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On December 31, 2014, the world lost a very special man at 82 years of age and I lost a very special friend. I heard about Von Twitchell long before I ever met him. Bishop Mule Days is an annual rendezvous for mule and donkey lovers from all over the world and I remember how excited I would get when I heard the name Von Twitchell echoing from the announcer’s booth. I would run as fast as I could to watch him and Miss Kitty in the gymkhana and cattle roping events. I knew I would be in for an amazing demonstration of teamwork and skill between a man and his beloved mule!
Von was a cowboy in the truest sense of the word. When not in Bishop, he cared for and managed cattle ranching properties in the Western states. He was unpretentious and humble…a quiet, honest, trustworthy and simple man with a down-to-earth sense of humor. His life was about love of family and the animals in his care. When I interviewed Von in 2009 for our Those Magnificent Mules: The Bishop All Stars documentary, I asked him, “Von, you had a mule, Miss Kitty, that was inducted into the Bishop Mule Days Hall of Fame and we’d like to hear about that mule.” To which Von responded, “I bought her from a hippie.” I was taken aback and laughed out loud, “You bought her from a HIPPIE?!!!”
Von calmly explained, “I bought her from a hippie. They was gonna farm with her and she was four years old and I bought her for $400, and three or four years later I brought her down here (Bishop)…and she was a world champion. And, she was four times a world champion down here and three times reserve world champion. At 19 years she won the world champion gymkhana mule here and when she was 20, I think she was 23, I retired her and started riding this mule (Silky) here (at Bishop) and I’ve been riding her ever since.”
Von has numerous friends at Bishop Mule Days and no doubt, everywhere he went. He made the annual trek every year to Captain the Drill Team for Nita Vick and to carry the American Flag in the Grand Entry that opened the performances on Saturday and Sunday. I remember one year I was so honored when he asked me to ride with him and carry the California flag beside him! To me, he was a celebrity and I was the proverbial awestruck fan. I accepted his offer in utter disbelief! I carried that flag proudly (even though I was from Colorado) because to ride beside Von Twitchell was a privilege indeed!
Every year I looked forward to seeing this very special man with the kind face, warm heart and the twinkle in his eye! He always greeted me with a big smile, a humorous story and a great big bear hug! He has a wonderful family and a lot of friends, and we will all miss him terribly, but I like to believe that he and Miss Kitty are still riding the range and smiling down on all of us…another very special cowboy angel in Heaven!
A lot has changed at Lucky Three Ranch since 1980—and sometimes the only way to see all that progress is from the sky! Luckily, aerial photographer Ryan Hofmeister, of Heaven’s View Photography in Sterling, Colorado, has had his camera focused on the ranch since the very beginning, and has captured some truly amazing images from the air throughout that time.
Ryan first met Meredith shortly after she moved in to Lucky Three Ranch. He had captured an image of the young ranch on one of his routine fly-bys, and stopped by to inquire if she wanted the photo. She did, and that image became the cover of Lucky Three Ranch’s first Christmas card. Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t print Meredith’s name on the cards that first year, and she had to sign all 300 cards individually by hand. “I never made that mistake again!” he joked.
For his most recent shoot, Ryan also included a rare bonus: nighttime shots of the ranch. All photographers know how challenging it can be to capture images in low light, as even the slightest shake of the elbow can cause a blurry image—trying to do the same from the air requires a special technique. “It can be done with a tripod,” Ryan says, “but that doesn’t do much good when you’re moving 100 miles per hour through the air.” Ryan flies with another pilot, and they position the aircraft in a way that the plane is almost suspended in motion as Ryan holds his breath and takes the photo, trying to keep as still as possible. Ryan takes each and every photo himself on a handheld camera, including manually focusing it for each shot.
This photo session took around three hours to complete, progressing from day to night, and resulted in more than 600 photos on Ryan’s trusty Nikon. By the end of the session, they were flying in complete darkness, but the day certainly resulted in some incredible photos.
For more information about Ryan Hofmeister and Heaven’s View Photography, please visit heavensviewphotography.com.
