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Donkeys have a lot of behaviors that owners might find strange. One of these is dropping their spine, or “sinking,” when you put a hand on their back. Not all donkeys will do this, but many of them will, especially when they are young and or haven’t been handled routinely. I’ve personally had experience with donkeys sinking to the point that they’ll go down to the floor on their knees and bellies. You may also commonly recognize this behavior in cats and dogs.
In order to understand what’s happening, it is important to understand the intervertebral equine anatomy. “Intervertebral” refers to the opening between two jointed vertebrae for the passage of nerves to and from the spinal cord. When a foal is first born, their bones and cartilage are soft and flexible, and their nerves in these areas are hypersensitive —especially over the spine.
A foal that has not had the benefit of imprinting will be much more sensitive and generally reactive to touch than one that has been imprinted. Imprinting begins to desensitize nerve endings throughout the body wherever the animal is touched. However, the primary focus when imprinting is usually on the head, neck, ears, around the eyes, mouth, and down the legs, with only a passing swoop over the back and croup. Thus, the back does not get as much desensitization during imprinting and is largely ignored until grooming comes into the picture, and later, tack and equipment.
As the foal ages, muscles begin to develop under and around the nerves thanks to ongoing exercise. When muscles get harder and toned, though still maintaining their elasticity, they put pressure on the nerves from the inside of the body. You will start to notice that the foal that used to “jump” out from under your touch is now increasingly tolerant, and his reactions are not as abrupt and overdone. Foals that are more active in their exercise tend to be less likely to sink their backs, as their hardened muscles have begun to desensitize the nerves to some extent. Softer, untoned muscles do not affect nerves in the same way, so less active foals will usually have a more drastic reaction to touch.
With the right kinds of controlled passive leading exercises, the foal’s body can grow properly, conditioning muscles symmetrically and allowing the body to develop balanced equine posture. This conditioning allows for efficient movement, maximum blood circulation, internal organs working as intended, joints bending correctly, and nerve impulses firing in an unobstructed and healthy manner. When the animal is not exercised with good postural balance in mind, his way of going can be compromised. Though his unbalanced movement may not be apparent to the untrained eye, it can still produce pinched nerves and pain. If you have an animal that sinks to your touch, it is up to you to determine whether the reaction is a case of sensitivity due to minimal touch, or a more serious case of pinched nerves.
You can help desensitize your equine in a healthy way by continuing to imprint throughout the training process. Don’t just limit imprinting to a birth exercise, but pay attention to every phase and opportunity for touch. When grooming with the shedding blade for instance, pay special attention to the pressure over different places on your equine’s body. You can apply more pressure to fatty areas, but be sure to lighten up over the bony areas, as it can cause pain. Too much pressure over the spinal nerves will produce the sinking effect. When using your brushes over the body, be sure to use short flicks instead of long strokes. Short flicks induce more passive pressure over the nerves, which not only removes dirt more efficiently, but also provides more endurable pressure over the nerves that will eventually minimize your equine’s sensitivity. With these careful and detailed practices, the sinking effect will soon disappear.
These kinds of initial training practices will greatly enhance the training experience for both you and your equine. All behaviors, bad or good, arise from the way you do things with your animal, and you will only gain his trust when you make him feel good. When he feels good, his behavior will be good. Preparing him properly before asking him to carry tack and equipment, and later, a rider, will make the process much easier for him to accept, and will avoid the adverse behaviors and even painful or severe consequences that can develop without proper preparation. Be patient and always take the extra time to do the little things that will enhance your time together. It will be well worth the effort!
Roll has been coming along quite well with his White Line Disease. He has been growing a new foot at a rate of about 1/8” per week and is gaining ground. My Ranch Manager Chad had found some thrush around the frog during the morning check. He cleaned it and applied iodine to the area. However, we noticed that the lamina growing beneath the old hoof wall at the toe was beginning to curl upward. So, we contacted our veterinarian Greg Farrand to come out and take a look.
Lucky Three Ranch knows a thing or two about elderly equines—miniature mule Lucky Three Franklin just celebrated his 40th birthday on April 1, and we’ve been happy to celebrate many of our other equines through their 20s and 30s.
That’s why we’re very happy to acknowledge Tootsie, a resident of the wonderful Donkey Sanctuary in Ireland, who is an incredible 54 years old—making him one of the oldest mules ever. The Donkey Sanctuary rescued Tootsie in 1992, and he is part of their “Super Grannies” group of equines that are all over 30 years old, who receive special treatment, feed, and love from the Sanctuary’s volunteers.
Curious about other historically aged equines? Longears have the opportunity to live particularly long lifespans, so there may be many out there, but here are a few we know about: Suzy, Rosie and Eeyore, donkeys who lived to be 54; Flower, who is believed to have reached the age 70; and Joe, a 45-year-old full-sized mule from Colorado Springs who’s still around today.
Wishing well to all of these sweet seniors!
