Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule #8- Does the mule want to be ridden?

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I think equines are constantly communicating with us, whether we’re clever enough to listen or not. I’ve only been riding Ellie since this summer, just a few months, but as soon as I started I noticed some troubling signs. As soon as I would pull the saddle out of the trailer where I tack her up, she would try to leave. She was tied so she couldn’t get away, but she would try. Nothing dramatic, she would just try to turn around and walk away, like, “No thanks, I’ll just be heading back to the barn now.”

I always let my horses check out the saddle before I throw it on, because I feel like that’s the polite thing to do. She would smell it and then move away. That was sending a really clear signal, but not one I wanted to hear.

At that time I was trying out different saddles, trying to find something that fit. The westerns I tried were awful, not even close to fitting. I could see why she moved away from those- obviously uncomfortable. I ended up with a no name dressage saddle that fit pretty well, as long as I used a crupper any time we did hills. She would move away from that one too. Then I bought a bareback pad and a treeless Black Forest. The Black Forest fit really well and was the best of ten different saddles I tried. Same story though. Saddle comes out, mule exits stage left.

I feel like it’s my job to learn Miss Mule’s language since she can’t learn mine. I wasn’t sure what she was saying though. Did she object to a certain saddle or did she object to the whole idea of being ridden? Was the saddle the visual cue that I was about to get on her and she didn’t want me to? I wasn’t sure.

I also noticed that sometimes she stood still as a statue to let me mount, and other times she scooted sideways so I couldn’t get my foot in the stirrup. She would eventually let me, but it concerned me that she didn’t want me riding her. Does the saddle hurt? Is this a holdover behavior from her past when she used to work really hard? Is she anticipating having to work really hard like she used to? Is she in pain?

I noticed when we were going on a trail ride with other horses she would stand still and let me mount. She would walk right over to the mounting block and stand close enough that I could easily hop on. If everyone else was mounting up and heading out, she wanted to go too. It was almost like she couldn’t wait for me to get on so we could get going.

When we did our intro endurance ride in Tennessee, I got on and off her several times. Each time she let me get back on using a tree stump or fallen tree, whatever I could find. She was totally cooperative. She knew what we were out there to do and she knew she could do it faster with me on her back. She clearly wanted me on her so we could get going.

That’s how I know the issue isn’t pain or saddle fit. She’s athletic as hell and likes to work in certain situations.

When we were alone at home though, she would move away from the mounting block. Not always, but enough for me to notice. Or she would stand just far enough away from the mounting block so that I couldn’t reach her. If I re-positioned her, she’d eventually give in and let me get on. Once I got on, she was always well behaved, but it concerned me that she didn’t want me to get on.

I wanted to work on this. I wanted her to WANT to be ridden, or at least not mind, even on dinky trail rides around the barn with just the two of us. Clearly she wasn’t all that interested in spending time with me, and I wanted that to change.

I think a lot of our training issues stem from not paying attention to the cues our horses are giving us and then we wonder why things go south. Horses are smart. When we pull out the saddle and the mounting block, they know what’s about to go down. If they move away, that’s an issue. It’s easy to blow through their attempt at communication, but then we’re bewildered when the ride doesn’t go well. They tried to tell us but we wouldn’t listen!

I understand that some people use horses to do actual work and not everyone can be as touchy feely in their training approach as I am. But I don’t *have* to ride Ellie every day. I can spend time building a relationship because this is a hobby for me. I’m not training her to sell her or compete. This is just fun for me, so I can try and make it fun for her too.

I’m at the point where I no longer want to ride a horse that I’m not in sync with. If I get dumped out on the trail, I want her to turn around and say, “Hey, are you okay? What happened?” instead of high tailing it home without me. Until she views me as a partner the way my thoroughbred does, we’re missing a big piece of the puzzle. I don’t want to get dumped or bolted with, and even though Ellie is unlikely to do those things, there are definitely times I can tell she doesn’t trust me and I’m not the safest place for her. I want to be rock solid in our partnership because I don’t want to get hurt.