“Whoa!” What’s this, Augie?” “Spuds, quit runnin’ into me! I can’t see it!”
“REALLY, Spuds?!” Quit being so dramatic…it’s just the tarp!”
“Okay! I get it. You want me to lead this time!”
“Hey, Spuds! We’re playing follow the leader and I get to be the leader!”
“It’s no sweat, Spuds!”
“Hmmmm…there’s grass in here!”
“Uh, do we really have to stop right here?!”
“We’re working on core strength, Augie!”
“…and then again here?” “Hey Augie, pretty slick move! (I hope I don’t have to do that!)”
“Uh, oh, Augie! It’s my turn!”
“This is a cinch, Augie!”
“Darn! We’re back to the tarp again…HELP, Augie!”
“Don’t worry, Spuds! I’ll show you how to do it.”
“This isn’t so bad, I guess!”
“You’re right, Augie! That was pretty easy and lots of fun after all!”
“It’s even more fun when we do it TOGETHER!”
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.
During Roll’s recent workouts, since his x-rays and last trim, he has felt very stilted and his movement was causing twisting in both hind feet. He was visibly tense through the croup and hip sections in his body. When I rode him, he had no impulsion and did not seem to be capable of initiating any impulsion. When we did the x-rays, there was a slight rotation in the left hind foot and not rotation in the right hind. We determined that the twisting in the right hind was due to undue stress on that leg from shifting the balance from the other three feet that all had slight rotations in the coffin bone. Our vet thought that it might make him more comfortable if we left more heel to flatten the rotation and get the coffin bone in the left hind more parallel to the ground. The result was both hind feet created a situation with ligaments and tendons that left Roll walking behind like he was on blocks with no suspension or impulsion to his gait and a twisting in BOTH hind feet. He was quite literally unable to walk correctly rocking heel-to-toe anymore and the right hind was sliding diagonally underneath his body when he walked.
When tracking straight forward in prior lessons, the visible wrinkles in his flanks were prominent as he stepped straight forward. After he was trimmed leaving more heel, the wrinkles were no longer present as the leg flattened them as it went diagonally forward. Impulsion was literally impossible for him and he had perpetual tenseness in the hind quarters. After his trim/shoeing today, he recovered immediately! We saw relaxation in the hind quarters as soon as both feet were trimmed and as he walked off, the twisting was almost gone and he bounced into an energetic impulsive trot for a few steps before I slowed him down! He had not done that for over a month! So, Roll is now happy again and ready for more lessons!NOTE: Irregular hindquarter stance and tension in the croup due to elevated heels.
NOTE: No wrinkles at the flank and he is stepping diagonally underneath.
NOTE: Wrinkles at the flank and he is stepping straight forward.
To test this on yourself in your blue jeans, first stand in good posture with your feet together and pointed forward. Lift your right leg straight up and pointed forward. Note the wrinkles that appear in front of your hip joint (comparable to his flanks). See how your pants will wrinkle as you move your leg up and will straighten out only as you walk forward with a heel-to-toe motion in your feet and as your leg goes down and back. Now try moving your leg by just picking it straight up and diagonally forward (like walking on blocks which assimilates what Roll was experiencing by leaving his heels longer)…no wrinkles in the pants except for maybe a split second! Although the vet was correct is his assessment for an animal that is a pasture ornament, it was not correct for an animal that would be doing forced exercise. Sometimes there is a lot more than you think to consider when diagnosing lameness or irregular gait problems.
NOTE: After trim, less heel, more angle in the hind feet allowing a more correct stance and more relaxation throughout the hindquarters.
As I said above, Roll responded well and immediately to our correction for his problems. He is once again A VERY HAPPY camper!
“Here we go again, Spuds, but something feels really different and strange.”
“I think she said “Whoa,” Spuds!
“Whew! I’m glad she switched the lines back BEHIND the terrets instead of in front of them!
It was putting a kink in my neck, Spuds!”
“Me, too, Augie! Besides, I like it much better when I can really FEEL her hands.”
“I’m sure glad she took the time to review ground driving before hitching us up again!”
