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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!
At 21 years of age, Roll has worked hard since December of 2010 when I saved him from slaughter. He is now able to carry my weight and go for jaunts around the hayfield monthly with a buddy in addition to his milder weekly exercises.
Roll thinks Brandy, another rescue, is pretty cute! She’s a “Mini-Me!”
Today, both Roll and Brandy are both being tested without their “Elbow Pulls” to assess how much of their own good equine posture they can maintain. Roll was actually more consistently engaged and rounded over the to line than Brandy.
We stopped to look at the horses that were running in a nearby field.
Although Roll was still twisting his right hind somewhat from bearing most of the weight from the other three compromised feet, he still maintained a decent posture and continued to step well underneath and stay rounded over the top.
His reinback was slow, but accurate and submissive.
Roll enjoyed riding past the Jasper Bunkhouse! Lots to look at!
Roll and Brandy matched their pace as we rode past the bronze statue that commemorates the famed Lucky Three Mae Bea C.T.’s accomplishments in Combined Driving and Combined Training.
Roll begins to “pace” when he gets tired, but he still matched Brandy’s pace through the “Mule Crossing.”
All in all, both mules did fairly well without the “Elbow Pull,” but it was clear they would still need it’s support for future rides for a while longer. Roll is staying sound and seems much happier to be able to get out in the wide open spaces for a change!
“Hey Augie, what’s she want us to do today?!”
“I think she wants me to JUMP!”
“It’s a good thing the surface is rough enough to stop, Spuds!”
“I was afraid it wasn’t, so I got out of your way, Augie!”
“It IS a mounting block, but… I’m not sure you can hold me!”
“I think not, so I’ll just jump down… and be careful not to clip your head!”
“I’m not sure I can do this as well as you did, Augie!!!”
“Can you at least TRY, Spuds?!”
“Okay Augie, I’ll try!”
“Are you okay, Spuds?”
“That was some kinda sliding stop, Spuds!!!”
“Thanks a lot, Augie! I’m getting down now!”
“Hey Spuds, watch out!!!”
“Is it time for oats now?!!!!”
“She would NEVER forget the oats if we do what she asks, Spuds!
“Is that why you usually get more than me, Augie?!”
“Is this better, Spuds?” “I suppose so, Augie…as long as he keeps his distance!”
“Hey, Spuds, how’s it feel?”
“It’s so hot, this feels GREAT, Augie!!!”
“Oh yeah, Spuds, this is great…nice cool water!”
“Uh, excuse me, is anyone listening? BIG FOOT here is getting a little too close again!”
“Oh good! Thanks, Mom!”
“Just you wait, Spuds!”
“Hey, Augie! Did he just threaten me?”
“Naw, he’s just kidding, Spuds.”
“Are ya sure, Augie?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. We’re all too COOL to behave badly!”
It’s been almost five years since I rescued Rock and Roll. Roll was a real nut when I first got him. He would hide behind Rock and looked like he would spook and run away at any minute. I was convinced that Rock lived that whole year from 2010-2011 to make sure that Roll would have a good home without him. Roll is a whole lot calmer now and much more trusting. His physical condition is incredibly improved with our slow, sequential and logical approach to training. I knew he would never be able to pull anymore heavy wagons or even carry a heavy rider and with the side bones and ring bone, I never really expected him to stay sound and be able to carry me under saddle, but he has attained what I thought in the beginning were very high goals. This is no special training approach…it’s what we do! Rock and Roll were the ultimate validation of my entire training program! He now stands quietly while mounted in the open driveway for the very first time …
…flexes laterally at the poll on his own with the slightest of rein cues…
…walks obediently forward with a slight squeeze from my legs upon request…
…is not fearful nor tense and resistant while going past scary things anymore…
…keeps pace with his riding partner with rhythm, cadence and regularity of gait…
…walks freely forward with impulsion, keeping slack in the elbow pull at all times…
…is relaxed and comfortable in his work…
…bends correctly through his rib cage…
…trots easily upon request…
…stays “on the bit” and has good muscle tone throughout his body…
…and knows exactly where to park at the work station when the ride is completed! At twenty-one years old, he just keeps getting better! Look for “Rock and Roll: The Story of a Rescue” in the “Mule Crossing” section of my website for the complete story.
