Q&A Should I Pony A Shy Mule?

I love hearing from all the mule and donkey owners around the world – and there are a lot of you. Pretty often I get questions from you that I’m happy to answer – love helping mules and owners. Here’s a question that I recently received, along with my answer.

A Question on Ponying

Is ponying a shy mule advisable as part of training?

How To Pony A Shy Mule

Ponying is when you saddle up a well-trained mule that has been ridden quite a bit, connect a mule in training to the saddled mule with a come-a-long rope, and then going for a ride.

Sure, it’s a good idea to pony a mule as part of training. The mule that is being trained learns to get along with another mule, how to follow, and how to walk on a trail and enjoy it.

I’m Here to Help

If you are training a mule, I hope this advice will help you, as well. Just remember, it all starts by building a foundation with your mule.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Mule Bits – Everything You Need to Know

If you’re here, chances are you already know if there is a particular mule bit or donkey bit you should be using or if there are differences between bits for horses and bits for mules / donkeys.

But first, what is a bit? It is important to understand what you’re actually going to be using on your animal.

Bits are made of metal or synthetic material. You place the bit in the mouth to assist in your communication with your animal. When talking about a mule bit, there are several things owners need to be aware of in order to use the right bit, for the right time, and the right function.

The bit extends from one side of the bar to the other and rests on the bars of the mouth, in a Molly (mare mule) between the incisors and the molars where there are no teeth; in a John mule has a canine tooth between incisors and the molars. The bit is held on the head by a bridle and the bridle has reins attached to it.

In this article you are going to learn everything you need to know in order to select the right bit for your mule.

Donkey owner? Good news! Everything we cover in this article applies to you, too!

Early Days of the Mule Bit

The bit didn’t always exist. Riders of early domesticated equines probably used some type of bit-less headgear made of sinew, bone, horn, hard wood, leather or rope. Because the earliest headgear was made of materials that didn’t hold up over time, no one can really say which came first—the bitted or the bit-less bridle.

Bits Found Before Christ

Now, without getting too deep into the history, there is evidence of the use of bits in ancient Kazakhstan, dating way back to 3500-3000 BC. There is also evidence of bit wear on horses’ teeth found in the Ukraine from 4000 BC. Lastly, antler cheek pieces used as toggles for rope, hide, or sinew mouthpieces have been found at sites on the Black Sea.

Metal bits came about possibly in the Near East between 1300 and 1200 BC and were originally made of bronze. Plain and jointed mouth pieces appeared at the same time, often with highly ornamented cheekpieces—one thing that hasn’t changed, we like our bits to be lookers!

Modern Bits

In modern times, nickel was a favored material until about 1940, when stainless steel largely replaced it.

Copper, aurigan (copper alloy) and sweet iron (cold rolled steel) are incorporated into some bits to encourage salivation in the mouth of the animal which, in turn, encourages a softer mouth and relaxed jaw.

Why mention any of this?

Because it underscores that as early as we find people domesticating equines and riding them, there has been a quest to gain maximum control. But what the mule owner needs to know is that it isn’t control the bit provides you—it is communication.

You cannot control these animals. You can communicate with them and make their life comfortable or uncomfortable. The belief that you can control an animal much larger than you is a farce. The bit gives communication and that communication works side by side with your training.

Bits can be incredibly effective—they can also be damaging, or even destroy your mule’s mouth. You need to have a good understanding of what bit you need to use for what work.

Using A Bit to Communicate with Your Mule or Donkey

It’s natural to think that if you’re going to work with an equine, you’re going to work with a bit. They almost go hand-in-hand.

Well, as mentioned above, you’re going to want to communicate with your mule or donkey—it goes without saying, but these animals do not understand anything you’re saying to them. When we say, “Oh, that’s good, Fluffy,” or “Come on now, girl, let’s get going,” they don’t understand a darn thing. All they know is comfortable and uncomfortable.

Over time, with good communication and strong training, your mule or donkey will begin to pick up on small words like whoa, come gee, come haw, and back up. The animal can start to associate these words with the communication they receive through the bit.

It’s not that they necessarily know what the words mean; what they start thinking is it’s going to be more comfortable for them to make a turn or stop with a verbal command rather than you picking up the reins… the reins mean they’re going to be uncomfortable.

