Starting Over With A Fractious Horse

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In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (www.tanz-pferde.com, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight
–Julie Goodnight

Are Mules More Difficult Than Horses?

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Question: Dear Julie,

I was at the Ohio Equine Affaire and was able to sit in on one of your talks. It was the one on ‘herd dynamics.’ Very, very useful information!
I have a three year old john mule, imprinted at birth and basically a very nice, well bred mule. Do you work with many mules? Are their characters more difficult than a horse?

I want to get him started under saddle (western style riding), soon. Unfortunately, he has to have a hernia repair before I start riding him; I hope to get started by May or June. I do have a trainer that will start him for me, he too has mules…..I am just trying to get as much information as I can so that I do NOT make mistakes that can’t be “fixed” at a later date.
I am up for any information that you might be able to help with.

Thank you for your time!

Sincerely,
Colleen

Answer: Colleen,

Too bad I didn’t have more time in my presentations on horse behavior to get into a discussion on mules. While the training and the eventual outcome is about the same for a horse and a saddle mule, there are some very clear differences in how they behave. Mules are not horses.
Horses, as everyone knows, are flight animals—it is their strongest instinctive set of behaviors and defines them as a species. Donkeys, on the other hand, are not flight animals at all. And in the case of a cross between a horse mare and a donkey, mules tend to most often take their behavior from the donkey side when it comes to flightiness. This has a bearing on some of the training techniques you would use—for instance, chasing a mule around the round pen endlessly will get you nowhere.

Often mules are cussed as being “stubborn,” when in fact, this is simply a matter of their natural behavior. They are more likely than horses to stop and think, or even turn and fight, when faced with a problem. This is one reason why you’ll see mules and donkeys chase after dogs more aggressively than horses and why they are sometimes placed in a herd to protect the herd from feral dogs, coyotes and the like.
The thinking side of their nature makes them better problem solvers than horses and also makes them less appreciative of repetition in their training. Once I get a mule to give me the correct response, I’ll generally move onto the next thing. If I ask it repeatedly, he’ll eventually refuse and look at me like I am an idiot—and then I’ve taught him to refuse me.

Unlike a horse, you cannot compel a mule to do something that may cause him harm. He’s smarter than that. A horse, will jump off a cliff if you ask him to and if he is accustomed to obeying your commands; a mule thinks for himself and has a higher sense of self-preservation. And if you ask him to do something stupid, you risk training him to be defiant and disobedient.

In fact, mules think so well that they often out-think their human handlers. They are very good at training people, which is one reason they don’t always have the best reputation. Mules learn dirty tricks easily, like dragging you around and running through their shoulders (when you ask them to turn right and they go left instead) and they can learn to avoid work and make you do their bidding. But like horses, mules have different temperaments—some are easy and compliant; some are tricky and shifty.

I’ve trained and ridden quite a few mules in my day and since all I knew was horse training, I pretty much used the same procedures and cues for mules as I did for horses. But I learned with mules to avoid repetition and keep the work sessions purposeful. Because mules may learn a little faster than some horses, you must be very careful that bad habits do not develop in his ground manners and over-all obedience. Getting help from a trainer that knows mules will certainly help and giving him a good foundation of training, combined with good handling will put you on your way to having a great saddle mule.

Mules are often considered superior to horses when it comes to trail riding—there’s nothing better for riding in the steep mountains. They are more sure-footed, tend to be smoother gaited and because of the aforementioned self-preservation and less flight response, some consider them safer than horses. Although mules compete in pretty much every discipline of riding and driving that there is, they usually don’t have quite the athletic ability of a well-built horse.

Have fun with your mule!
Julie Goodnight

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