MULE CROSSING: Leverage Versus Abuse
By Meredith Hodges
“Leverage” equipment refers to any restraining device or substance that is used to get an equine’s attention and obtain compliance, but many leverage practices often have the reverse effect and have the potential to cause distress and pain. This includes harsh bits, chain leads, twitches, hobbles, stocks and even medications. There are times when our equines can really be a handful, so having a little leverage when needed can be a good thing. However, deciding which equipment to use and learning how to use leverage without it becoming abusive can be a bit daunting. There are so many different types of tack, equipment and restraints that it becomes difficult to determine which would be best to use on your equine to correct a particular problem, or if you really need to use anything at all. It may only be a case of needing to be clearer in your approach, in which case, leverage equipment may not be needed. It is important to make an informed decision when using any leverage equipment to be sure that what you are using is helpful and not abusive.
One very common behavioral problem that seems to identify the need for more leverage is the mule that bolts and runs when on the lead rope. This seems like an obvious disobedience to the handler, and the first thing that comes to mind is to use a lead shank with a chain to gain control of the mule. Normal use for a lead shank is during a showmanship class at a show and it should rarely be used in training unless the equine will be shown at halter and/or showmanship. And then, training with the lead shank should be done only after the animal is following well through all required movements while in his halter and on a lead rope.
Chains are severe and when not used properly, can damage the fragile bones in the underside of the jaw, and the cartilage and bone over the nose of the equine. If the chain is pulled while simply run under the jaw and attached to the ring on the opposite side, a quick jerk can bear down hard into the delicate mandible (jawbone). If the chain is run over the nose, when abrupt pressure is applied it can injure the nasal cartilage or the incisive bones. Because they occur internally, these injuries are often imperceptible to the human eye. The only thing you might see is broken skin, scabs or bumps that arise from repeated use. When properly fitted, the chain on a lead shank goes through the ring of the halter on the left side, threads under the chin and through the ring on the right side of the noseband, and is attached at the throatlatch ring on the right side. This keeps the halter balanced and the action of the chain less severe. When using the lead shank for leverage during training, it can work on some animals but others may decide to fight which can result in injuries such as fractures, causing more severe trauma to these areas. So it is best to avoid use of the lead shank until after completing leading training with the halter and lead rope. Even then, you should learn to use the lead shank properly with the least amount of pressure possible. Avoid using halters that are made with chains. Those types of halters should only be used when showing cattle and can do serious damage to equines.
If you train for leading with a step-by-step program that incorporates a reward system during training, the mule is much less likely to bolt and pull the lead rope from your hands, and horses will not need any more leverage at all. This kind of training invites the equine to remain with you and he is rewarded lavishly when he does. If a horse spooks, you can usually stand still in balance, hang onto the lead rope and quickly regain his attention by staying calm and deliberate yourself. Normally, mules learn to comply with the reward training. However, if a mule has been spooked, he may not care much about the reward in your fanny pack and you might have the need to use something with more leverage. In this case and in cases where a mule doesn’t always comply willingly, I use a new positioning of the lead rope called a “Quick Twist.”
To employ the “Quick Twist” restraint, just take your lead rope and create a loop and feed it through the noseband of your nylon halter (rope halters are too loose and do not work) from back to front and then over the mule’s nose. When you pull on the rope, it will tighten around the end of the his nose below the incisive bones and over the cartilage, making breathing just a little difficult. Don’t keep pulling—just stand quietly and hold the tension snug. Let the equine come forward to you and slacken the rope himself by coming forward and allowing a free flow of air through his nostrils. Then, if the mule does not follow, just walk a step or two, creating tension on the rope, and then stand still again. When he does come forward, stop long enough to reward him with the oats reward before you proceed forward again. Keep the lead rope short and stand still in a balanced way so he cannot get ahead of you and jerk you off your feet. If you are standing still in a balanced position, it will be difficult for him to jerk the lead rope from your hand and leave.
If, after you’ve employed a kind, considerate and respectful approach along with a food reward, your equine is still being uncooperative, it may be appropriate to use equipment with more leverage such as the “Quick Twist,” but not necessarily chains. Chains do need to be used in some cases, such as with work harness (and most curb bits are now fitted with chains), but when not used correctly, these chains can be abusive. The chains on the pleasure driving harness should clear the legs and heels of the driving equine, and the chin chain on a curb bit should be adjusted so that it is twisted properly and lies flat against the animal’s jaw with an allowance of two fingers between the chain and the jaw, thereby minimizing any chance of injury. If you have a generally compliant equine, it is better to use a leather chin strap on your curb bit rather than a chain.