Your primary communication for things like stop here, go there, go right, go left and back up come through the bit. Just like a vehicle going downhill, unless you are tapping the brakes, the vehicle is going to go faster and faster. The same principle applies with the mule and the donkey. Unless you are using your reins to communicate to the bit, they’re going to do their own thing, which means it is essential to use the correct bit for the correct application so you get maximum communication.

Different Types of Mule Bits

When you walk into any tack store you’re going to see a wall of at least a hundred different types of bits. Most of the time folks are going to be selecting a bit for looks. One bit may be pretty or have a nice design. Hey, sharp looking tack is great, but you want to be one of the owners who selects a bit because you understand the its communication, application, and health implications.

Hackamores

The hackamore is used on the mule’s nose. There are a variety of hackamores from the Bosal to the mechanical hackamore.

The Bosal is basically all rawhide wrapped around a rawhide core and comes in a variety of weights and thicknesses.

The mechanical hackamore is to be used only with leg communication, 80% with your legs, 20% with your hands. Since mules care more about their nose than their mouth, you want to focus the majority of your communication using the nose—not your hands—and only enlist your hands when necessary. They are very sensitive about their nose and too much activity around that sensitive area can really upset them.

Gag Bits

Another bit you’ll see is the gag bit which communicates to the nose, up into the mouth, with a chain underneath the chin.

There are a variety of gag bits, anywhere from a simple rope or even a steel bar going across the nose. The BIG problem is mules care more about their nose and less about their mouth, so when the nose starts getting sore from the combination of nose, mouth, and chain under the chin, the mule and donkey will go into a runaway mode from all the pain.

The downside of the gag bit is that you have a chain on the bottom of the bit which is supposed to communicate to the nerves of the chin. Unfortunately, many mules and donkeys actually wind up having dead nerves there because of riders getting heavy hands while using a gag bit. The gag bit can very easily slide up into the mouth pretty deep, literally causing the mule to smile – big time! That bit can also cut the tongue.

Correctional Mouthpieces

The correctional mouthpiece moves a lot and pivots at four points: on the outside, at the right, at the left, and inside at the port (right and left).

The bits I choose to use, the correctional mouthpiece, I find communicates best to the mule and the donkey. This style of bit is used by all the professional trainers, world champions of both horses and mules.

This is a Bosal made for me by Nic West.

The Two Mule Bits of Choice for Riding

I’ve narrowed down my choice to two: The Mule Rider’s Martingale double twisted wire O-ring snaffle bit and my correctional mouthpiece, The Trail Rider. These two bits work the best for communicating with the mule.

Folks, I never thought I’d be in the bit business, but over the years not having a bit that respects the needs of the mule or donkey, I had to design one. I design my bit so that it tips a little forward to communicate more crisply and more cleanly with the palate. The bits I’ve designed are manufactured by Reinsman. You’ll find a lot of manufactures of bits, many from Pakistan and other countries; while it may look like a bit is a bit, the bit won’t work correctly for the mule and, over time, you’ll find it will rust easily.

Occasionally I will use a Bosal or a mechanical hackamore, but my animal would have to be very refined to use these bits. I have many other bits that are now only wall hangers – that’s all they’re really good for now that I know what I know.

It sure can be frustrating taking a pretty bit or a bit that you really liked and putting it away for good, but, friend, do it for the sake of the animal. Say, “The past is the past, I’m free at last.” The good Lord forgives us for so many things and moves on—we can forgive ourselves for using poor bitting solutions and also move on.

Different Bits for Different Activity — Use the Proper Mule Bit

Not all bits are the same. There are training bits and finished bits, there are driving bits and riding bits. You are going to use a different bit for different activities. For instance, when training for driving, you’re going to be using a double twisted wire full-cheek driving bit. With the long lines you have a lot more leverage that you must take into account with the bit you use.

When the mule is finished, you want to move from the training bit to a finished bit. I use my Liverpool Bit, a reversible straight mouth plated steel loose-cheek bit. This bit is for a finished animal and you are no longer developing much tongue communication, you are developing bar and sides-of-the-mouth communication.

If you’re starting to train a colt, you want to use the Mule Rider’s Martingale, not a finished bit. This bit-bridle combination keeps the animal’s nose on the vertical and keeps their head down so you can focus on communication.

