Everyone has heard the old adage about being "as stubborn as a mule," but you may never realize how true it is until you begin actually trying to train a long-ear. The nearly always-sterile hybrid of a donkey stallion and horse mare (if you hybridize in the reverse way, you get a hinny), mules vary in size according to their mothers. There are small, pony-sized mules; large, heavy draught mules; and plenty of mules in between.
Much like human children, mules respond well to positive reinforcement rather than punishment. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something, such as praise or treats, when your mule responds appropriately to commands. An example of using positive reinforcement in mule training is for you to reward your mule for exercising proper halter etiquette by giving it pets, scratches and praise and then turning it loose for a break in the paddock.
One reason mules received a reputation for being so stubborn is their innate drive toward self-preservation. A mule will do what it has deemed best for itself, which comes in handy when it means you will be safer as well. Because of this attitude, pulling on a mule will only cause it to push back against you. Instead, give your mule ample opportunity to respond to your request. Introducing a gentle "reminder" technique, such as a bit of leg pressure, gives your mule a chance to respond to your cue, then a second chance to respond to your reminder before any purposeful discomfort is enacted.
While horses are often fully broke by the time they are 3 years old, mules can mature much more slowly. A 2-year-old mule is far too young to begin saddle training, and even a 3- or 4-year-old mule may be too mentally immature. Some mules do not even reach full physical maturity until they are between 4 and 6 years of age. Hardy, long-lived mules take patience to train, and part of that patience may lie in simply waiting for your mule to be mature enough to respond well to your training. Do not be discouraged if training your mule under the saddle seems impossible when it is young; simply take a break and try again in six months or so.
Slow and Steady
While mule enthusiasts rave about the animals' intelligence, it is also widely accepted that training mules requires a great deal of patience and flexibility. If your mule is not responding well to your training approach, instead of persevering you probably need to go back to the drawing board and decide on a different technique. Behaving impatiently or trying to use force with your mule will only cause it to become resentful and possibly even lash out.
- Gaited Mules: About Mules
- "Donkey & Mule Dispatch"; Training Donkeys; Meredith Hodges; September 2010
- Alabama Cooperative Extension System; Understanding Basic Horse Training Techniques; Cynthia A. McCall; September 2006
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images
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