Roll had his shoes replaced on the two front feet and the right rear today. Dean was very pleased to discover that on the left hind that has White Line Disease, he is growing hoof back at a rate of about 1/8th of an inch a week! We are encouraged that even though we are looking at months of recovery, if we can keep him balanced, he might actually make it! I am convinced that the balancing of his body and core strengthening exercises he has been doing for the past six years has really been the primary reason for him doing as well as he is. He weighs 3000 lbs. and that is a lot of weight to put on a damaged foot. Without the balance, the dispersement of his weight could have been irregular and put undue pressure on the fragile and damaged pieces left of the hoof wall. This could have caused a complete collapse of his hoof. This is always a consideration, so we are checking him regularly and will be replacing the Styrofoam pads with neoprene support pads in his boot every other day going forward after we can get them. The Styrofoam pads are wearing out too quickly. The other three feet are holding up well with no real signs of additional stress. He has yet to have one day of lameness at all since we got him in 2010. He is happy and showing no signs of pain. We will just continue as planned and make adjustments to our approach as needed.
West Point Military Academy Press Release
“General Caslen, on behalf of all Army Rangers and the Class of 1975 and the West Point Society of South Carolina, we present you with Paladin!” said Steve Townes ’75, CEO and Founder of Ranger Aerospace LCC, who has been West Point’s “mule donor in perpetuity” for well over a decade. ( Since 2001. )
Four-year-old Paladin, whose name refers to 1 of the 12 legendary peers or knightly champions in Charlemagne’s court, began his West Point experience on March 31, 2016, reporting to Ranger III, now gray in his muzzle.
On February 25, we discovered more White Line Disease on the medial side of the foot. We also discovered some strange growth that looked like new hoof growing out of the front of the coronet band and continuing around both sides of the hoof in a uniform fashion. It was pliable which caused some concern, so we opted to follow up with x-rays today.
First and foremost, a routine grooming schedule at least every other week and preferably every week is essential for the hygiene of your equines. We use fly masks without ears on the animals that are sensitive around their faces and we spray with Tri-Tech 14 once a week for insects that will pester your equine. We NEVER clip the insides of the ears. Regular grooming once a week to remove excess hair, mud, etc. will eliminate places on the animal, including their legs, that would be subject to their laying eggs. We worm our equines in January, March, May, July and September with Farnam ivermectin and then break the cycle with Strongid in November to prevent the cycle of internal worms and parasites. Using Johnson’s baby oil in the manes and tails helps keep the flies at bay, helps to prevent “frizzies” and train manes to lay over, and will also keep other animals from chewing on them.
Mules have served as the loyal mascots at the United States Military Academy at West Point since 1899, as a symbol of heartiness and durability. This great video from Army Athletics details the history of mules both as mascots to the teams, as well as in service to the army at home and abroad. The video also follows the mules that are taking their place of honor at West Point, as the previous generation of the mule corp retires.
Our farrier, Dean Geesen, came to check Roll on February 5th and took off the protective tape and cardboard that we had protecting the exposed inner hoof. Our veterinarian, Greg Farrand suggested that we discontinue the Providone-Iodine treatment because he was afraid it might dry out the inner hoof wall too much and could cause deterioration and further damage. So we proceeded forward with just hosing the area every other day to keep it clean.
The Cloud Foundation published an informative article and call to action describing the last viable herd of wild burros. This is an important issue to all who love longears and our wild equines. Please help be a voice for the wild burros.
The majority of wild burros in the US live in the deserts and mountains of Arizona. Quiet and deliberate, they are beautifully adapted to their surroundings and are some of the largest wild animals to be found in their desert home. Unlike wild horses that run from intruders, burros tend to size up a situation. It gave us an opportunity to quietly observe them.
Although protected by the Wild Horse and Burro Act, they are managed at token levels, far less than the herd sizes needed to guarantee their existence into the next century. The recent National Academies of Science Report included cautionary words “multiple populations (of burros) totaling thousands, rather than hundreds, of individuals will probably be necessary for long-term viability of species.” Genetic analysis of wild burro herds finds diversity levels lower than their endangered cousins in Africa!
Only one herd comes remotely close to the minimum required for long term survival and that is the one targeted for a devastating removal, unless we can convince BLM to reconsider. Over 1,000 burros call the Black Mountain Herd Management Area home. Scattered over the landscape, these hardy burro survivors can be difficult to spot and are wary of onlookers. 75 miles long and 13 miles wide in northwestern Arizona, the Black Mountain area is 1.1 million acres of volcanic mountains and sandy draws east of the Colorado River. It is nearly as large as the state of Delaware.
Therapeutic riding has a long history of helping veterans with traumatic injuries, so when Meredith Hodges decided to focus an episode of her television documentary series on hippotherapy, she knew she had to include a Wounded Warrior. If you’ve seen the “Walk On” episode of Those Magnificent Mules, you may remember Army technician Natasha McKinnon, then 24 years old, who had lost her left leg below the knee following an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Under the supervision of riding instructor Mary Jo Beckman, herself a retired Navy Commander, Natasha was working to improve her physical movement with therapeutic riding. In the program, they used Army caisson horses and Natasha bonded with one equine in particular, named Mini. She describes Mini as “a big, white, comfy couch” who watched over her like a big sister.
