- What’s NewThis is the news page.
- About LTRThis is the History page.
- ContactThis is the Contact Us page.
Meredith Hodges was recently interviewed by Anna Roth for Modern Farmer, a website and magazine for people interested in global agricultural issues, as part of a series of donkey-themed articles! Meredith discussed her training methods and philosophies, and specifically how they relate to—and must sometimes be altered for—donkeys.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call equine specialist Meredith Hodges a “donkey-whisperer,” considering that she’s spent most of her life coaxing donkeys and mules into unprecedented acts. She fought to get them incorporated into competitive equine events around the world, and is a firm believer in the animals’ intelligence, thoughtfulness and the fact that a donkey or mule can do everything just as well as a horse can.
From her Lucky Three Ranch in Colorado, she’s created a small empire of books (including the influential Training Mules and Donkeys: A Logical Approach To Longears), TV shows, charitable programs, and animal welfare and advocacy groups. Her training approach — culled from other equine experts, including Richard Shrake, as well as behavior modification techniques she learned during her time as a psychiatric technician in the ‘70s — includes patience, mutual respect and plenty of oats. It works, and now Hodges is a much sought-after sage for donkey owner woes.
Modern Farmer: How did you get started with donkey training?
Meredith Hodges: I started with my mother’s ranch out in Healdsburg. That was my introduction to mules. I found out real quick that the horsemanship training techniques that I had learned before were just too expedited and not detailed enough [for donkeys].
I thought everything that everyone else does, that [donkeys] were stubborn and don’t want to do things. It took me about three months to realize that they are just simply looking out for themselves. They have a very high sense of self-preservation. They’re extremely intelligent, sure-footed, resistant to disease and when they get into a situation, get tangled into a fence or something, they won’t thrash around but wait quietly to get themselves out of it.
Mules do exactly what you teach them. If you chase them they think they’re in a game and supposed to run away. They think it’s pretty funny. They have a tremendous sense of humor and love to humiliate human beings. We’re pretty foolish, we don’t realize we’re getting sucked into a game here.
MF: How do you get them to do the things you want them to do?
MH: I realized that every equine we were working with would respond and repeat good behaviors when they were rewarded with the oats. I used to feed the animals who go for [pasture] turnout oats in the morning, and when I turned them out for an hour they wouldn’t want to come in from the pasture. I decided to shift the oats to the evening feeding, and as long as the oats were there waiting for them they always come in to the dirt pen. I never had to chase them, it was just, here they come. I thought, there’s something to this.
Check out the full interview here.
Earlier this week, Meredith Hodges made a special guest appearance on Jim Swanner’s All About Horses radio show on WKAC, to discuss mules, donkeys, and horses. Click here to listen to the archived show, which airs every Monday at 9:30am on WKAC or streaming online.
I have been called “the Mule Whisperer,” but I must admit that the mules have been whispering right back at me for over forty years now! Mules have taught me practically everything I know about training equines and for that, I am eternally grateful…and so are the people and their equines who learn from me! I am so proud of my fans and the successful accomplishments they’ve had with their equines! Thank you all for your kind updates and correspondence! Keep up the great work!
To the untrained eye, “Caramelo’s” performance might seem quite amazing! However, to those of us who know the elements of dressage training, it is evident that this jack is not doing all these amazing movements correctly. The saddle has not been placed properly over his center of balance, so the rider is putting undue stress on his front quarters. This is why you can see over-development in the neck and shoulders while the hindquarters show some comparative weakness. The rider’s position is actually prohibiting correct engagement from the hindquarters.
It is evident that Caramelo’s temperament is outstanding to be able to attempt all these moves and perform them for his handler obediently though incorrect. Because the movements are not originating from the hindquarters and ample time has not been initially taken to develop good forward impulsion with regard to rhythm, regularity and cadence, the joints and muscles in his body are being compromised and will show wear and tear as he ages. Through the movements, he is exhibiting obedience, but is very tense throughout his body.
In the Spanish Walk, Caramelo’s hind legs are coming in a split second behind the front legs and he is thus, not able to push the front legs into the uphill balance that would be a more impressive display. His body carriage is on the forehand at all three gaits and his lateral work is wobbly. Caramelo is obviously moving away from the whip in the Spanish Walk and when asked by the handler from the ground to pick up the hind feet, the handler is tapping the hind feet backwards instead of forward. The jumps he did were not initiated from the hindquarters and were therefore more of an uncontrolled launch over what should have been an easy and graceful jump. There are many more things wrong with this performance that tell me that this handler does not understand how much time and effort it takes to cultivate a strong body in good balance and posture for the movements that are being asked of him.
With proper dressage training, it took two years just to establish a good working trot with our own Little Jack Horner when he was in his prime. After establishing good forward impulsion, regularity, rhythm and cadence at all three gaits, two more years of practice insured that his lengthenings and lateral movements were done in an uphill balance with his hindquarters fully engaged.
When little Jack Horner was retired at twenty years old, he was beginning to “offer” the more complicated movements of half pass and pirouettes. He became the only formal jumping donkey to clear four feet in exhibition while jumping with the alacrity and grace of a hunter. Had I opted to continue with him, it would have taken several more years to develop these kinds of movements and many more years to go beyond to piaffe and passage as I did with Lucky Three Sundowner, Little Jack Horner’s mule half brother.
Though impressive at first sight to the untrained eye, I am making this post to warn people of the dramatic effects that incorrect and hurried training can have on the equine’s body. Be patient, take your time to do things correctly and the joy you will experience will genuinely include the health and longevity of your equine companion! Today, Little Jack Horner maintains good health with no physical problems. He and I still enjoy each other’s company at his ripe old age of 33!