“Okay Spuds, now let’s get lined up straight for her!”
“No problem, Augie!”
“Hey Augie, I recognize this! It’s the hourglass pattern we’ve been ground driving for
the past few months!”
“Are Sean and Steve in sync with us, Spuds?” “They sure are, Augie!”
“Get ready, Spuds, we’re gonna WHOA!”
“And we’re off again, Augie!” One…two…three…four…”
“Yup Spuds, I’m really glad she decided to go ahead and cross the lines BEHIND the terrets even though she said it was ‘against the rules’!”
“Hmmm, this grass looks pretty tasty, Augie!”
“Whew! What a long workout for twenty minutes!…I’m tired, Augie!” “Me, too, Spuds!”
“Hey Spuds, how about next time you pull and I push like Sean and Steve are doing?!”
“Not a chance, Augie!”
NOTE from Meredith: Equines are always honest in their reactions to training. When things go wrong, it is always the handler’s fault. Everything I have learned about driving said that when driving a team, put simply, you should thread the inside lines through the terrets of the opposite equine making the lines cross in an “X” just in front of the terrets. With my larger equines, this never really posed a problem…until I tried it with Augie and Spuds.
I had always ground driven Augie and Spuds single and then together as a team with their lines going directly from their mouths through their terrets on their harness saddles and to my respective hands. I could then clearly feel the connection from my hands to their lips holding all four lines. This never posed a problem until I decided that maybe I should thread the lines in the more conventional way with the lines crossed in front of and running through the opposing equine’s terrets. It worked fine until they got uneven. When I said “Whoa” and pulled back on the lines, the inside lines acted like “drawreins” with too much leverage for their short little necks. The only direct and light contact I had was on the nearside (left) and offside (right) lines of the team. When they could no longer feel the even contact on both sides of their mouths, they both bolted as shown in the picture above. I immediately changed the lines back to their original position with the lines crossing into my hands BEHIND the terrets instead of in front of the terrets. I could then feel the connection on both sides again and so could they. The result was immediate compliance! We were again “connected!”
When using split lines, the draft lines go from the nearside bit ring of the near side equine and the offside bit ring of the offside equine direct to the driver. A series of holes in the coupling lines allow for adjustment. The nearside coupling line passes through the inside terret of the nearside equine and across to the bit ring of the offside equine and vice versa. To avoid any confusion for the equines, I think it is important to train with two sets of lines in the beginning, until they are clearly aware of their job and actually can feel the connection to your hands. I would not advise split lines for beginning training. The connection from your hands to their mouths is too loose and it is hard for them to understand your intent, especially in the case of miniatures since the distance from their mouth to the terrets is so short and the action on the lines can be so severe. Once proficient with four lines, they can then “graduate” to split lines for your convenience.
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.
Roll was a little hesitant and stiff during his workout in the dressage arena through the hourglass pattern with me riding today. I couldn’t tell at first if he is just being overly careful because I was on board or if he was truly having issues with his feet. The more he did, the better he got as far as traveling, but there was significant problems keeping him between the reins. I attribute that to previous drivers with very bad hands. He does seem to know how to track straight between the reins with adequate forward impulsion. He clunked the ground rails as I led him through the pattern the first time, but after adjusting the distance between the ground rails, he did much better both on the lead line and under saddle. He did very well staying erect and bending through the rib cage around the corner cones. He also gave me intermittent surges of impulsion and did not seem at all lame when he did it. At trot, he got wiggly on his straight lines, but I am encouraged that will pass as he gains more strength and impulsion. All in all, it was a very nice first-time serious hourglass workout under saddle!
Roll was anxious to go to work!
The first order of business was to survey the course…
…and be led through in sync with each other.
Then Roll did a nice square halt!
Before mounting, I checked all his gear to make sure everything was in good shape and that Roll was comfortable.
Roll backed easily on request after mounting.
Roll walked the pattern nicely and stayed on the bit. Note the loose elbow pull!
Roll did lovely bends through his rib cage around the corner cones…
…and tracked easily over the ground rails.
When asked, he lengthened his walk as best he could!