Old-time twitches were made with a chain that could be twisted around the upper lip and used to distract the equine from shots, tube worming and the like, but the main focal point for the equine then becomes the equipment and not the task and, in the wrong hands, this piece of equipment can do a lot of damage to the equine’s sensitive upper lip. Most often, the equine can be more easily distracted by a simple rap on his forehead using your knuckles. Using a twitch at all can become a source of confrontation for many equines. If a twitch must be used, choose a more humane one that is made from aluminum and has a smooth surface. This will clamp down tight enough to hold, but not so tightly on the upper lip that it causes pain or even injury.
A lot of activity when loading can cause the equine to become anxious and noncompliant and he becomes overstimulated. When having difficulty loading your equine, things will usually go better if you simply give him time to survey the situation and not allow him to back away from the trailer. One step at a time while offering a food reward (and a food reward waiting inside the trailer), with frequent pauses and encouragement to move forward from behind with a tap of the whip, will usually accomplish the task without confrontation. Most equines will willingly follow you right into the trailer if prior obstacle training has been done properly and successfully. Leverage equipment such as butt ropes only refocus the equine’s attention on the equipment and will result in confrontation.
Hobbles are another form of leverage equipment and there are many different kinds of hobbles for different purposes. The hobbles that have chains on them should be avoided, as the equine can become entangled and the chains can do damage to their legs. Thin leather hobbles or coarse rope can chafe the hair right off the skin around the pastern and can cause severe abrasions that may never heal. Thick leather hobbles are best, as they will break when under extreme stress, releasing before damage to the equine is done. If so inclined, all mules and some horses can gallop in hobbles, so hobbles really aren’t all that effective for leverage. Tying onto a hyline (a rope suspended between two trees that acts as a hitching line for overnighting equines in the mountains) is a better choice, and if the horses are tied, then the mules should not have to be tied or hobbled because they will generally stay with the horses.
Sedation and tranquilizers are another form of leverage that is used all too often and, in some cases, can be very dangerous. Mules and donkeys may receive the correct dose, but they can be unaffected when they get over-stimulated, excited and confrontational. They can actually “pop out” of sedation if they get excited enough to release adrenaline in their bodies. In these cases, administering another dose of drugs can easily become an overdose and could result in death. Sedating an equine that is to be trimmed or shod can be dangerous for both the farrier and the equine because the animal is not able to stabilize his balance and his reactions are, for the most part, uncontrolled. The farrier may not have time to get out of the way and the animal could stumble into trouble.
Power tools can be of help to a veterinarian or an equine dentist when doing teeth. Old-fashioned rasps are safer than power tools, but they are clearly more of an aggravation to the equine. However, if power tools are to be used at all, they must be carefully monitored. When floating teeth, the equine dentist must be skilled in the use of his grinding tool and should do only what is necessary to remove sharp points on the equine’s teeth. Power tools can be a good thing when you are dealing with an equine’s mouth and jaw, as having their mouths held open for long periods of time is very tiring for them, so speed is essential, but accuracy and skill are also essential.
I do not approve of using power tools on the equine’s hooves at all. In order for the equine’s body to be properly balanced in good posture, the hooves must first be properly balanced. Power tools cannot possibly shape the hoof with proper curvature in the sole, alignment of angles and equal balance over the hoof walls with appropriate pressure to the heels and frog. This demands hands-on custom sculpting, as each foot on each equine will be different and all four feet need to be aligned with each individual’s legs and body in mind. The hooves are the basic foundation for the entire body, so they must be done correctly or everything else will be off. This is especially true with the tiny hooves of mini donkeys and mules. Minis can often be kept calm for trims simply by keeping things at their eye level and rewarding their good behavior with crimped oats.
There are things that may seem to allow for shortcuts through certain tasks, but when you are dealing with living creatures there really are no shortcuts. It is always better to take the necessary time to implement training techniques that allow your equine to learn and grow in a logical, step-by-step process that will not overwhelm him or bombard him with too much stimulus at any stage, so that he can become a comfortable and cooperative individual. If you use the correct methods right from the beginning, the need for excessive retraints (that can cause pain and even more resistance) will be greatly diminished and the long-term results will be undeniably better.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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