The equine vacuum cleaner is not only a way to dry clean your equine, but it can also be used as a muscle therapy tool and to promote good circulation. Of course, the first thing to do is to gently introduce the equine to the vacuum cleaner.
As you vacuum, do it slowly and purposefully. The vacuum will remove dirt and grime and leave a healthy bed for hair shafts to grow.
The suction from the vacuum cleaner grabs large patches of hide and pulls subcutaneous muscle tissue and blood vessels towards the surface. This allows more room for muscle tissue and blood vessels to expand and develop in a healthy way. Here I am vacuuming our rescue draft mule, Rock’s shattered hip where there is a lot of internal damage to the joint and severe atrophy of the muscles involved.
On the left is 39 year old mini mule, Franklin before vacuuming, and then after vacuuming on the left side only in the picture on the right. As you can see, you get measured results almost immediately. The vacuum gently shapes and molds the muscle tissue into a more uniform area.
When Rock first arrived, although being a 17 year old Belgian Draft mule, he had severe muscle atrophy throughout his entire body.
After only six months of vacuum therapy, chiropractic, massage, proper diet and only fifteen minutes a week of leading exercises, his body was completely transformed!
This morning Roll had lots of fun reading Training Mules & Donkeys: A Logical Approach to Longears. He’s always up for posing and this day was no exception. We just strolled down through our longears sculpture park where we found a bench that would allow both of us to read comfortably. Roll is in good health and has almost finished shedding his winter coat. It was really too hot (in the 90’s), so any strenuous exercise was definitely out of the question.“This looks like a wonderful idea on a hot day! Lolling around in the lush green grass with a canopy of glorious fire maple trees overhead in the sculpture park is much cooler and a peaceful place to be.”
“This looks like a nice place to relax… a nice bench for you and plenty of room for me.”
“Hmmmm…I hope she doesn’t think I can do that! I’m much too old for jumping!”
“Ah, yes! That’s more my speed! Practicing good posture while ground driving the hourglass pattern is fun and feels really good!”
“Trail obstacles? That could be fun, I guess, provided they are well built and can hold my weight!”
“We’re all done with our studies already? Do we really have to leave now?”
“Oh well, if we’re just going to the other side of the fence for turnout, I guess that’s okay!”
Before and after his recent trim…
After four years of conscientious therapy and specific attention to nutrition, hoof care, appropriate core muscle exercise, chiropractic and massage, Roll has been transformed and has not spent one lame day since he arrived despite the presence of side bones and ringbone.
When Roll first arrived on December 5, 2010, he was foundered in all four feet with severe muscle asymmetry and atrophy. The founder is now grown out and his hooves balanced. The goals I set for him would be simply to be able to be ridden around the hayfield and possibly even pull a light-weight two-wheeled cart.
Roll began his therapy with a shift to our feeding regimen, regular multiple leading and ground driving exercises first without and then with the “elbow pull” and finally with work in the round pen.
Finally, after four and a half years of work and a brief introduction to the under saddle work in the arena, Roll got his chance to be ridden in the hay field and loved every minute of it!
“Ooh La La! Isn’t SHE lovely? Augie, check HER out! Nice socks, Honey!”
“She doesn’t look all that impressed with you, Spuds!”
“Maybe she’ll like ME better! She really IS kinda cute!”
“Hmmm! Stealin’ my action eh, Augie?! Well, she doesn’t look all that impressed with you either!
“Let’s just play hard to get and maybe she will change her tune, Spuds!”
“I guess two can play that game, Augie…now she’s pretending she’s asleep!”
“But she IS so cute, Spuds!”
“WOMEN! You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them, so what’s a guy to do?!”
“Where’d they go?!!!”
Side passing is an advanced lateral move that should be prefaced with extensive leading training, first on the flat ground. Your equine will be ready to move to obstacles when you can throw the lead rope over his neck and he will obediently follow at your shoulder.
You know he is ready to move on to lunging when he will freely follow at your shoulder obediently through all the obstacles both straight forward such as tires, and through lateral obstacles such as the tractor tire.
The next stage is to first teach him the basics of lunging to build bulk muscle…
…and then begin straight forward and lateral exercises on the drive lines both in the round pen and then in the open arena to enhance core muscle strength, balance and coordination. He has learned body awareness (proprioception), knows where his feet are and is able to be completely responsible for his own balance without leaning on you. The end result of all this attention to detail is the ability for your equine to execute all movements in good equine posture that makes it much easier for him to comply with your wishes.