I hadn’t planned on trotting, but Roll was having so much fun that he offered it and I accepted! His movement was so BIG, it shot my legs forward!
His hind quarters came well underneath his body through the halt…
…and after so much work and energy spent, Roll decided instantly it was nap time!!! What a good boy he is!
After two years, we finally finished our latest longears sculpture, a fountain called “Dreaming of Friends” by Robin Laws of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and I couldn’t wait to share this with all of you! This piece was done to accommodate the twenty LTR longears (plus one miniature horse) that were not champions and did not have their own commissioned piece. We try not to play favorites here!
Tours are currently closed for the winter season, but make sure to book your visit to see the statue in person in the new year through our website.
Small figurines of the Spuds and Augie topper may be available for public purchase—please contact us for pricing, availability, and more details.
After a couple of weeks working on flatwork leading training through the hourglass followed by a couple of lessons in the round pen, I decided to do some coordination work over the obstacles. In Stage One of obstacle training, the only task is to get through the obstacles, changing fear into curiosity. In Stage Two, we break things down into smaller steps and square up at every interval to facilitate good equine balance and add coordination to his movements.
With constant repetition, going through gates is a cinch for Roll.
The first stop is at the foot of the bridge…stop, square up and reward.
Next, we ask Roll to put two feet on the bridge, square up and reward…
Roll did this quite easily, but in this next position, you will notice how uncoordinated your mule really is. Most equines will either push through you and keep going forward, or if you hold them back, will fall off the side of the bridge and turn around to face you. This exercise helps them to become stronger and really learn to hold their balance for prolonged periods of time.
Once he has held this position for a couple of minutes, you can then walk off the bridge and square up one last time. As you can see, Roll is doing very well and has sustained his core muscle strength that enables him to be strong and coordinated in any position.
The tractor tire is a perquisite for lateral work. After learning the turns on the forehand and haunches, the tractor tire helps to finesse this movement.
In the beginning, a light tap with the end of the lead will cue him to move the hind quarters over, but once he know what is expected, a simple glance or hand signal will do as Roll is doing here.
A slight indication with the lead gets him to take those last two steps in the 360 degree movement. As a side note: the elbow pull has multiple uses and being a lead is one of them including the option of using it to tie them up, but there is a trick to how to tie it to the post or hitch rail.
Tires are a good exercise for proprioception or body awareness. It is not as important if they place their feet in the holes as it is that they place their feet strategically underneath their body in a balanced and organized fashion.
It is the same with the ground rails whether they are six inches in diameter or only one inch in diameter as shown. You know they are doing well when they don’t even move a one-inch PVC pipe (as they are easily kicked out of the way). Roll is VERY careful in his foot placement!
The Back-Through “L” helps them to not only pay attention to foot placement…
…but also how to bend their body through the rib cage and how to strategically move their feet while keeping their body erect and in good equine posture.
Walking forward through the Back-Through “L” is easy, but backing through can get a little tricky in the middle at the right angle so make sure there is plenty of space between the rails!.
Elevated rails make it easier for them to “feel” and execute the turn correctly…
…and back easily to the end of the final section. Roll never ceases to amaze me in his willingness to perform. This was only his second time through the obstacles!
Then just for fun, we went and watched the guys dig a hole in the driveway looking for a broken waterline! It was fun for us, but not for the guys, I’m sure!
Can you believe it? A mule has made it to the US Dressage Finals! Laura Hermanson and her champion mule Heart B Dyna are heading to Kentucky to represent longears in the national competition—for the first time ever. But they are asking for your help to make it there. Here is their story in Laura’s own words:
A MULE makes it to the US Dressage Finals in Kentucky! I am Laura Hermanson and I have been training and working with mules for over 10 years. I have enormous passion for these incredible equines and believe anything is possible with them. This has been proven true! My own dear mule Heart B Dyna competed throughout the year at 3 star sanctioned shows earning scores up to 75% and qualifying for both the CDS state and USDF regional championships. We had an incredible time at the Championships educating people about mules and being able to ride along side Olympians! I was thrilled to be living my dreams, and then my dream became even greater. The US Dressage Finals invites the top two equines at each level from every region throughout the country as well as a wildcard based on scores. It all comes together for an incredible showcase of the best Dressage horses in the US. And then the unbelievable happened, Dyna and I received an invitation!!! This is the first time in history a mule has been invited to the USDF Finals! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to expose people to mules on a huge national platform. I have put this together to ask for help making this possibility become a reality. Anyone that knows me is aware of how hard I work and how extremely dedicated I am to mules and the sport of Dressage. It is VERY hard for me to ask for help, but the expenses to travel across the country and attend this show are beyond my reach. I would GREATLY appreciate any financial help to make this pioneering journey possible!
