Thursday, May 15, 2014

Who's The Boss?

by Susan Dudasik

How often have you heard someone complain that his mule won’t let him pick up his feet, touch his ears, trailer load, work a rope gate, back up...or so on. It’s amazing how many “problem” mules there are. Or perhaps, it’s not the mule; it just might be the person who’s the problem.

As herd animals, mules prefer a strong leader. They like to know where their boundaries are. When a new mule is introduced to the herd, he quickly learns his place in the pecking order. Mules have a way of working things out. He learns not to fool with the lead mare/molly and which ones he can dominate. It’s an ingrained part of his nature and things usually work harmoniously, until the human enters the picture. As long as the person acts similar to the herd leader by demanding respect and providing leadership, the mule is content. But when the person fails to place boundaries on the mule or is indecisive in his leadership, the mule quickly dominates the person and problems occur. Unless the mule has been involved in a severe accident, most of his “bad” habits can be traced back to improper handling, an inexperienced handler or someone simply letting him “get away” with something.

Often people unknowingly create problems simply because they’re in a hurry. They don’t realize that every second spent with their mules contributes either in a positive or negative way to the relationship and it only takes a few times before an action becomes a habit. For example, Kelly’s mule was excited to join his pasture buddies and she was late for an appointment. As she led him to the gate, he pulled on the lead, danced around, and shoved her into the fence with his head. As Kelly opened the gate, her mule crashed through. She managed to get the halter off of him before he galloped away. A few days later, he again pranced and danced his way to the gate. It worked before and again Kelly did absolutely nothing about his behavior except reward him by turning him out. The third time she tried to turn him out, the instant the gate was open, he jerked the lead out of her hand and gleefully ran off.

Mules are like little kids. They keep pushing until you say “no,” and like kids, they know when you’re not going to do anything about what they are doing. When working with your mule, you need to be consistent. Don’t say “no” one time and let him get away with something another. If Kelly had simply insisted her mule stand still when she led him to the gate the first time, things would have been different. But because she was in a hurry and didn’t want to waste time, she now has a dangerous problem that needs to be dealt with.

Whenever you’re working around your mule or asking him to do something, you need to follow through with what you’ve asked. If he doesn’t do it, you need to stay at it until he does. If you ask him to move over, make sure he moves, even if it’s only a step. He needs to respect your space. Ignoring little things like this lead to bigger problems. Internationally known trainer Pat Parelli has a saying: “If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.” How true. If Kelly had taken a few seconds to make her mule stand still, she wouldn’t have to spend time re-teaching him proper gate manners.

When working with your mule it’s up to you as to the way he behaves. If you allow him to do something and then don’t correct it, you’re the cause of the problem. The mule doesn’t know it’s wrong. How can he? You let him do it. And if he keeps doing it, you’re also the problem because you’re the one letting it continue instead of investing the time to correct it.

Mules are living entities with their own instincts, reactions and ideas, but they are generally willing to follow a person’s leadership as long as it’s consistent, fair and predictable. Becoming a good equine leader takes a willingness on your part to slow down, be decisive about what you want and “taking the time it takes.” By doing so, you’ll not only have a well-trained mule, but an exceptional partnership with your mule.

Susan Dudasik is an equine journalist, NARHA Certified riding instructor and a mule enthusiast. She's competed in numerous trail class events, holds clinics and teaches groundwork and trail classes at Misfit Farm in Salmon, Idaho. The advice given here is meant only as a guide. A professional trainer should handle any serious mule training problems.

Who's leading who? This mule has decided to head back to the barn, dragging his young handler with him
But, with a good tug on the lead, the handler has taken control of the situation, established her leadership and prevented the mule from getting away

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