by Jennifer Schmuck
After Steph’s wreck (“Once They Know How To Get Rid Of You,” Mules and More, February 2011, pages 32-34) I knew something had to be done.
After the wreck I could not think straight at all. I concentrated on looking after Steph, who had three broken ribs and was in severe pain.
After a few days I finally settled down and started thinking about the situation. As with any mule/horse/donkey/dog/pet, etc., it all boils down to four options when a problem occurs. First option: give the animal away. Two: have the animal stay with a trainer to fix the problem. Three: have a trainer help you fix the problem. Four: fix it yourself.
The first option was never an option for us, we know what a great mule Larry is, and he will only get better. That’s what my friend Cindy said when she met Larry, and she is absolutely right. The second option wasn’t an option, as the trainer I would have chosen (Loren Basham, of PairADice Mules in Belle, Mo., who found Larry for us) is on the other side of the ocean. We would not take Larry out of his home and leave him with a trainer we don’t know here in Germany. Plus, Larry has bonded very strongly with Steph and needs to see him every day. The third option was something to think about. The fourth option scared me at that point, as I had been deeply shocked by the incident and felt shaken still.
I had worked for almost ten years as a behavioral therapist mainly for canines, but occasionally for horses, donkeys, a goat, or whoever needed me. I had worked on behavior modification, conquering an animal’s fear and similar issues using positive reinforcement. I was qualified to work with Larry, but I was not yet ready. So I decided to call Gary, a trainer from the United States, who is now in his seventies and has been living and working in Germany for the past 15 years. He had also worked and showed mules in the US.
I tried to explain the problem to Gary, which wasn’t easy. It took me another week to really see through it all and understand that Larry has a problem dealing with anything new. In our first talk on the phone Gary told me the same thing as Loren had recommended via email already: sack Larry out. Well, that sounded easy enough! Gary also thought we have to do that ourselves, and said we could meet later in the process. He did not have much hope for us first, as he said Larry is already 10 years old and set in his ways. But when I told him that we had worked through the problem with Larry’s hind feet and that Larry is great with giving all his feet now, he was impressed and said Larry must have a very nice disposition. You bet he has!
I started with a homemade flag. Just a whip with a small rag tied to the tip of it, nothing scary. Well, that’s what I thought! I divided the paddock so that I had a square to work in, that kept Larry with me and Katie out of the way. Now you just heard me say that Larry has a problem dealing with anything he doesn’t know, right? So to divide the paddock was something new and unusual, and a whip with a rag on it was unusual too. And there I was, wanting to work on despooking Larry, setting him up in a weird surrounding holding something very weird in my hand. In a split second Larry was displaying one of the behavior patterns I wanted to change: running bug eyed from something scary. Great. Exactly what I did not want!
It took me quite a while until Larry stood still, but I only needed to lift that short whip with the rag (a.k.a. the mule eating monster) and off he went again. That was no good. I ended on a good note, meaning I calmly put away the whip when Larry stopped to stare at me and gasp for breath.
The next day I took the rag off the whip, divided the paddock and got to the point that I could touch Larry with the rag, on his neck. The day after that I had to start all over again, and that was the point when my background as a trainer kicked in. I was such an idiot! It was time to regroup, and put some facts to paper.
The notes I take as a behavioral therapist in these cases are different, as I try to understand the background of the “patient.” If I just want to modify a behavior I write down what that is, then what kind of behavior I would like to see instead and find a way to modify the behavior pattern.
The behavior patterns of Larry were a) shutting down and ignoring something that bothers him (we call that the stimulus) until he cannot take it anymore, and then b) run from it in panic. If you don’t know Larry well, you would not ever realize he is shutting down if you don’t push him over his threshold so that he tries to run. If Larry is scared enough he won’t shut down but run immediately (as in the moment he was scared and bolted in the indoor arena). It’s difficult to recognize his seemingly calm behavior as a complete shut down. You’re dealing with an animal that has withdrawn from the situation and is in self-preservation mode. But if you know Larry you can see how his eyes lose their focus, and even his ears aren’t pointed towards anything anymore. If you work while he or any other animal is in that state, you’re just wasting your time as the animal is not able to learn while withdrawn mentally from the situation. Not so much different to a human being under severe stress or fear!