Congratulations and best of luck to Laura and Dyna! If you would like to help them make it to Kentucky and make us proud, check out their GoFundMe page here.
It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of our courageous and talented 34-year-old Sire-Supreme, Little Jack Horner (1980 – 2014).
He is survived by hundreds of mule and donkey offspring, leaving an amazing legacy of performance in Gymkhana events, English and Western Pleasure, Trail, Reining, Driving, Dressage Driving, Second Level Dressage and Stadium Jumping to four feet in exhibition. He was an affectionate jack with impeccable manners right to the end. On the eve of his passing, I left him standing like a statue with ears pricked and a fixed stare toward the Rocky Mountains. I glanced over my shoulder and as the sun went down, it cast a halo around his entire body as if God was beckoning him home…I knew in my heart he would not make it through the night…he will be sorely missed!
“It’s okay Augie! Just take it one small step at a time. She’ll wait for us!”
“Augie, don’t you know that we’re the BEST?!”
Like most equine welfare advocates, “Wild Mustang” Robin Warren has a lifelong love of horses and is deeply concerned with their wellbeing in the face of human interaction. Unlike most other equine advocates though, Robin also has to contend with the perils of middle school—that’s because, despite years of experience of helping equines under her belt, Robin is still just 13 years old.
Animals have always been a big part of Robin’s life, and she points to literature like Black Beauty and Marguerite Henry’s Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West as works that inspired her to take action. Though she didn’t have a horse of her own as a child, she recognized the indomitable spirit of the mustangs and, at eight years old, started a petition to help the wild horses. Along with her mom, she collected signatures by going door-to-door and standing outside the local library, but this proved to be a slow process. For later activism, they switched to a more modern approach, using online petitions on change.org. “You get more word out over computers and the internet now than just passing out flyers and press releases,” notes Robin.
Currently, Robin’s focus is ensuring that equines captured by BLM are housed in adequate holding facilities, with accessible shade and water—all basic elements that should be provided to equines in any situation. She’s also working to collect signatures for a Nevada ballot measure that would expand protections for wild equines by recognizing feral horses without signs of domestication as wild horses.
“Wild horses have been here for a long, long, long time,” Robin says of her pursuits. “All they really want to do is just live together and be able to raise their children, and teach them how to survive the wild.” She’s particularly inspired to help these equines maintain their way of life in a setting they’ve carved out over centuries. “It feels like we’re taking away their home, when it’s really their right to live there freely.”
Robin notes that the wild burros are important to consider, partly because “there’s so many of them out there.” Burros “deserve to be treated with respect,” she adds, whether they’re living free in the wild or engaged in work for humans.
In addition to her mom, Robin also works with kids in the Youths’ Equine Alliance, an organization she founded. Robin describes the purpose of YEA as a place for young people “to be able to get together and stand out and show everyone that we can make a difference as well.” YEA sends out email newsletters to update interested parties, and members attend events when they can, to help spread the word.
Robin maintains that there are lots of ways to aid the cause, even if you don’t live anywhere near a colony of wild mustangs and burros, like she does. “Everything helps,” she says. “Getting the word out, donating to organizations and adopting are all great ways.” She believes in her causes fully, and maintains her faith that certain practices—like helicopter round-ups—will soon be a thing of the past. “The more supporters there are, the closer we get to the goal of saving the mustangs.”
