Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule #9- Liberty Work


Even though my mule, Ellie, is fantastic to ride, she’s not been very interested in being friends with me like my horses are. When I first got her, I couldn’t get anywhere near her in the pasture, especially if I was holding a halter. I couldn’t just walk up to her and pet her like I do with all the horses. She was very jumpy and suspicious of me, like she was always expecting me to do something terrifying.

I had to learn to be extra calm and gentle with her, and very slow and deliberate in my movements. Now that she’s more used to me, she’s warmed up some, but there are times when she still acts like I’m trying to kill her. It used to hurt my feelings, but I realized it’s just how she is and it’s a training challenge I need to overcome by earning her trust.

I decided to try some liberty work with her. I don’t have a round pen, so I decided to do it in the pasture after she had eaten her dinner. Normally after she’s been fed, she’s done with me. Once she comes out of her stall into the pasture, I can’t get close to her again. The only exception is if I have peppermints. She goes totally nuts for peppermints. If she knows I have one, she’ll linger around to see about getting one.

I started stuffing my pockets with peppermints and then doing some basic groundwork with her after dinner. She was out in the pasture- no halter, no lead- and I can’t use a lunge whip with her because she’s too afraid of it. I showed her the mint, walked up to her and asked her to do something simple like move her hindquarters. Then she got a mint.

I started asking her to come toward me and to back up as well, and she caught on quickly to everything. I can stand next to her and walk backward and she’ll walk backward too.  She really is an extraordinarily intelligent animal, and that makes it so fun to train her.

Next I wanted to work on side passing. I find side passing hard to teach. There are a couple different ways to do it. You can walk them up to a fence and ask them to move. Since they can’t go forward, eventually they’ll figure out you want them to go sideways. You can also use the method of isolating shoulders and hind quarters. First you move the shoulders, then the quarters, then you do it faster, and eventually they are side passing. Most times you use a lunge whip for that method, but Ellie can’t deal with the whip so I have to rely on my body. I wanted to teach it at liberty and get her to mirror my motions.

To do it at liberty with no aids like the whip, I started standing beside her, both of us facing the same direction, and asking her to move sideways by gently pressing or tapping her shoulder. I would move my body toward her in the hopes that she would move away from me, like a person sitting down next to you and you naturally scoot over to make room. When I moved toward her, I would cross one leg over the other like I want her to do. At first she thought I wanted her to back up, so I would have to reposition myself and try again.

The first time she took a lateral step with her front feet, I got excited and said, “Good girl!” too loudly and I freaked her out and she took off away from me, not just a little bit either. She did the good ol’ spin and bolt. She did come back to collect her peppermint and we tried again. Coming back to me after I inadvertently scare her is a big deal for her. There was a time that she would have been done with me for the night.

We tried a few more times and a couple times she got freaked again, and ran off. Then I would say “whoa” and ask her to come back. Eventually she realized all I wanted was one step sideways. It’s far from perfect, but she can do it from both sides, even if it’s only one step. Eventually we’ll add more steps.

I am immensely enjoying the liberty work with Ellie. I know I’m not overwhelming her because she can take off at any time, and sometimes she does! Some nights she tells me she’s done before I want to be done. Other nights I end on a good note and I walk away from her.

I would love for her to be like my horses someday, in the sense that she’s not afraid of me. All the training I do with her is hopefully showing her that I want to be near her and have a partnership with her and play fun games with peppermints. I think the liberty work is especially beneficial for an animal like her, because she remains in control at all times. When she feels overwhelmed or I accidentally startle her, she is free to go. By giving her a choice, I’m hoping she’ll choose to be with me.

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