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MULE CROSSING: Why Mules Are Exceptional

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By Meredith Hodges

Across the United States and around the world, as mules are given more and more opportunities to perform in many diverse situations, they are exhibiting their exceptional beauty, athletic ability, endurance and intelligence. There are definite physical and psychological reasons for these outstanding abilities. It has been proven that the mule not only inherits the mare’s beauty, but is also more athletic than the mare out of which he came. The mule is an exceptional hybrid not only because he inherits these qualities from his dam, the mare, but he also inherits the best qualities from his sire, the jack who is responsible for his muscle structure, thickness of bone, strength and intelligence.

The muscle structure of a mule is noticeably different than that of a horse. His body is covered with masses of long, smooth muscle whereas the horse has more differentiated bulk muscle masses.

The most apparent example of this difference is seen in the chest of the mule. The horse’s chest has two distinct muscle groups, which creates a very distinctive line of separation in the middle of his chest. However, the mule’s chest is composed of one wide muscle mass that resembles a turkey’s breast, which greatly enhances the mobility of the front quarters. Another example is found in the mule’s hindquarters, where the long, wide and smooth muscles enable the mule to kick forward, backwards and sideways—he can even scratch the top of his head with a hind foot if he wants to! Mules are also quite capable of climbing under, over and through most kinds of fencing. Restraints that are used with horses often do not work with mules because of their astounding ability to free themselves from annoying circumstances with their strong, quick and agile movements. Because the hindquarters of the horse possess bulkier muscle masses, the horse does not have this incredible range of motion. The difference in muscular structure is similar to that of a ballet dancer versus that of a weight lifter—the ballet dancer’s longer, smoother muscles are more conducive to elasticity and agility.

In addition to this physical structure, which allows him more diverse range of movement, the mule also inherits from his sire (the donkey jack) the strength to tolerate prolonged and strenuous use of his muscles. One need only try to budge an unwilling donkey to realize his incredible strength! Donkeys traditionally possess an unbelievable vigor, and this vigor is passed on to the mule, adding to his superiority over the horse in strength and endurance. The donkey jack also contributes to the superior, tough hooves of the mule and a unique resistance to parasites and disease. Throughout their long history, the donkey’s natural ability to survive and thrive in habitats both desolate and unyielding guarantees that donkeys and their mule offspring are more sure-footed than other equines and masters of self-preservation.

Donkeys have long been referred to as “stubborn,” but this is a false and unjust perception. It is not stubbornness that causes an overloaded donkey to stop dead in his tracks to rest his body, but rather common sense and a strong desire for self-preservation. After all, would a sensible human being deliberately pack more than he could comfortably carry, and then continue a hike until he drops from heat and exhaustion? No. Would his refusal to do so be considered as being “stubborn?” Certainly not—it’s just common sense. The same common sense should be applied when understanding a mule or donkey’s behavior—and this holds true in any potentially dangerous situation a donkey may face. For example, when crossing a body of water, the donkey does not possess a human’s acute visual depth perception. Therefore, when he refuses to step into water that seems perfectly safe to us, it is because his depth perception is telling him to use caution and to take his time in evaluating the situation before he proceeds. His behavior is determined by the way he is asked to perform a task and by his concern for his welfare and safety.

As a rule, donkeys are equipped with the innate intelligence to sense that humans are not always concerned with what is really best for them, yet they are still willing to gives us the opportunity to convince them otherwise. Donkeys also have a natural social attraction to humans and, when treated with patience, kindness and understanding, they learn to trust and obey. On the other hand, if they are treated with pain and abuse, they are not likely to comply and can become very dangerous to handle. Mules and donkeys have an honest way of responding to our demands, so if your mule or donkey is not complying with your request, you need to review the clarity of how you are communicating your desire and adjust your approach accordingly. The intelligence of the donkey is no accident.

When a male donkey, with his traits of superior intelligence, strength and muscle structure is bred to a female horse with a calm disposition, good conformation and athletic ability, the result is an exceptional and incredibly beautiful animal—the MULE!

All of us here at Lucky Three Ranch would like to wish longears everywhere and those who love them a very happy Mule Appreciation Day in the fall! October 26th has been popularly designated as National Mule Appreciation Day, but anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to nuzzle a muzzle knows that these magnificent, gentle, bright, honest, upbeat, funny, patient and loyal friends need our appreciation and guardianship not just once a year but every day. Let’s spread the word whenever we can mules and donkeys are truly amazing!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1985, 2013, 2016 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Imprinting Beyond Birth

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By Meredith Hodges

Imprinting is defined as “rapid learning that occurs during a brief receptive period, typically soon after birth or hatching, and establishes a long-lasting behavioral response to a person or object as attachment to a parent or offspring.” 1 When we speak of “imprinting” in the scientific sense, it is a reference to the way the brain accepts input. The brain compartmentalizes impressions and images, and the animal reacts to the stimulus that the image produces. A collection of “imprints and images” produces memories. Imprinting training with a foal of any breed will give him a jump-start on his life with human beings.