Now that your equine has built up his core muscle strength and is more balanced and coordinated, he is ready to learn to Side Pass the “T” on hand signals alone. Your equine originally learned to side pass a single rail and the “T” on the lead rope and then on the drive lines. Now begin to Side Pass the “T” with just the halter.
When your equine is easily Side Passing the “T,” you can remove the halter, use a dressage whip as an extension of your hand and ask him to do the same movements with only slight indications from your whip along his side.
Inspiration doesn’t always come when you’re expecting it, and Rachel Anne Ridge certainly wasn’t anticipating a life-changing experience when a homeless, injured donkey showed up in her driveway.
In her new book, Flash, Rachel describes the amusing and touching journey that she and her family experience with a donkey named Flash At a time of financial and personal uncertainty, the last thing Rachel needed was to take on an equine.
Flash quickly became a part of their family. “It did not take long to fall in love with him,” she said. “There was definitely an immediate bond we felt.” There were immediate lessons as well. Rachel had never owned a donkey before, though growing up she made excuses to visit her friends who had horses. “I was your typical, horse-crazy town girl,” she recalls, “but I didn’t have any day-to-day experience with keeping either donkeys or horses.” The unique personality traits of the donkey set in motion a series of discoveries that took Rachel deep within herself and her beliefs.
Rachel’s book is filled with insights inspired by Flash’s simple and honest approach to life that often left her rethinking her own perspectives. “There’s something about their demeanor that invites a quietness and a calmness,” she says, adding, “they’re gentle souls.” And it’s not just her—she’s noticed that Flash inspires smiles and chuckles from just about everyone he meets. “With donkeys, there’s this connection of joy that happens with people.”
Flash has helped inspire Rachel in a lot of ways—even in her art business. As a mural painter, she always wants to give people exactly what they want, but over the years she knows that they can sometimes have trouble articulating their true desires. Working with Flash though, she’s learned how to ask the right questions, and to get much better on picking up on cues, especially non-verbal signals like changes in body language. “Flash definitely made me a better listener,” Rachel says.
Flash has motivated Rachel to be more self-confident and assertive as a person—two qualities donkeys tend to have in spades. “Flash just is who he is. He has no pretenses. … I’ve spent a lot of time feeling insecure about who I am and doing what other people want me to do,” says Rachel, but working with Flash—and seeing his unapologetic approach to making the best of his life—has been energizing. She’s working to “let go of that need for other people’s approval, and just be okay with who I am and where I am.” There is a level of vulnerability that comes along with letting go, and as her book suggests, “we need to wear our donkey heart on our sleeve.”
Most of all, Flash’s appearance in her life awakened a fuller discovery of her faith. As a daughter of missionaries, she has always had a close relationship with God, but there was something about the deepness in Flash’s eyes, the softness of his muzzle, and the pertness of those long ears, that in challenging moments opened her heart in new ways. She notes that God can show up in people’s lives in many different ways, and to stay open to signs—don’t just wait for a perfect, clear message. “Flash came into my life at a really pivotal time,” she says. “It was exactly what I needed.”
Today, Rachel continues to write and create murals and has recently adopted a new miniature donkey companion for Flash.
Flash is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Costco and local bookstores, or visit Rachel’s website for more information.
It’s hard to believe that I have already spent 35 years in the business with mules, donkeys and a vast array of equine-related activities. I have always loved horses and began riding when I was only two years old. I was about as horsey as a girl could be—when I wasn’t riding, I was reading horse books, drawing horses and engaging in anything that remotely resembled a life with equines. At one point, I even designed a 100-stall barn and vowed to rescue every horse in our country that was being abused. Little did I know then, my 100-stall barn would have been terribly inadequate.
I actually founded the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, in 1980, although I had many years working with horses and six years working with mules before then. I had moved to Colorado with the intent of going to Colorado State University to get my veterinarian credentials, so I sought out places to live in Fort Collins. It was a fluke that a contract fell through and this tiny little 10-acre sheep ranch became available. I remember standing in the driveway, my vision crystal clear in my head, and told my mother, “This place HAS LOTS of possibilities.” She gave me a bemused nod and said, “It definitely has lots of possibilities.” I don’t think she had any idea of what was to come, but, I had a vision!