To other kids who might be considering fighting for a cause of their own, Robin has advice from her own experiences: “Never get scared and never get overwhelmed. Just let your voice be heard, and don’t let them push you down.”
The Youth’s Equine Alliance (YEA!) was introduced in 2012 by Robin Warren at the International Equine Conference. Our youth advocates raise awareness about horses and burros, both wild and domestic in order to inspire other people to also speak up for equines. Through education, activities and joining together as teams, the youth hope to encourage children’s admiration of horses and burros and motivate people of all ages to be a voice for equines.
The following is a guest post from Hearts and Horses, the Loveland, CO-based equine therapy center.
Last week, Meredith Hodges came out to Hearts & Horses for an incredible day of professional development for the Hearts & Horses staff. During the day, Meredith demonstrated training and equine handling techniques, using Allie and Sadie, the two mules that she donated to Hearts & Horses. Hearts & Horses staff spent time in the classroom and in the arena with Meredith as she shared her training tools that aid in effectively communicating with equines while developing their balance and working toward conditioning, so they can perform to the best of their ability as equine therapists and in any other career.
While Hearts & Horses focuses on equines as Therapeutic Partners, Meredith’s training techniques are invaluable for horsemen and horsewomen of all backgrounds.
Meredith and Lucky Three Ranch have been long time supporter of Hearts & Horses and all of our diverse programs. We so value her support and guidance and look forward to our continued partnership and friendship in the future! Thank you Meredith!
Click here for more information about Lucky Three Ranch including tours, training and education opportunities.
Roll had a really good leading workout today. He did do very well negotiating the gate.
Roll stayed in sync almost without a misstep during the whole lesson!
He did bend his body nicely through the rib cage around the cones.
He did seem to have a little trouble aligning his back feet. He kept getting them a little closer to each other than he has in the past, but it will improve with practice.
When I asked for more energy, he had it! A marked improvement from the beginning of his training!
Roll is rounding across the top line and stepping well underneath with his hindquarters.
Roll gets more gorgeous every day! For a mule, his mane and tail are amazing!
Lengthening his stride is no longer an issue!
He stays in sync with every step I take.
With nice clean halts…
…and exceptionally straight rein backs…
…he’s a STAR!
“Hi, Spuds, Hi, Augie! Fancy meeting you here!”
“Hey, Roll! Why are ya all wet?”
“You’ll see soon enough!”
“Uh, hey you guys, I’m over here! Oats, please?!
“Hey, Spuds, where’d she go?”
“She’s giving Roll some oats. You know she never plays favorites, Augie!”
“Oh, no, it’s bath time again!”
“So soon? It’s already been a year, Augie!”
“If I can just bury my head into the fanny pack…”
“Augie, maybe if I get into the act she’ll do us both at once and we’ll get done quicker!”
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea, Augie!”
“You okay, Spuds?”
“Look at it this way, Spuds…you’re almost done!”
“And now I AM done, Augie! Am I ever.”
“Hey, Roll! Why don’t YOU have to dry on the hotwalker?”
“Because he’s bigger? What kind of an answer was that, Augie!”
“Because he IS bigger, Spuds! Need he say more?”
In 2007, when Meredith Hodges decided to film a television documentary about therapeutic riding, she headed to Loveland, Colorado-based therapeutic riding center, Hearts and Horses. There, she met five-year-old Sarah Foley and her mother, Diane. Sarah was born with generalized body weakness, making it difficult for her to perform tasks that required any sort of physical stamina or strength. Luckily, Diane is a physical therapist, and began looking for creative ways to help strengthen her daughter’s body. A pony ride at a friend’s birthday party immediately captured Sarah’s attention, and she began hippotherapy when she was two years old. By the time we interviewed her, Sarah had moved from hippotherapy, where the horse was being used as a modality to assist with her low tone, to therapeutic riding, where she was developing riding skills, controlling the horse independently of her volunteers.
Today, Sarah is twelve years old. We caught up with her and Diane to talk about how their lives have changed since that original interview. Even now, Diane notes that riding plays an important part in Sarah’s life. “She is still riding once a week,” said Diane. “She’s kept it up pretty much the entire time.” After a period of vast improvement, in which she was showing no signs of disability or physical deficits, Sarah ended up developing arthritis. Diane termed it “A little bump in the road, so she got more active in horseback riding, and has now overcome that also.”