Imprinting is more than getting your foal used to people. He’s going to spend the rest of his life with human beings, so he should get used to your touch, your voice, your smell and, especially, your handling of him. Handling your foal the minute he is born is a wonderful way to bond with him, and you will learn how he likes to be touched in order to produce a positive response. This early imprinting lays a foundation of trust for the training to follow.

Although it is commonly accepted that initial imprinting on the foal’s brain occurs only during a brief receptive period when initial contact is made during the first few days of life, it does provide a foundation on which to expand exposure to a human being through your foal’s five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight that leave impressions on the equine brain and will affect the way he interacts with a handler beyond what his dam may teach him. If the initial contact with humans leaves a positive impression, a foal will be more likely to be curious about humans than afraid of them. Because of this early contact, continuing imprinting then becomes an ongoing process that builds on the initial imprinting that is introduced at birth.

A calm, well-mannered mother helps produce a well-mannered foal, so if your mare or jennet is not easy to handle, she needs imprint training before the foal is born. Mares, and particularly jennets, can become very aggressive in defense of their offspring, so it is advisable to imprint even a mature mare or jennet so she will be safe to be around when she finally foals.

When imprinting your foal, think about the kind of adult you want him to be. A foal is very similar to a human baby regarding emotional needs—both need attention, love, guidance and praise to become loving, cooperative adults. Start your relationship with a positive attitude and approach your foal with love, patience, kindness and respect. Be sure to set reasonable boundaries for his behavior through the way you touch him and speak to him, the facial expressions you use, and even how you smell when you are around him so he can learn to trust and respect you and be happy at the sight of you.

It doesn’t matter if your equine is a young foal or an older animal—he needs imprint training. It will set the stage for the way he relates to humans for the rest of his life. Imprinting stimulates all of his five senses: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. This leaves an indelible impression on your equine’s brain as to how you expect him to behave, which—over time and with repetition—becomes his new natural way of responding.

The most important sensation to which you can expose your equine is touch. If your touch is gentle and considerate, it will feel good to him and he will be interested in your attention. When you run your fingers over his body, being careful not to press too hard on sensitive areas, he will experience pleasure and begin to look forward to your visits. Learning how your equine likes to be touched will also help things go more smoothly when you begin grooming him and tacking him up and during his training lessons, when he must learn to take his cues from your hands, legs and other aids. Even how you mount and sit down in the saddle—for instance, how your seat is placed on his back—denotes your consideration of him through touch. The wrong kind of touch, no matter how slight, can be a trigger for adverse behaviors. However, the right kind of touch—done correctly—produces pleasure in your equine and instills a willingness to perform in a positive way each time you interact with him.

To begin imprinting training, run your hands all over your equine’s body and down his legs, and put your hands in his mouth and in his ears. His reactions will help you learn how he likes to be touched. Getting your equine used to touch in this way eventually evolves into exposing him to grooming and working with tack and equipment. You are continuing to build on the initial imprinting work, but now, when you are grooming, the grooming tools will become extensions of your hands, and when you introduce various tack and equipment like clippers, they will also become an extension of your hands. Allow your equine to use his sense of touch (usually with his nose) when introducing any new object. Work toward getting your equine’s response to your touch as highly sensitive as possible, so that he can use his own body language to communicate with you. NOTE: Many owners pat their equine on the top of the head with the flat of their hand as a sign of affection, without realizing that, as a rule, most equines don’t take kindly to people patting their foreheads or faces. A pat on the forehead works if you want to distract your equine, but save it for that purpose only. It is much better to show affection by stroking your equine (always in the direction in which his hair lies), in a soothing and reassuring manner.

The tone of your voice is another important element of imprinting. If your general tone is soothing and encouraging, he is more likely to comply. Then, when he needs to be disciplined, the change in your tone of voice will convey your disapproval before you even have to touch him to make a correction—giving him the opportunity to straighten up before you actually need to apply the physical backup of negative reinforcement. If, no matter what the situation, you always speak in low tones, he will not be able to differentiate between what’s acceptable and what is not, but if you modulate your voice to clearly express what you want to convey, your equine will be much better able to understand and react appropriately.