Over the past 35 years, Lucky Three Ranch has slowly developed into the vision I had in my mind that day. My involvement in the equine community has grown into something much more meaningful than a 100-stall barn, as I’m now able to engage with people around the world through my equine training series, online school, and even on my Facebook page. I would love to teach all equine owners how to appreciate and enjoy their equines as much as I enjoy mine in a multitude of different ways. It is so incredibly rewarding when I see happy animals with happy owners doing the things that they love together. This is the gift that I have been given in life by my Maker to share with others and their joy is my reward! Thank you to all of my friends and fans for your loyalty and support. I couldn’t have made it 35 years without you and the magnificent equines that color my life!
I swear, his giggling began in his toes. In the way only an unselfconscious 8 year old can laugh, it filled his whole body and the whole arena, bursting out in millions of chubby bubbles. I could feel them around me, infecting me with joy. Pretty soon, I was giggling so hard that I was having a hard time keeping pace with the trotting horse. He lifted his chin into the air and declared, “LOOK AT ME! I’M HAVING SO MUCH FUN!”
Anyone who works with disabled kids will tell you that, on many days, we learn more from them than they learn from us. When I got to Hearts and Horses today, I was teary-eyed and tired. I had briefly thought about cancelling and staying home to regroup, but made myself drive the 20 miles. Well, needless to say, I left this afternoon feeling energized and light-hearted, my burdens put into perspective by some very special kids.
Here’s what I learned:
Ask for and accept help when I need it.
How often do I turn down help, insisting I can do everything on my own? How often do I cheat people out of the opportunity to minister to me because I have some delusion that I don’t need help? These kids are teaching me that there is no shame in asking for and accepting assistance. And, it blesses both the giver and the receiver!
Eyes forward – keep the big picture in mind.
Kids have no problem looking with wonder at what’s around them. One of the key aspects of being a successful rider is looking where you want to go, rather than down at the horse’s head. I rarely have to remind a kid of this. This is a big lesson for me! I often have my nose in the gritty details of life, buried in the things that can’t be changed. Looking up, looking around, and focusing on where I want to go is a game-changer.
Find my balance.
I am amazed over and over again how easily children take to riding, even kids with disabilities. Kids don’t over-think “how” they’re supposed to sit or hold the reins. They just do what feels comfortable, and they’re usually right! As the horse moves or turns or changes gaits, they naturally make minor adjustments to their balance. I am the absolute worst and getting stuck off-balance in my life. I’m trotting along, leaning left, eyes all over the place, hands flailing, thinking that’s normal. I could take a cue from them and make some minor, necessary adjustments to find and keep my equilibrium.
Laugh at the funny stuff.
How many things pass me by every day that I’m too pre-occupied or too grumpy to laugh at? This NEVER happens to children. If something is funny, they laugh. Outrageously. The horse went fast when they weren’t expecting it. Laughter! The horse peed. Big laughter! The horse leader tripped and almost fell (ahem, that was me). Gigglefest! Funny stuff happens in life, often disguised as something uncomfortable. When did I forget to laugh?
Celebrate little accomplishments like they’re a big deal.
One of the most poignant and humbling things I have learned is that some kids have such major challenges that when they tap their heads and say, “Helmet!” it is cause for an eruption of celebration from all of us. I have never been more excited than I was today when a mostly non-verbal little girl managed to say “Whoa!” to her horse. I could have cried with joy. There are a million little moments of grace in my daily life. I need to recognize them and celebrate!
Learn when to say “Whoa” and when to say “Walk On”
It is a really big deal when these kiddos finally learn how to command their horse to stop and go. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment and autonomy. When they finally figure it out, they use those skills happily and with great abandon. They make that horse stop just because they can. And sometimes, they make the horse stop because disaster would strike if they kept going! Learning when to say walk on (yes) and whoa (no) is a skill I could work on for the rest of my life, and still never have down pat. I definitely need to practice.