When we speak on the phone, Sarah sounds like any bright, happy and enthusiastic preteen. “I’m feeling really good,” she says. “I love horseback riding, and I swim a lot, and I like playing with my dog.” She dreams of becoming either a teacher or an actress on Broadway some day. Sarah still does her riding at Hearts and Horses, and is now paired with a speckled gray horse named Boomer, that she describes as a very big challenge—but one that’s very close to her heart. “If Boomer went up for sale at Hearts and Horses, ever, I would buy him just like that,” she says. In general, Sarah describes horseback riding as an empowering experience: “I feel like we have a connection kind of. I can do anything when I’m on a horse. “
Sarah eventually moved from needing the assistance of two sidewalkers and a leader to only a leader. With the increased strength and confidence, Sarah’s instructor began to incorporate preliminary vaulting moves to strengthen her core and sense of independence. She was thankful for the assistance of the side walkers though, as it showed her she was capable of amazing things even in her first days of riding. “It made me feel more confident in myself, that I could ride on my own,” she recalled. “As [I used] the side walkers less and less and less, I started to get more confident … and finally I’m to the point where I am right now.” Equine therapy is more than just physical rehabilitation, as it also focuses on training people to be better riders and gain confidence, regardless of their starting capabilities. “I’m a really good rider now because of horse therapy and what they did for me,” says Sarah, also pointing to the inspiration of her parents: “My parents had a big part in it, making me not quit horseback riding and keep going with it—not that I would want to quit, but they would not have let me quit, that’s for sure.”
At the age of twelve, Sarah has accomplished a great deal in her life already, but describes it with an air of humility, simply saying, “It’s been a long road.” As advice for other people in her position, she stresses the benefits of positive thinking and optimism. “I think that anything can be overcome,” she says. “Maybe not always physically, but overcome mentally,” adding that physical transformations are sometimes possible too, like her success with arthritis. “I think people can do anything if they really, really want to,“ she says, and it’s clear that Sarah’s unflinching belief in that statement, along with her equine therapy, will help her accomplish anything she truly desires.
Visit Hearts and Horses’ website to find out more about their commitment to therapeutic riding, and watch Sarah’s full episode of Those Magnificent Mules, “Walk On: Part 2,” available to rent on demand.
Years ago, I believed that all I needed to have an equine was a halter, bridle and saddle, a water bucket and a patch of grass with a fence around it. I didn’t even think about shelter until much later when I finally decided that a garage would do. I now know that there is a lot of responsibility in taking care of equines and that it is an ongoing learning experience. Like most of us, I was a little lazy and wanted shortcut ways to deal with my equines so I could get right to the pleasure of riding. After many heart wrenching experience, I discovered that I did not have to be overwhelmed with management and training responsibilities, just more organized and practical. Finding simple, logical and appropriate answers to management and training questions became my mission.
Mules and donkeys, contrary to popular belief, are sensitive to colic and founder when left on pasture. They can develop fat rolls and patches all over their bodies when allowed to graze freely. This eventually will become a very expensive and potentially devastating condition if left unattended. Muzzles have been developed to keep equines from grazing too voraciously and hopefully, this can prevent the incidence of colic and founder, but I can’t help but think that there will be a certain amount of frustration involved when using such short cut devices that can manifest itself in other areas of interaction with your equine. The animal will take to the muzzle because there is a reward of grazing to follow, but to be prevented from fully enjoying their grazing has to be frustrating at times.
Beyond the incidence of possible frustration is the simple threat of them getting the muzzle caught on something with no one around to help them if they do get caught on anything. One of my strictest safety rules is to never leave a halter on an unsupervised animal for the same reason. I have seen too many animals maimed, paralyzed and even killed by leaving anything around their neck and head.
The muzzle encircles the delicate muzzle of the equine where the skin is very thin and sensitive. The lips can become scabby and sores can develop on the tongue.
