Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule- Ellie goes bitless.

I’ve been riding my mule, Ellie, for about 4 months now. We’ve trail ridden, done an intro endurance ride, and gone camping twice. We’re still learning about each other.

She exclusively neck reins and I’ve always ridden horses that direct rein. At first it was really hard to get used to, just because I’m in the habit of riding with short reins and light contact. Like many riders, my reins get tighter if I get nervous. I feel like a tighter rein is going to give me more control, even though that’s not true. It’s a false sense of security because often a tighter rein makes a nervous or jiggy horse even more nervous and jiggy.

Ellie is used to being ridden on a long, loose rein. I’m not gonna lie, it made me nervous at first, because she was pretty quick and she was super responsive to any leg aids. As soon as I touched her with my leg, she was moving out. Until I was sure she wasn’t going to take off on me, I was nervous to have her on a totally loose rein. The more I rode her, I realized she was rock solid and she wasn’t going to do anything stupid. I got the feeling that she was taking care of me. Because of saddle fit issues, I rode her in a bareback pad for a while and sometimes I would need to scoot back on the pad after going downhill. I would press on her withers and pop myself back and she would stop dead in her tracks until I got situated again. She let me get rebalanced before she went on down the trail. I didn’t ask her to stop; I can rebalance at a walk easily. But I like that she stopped to make sure I was okay up there. That’s a mule that’s looking out for the rider.

I thought about trying to teach her to direct rein, thinking maybe we could do some intro dressage classes at one of the local shows, but it was kind of a hot mess. She didn’t understand what I wanted and I could feel her getting nervous while trying to figure it out. I’m kind of over the show scene anyway, so I decided I needed to loosen up my reins, trust the mule and adjust myself to her style of riding instead of teaching her mine. If it ain’t broke… you know the rest.

A couple weeks ago, Ellie cut her face on something in the pasture and I couldn’t ride her in a bridle because of how close the cut was to the corner of her mouth where the bit sits. Once it had started to heal and I felt like I could ride her, I rode in a rope halter and clip on reins. I didn’t want to put a bit in her mouth until the cut was completely closed. On the trail it was fine, because on the trail there’s a clear path and I don’t need to give her very much direction on where to go. I am essentially a passenger on the trail with her. She is a machine and she doesn’t need any input from me. On trail rides, I sit back and let her do her thing. I may neck rein left or right if there’s a fork in the trail, but that’s about it.

I had no brakes in the rope halter though. Ellie is trained to do a one rein stop, which means you pull her head around to one side to stop her. I’ve always done the two rein stop, where you pull backward on both reins. Without a bit, when I tried the one rein stop, it only pulled the halter to one side of her face, and she didn’t understand what I was asking. When she doesn’t understand, she gets nervous. I can feel her looking for the right answer and getting upset when she can’t find it. She is always trying to do her best.

I kept riding her in the rope halter and worked on stopping her off my seat. I just lean back, shift my feet forward, and say “whoa.” It’s not pretty or technical riding, but she understands it. We’re not 100%, but I’m comfortable enough with our steering and stopping that I don’t have any plans of riding her in a bit again. In fact, I want to keep working on our communication and eventually drop the bridle altogether. Yep, I’d like to be able to ride her on the trail and out on the country road in nothing but a neck rope.

There aren’t many horses I would want to try that with, simply because I would be too nervous. With Ellie, I feel like she’s smart enough and willing enough to keep her mind on me even when things get squirrely. I’m still working on my confidence issues after riding my nightmare horse for a year. I feel like taking the bridle off will be more of a test of my confidence in myself and my willingness to trust than a reflection of Ellie. She wants to do what I want. We’ll see how good I am at communicating.

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