So I ask, who was helping who today? Well, I can certainly tell you that I walked away changed and blessed beyond measure. Some of the best lessons in life are the simplest, and come from unexpected places.
postscript: You, too, can volunteer at an equine therapy center! Two years ago, I had ZERO horse experience. They trained and molded me into a horsewoman. Contact your local therapeutic riding center and ask! In Northern Colorado, we are blessed to have the best of the best, Hearts and Horses, in our back yard. People come from all over the country to be trained here. Come join me and experience the magic! If you can’t help physically, you can help support equine care and rider scholarships by going to http://www.heartsandhorses.org/giving A little bit goes a long way.
Well, here we are again… me and Roll back out of shape and trying to get going again. I think age is a factor for both of us! I had visions of him being able to do five rotations at walk each direction and ten rotations at trot in each direction, but it didn’t exactly work out quite that way.Roll did a pretty good reverse although he had to hesitate and think about it first.
Tracking right, he engaged with a very slow walk with practically no impulsion and the trot was okay, but not energetic. The weather was cool which DID help.
In the other direction the walk became somewhat more animated and the trot was satisfactory.
However, he was only able to do five rotations at the trot in each direction before we were BOTH out of wind! He was so willing to give me what he had that I saw no reason to push it.
We will continue to build our wind, stamina and muscle going forward during the better weather ahead. Still, Roll is holding his core muscle strength in good posture and just naturally falls into the four-square position every time he stops…all on his own! He continues to be a happy and affectionate draft mule!
The following post comes from Steve Edwards of Queen Valley Mule Ranch. Working with equines can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, but, as with all animal-related activities, accidents can happen. However, exorbitant insurance rates are currently threatening trainers’ ability to provide clinics for equine owners, forcing them to cancel or drastically limit these sessions due to cost. Steve is one such trainer, and below he discusses his experiences with insurance companies, coming to the conclusion that his only option moving forward may be to forgo future clinics.
I recently received a letter from the State of Arizona. It seems that working with equine livestock and with people in a clinic setting represents the same degree of professional risk as being a police officer of a fire fighter. In light of this, insurance through the State Insurance Fund is no longer available to me for my professional work. I am sure this is related to claims analysis and the like, but it sure puts a different spin on how I will proceed with my work!
Over the years I have been in a expert witness for cases involving equine accidents. I will give you overview of one of the cases to which I contributed.
A Court Case I Was an Expert Witness For
The case involved two women who had been very good friends for over 30 years . One lived in California the other in Arizona . The woman from California drove to Arizona to a nice horse facility with corrals, RV parking lots of trails to ride t meet up with her friend. One lady rode a mule the other rode a horse, The mule was a fine trail mule but had one problem: the mule was very difficult to put in the trailer. After a wonderful week of riding and after enjoying each other’s company riding together as they had for over 30 years, the incident occurred.
On the morning the ladies decided to head home, the lady with the mule started to load the mule into the trailer. Her friend chose to hide behind the truck and trailer peeking around the corner. Yes, the mule was once again giving the owner a hard time not wanting to load in the trailer.
A person watching the lady load the mule came over to help. She started waving her arms to get the mule to go in the trailer. So at this point, there is the person who owns the mule trying to load it, and a “helper” waving her arms to try to encourage the mule to go forward onto the trailer. It is likely that many of us have seen this very same scenario and we may have even participated in this task. But long story short, the mule started pulling the lady away from the trailer pulling her backwards and despite her efforts, the mule backed over the friend who was hiding between the truck and the trailer.
Does Your State Protect You? Mine Does
In most states, there are State laws that are there to protect the equine owner in such cases. Arizona has such a law. Being in the business, I post signs reflecting this all over my ranch. From the gate to the corrals I have these notices and I think everyone should do the same, even if you just keep your animals for your own use.
You may be interested in rest of the story. The lady that the mule backed over went through several months in the hospital and several years of physical therapy, She did not sued for damages but the insurance company did, and in the lawsuit the person helping load the mule who was waving her arms, the owner of the stable, and the lady who owned the mule all had to pay portions of the award either by their insurance or by their pocketbook.
It is pretty clear that no matter what the State laws say or what insurance you might have (home owners or otherwise), suits are likely to result in damages that any participant may have to pay. Even if you only had to pay 1% of a one million dollar claim, that still amounts to $10,000.