A muzzle can chafe and burn these sensitive areas with prolonged use and create a very sore mouth. Again, if they do get sore, using a bit can become painful and cause resistance in training.
It is easier to employ simple management practices to keep your equine healthy and happy. Your equine should be kept in a smaller area for evening feedings, overnight and for morning feedings. This has several benefits: 1) Each animal can be checked every day for any injuries or anomalies, 2) He will not have to fight for his food, he can sleep uninterrupted and be more calm and fresh each day, 3) You will then be able to turn him out at specific times for grazing during the day and he will willingly come back from the pasture each night. This way you can monitor his grazing intake so he will not be able to overgraze and colic, or founder, 4) the smaller area affords you a confined space for beginning training so there is no need to chase him, or be interrupted by other animals.
If you feed only grass hay in the mornings and feed his oats mix in the evenings with grass hay, you can monitor his pasture time easily. In the spring when the grass is growing and very rich, you can begin to turn him out an hour before feeding time and he will happily come back in to get his evening oats. Then add an additional hour each week to slowly accustom his digestive tract to the new grass until you have worked him up to a maximum grazing time of five hours. This will generally produce a healthy, happy animal of any age that can maintain his ideal weight and body condition.
When you feed only grass hay in the mornings, he will look forward to his lessons with you and be waiting at the gate, knowing there are oats rewards to be earned. What your animal is eating can have a direct impact on his response to training. Many feeds can cause hypertension in Longears (and horses, too!) and an inability to focus for any length of time. Mules and donkeys require a lot less feed than horses because they are half donkey and donkeys are desert animals. Too much feed or the wrong kind of feed and you run the risk of colic, or founder.
We feed an oats mix to our average sized mules of 1-2 cups of crimped oats, 1 oz. of Sho Glo vitamins (by Manna Pro) and 1 oz. Mazola corn oil (for hooves, coat and digestive tract regularity). The oats must be broken open in some way (crimped, steamed, rolled, etc.) as equines cannot digest whole oats. We feed this once a day in the evenings, grass hay twice a day and we monitor weight gain with the hay and pasture intake. Miniatures get one fourth as much of the oats mix and grass hay, and draft animals will need twice as much. Do not alter or modify this with other products in any way for the best results.
Also, make sure they have access to a trace mineral salt block for their salt and mineral needs. We worm our equines with Ivermectin in January, March, May, July and September and then break the cycle with Strongid in November. We vaccinate in the spring and fall. Consult your veterinarian for the types of vaccines you will need for your area. You should never feed Longears (donkeys, or mules) any pre-mixed sweet feeds, or products high in alfalfa. This is actually a very easy and inexpensive way to manage the feeding and grazing of your equines without the worry of muzzles. It’s just a matter of getting into this healthy routine.
The following is an excerpt from a post by The Donkey Sanctuary.
Luminiţa (which means ‘little light’) has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties. When she was brought to the Don Orione orphanage she had signs of being institutionalized, including being extremely withdrawn, banging her head and pulling her hair out. She was unable to walk but has since had an operation and access to a physiotherapy programme, including donkey riding therapy three times a week through our Romanian project, to combat her leg stiffness and increase her leg and core strength.
Her physiotherapist Carmelia is thrilled with her progress, Luminiţa can now walk with support and is gaining the strength to stand and climb. Her character has also grown and she has become a happy, inquisitive little girl who clearly loves her time with the four donkeys, Boss, Claudio, Ioan and Sile. She also benefits from learning about caring for the donkeys, grooming them and understanding how important it is for them to be happy.
Carmelia added “It can be difficult for these children to learn to empathise and relate with others but each moment with the donkeys is a simple and rewarding interaction. The donkey’s needs and movements aren’t complicated like those of humans. Movements or affection can be taken at face value and the children learn that they are safe to form positive relationships that are rewarding for the children and the donkeys.
“In addition, the donkey riding therapy provides enormous physical benefits for Luminiţa as she builds her balance and stretches during her sessions. Her legs can be very stiff but riding therapy helps to loosen her muscles and make her more comfortable.”