I decided I wasn’t going to ride Ellie again until she let me. If she moved away from the mounting block, I wouldn’t get on. I would ask again, but I wouldn’t fuss at her and force the issue. I knew going into it that it might be months before I could get on her. Next time I did though, it would be because she wanted me up there.

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I started by teaching her to sidle up to things I was standing on, like a flat bed trailer, a mounting block and the wheel well of my trailer. She’s clever and she knew what I was up to, and at first she wouldn’t come near enough for me to even reach out and touch her. She wasn’t tacked up either. She just knew I could climb on her from whatever I was standing on and she wanted no part of it. She seemed very uncomfortable with me being higher than her head. It made her visibly nervous.

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We worked on this for a few days until we worked out the communication for her to stand parallel to whatever I was up on, and to stand close enough that I could put my arm across her back and pet her or give her a treat.

At first she was very uncomfortable about the whole process. She’s never “bad,” but she lives up to the mule reputation for stubbornness. It’s not that she’s stubborn; she’s just suspicious of me. She needs time to think things through and she needs a lot of reassurance from me. She responds really well to praise and to calm, gentle training.

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Eventually coming up close to me when I was up higher than her was just another silly thing I asked her to do, and she complied because she realized I wasn’t going to hurt her. Stand parallel to the trailer and get a massage or a treat. Easy enough.

Then I started trying to put one leg over. For this she had to get in mounting position. She had to be close to the trailer and line her back up with my body. I was still standing on the trailer with all my weight on the trailer. I just tried to rest a leg across her back. She would immediately move away, either sideways or backwards.

After a couple days of working on it, she let me get on. I put the bareback pad on her since I was hoping to actually sit on her. I practiced getting her into position. At first she would immediately back away when my leg went up, but after a few tries she walked into place and let me get on. When I say that she walked into place, she got super close to the trailer so it would be easy for me. She’s smart and she knows exactly what’s going to happen. It wasn’t an accident. She put herself into perfect position, close to me and lined up with my body, so that I could get on. She was finally okay with it.

I had run out of treats at that point too, so I know her willingness was true cooperation and not bribery. She let me get on because it had become no big deal. I immediately hopped off, took off the pad and let her go graze as her reward.

I have been working on this for over a month now, and I’ve seen a dramatic change in her willingness to be ridden. She will now walk closer to the mounting block so that I can get on. I don’t have to ask her to do it. She knows I want to get on and she helps me.

I’ve been dealing with some fear issues and this has helped me immensely as well. When she allows me to get on, she is relaxed. I can feel a change in her attitude. She’s not just submitting; she’s cooperating. That in turn puts me at ease. I can relax when I feel that she’s relaxed. I’ve had some very good rides on her lately, just short rides around the barn property, and I’ve even been able to go bridleless.

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My goal with all this is to have a next level relationship with her. For me the most rewarding part of this is the communication, when I’m in sync with the horse (or mule in this case), we’re both having fun, we’re solving problems out on the trail and the horse comes to view me as a safe place.

People say that mules are a whole different ball game than horses and I have to agree. The horses I’ve owned in the past, particularly my thoroughbred, were not dumb by any means but they were less complicated. It wasn’t such a thinking game with them. It was more repetition and practice, and they usually overcame their fears pretty easily. With Ellie, it’s a mind game and a matter of patience. She always understands what I want; the question is whether she’s willing to do it. There’s no forcing her, no bullying, no cajoling. That makes her less likely to comply. The easiest and ultimately quickest way to get her to do anything is to recognize that I can’t make her, but I can ask her. If I ask nicely and prove myself a good and fair leader, she’ll eventually comply. Once she learns something and accepts it as part of our agreement, she never forgets.

The whole point of this little exercise was to let her know that I know that she doesn’t have to carry me around. She could refuse to let me mount, she could dump me, she could run off. She humors me by hauling me around. When I ask permission to ride her, it gives her back some dignity. We’ve now become partners instead of boss/employee. Nobody wants a disgruntled employee, and I don’t want to ride a disgruntled mule.

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