We got the team together again today with Roll to assess what we were going to do going forward. The hoof wall did what we hoped it would for eight days and stayed intact with daily cleaning and new wraps, but it was now beginning to get stress marks at the heel. We knew that without adequate circulation to the area, it would no doubt begin to deteriorate. This bought us some time, however to brainstorm for a solution to the support problem going forward.
Our support team arrived including veterinarian Greg Farrand, farrier Dean Geesen, assistant farrier intern Lance, Ranch Manager Chad Leppert, assistant ranch manager Steve Leppert, my assistant Kristen Florence and me. We discussed whether or not to resect the hoof wall.
Only five short weeks ago, Roll’s hooves were in good shape. When we brought him up to the tack barn today, he was not at all lame.
However, when our farrier Dean Geesen arrived this morning to do his hooves again we found that Roll had some fairly advanced symptoms of White Line Disease in his left hind foot. I am just happy that we were able to catch this fast-growing fungus as soon as we did.
A recent article at the Chronicle of the Horse had us excited to share the story of Buckeye, an 8 year-old Appaloosa mule who has been showing off the versatility of mules with his skills in the arena.
When Buckeye first came to owner Christina Gregory, he was a little green under the saddle after being mostly used as a driving mule for an Amish family. After some initial work with Christina, he began training with 22 year-old Samantha (Sammi) Majors.
Sammi began him with dressage and earlier in the year he was impressing judges and scoring consistently in the high 60 and low 70 percents in recognized shows. This fall she decided to add jumping in preparation for a show. “He loves jumping. For a long time we would work on dressage stuff and school him over cavalletti, and he always loved it. We’d be doing a 20-meter circle, and if we went anywhere near the cavalletti he would try to pull me to it,” said Majors. “As soon as we started jumping he took an immediate liking to it. That’s all he seems to want to do now is jump, jump, jump!”
He recently returned home from the North Carolina State Fair Mule and Donkey show with plenty of ribbons, winning Most Colorful Mule class, Hunter Hack class, Coon Jumping, Pleasure Driving-Single Mule, reserve champion Pleasure Driving, the Turnout Class and Reinsmanship.
Today we honor the sacrifices that our brave enlisted men and women have made to protect and serve our country. Throughout history, mules have also played an important part, serving alongside soldiers. One occasion where their value cannot be underestimated was the Burma Offensive of World War II. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) or more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders was a US Army long-range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit. In addition to its specially trained soldiers, it also included mules.
The mules came from Missouri, Texas and Tennessee and were shipped to Calcutta. They were then transported into Burma by aircraft, and later in the operations were dropped from planes with special parachutes that consisted of an inflatable dinghy (in which the sedated mule would be placed) and attached to a triple cluster of three 28-foot silk parachutes. Mules were capable of being loaded and packed within 20 minutes of landing.
The terrain of Burma (modern-day Myanmar) was almost impossible for vehicles to transport and deliver supplies. Mules are well-know for their sure-footedness, self-preservation and hardiness and were the perfect four-legged soldiers. They packed weapons, ammunition, food and water, medical supplies, equipment and radios through a 700-mile trek of what was considered some of the harshest jungles on the planet.
The men switched between being muleskinners and soldiers and many bonded deeply with their mules by the end of the offensive. One soldier remembered, “We couldn’t have gone half the distances we did and gone half the places we did without the mules.”
Click here learn more about Merrill’s Marauders.
Foaled June 2, 1980, Lucky Three Sundowner was the last mule born at my mother’s Windy Valley Ranch and at two weeks old, the first mule to become part of my own Lucky Three Ranch. He showed successfully at Halter, English and Western Pleasure, and became the 1984 World Champion Reining Mule at Bishop Mule Days. However, his greatest accomplishment was to make it to Fourth Level Dressage after introducing Dressage to our Bishop Mule Days show, and after winning the World Championship at Third Level Dressage in Bishop in 1992 and 1993. (They did not offer Fourth Level.) He never really liked the Full Bridle and did all this in a Snaffle Bridle. Mules were not allowed to compete in the A.H.S.A.-sanctioned shows with horses during that time, so we were limited to schooling shows with horses to measure our progress. However, with his help, and with the help of other Dressage enthusiasts like Carole Sweet and Audrey Goldsmith, we laid a foundation with goals that were finally realized eighteen years later when mules were finally officially accepted into the Dressage Division of the United States Equestrian Federation. To date, “Sunny” is the only mule in history (that I am aware of) to be schooled at Fourth Level Dressage. He was working on Piaffe, Passage and Flying Lead Changes every two strides when he was retired at twenty-three years old…truly a remarkable friend and ambassador for his breed! This week, he finally crossed over the “Rainbow Bridge” due to a tumor that eventually prevented his ability to chew. He will be profoundly missed!