, he should begin to make the connection between your cues and his action. Always keep your cues gentle, but clear. Be prepared to immediately praise those first one or two steps, and don’t ask for too many steps too soon. Just as an animal is conditioned to perform any other maneuver, his body must also be conditioned to “rein back.” Doing a “rein back” without conditioning the muscles that will be used can cause injury. Taking it slowly and cautiously diminishes the chance for resistance. Work up your speed in the “rein back” only after your equine is backing straight and easily. When he has had time off, be sure to take the time to recondition those muscles before again asking for speed.

I can’t count the hours that I have spent sitting on-board my donkey, waiting for a foot to move, giving the cue to just one side over and over again. Patience is the key to success with any animal, but with donkeys, it’s a necessity. Be patient and deliberate with your training. Don’t get upset, and don’t try to be forceful. Remember, he has to move sometime. Even donkeys get bored standing in one place for too long!

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.

© 2014, 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This article is an excerpt from the book, Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, 2014


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Wrangler’s Donkey Diary: Second Lesson Day



Simple hairbrush bristles remove more undercoat


The loose hair on top scrapes off easily


Place girth 4 inches from forearm


Lossen crupper strap & insert tail


Adjust snugly, but not tight


Much improved walking in sync


Proper turn through the gate


More impulsion & flexibility at walk left


First offer to trot easily


Begin reverse


Improved posture & balance at walk right


Offer to trot right


Hindquarter engagement before halt


Improved in sync back to work station


Slide saddle back to loosen crupper – learns to stand quietly


Remove saddle

Bristles are longer which is enough to get it all


No more shedding blade hair breakage


Adjust back girth snug enough to hold the saddle down


Scratch rear for relaxation of the tail


Place saddle over the center of balance


Patient while opening gate


Improved gate posture


Improved posture & balance at walk left


Beginning to find his balance


Complete reverse on correct pivot foot


Improved posture & balance at walk right


Finding balance at trot right


We did GOOD!


Remove bridle & put on halter


Slide crupper off tail


Back to the barn IN SYNC!

The Elbow Pull


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.

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Another Augie and Spuds Adventure: In the Park



“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!”