Here’s a simple question, what’s the first thing you do before you get on your mule? I often ask this question when I’m helping someone mounting up for a lesson or clinic and they are about to put their foot in the stirrup. Their response is, “Check the cinch, make sure the mule is squared up, or be sure the saddle is straight.” Good answers. But often, as I’m watching the person prepare to mount, I notice they have both hands on the saddle and the reins are lying on the mule’s neck. So, my next question is, “Do you have any control of your mule?” Think about that for a second.
Next time you’re around a group of riders, observe their mounting techniques. Take note of which mules stand still and which ones walk off as the rider gets on. Who had full control of their mule before getting on and which didn’t have hold of the reins? Lots of folks complain that their mule doesn’t stand when they get on, but is it really the mule’s fault or the rider? A typical scenario is that the rider grabs the saddle with both hands and pulls themselves into the seat. As they do, the mule is often pulled off balance causing him to move or it simply decides to walk away. Now the rider has to scramble to get into the saddle and fumble around to find the reins. In that time, the mule has walked off several strides before the rider gets the reins, yells “WHOA!” and gives a hard yank on the reins causing the mule to throw its head to escape the harsh pull. As this method continues, the mule learns to resent being mounted by grabbing the bit, moving away from the rider or maybe trotting or running off several strides. Then, the rider complains that the mule has a problem and wouldn’t stand still. Sadly, this is not something only beginner riders do. Many of the folks I ask this question to are seasoned, experienced riders who assume their mule will stand still. And, most often, they do. But, things do happen and if the rider isn’t in control of the situation, things can go south really fast.
Some of the biggest buzz words in the equine industry are “timing and feel.” When mounting, it’s very easy to feel if your mule is about to walk off. To do so, he must shift his weight or move his body in some way before he can actually step forward. Here’s the “feel” part. If you’re in tune to your mule, you will feel this slight action. Now for the “timing.” As you feel the mule move to start walking off, you need to correct it as quickly as possible. If you have the reins in your hand, you may simply need to close your fingers on the reins and say “whoa,” for your mule to instantly get the message. If you have to scramble to find and grab the reins, the “timing” is all off and the mule gets confused since the correcting rein cue to stand comes after he’s already walked off, not before.
The easiest way to make mounting, and dismounting, a safe process for you and your mule is to have hold of at least one rein before putting a foot in the stirrup. Many instructors advise making the rein closest to you a bit shorter than the other so if your mule does walk off, you can pull his head around causing him to circle around you. Much like a one-rein stop when mounted. You don’t have to have his head cranked around to his side, or the reins so tight he can’t move, you just need to have contact so if your mule does start to step off, you can quickly correct him.
If you look on the internet or in various equine magazines, you will find numerous ways to “correct” the equine and “fix” his problem of walking off. With all that advice, it’s apparent this is a common problem in the equine world. Again, if you observe riders at a show, trail ride, clinic or other activity, you’ll be surprised how many people get on a thousand-pound, independently thinking, fight or flight, equine without having any form of control. This is not really a trust issue, it is a safety and training issue. Some will argue they trust their mule to stand when they get on no matter what. OK, if you want to consider it a trust issue, why would a mule trust you if you allow him to walk off, then harshly correct him? He’s trusting you to let him know what you expect of him in a fair manner. So, the next time you mount up, be considerate of your mule and support him by taking hold of the reins before you step into the stirrup.
What’s wrong with this picture? Does your mule walk off when you try to get on?
Maybe you are the reason
Having control of your mule before putting a foot in the stirrup is a major training and safety factor
Even though the mule is standing still, the rider still keeps slight contact on the reins as she adjusts her stirrup, just in case the mule tries to walk off
Susan Dudasik is an equine journalist, PATH Intl. 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.