Why This Is My Last Clinic
Finding insurance for the equine trainer or owner is very difficult especially when you are training equines and people. I am sad to say that my insurance just tripled in price due to the “risky occupation”. Even though I have never been hurt, nor has anyone in any of my clinics or training sessions that have spanned 25 years or more, the rate is truly unreasonable. So to make a long story short, there is a very good possibility that this will be my last year for training mules, donkeys or people because of the expense of trying to cover my butt.
I love training. I love seeing people try my training techniques and I especially like witnessing the mule and donkey owners use these techniques that make dramatic changes in their animals. But as the world changes we must change. Now I’m sure that there’s always going to be people that will train without insurance. Some have nothing to lose and some just flat don’t care. When you are looking for a trainer, there is so much more to it than just climbing on the mule and riding. There is more to it than just putting the donkey to the cart. Finding a true professional trainer is very difficult. I hear from many people who have had mules trained and have had nothing but problems. I can tell you this is not always the mule and donkey at fault. When I used to take a mule with me on the circuit, I would have someone climb on the mule and ride it. Just before this I would do the demonstrating of turn on the forehand, turn on the hindquarters side passing. Then I would ask the audience who has been riding for 25 years. Hands would go up and I would choose someone to ride the mule that I just rode. In a matter of minutes, it would look like the mule was not even broke!
I was talking with Dr. Robert Miller one day and we were saying how much of a joy it was to contribute to the equine community, not just the United States but all over the world. Dr. Miller has traveled to more countries than I have, but we both enjoy seeing the equine community changed for the good. But we both noted with sorrow that the cost of being a professional trainer and teacher is a rapidly growing concern. It will change the future of the industry for sure and not necessarily in a good way.
Are You The Person I’m Looking For?
I would be interested in feedback from attorneys and insurance adjusters. Please give me a call (602-999-6853) or e-mail me, here. I want to stay in business but as it goes right now my last clinic will be in Fredericksburg, Missouri and I will head back to the ranch because that is all I can afford for insurance for the year.
This has become a very litigious society for sure. I am not sure who can do anything about the fact that some people refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. It is not always someone else’s fault that an animal exercises its own will or that the student does not do as he or she is directed. There is inherent risk in riding an animal. We can do a lot to try to limit our risk. We can train well. We can follow instructions. And when we feel that something might not work out for us, we can just say “no”! But ultimately, it is one’s own decision to come work with an animal. If you are working with a professional trainer or teacher, you may be somewhat safer. But when we hear a little inner voice saying “don’t do it”, we should probably listen.
Something You May Not Want to Hear
One other point I would make is that there are times when a professional trainer may suggest to a student that the animal that he or she has may not be the best choice for that person. When I say this, I may see tears from some. I may hear others say, “well that is why we are here – so you can make this work”. Still others will take the information and agree. But know that such advice is not given lightly and is only given after I have had time to observe the animal, observe you, and observe the two of you together. Some things can be fixed. Others are more difficult. A few are impossible. The comment is never meant to be mean or ill spirited. It is for everyone’s safety. Any trainer worth his salt will tell a student if there is clearly a mismatch of animal and owner. But this is just one little piece of this new and bigger puzzle.
I encourage equestrians to accept the inherent risk of their activities and to let their local and state governments know that they do acknowledge that risk. If we cannot find a way to make professional trainers able to do their jobs while being covered reasonably with insurance for the job, we will see fewer quality trainers and have less help available to riders. Your professional trainer is a huge resource to you and your equine.
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For the first time, Roll was ground driven straight out of the Tack Barn with no warm up.
On the way to the hayfield, we stopped to see the old broodmares and give them a treat!
Although we lacked impulsion getting there, Roll picked up the pace in the hayfield.
Roll walked immediately into a square halt, keeping his hind quarters well underneath.
Roll stayed well-connected to my hands through all moves for the very first time in four years!
Roll’s reinbacks were flawless…light on the lines and straight.
Roll now knows that the whip is a tool used for communication and not for punishment.
Roll understands that I do not want him to eat the grass until he is signaled and free to do so.
Roll receives his reward of crimped oats for paying attention and NOT eating the grass!
Roll finally received permission to eat the grass while I straighten the lines to continue forward.
Upon the command to “Walk on,” Roll promptly raises his head and acknowledges my request.
Roll and I stopped to check out the bronze statue of Lucky Three Eclipse.
We stopped to see the Mule Fountain in all of its splendor!