Now what behavior would I rather like to see? I want Larry to be courageous enough to face a scary thing, check it out, and know it is something he can deal with. I don’t want him to be oblivious to his surroundings, that, in my opinion would not be desirable in a good trail mule, but I want him to find his own courage to check the “mule eating monster” out. Many people want their equines just like their dogs; to be used to anything and everything and be OK with it. The thing is, you really cannot desensitize your animal to any and all possible stimuli to get him used to it. Instead you can aim for a desirable reaction to something new. That reaction should not be scared, but interested in something new or scary, and if insecure to check in with you.
Were I working with a dog, I would use positive reinforcement (clicker training preferably) and modify typical canine behavior (either stare at something strange and react to it, or try to run) into the desired behavior (look at the scary/dangerous thing, look away from it at me to check in and have this behavior reinforced). Now I was working with a mule, so the behavior I wanted to reinforce was to not shut down or run off, but face the danger and even check in with me. To achieve that, the crucial point is not to drive Larry over his threshold, not to push him too far so that he either shuts down or tries to bolt. He is a very smart guy, and I’m trying to show him that if he faces the danger, he’ll be fine.
Training this involves a method called “Advance and Retreat.” The main idea is simple and sounds easy: if the equine stands still or faces the danger, you take the danger away. This is supposed to make the equine no longer feel helpless, but more courageous.
In practice, this way of desensitizing looks like this: you approach with the scary thing (“advance”). Only advance so far that you see the mule tense or take off (you are working with a rope and rope halter, and in some fenced in area). Do not advance any further, as this is the point at which you will cross the threshold if you are not very careful! Now the mule is allowed to run around you if needed, to move his feet, to stare and snort. You stay where you are, just keep the nose of the equine tipped towards you. The moment the movement stops, or if the mule hasn’t started to move around, the moment you see some sign of relaxation, you take away the stimulus. That’s the retreat. The second you see a desired reaction to the stimulus, retreat (as in taking away the scary thing, take a few steps back, say a few soothing words). Then repeat. You will be able to advance further and further each time. You will see some very nice progress in a short time, provided you do not cross the threshold and never advance further than your equine tells you he’s OK with. In a very short time the equine will understand that holding still and relaxing will make the scary thing go away.
While this is a simple concept, it sounds difficult. It is easy though, only the timing is not always easy to keep. Two common mistakes are overwhelming the equine and scaring him even more and taking away the stimulus while the equine is reacting poorly to it. If you know the website youtube.com, you will find a video of Julie Goodnight (horsemastertv) showing a short glimpse of how it is done. You can also find an article on this method on her website. She very probably describes it much better than I can, haha! Email if you can’t find it and I’ll send you the link.
Has this way of desensitizing made Larry not wary of new things? No, not yet, but he is already much more willing to give them a chance. It will take more time until he will be really accepting of new things, but he has already changed a lot. He used to go away when Steph was working in the paddock, for example using a ladder to climb up and change a light bulb in the shed. Usually Katie came investigating while Larry went away to the hayfeeder so that he could safely ignore the scary ladder. Now they both come investigating (which does not make working easier for Steph). When I come with something new to work on with Larry, he doesn’t snort and try to go away, he just backs up to a safe distance to look at it and we can go from there. I have to keep in mind that if you change something, you have to go back again and do the same all over again, albeit faster than before. When I saddled Larry, the paper feed bag I was using for desensitizing was making sounds on the saddle which was very scary again, so I had to start over with the paper bag although he was fine with it when not carrying his saddle. Also, what you do on one side of the mule you have to do all over again on the other side. Larry for example is much spookier when touched from his right side. When it was obvious that Larry would not try to run anymore (which was already on the second day of working with him like I described), I stopped dividing the pen and Katie “helped.” Helping as in being bored by the whole thing, and asking for a piece of carrot when she couldn’t have been in the way more. Because for Katie, nothing is more boring than being desensitized! I am really proud to say that today Larry helped Steph changing a neon lamp on the hay shed. He stood right beside the ladder, investigating the neon lamp, the plastic shield, and even the cardboard box it all came in. He stayed right there with Steph, so that when the new lamp was installed he could have his ears scratched. Katie was bored and eating hay from the feeder, while Larry paid such careful attention I’m sure next time he’ll change that neon lamp all by himself!