Equines have an excellent sense of smell—for instance, they can smell danger from miles away. They can also smell people, and they are much more likely to warm up to a person who smells “good” to them. Smelling good to an equine has nothing to do with soaps or perfumes or deodorants. Oats and hay are smells that all equines immediately recognize and love, so if you dole out oats rewards correctly and you actively participate in the feeding and care of your equine, you will mostly smell like crimped oats throughout lessons, making you VERY attractive to your equine!

The next sense to which you should appeal is your equine’s sense of taste (a no-brainer). When you dispense the oats reward for all of his new positive behaviors, he associates that wonderful taste with you and will follow you to the ends of the earth to get more oats.

When the equine’s five senses are truly pleased, the very sight of you will prompt the memories and impressions on his brain that you have instilled in him during imprinting. The impression you have left with him is positive, encouraging, kind, considerate and respectful, and his reactions to you will also be positive and willing.

As you begin your equine’s imprinting, make sure you include an equal measure of fun. As with children, if you make learning fun, it comes more easily. By encouraging your young foal or older equine’s enthusiasm for learning, you’ll cultivate and enhance your equine’s desire to please and to serve.

Imprinting training is truly an ongoing learning experience. When touching a newborn foal, keep in mind that the foal is coming out of the protected environment of the womb, where he’s had pressure from the amniotic fluid over his entire body. Suddenly, he’s born into an entirely foreign environment and, soon after, a human appears out of nowhere and begins touching him. Initially, this is like being tickled all over, so at this point, imprinting serves as a desensitization technique to human touch. Desensitization doesn’t mean you want your equine to become totally desensitized to you—just that you don’t want him to jump out of his skin every time you touch him. Always strive for a positive interaction between you and your equine.

Pay attention to the way your equine’s hair lays and stroke his coat in that direction only. There is more fatty tissue down the neck and over the back, so you can press a little harder when touching these areas. Going with the hair and using the flat of your hand, learn to gauge how much pressure you can apply to the fatty areas. Then, as you work your way down to where the fatty tissue becomes thinner, be sure to ease up on the pressure over the bony areas.

Always keep an eye on your equine and watch his face—he’ll let you know if he is experiencing pleasure or displeasure. If you observe wrinkling around his mouth, if his ears are laid back flat or if he stomps a foot, he is showing displeasure. A soft eye, a relaxed, contentedly chewing mouth and an absence of tension in his body denotes pleasure. So when you are engaged in training, pay special attention to your equine’s body language and adjust your own touch accordingly.

Work on evolving your own body language as a natural and truly wonderful way to “talk” with your equine. You can also use verbal language, but body language should be your primary form of communication.

Making use of your equine’s five senses to expand the meaning and benefit of imprinting can really work in your favor and will leave an indelible impression on your equine’s brain that will engage his attention and expedite the learning process. The result will be a deep and meaningful relationship with your equine not just now, but for the rest of his life.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2013, 2016 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Mule Conformation

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By Meredith Hodges

As in any breeding program, when breeding jacks to mares to obtain mules, there are many variables to be taken into consideration that are basic and pertain to both the jack and the mare. However, there are some variables that are particular to each.

The ideal mule should have a head that is slightly longer than that of a horse, but proportionate to the size of the mule’s body. The features should be prominent and give an overall pleasant appearance. The ears should have length and be nicely shaped, and the eyes should be large, soft and kind, reflecting the mule’s health and intelligence. The forehead should be broad, tapering to a small and delicate muzzle, with a shallow mouth and well-aligned teeth, and the nostrils should be wide to allow for adequate respiration while working. Both the mare and the jack are responsible for the shaping of these characteristics, but the jack has primary responsibility where the length of the ear and the mass of bone are concerned. A jack with a longer ear will, more often than not, throw a longer ear to the mule, while the shape of the ear is determined primarily by the mare. The attractive or unattractive head of the jack can emerge in the resulting mule, so be sure to carefully consider the head on the jack to be used for breeding to produce an attractive head on your mule offspring. Standard-sized jacks and Large Standard jacks most often have a more refined head, while the head of a Mammoth jack may be less refined and possess thicker bone, particularly around the eyes and jaw line. In the case of saddle mule production, massive bone on an otherwise attractive head can be very unattractive, so using the smaller jacks would be better for a more refined look in your saddle mule (which is also true for the rest of the mule’s body).

The neck of the mule should have good length and come well back over the shoulders to the withers, with neither an excessive arch nor a u-shape. The withers should be apparent, but will not be as prominent as that of a horse. Many jacks have a characteristically short, thick neck. If it is passed on to the mule, this shortened and thick neck may inhibit the suppleness and agility of the resulting mule. Since donkeys tend to be rather flat over the withers, a mare with good wither development is also recommended to offset the tendency for this trait in the mule. It’s hard to keep a saddle on a mule with little or no withers, despite the use of cruppers and breeching.