Then we said “Hello” to Lucky Three Mae Bea C.T.’s bronze driving statue.
Roll thought she was beautiful and did a little flirting!
Great lesson! Fun morning for both of us! Now back to the barn…the snowstorm is rolling in!
It’s always great to hear from people who have used our training materials successfully with their equines, so we loved getting an email recently from Becky of Becky’s Homestead, showing off a video of her formerly hard-to-catch mules, Emma and Charlie. Using Meredith’s methods, the mules now come to the gate and exit quietly, and turn to Becky to await further instructions—no chasing required.
Becky writes: “I love your method because you don’t have to be a tough, roping cowboy to train your problem mule. I also really like that you say people need to train their own mule so they develop a relationship. I have seen it countless times, where someone sends their horse or mule out to a trainer and the animal is perfect for the rough, tough cowboy or cowgirl trainer—then it goes home to the middle-aged woman and acts the same old way. Bottom line, there is no short cut to developing a good relationship with your animal.”
One of the keys to Becky’s success was that she did not try to modify or rush the exercises, and did them exactly as laid out in the training program. Although it can be tempting to quickly move to more advanced lessons, like riding, your equine needs to build those skills—and muscles—on the solid foundation provided by beginning training. And as Becky experienced, these methods can produce amazing results!
For most people, racing nearly 30 miles and climbing 13,000 feet up a mountain—and back down again—alongside a pack burro might be the most challenging experience of their life. But for world champion pack burro racer Hal Walter, raising an autistic son has brought many new unexpected trials that were much more serious than a 900-pound donkey barreling down a mountain path. Hal recognizes and explores the parallels between these two important elements of his life, pack burro racing and fatherhood, in his new book, Full Tilt Boogie.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people’s ability to communicate and understand certain social interactions—some people with autism may have trouble interpreting sarcasm, or understanding the facial differences between a smile and a grimace. Hal’s wife, Mary, is a nurse, and started recognizing potential signs of autism, such as sensory issues, early on in their son, Harrison. They ultimately received an official diagnosis from Denver Children’s Hospital when Harrison was almost four, which Hal describes as a “certain comfort,” despite initially resisting the necessity of the label.
In raising Harrison, Hal was able to draw on his experience as a pack burro racer, noticing the similarities between the two situations. “The real key to success with either burros or autistic children is extreme patience and allowing them to find their own way,” Hal writes in Full Tilt Boogie. “Each is a unique individual and one cannot exert command over either one with good results.” The “patience” approach has proven useful in both Harrison, who is now 10, and Hal’s career as a pack burro racer, which has spanned 30 years and multiple world championships.
Hal introduced Harrison to donkeys at a young age—his first overnight packing trip took place the summer after he turned three—and drew on the established benefits of hippotherapy (or in this case, asinotherapy). Although, like most kids, Harrison might now say he’d prefer to be playing Angry Birds on the iPad than riding burros, his parents have seen a change in him after riding. “We noticed right away that on the days when Harrison rode, and even on days following a ride, there was a marked improvement in his disposition and behavior, and fewer tantrums,” he says. Hal isn’t sure exactly what it is about the donkey riding that helps Harrison—whether it’s the soothing motion, the fresh mountain air, or a combination of several things—but the positive effect is undeniable.
According to Dr. May Dodd of the Donkey Shelter of Australia, donkeys work well as therapy animals because “their gentle and affectionate nature brings a calming effect over all those they come into contact with.” She says donkeys are particularly useful for distressed people, as their relaxed nature can balance and calm anxious, agitated emotions. Hal has noticed his donkeys’ caring nature, especially as his son was just starting out as a rider. “I think the better ones have a sense of taking care of the less capable riders,” he notes.
In pack burro racing, Hal attributes his multiple wins and places as being skilled—but perhaps not the best—at both the running and animal training elements. He notes that in order to get a win, “everything has to come together on that day for me,” down to the smallest variables and pieces of luck—and those can’t always be predicted, or even planned for. “The unpredictability of raising an autistic kid is a lot like burro racing,” he adds. “Only when they believe something was their own idea do they truly excel.”
Click here to find out more about Hal, Mary and Harrison on Hal’s website, and get your own copy of the ebook or paperback on Amazon. Full Tilt Boogie recently topped Competitor’s list of 13 Running Books You Should Be Reading Now.