Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule #6- If you give a mule a choice…

I recently read a blog post that blew my mind. I came across it while lying in bed playing with my phone at 2 a.m. because I couldn’t sleep after having a really rotten day. Let me tell you about my day. . .

I had planned to ride Miss Mule in a Christmas parade, but I got rear-ended the night before Thanksgiving and can’t haul with my truck until I get it fixed. I borrowed a truck so I could go. I went to load up Miss Mule, which usually takes about 15 minutes in my little trailer (1 -2 minutes in my friend’s bigger trailer). I wouldn’t say she has trailer loading issues; she just prefers a larger trailer than mine. I got her in right away, but my kid didn’t shut the door (that’s her job; it’s a team effort), and Ellie tried to back out. Unfortunately I had already clipped her in and, when she pulled back, she broke her halter. Her halter came flying off and she went off grazing in the yard.  I caught her again with no problem, but then it took 30 minutes to get her in the trailer. At that point, I should have just not gone. I had a feeling it was going to be a nightmare getting her in on the way home, and I should have listened to my gut.

Wearing her special Christmas halter that she broke.

I use positive reinforcement training most of the time. I won’t rope a horse onto the trailer, won’t beat it, won’t lunge it to exhaustion, or any of the other popular methods of trailer loading. I will, however, practice with a horse every single day for a month until the trailer is no big deal or feed a horse inside the trailer so that he associates the trailer with good things. I tried all those other methods when I was less experienced than I am now. I’m not an expert or even very skilled, but I have tried it both ways and I know that the slow method is best in the long run. I don’t want to sacrifice my relationship with the horse, so if that means we don’t go anywhere and I miss an event because of trailer loading, so be it. The horse’s long term trust and respect for me is more important. I feel like it’s my job to prepare the horse well ahead of time to get on the trailer, instead of stressing the horse out by insisting he load RIGHT NOW OR ELSE.

All of that to say I should have stayed home, because I had a feeling the trailer was going to be an issue. Little did I know.

At the parade, Miss Mule was fantastic. I got on her too early and we ended up standing around a lot, something she hates, but she controlled herself and stood around bored. When it was time to go, she went right to the front of all the horses and wanted to go faster, but we were right behind a flat bed trailer full of carolers that blocked her path. I kept her behind it and it paced for me. She was totally calm during the parade. I have no complaints there.

Annoyed at standing around before the parade.

At the end, things fell apart. Thank God my friend saw what happened, because I did not. Ellie was walking next to a woman driving a little cart with a mini horse. Ellie wasn’t bothered by it in the least, even though a lot of other horses were freaked about the mini and his cart. Right at the end of the parade route, I felt Ellie kick out. I looked down at the woman, who was supremely pissed at me, and asked if Ellie had just kicked her. She said that Ellie had tried. Well, with a mule, there is no try, there is only do or do not. If she had wanted to nail that lady in the head, she would have. She was plenty close to her.

I was completely stunned. Ellie has NEVER kicked. I’ve stood behind her to get her in the trailer and she has never so much as lifted a hoof. I apologized profusely, but the lady was huffy so I just got Ellie away from her.

Happy to finally be going somewhere!

My daughter and her friend had walked in the parade with our dog, so I got off Ellie to look for the kids. I didn’t want to ride her with people milling around, especially after the kicking incident. I found my kids, and right about that time, the other horses started turning and going back toward the trailers. I started walking that way with Ellie, but she started panicking about them leaving her behind. She was a little goofy at the endurance ride about being left behind by faster horses, but nothing like this. This was totally new territory for her.

She got so worked up that I could tell she was about to take off, and I had to let go and let her follow after the horses. That is so dangerous for everyone and embarrassing for me! I was totally embarrassed at not being able to control her. The weird thing is, she went right past the horses like she was looking for the trailer, and when I called to her she turned around and came back toward me. So there’s that, I guess. In her distress she did end up seeking me out for help.

I led her in front of all the horses and then made her stand and wait for them to go ahead of us back to the trailers. I got her back under control and she calmed down and started acting like herself again. But she wouldn’t go near the trailer. She wouldn’t even get close enough for me to tie her to it. I had to soothe her and lead her slowly over to it. I had never seen her so worked up about anything, and I was totally bewildered.

Poor Miss Mule. We both had a pretty crappy day.

I knew I had a struggle ahead to load her, so I started trying while everyone was still loading up. Thankfully lots of people came over to help. It was dark by this time and that never helps.

We started trying, and she started kicking! She has NEVER kicked in the time that I’ve had her. I’ve loaded her a bunch of times in my little trailer and even when she’s been reluctant and once even bolted back to the barn, she’s never offered to kick. I knew something was weird. This was just not her at all.

At that point, I stood back and let a couple people try to load her. I knew my energy was not helpful to the situation. I wasn’t mad at her but I was irritated about the whole day, and I didn’t understand why she was acting like this. What had happened that set her off?

One girl said she looked like she was a little ouchy on her back end. She had felt fine during the parade. I commented to my friend that this was totally out of character for Ellie and that she had also kicked out at the lady in the cart. My friend said, “Well, yeah! Because the lady HIT HER WITH THE CART!”