The back of the mule should be slightly shorter than that of a horse and nearly straight with only a gentle slope over the top line and with strength over the loins. The croup should be nicely rounded with smooth muscling (indicative of strength and staying power), with the tail set-in neither too high nor too low. Again, the jack/mare combination must be considered in order to obtain a desirable saddle mule. Both the mare and the jack should have good body length to avoid a “boxy” appearance in the mule.

The shoulders of the mule should be at a nearly 45-degree angle, with a broad collar surface. Most mares will have this angle, but donkeys have a tendency toward short, steep shoulders, so, to insure that the mule has good shoulders and hips, consider a jack with good length and a lower angle through the shoulders and hips.

The curved ribs of the mule should be well sprung and separated around the torso, and extended (not flat and narrow), and should range close to the hipbone. The flank should be well set down from the croup and just above the stifle with a nearly flat appearance (not as indented as that of a horse). The hip, stifle, and gaskin should all have a smooth-muscled look, not bulging, as seen in many horses. The more bulky-muscled mare is generally crossed with the smooth-muscled jack to create a more bulky, yet smooth musculature in the mule than that of the jack. The contribution of bulk muscling from the mare provides more stability to the inherent smooth muscles from the jack and will enhance athletic performance in your mule athlete.

The chest of the mule should be deep and prominent, broad and well developed (it should resemble a turkey’s breast), with little or no line of separation (as is seen in a horse’s chest). Since jacks are generally narrower through the chest than are mares, the mare chosen for breeding should exhibit much width and depth through the chest to compensate for the lack of it in the jack.

The legs of the mule (as with horses) should be nearly straight, broad and clean, with adequate bone density for the size of the mule. The legs should be well braced at all four quarters and properly balanced underneath the mule’s body. The knee should be broad, deep and firmly set and the hock should be broad and muscular. Being slightly “cow hocked” in the rear quarters (with the toes pointed slightly outward) is common in mules and is actually preferred for performance (though not when showing at halter), but pay special attention to the straightness of legs in both the jack and the mare because being extremely “cow hocked” is not acceptable and should be minimized through careful breeding practices.

If a stockier mule is desired (as in the case of breeding for pack or draft mules), a stockier mare bred to a Mammoth jack will produce the desired thickness of bone in the legs of the mule. If a more refined Thoroughbred appearance is desired, the mare should be bred to a Standard or Large Standard jack in order to reduce the mass of the bone in the legs of the mule and retain refinement throughout the body. This does not affect the height of the mule, as the mare is primarily responsible for the mule’s height, while the jack is primarily responsible for the mule’s bone thickness. The forearm and stifle in the mule should be well developed and thickly covered with smooth muscle that tapers to the knee and hock in regular, well-defined lines. Again, these muscles should be thick and smooth, but not bulging, as in horses. The mare will compensate for the limited bulk muscling in the donkey jack, and the jack will contribute and maintain the smoothness of that additional bulk muscle in the mule.

The old saying, “No Foot, no mule” is literally true, as it is in any nomadic animal. If the hooves are not trimmed and balanced properly, it will offset the balance of the equine’s entire body and can compromise longevity in the animal, because his entire internal structure will be compromised. The hooves of the mule will be smaller and more upright than that of a horse of equal size, and should be well sprung and supported, not contracted. They should have a smooth appearance and look sleek and oily. No ribbing should be apparent and the frog should be well extended, healthy and make adequate contact with the ground for good circulation to the hooves. When being trimmed, the mule should be left with more heel than the horse to maintain the more upright position that complements the shoulders and hips. The shape and condition of the hooves of the jack and the mare are both equally important when considering foot development in the mule.

The coat and hair of the mule should be soft and shiny, covering pliable skin. The coat should be soft to the touch, denoting good skin health. Length and thickness of the coat are contributed by both jack and mare. Since donkeys have a typically thick coat of hair, a mare with a thinner coat will balance this thick hair coat in the mule, making him look sleeker and more horse-like than his donkey sire.

Although the jack plays a part in the mule’s way of going, the mare plays a larger part in the animation of the mule’s gaits. Mules out of gaited mares will generally exhibit the mare’s way of going and will also be gaited.

Probably the most important trait of the mule is his disposition. This characteristic comes primarily from the mare. Much of the mule’s attitude is formed during his first days with his dam, at which time he will observe and then assume her behavior patterns.  Although much of a mule’s attitude development is environmental, there is still an inherent general disposition, so avoid breeding to mares with a negative or sour disposition, as those traits will most likely be passed on to her mule offspring.

Keeping all of these considerations and guidelines in mind when breeding for mules can definitely increase your chances of producing an attractive, usable, and enjoyable equine companion.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1986, 2016, 2018 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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