Dominated Horse Logo

Dear Julie,
I have a 13-year-old Paint Horse mare who is very dominant. She came to my barn as a two year old and I already had an18-year-old gelding and a 4-year-old mare. In just a few days, she was the Alpha.
Her ground manners with me are quite nice, but the problem seems to be related to her strong response to outside stimuli, whether it is a horse or something else. This is particularly a problem when I am trail riding—as her attention is quickly diverted. Generally, I will begin to do leg yields or ask for something that I know I can get, but occasionally she catches me off guard.
Additionally, if she doesn’t want to do something, she just stops. I ask once, tell once, and then use a crop or spurs. Her response is bucking and head tossing, but then she moves on. Everyone knows to clear out when she stops, as the scenario unfolds about the same each time. Her teeth have been checked and she doesn’t appear to be saddle sore. Could you share your thoughts with me?
Thank you so much for your time.
Dominated No More
Dear Dominated,
If you’re certain you have ruled out any physical issues in your mare, then you have to look to training.
As for getting and keeping your horse’s attention, here’s what I suggest. Even though you say her ground manners are good, I would work her on the ground first, in the easiest location, then in any environment where you have trouble keeping her attention. I would work very doggedly on two issues: 1) don’t move your feet unless I tell you to, and 2) keep your nose in front of your chest at any time you’re in my presence.
Controlling the feet and the nose are very critical for keeping your horse’s focus and obedience, especially from the saddle. But you must have complete control of the nose, shoulder, hip and feet from the ground first.
Most people think they can control the feet and the nose but when you get to it, the horse is in total control of when and where he moves his nose and feet. There are numerous articles about this type of lead line work in the Training Library on my website so I’ll let you read about it there. I also have a video called Lead Line Leadership that shows a series of exercises you can do from the ground with any horse to gain respect, focus and obedience from your horse.
Secondly, I would begin to reinforce the “nose” rule when I am riding. Any horse I ride, I don’t care the age or training, is expected to keep his nose in front of his chest while I am riding. I do not let them be “looky-lous” or vary the track on which they are moving. A simple correction with the opposite rein (if he is looking right, use the left rein) is all it takes. In about thirty seconds to a minute, I can teach the horse this rule. The problem most people have in correcting is the technique and the timing; in fact, those two words cover any and all horse and rider problems. To correct the nose properly, you have to use perfect technique and perfect timing.
Technique: you must bump lightly UP on ONE rein. Ninety-eight percent of riders will pull back instead of bump or flick up on the rein. Seventy-five percent of riders pull rather than bump, and with both reins. You want to bump lightly and smoothly (not jerking) with your thumb pointed up and out, so that your wrist twists open. Bump exactly in this manner (not pulling back) until the horse brings his nose to your hand.
Timing: you must release sooner rather than later. You must release when the horse first makes an effort and then ask again for just a tiny bit more and release. The horse is focused on the release and if it doesn’t come immediately, he will stiffen and resist. Apply the correction 100% of the time; this takes a lot of concentration but once your horse learns the rule (keep your nose in front of your chest) he will comply. But first he must know you will correct him, gently but relentlessly, before he will comply (this is true of all things with horses, they must know you’re committed before they are obedient).
Before you loose control of your horse, you lose his nose position. Enforcing the nose rule, is keeping your horse’s focus on the task at hand and what you have asked her to do. This requires concentration and persistence on your part too. I would either put my horse to work or disengage his hindquarters every time her attention wanders (which is obvious by his ears and nose position). Put him to work by just asking him to do something (stop, go, turn, backup, circle, trot a circle, walk-trot-walk transitions, etc.). When she is compliant, let her relax and as soon as her attention wanders, put her back to work. All you have to do is create an association between her actions (losing focus on you) and having to work harder.
There are many articles on my website about disengagement and why and how you do it. I would start with making small turns R-L-R-L in a random pattern. Every time I change the direction of my horse’s nose and shoulder, I am gaining more control and keeping her neck relaxed and moving side to side. I am also bending her whole body, moving her feet and disengaging the hindquarters. As she relaxes and focuses on me, I let her go straight; horses get tired of circling and turning quickly, so she will look for what gets her the release. Again, timing and technique determine the success.
Technique: Make random turns in both directions using your whole body to turn, starting with your eyes, making sure both hands point in the direction you want your horse to turn, not pulling back on the reins, but to the side and up with the inside hand. (see articles on equitation and rein aids in my Training Library). Your hands would be applying the leading rein (inside) and the neck rein (outside). Never turn a horse quickly or ask him to do something in anger. Your leg aids must reinforce the rein aids and control the horse’s barrel too (the reins control the nose but the rein and legs control the shoulder and the body of the horse).
Timing: Always cue the horse slowly to turn so that he might possibly have time to move his head before the pull comes on his mouth. When your horse’s attention wanders, do not rush to the correction, but slowly and methodically ask the horse to do something. Ask him to perform his paces in a perfunctory manner, not in a punishing manner.
When the horse balks on you, you simply need to move his feet. But do not try to kick or spur him into action, that will almost always lead your horse to explode because his feet are stuck in one place and you have lost control. Pulling his nose to the side and disengaging his hindquarters will un-stick his feet, then you can move right into changes of direction and controlling the horse’s nose. If need be, turn him in the direction he wants to go to get his feet unstuck but immediately turn his nose the other way. If this horse is obedient to your legs at other times but suddenly “pulls up” (suddenly bulks and refuses to move forward) on you, kicking her or spurring her more will not necessarily help and may cause a burst of movement from your horse. Bending and disengaging will un-stick the feet with less drama. So when she plants her feet, rather than get in a big fight over asking her to move her feet, ask her something different: flex, bend, disengage, leg yield, etc. Ask, release. Ask, release. Ask something else.
That’s what I would do with a horse whose attention is wandering and leading her to be non-responsive and disobedient. Good luck and be careful!
Julie Goodnight

Are Mules More Difficult Than Horses? Logo

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!


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

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.