Monday, January 27, 2014

The Stubborn Mule Myth

We've all heard it said "You are as stubborn as a mule!". But the truth is, a mule is no more stubborn than a horse or any other creature.  It is simply more cautious and full of thought. I've often said, the trouble with a mule is, they are SO smart, that if you aren't careful, they will spend more time trying to out-think you than just do what you ask. You see, mules take after the inquisitive side of their sire, the donkey.  They are often hard to convince into doing something they perceive as unsafe thus making unfamiliar riders and handlers have a rather large equine that is persistent on their hands.  One way to put it, mules make up their own minds and will not take your word for anything.   More often than not, they decide for themselves.
   But, one can get through to them with patience, persistence and being firm when training.  When the mule is focusing on you, it is less likely to react to obstacles that often spook any equine on the trail.  To keep the mule busy, direct where its feet go instead of letting it wander around aimlessly.  You can teach mules to sidepass or even back up a few steps to regain its attention, and this will reduce the chance of it panicking with something new or scary.   Practice this before you go out on the trail, and in time the mule will understand that not everything is 'going to eat him'.   Each time you ride your mule, it is in training.  Training happens each time you interact with an animal. Being consistent and firm is part working with mules.
     Horses and mules both respond to pressure-release training techniques. Once you have established where the responsiveness in a finished horse or mule lies, you will be amazed in just how receptive a mule can be with years of training.  There is no quick way to get this achieved, and instant gratification does not exist.   Mules respond to pressure by pushing, and handlers often tend to pull against that pressure. But pressure itself does nothing for you.  The release of that pressure is what teaches the mule.
     Trail riding is full of teaching opportunities.  However, many people do not work with mules at home to teach them all the possibilities of disaster while on the trail, and positive reinforcement is wasted on the mule.  Preparing for obstacles while at home can be easy, such as crossing streams and puddles.  At first the mule will do everything it can to avoid it by sidestepping or even jumping across.  Be prepared for this, using your reins and legs to guide it through the stream or puddle.  Once it makes even the slightest attempt at this, reward it by releasing that pressure.  A mule needs to know it will be rewarded for trying.
     Unfortunately people are more likely to jab or spur their mule forward instead of releasing the pressure.  This teaches the mule that puddles and streams are scary and is less productive in training.  Mules can make up their own minds about things and people need to understand that they need reinforcement when dealing with fear.
     Approaching bridges can be a chore, but working with the mule in the same way as crossing a stream or a puddle it can be done.  Guide the mule to the bridge, and let it stop and reward for the smallest try.  Remember, patience and persistence are key in training mules.
     When teaching a mule to walk around boulders or large rocks, guide it gently going both directions. Getting them used to going back through the obstacle helps mules understand they can get through tight spots.  Going one way is not enough.  A mule needs to learn lessons on both sides of its body.  Sometimes on trail one may need to mount or even dismount on the right side.  Training a mule to be two sided is key in trail riding.
     Most mules would rather jump over an obstacle while on trail.  Teaching them to walk across objects such as fallen logs and rocks is important in both the animal's safety as well as the rider.   Start with landscaping timbers on the ground, asking the mule to walk across, then gradually raise the height accordingly to get the mule adjusted to walking over things on the trail.
     There are two kinds of lessons that last: those that scare the heck out of you, and those we learn out of repetition.  Lessons learned over time are the safest, and creating situations at home in training are easy to do.   Practice and prepare in a safe environment, and remember that the more precise and consistent you are when teaching your mule, the easier it is for your mule to learn.

Brooks Gaited Horse Training

1 comment:

  1. Hello April and Burl,
    Great post! I'm going to be flying to Molokai, Hawaii and doing the mule ride down to the valley floor - 26 switchbacks. I'm afraid of heights, but I will trust the mule to deliver my safely from the top to the bottom and back up again.

    I'm planning to write a blog post about the experience and would like permission to quote you (April?) using your opening comments about mules. Are you okay with that? NancyBrownConsulting at comcast dot net. Please let me know. Thanks.