by Susan Dudasik, Salmon, Idaho
I had an interesting ride with some new acquaintances last week and it really brought home how a person’s attitude and perspective affect our equines. Our group consisted of myself riding my mule, Ginger, two experienced riders and a novice rider, all on horses. We were just walking along a nice country dirt road that all the equines had been on before. The main thing that caught my attention was how all three horse riders kept worrying about what their horses would do. For the entire ride the riders were constantly commenting on things their horse might spook at. Honestly, I really didn’t see that the horses were having any issues; they were just walking down the road. It was the riders that were constantly looking for spookies. They commented, “I can’t believe he didn’t spook at the sprinklers,” or “Wow, he didn’t freak at the four-wheeler,” or “That bird almost spooked him.” It was sad that they had such little trust in their equine partners and that they thought the horses were so spookie. One gal even commented that her goal for the ride was to not get run away with or dumped. I don’t think they made one positive comment about their horses during the whole ride. They were too focused on the “what-if’s” to have any fun.
Actually if something had happened, it would have been a self-fulling prophesy. The riders were so intent on being “on alert” for anything that “might” spook the horses, that they were sending signals to the horses to be on alert, too. Though the riders had little clue they were doing this. As I watched them, they were tense and looking ahead for “spookies.” As soon as they saw something of concern, they would tense up, hold their breath, take a tighter hold on the reins and stare at the object. For the horse, suddenly the leader on its back was on alert, so there must be something to be concerned about. As soon as the horse started trying to interpret this and look for the danger, the rider would tense up even more. It was a vicious circle. Then when the horse did react, the rider said, “See, I told you, he spooks at everything!”
The “what-if’s” can happen to anyone, any age or skill level. It’s a human thing and often we don’t even realize our insecurity is having an effect on our mules. In fact, we don’t even realize we are reacting in any different way but our mind says one thing and our body says another. We may think we aren’t concerned about something, but our muscles tense up, our breathing changes, our hands get stronger on the reins and we tend to stare at what is concerning us. Mules’ are very sensitive and can feel these subtle changes in our bodies and they react accordingly.
I’m terribly prone to the “what-if’s” and have to work very hard to overcome them. I can come up with tons of negative scenarios when doing something new with my mule. Will she spook, bolt, jump, refuse to go forward? As I’m thinking of these things, my body starts reacting and then I feel my mule start to tense up. Thus, it’s actually my fault, not hers.
Overcoming the “what-if’s” is an individual process and each person has to find their own way to deal with it. But, the biggest step is to first recognize and admit to yourself that you have this problem. The power of our thoughts is very real and can influence how our mule acts. When talking about your mule’s behavior, what do you say? Are you positive or negative? Is everything your mule’s fault? Something I’ve noticed as an instructor is that as folks get older, they comment that their mule spooks more than it used to. Perhaps it’s the person that’s becoming more cautious and their mule is picking up on that.
Most folks don’t even realize how their body language changes when they start to think about the “what-ifs.” Here I’m relaxed with soft hands and working on light contact as the mule is willingly moving forward. My foot is lightly resting in the stirrup
The next thing is to work on not holding your breath and tensing up your body when riding past a “spookie.” Don’t look at it, focus on something in the distance and ride with purpose forward. Now, here comes the hardest part! Try not to pull on the reins. You can shorten them in case you need to use them, but don’t pull back. Push your hands forward to “allow” your mule go forward. If your mule is really sensitive, just clinching your grip on the reins is enough to communicate your anxiety. Personally, this is one of the hardest things to do since I’m just sure my mule will jump forward or take off. It takes everything I have to actually keep the reins loose and not tense up.
Riding should be fun, but not if it’s turned into a dreaded challenge to get your mule down the road without him spooking at everything. If this has been happening, the next time you ride, spend some time really evaluating what you are doing. Are you looking for things your mule might spook at? Are you tensed up or holding your breath? Give your mule a break and consider that you might be part of his spooking problems. Your mule will thank you for it!