As soon as she said that, I knew that was the issue. The lady must have clipped her pretty good for Ellie to kick, because she’s generally a very forgiving animal. From there the situation had deteriorated. I had made Ellie get in the trailer, brought her to this strange, stressful event, let her get hit by a cart, kept her away from the herd, and then had the audacity to try and load her again. Ellie was OVER IT.

As soon as I heard that she’d been hit, my whole energy about the situation changed and that’s when she got in the trailer. I mean, like 2 minutes later we had her in. I went from being bummed about the whole day, feeling sorry for myself, and asking her “Why are you doing this to me?” to feeling compassion for her and saying, “I’m sorry I let that happen to you.”

I’m happy to say that we didn’t resort to any forceful measures to get her on the trailer. She finally inched her way in for peppermints. I really believe that the shift in my energy had a lot to do with it. I’m a big believer in energy.

That brings me back to the blog post and my training style. You really need to go read the post to understand it. To summarize it poorly, learned helplessness is when a human or animal is given a negative stimuli (like an electric shock) so relentlessly with no chance to mitigate or change the outcome, that the human or animal shuts down and stops trying. They learn that they’re helpless- nothing they do will make it stop. The blog post comes to the conclusion that a lot of our horse training methods result in learned helplessness. The horse is forced onto the trailer, or is put into such a state of psychological stress that the horse finally gives up and gets on. The horse is not given a choice. He isn’t given time to think through it. He has to get on the trailer RIGHT NOW because we have a show! If the horse resists, pain and fear based methods are used to make him comply. So eventually he stops resisting. Many of what we call bombproof or “broke” horses are just that- broken. (It isn’t all bad though- seriously, go read the post.)

Ellie could be described as both bombproof and broke. I saw a completely different side of her at the parade and it bewildered me. Where did that come from? I took it personally. Does she not trust me? I feel like I’ve done a really good job building her trust and showing her that I’m a fair and kind leader. Hell, three days ago I was riding her BRIDLELESS. Why would she do this to me?

My way of training has changed since I learned what I feel is a better way. I don’t make my horses do anything. I don’t use harsh bits (I actually prefer not to use a bit at all), I don’t use training tools like tie downs to solve behavioral issues, and I don’t immediately resort to force when they resist. I build their trust and respect so that when I ask, usually they comply. The key word is USUALLY. The difference is, they have an option of saying no, and they know it. I’ve never forced Ellie to do anything.

The guy I got Ellie from is not a super gentle, lovey dovey guy. I’m not bashing him in any way, but he’s old school. The mule needs to get in the trailer, cross the creek, jump the log and do what he says when he says it. There isn’t room for discussion. He has a job to do and he expects the mule to do her part. He trains broke, bombproof mules. Ellie is a product of his training and she’s a good, hard-working animal. I am thankful every single time I ride her for her level of training. But he said to me when I came to pick her up, “I never loved her and she never loved me.”

I have a different goal for her. I want a different kind of relationship. I absolutely want her to respect me, but I want to earn it in a different way. I want more of a partnership than a boss/ employee relationship, and that means Ellie has the option of telling me no.

Tonight was the first time Ellie has told me no. From the outside, it might look like I can’t control her or she doesn’t respect me, and that’s partially true. Tonight I realized we have some more work to do. I thought we were more solid than this. But at the same time, I’m proud that she was sticking up for herself in the only way she could. If she had hopped right on the trailer, I never would have had the conversation where I found out the cart had actually hit her and she wasn’t just being mean.

So, yeah, the day was kind of a disaster, but I learned some things. I learned that our trailer loading is not solid at all, and I’d really like a bigger trailer because she doesn’t like mine near as much as my friend’s big open one. While I want her to load on any trailer, I also want her to be comfortable. She’s allowed to have preferences.

I learned that our relationship needs work. She does not see me as the safest place. She wanted to go with her buddies and she got frantic about it.

Tonight also reinforced my belief that my energy has a huge effect on her behavior. I’ve said before (and I said it again tonight to the trailer loading helpers) that the best way to deal with her is to be really quiet and gentle. She does not respond well to anger or frustration. I wasn’t angry tonight; I never lost my temper or got rough with her, but I was definitely frustrated, and when I let go of that feeling is when she finally started cooperating. So many things change when we start acting from compassion.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from a Mule #6- If you give a mule a choice…

  1. Very cool and entertaining read!!!! I’m reading your blog in bed, dogs content, hubby out of town. I think you and Ellie are on the right track. You might not have things right where you picture, “yet”, but you are clearly on your way (story of my life). I look forward to reading more!

  2. I so related to this I was given a pony mule 18 months ago he is a hinny, I’ve never had a mule before only horses. My 2 horses think it is hysterical the trials and tribulations I have gone through, I have learnt to grass ski generally on my face! Communication is key Don Pedro and I have come along way he had been left for 8 years doing nothing so is the most opinionated animal I have owned. Now he is becoming a good pack mule and he rides nicely although I have not ridden him on my own. But we still have a long way to go it’s like how do you eat an elephant? Bite sized chunks. As the Spanish say poco a poco.

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