So different bits for training, different bits for driving.

The point here is DO NOT assume that you can use the same bit for one activity as you do another. When you are riding a finished animal, you want the correct bit—The Trail Riding bit. When you are training for driving, you want the correct bit—the Driving Bit.

Using Horse Bits for Mules or Mule Bits for Horses

Here is what we need the equine world to understand:

MULES ARE DIFFERENT THAN HORSES
DONKEYS ARE DIFFERENT THAN HORSES

It has been thought for so long that an equine is an equine is an equine. Not true. The good Lord made these animals different from one another and we have a responsibility to respect the differences that they have been given.

You cannot use a horse saddle on a mule because the bone structure is different. The mule gets his bone structure from his daddy, the donkey.

Likewise, you cannot use a horse bit on a mule or donkey because the palate is completely different from a horse. Their nose is longer, their mouth has nuanced differences from a horse so using a horse bit on a mule will 1) prevent you from having the communication you need and 2) damage the mule’s ability to understand you at best, and destroy their mouth at worst.

Common Mistakes Made with Bits

There are four common mistakes people will make with bits and their mules.

Making the Bit Do the Work

The first mistake is making the bit do all the work. In other words, they end up pulling on the bit rather than making small motions with their hands. They’ll end up with their hands clean over by their pelvis when the hands should never go past the horn.

Using Horse Bits

The second mistake is using a horse bit on a mule, expecting the bit to work.

Maybe the bit will work for a while, but after a short time the mule is going to have had enough of the bit and he’s going to put his tongue over the top of the bit and take off running… and you won’t be able to stop him.

Making the Mule Take the Bit A Certain Way

The third mistake is the most common mistake made with bits. Folks will force the mule to take the bit the way they want the mule to take the bit.

You’ll find most people will create one wrinkle and two wrinkles on the corners of the mule’s mouth because their great-grandaddy said to do it that way, or because the old guy next door—who has been a horseman all his life—does it that way.

If you really want to refine a mule, let the mule pick up the bit, pack it, and show you where he likes it—and that’s where you adjust the bit.

Properly Balancing the Teeth

The fourth and final common mistake is a MAJOR one: The mule’s teeth are not properly balanced.

Before you begin riding, before you put the bit in their mouth, you should have a veterinarian or a dentist out to balance the teeth. Get the TMJ correct, get the incisors correct. When the mule’s mouth is correct, no sharp points, he will be a lot happier. That is the key thing: happiness.

Once the teeth are balanced, i.e., aligned, continue to have the teeth balanced every year after that. Maybe some vets will say “oh, you don’t need to do that,” but you better because mules and donkeys grind their feed, they do not chew it.

Because of how they grind their teeth, their front teeth (incisors) take a bit of feed and as the tongue helps it go back, the teeth on the side and the top will grind the feed. What happens is they end up getting points on their teeth or their TMJs. The teeth hang up, the mule starts gapping his mouth because he’s super uncomfortable and you have a lot of problems that will develop.

Lateral Flexions with Mules

When turning, you’ll see a lot of horsemen bend the mule’s neck back to where the nose almost touches the knee, it’s called lateral flexions. By doing this, the mule’s neck muscles are strengthening. One day you will want to go to the right and the mule will want to go to the left—he will tighten all his very strong neck muscles and away he goes.

I do not do lateral flexions.

Disengaging the Mule’s Hindquarters

Also, I do not disengage the hindquarters. Disengaging the hindquarters is where you pick up on one rein and you have the hindquarter come around and eventually the mule stops. It may work for a while, but pretty soon the mule will figure out the best way to get comfortable.

I had the opportunity to work with an attorney for an accident where a lady was told to pick up on one rein to do a one rein stop, which disengages the hindquarters. The mule will go in a circle and eventually stop.

Well, in this case, the mule didn’t do that.

The mule ran through his shoulder and the lady ended up hitting the ground, receiving a major concussion, and had to be helicoptered to receive medical attention.

This technique is a horse technique not meant for the mule.

Why Disengaging the Hindquarters Doesn’t Work for Mules and Donkeys

Think about it this way. You’re riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon, 1,000 feet down on the left and rock straight up and down on the right. If you’re packing five mules, how is it that you will be able to go around in a circle to stop them by disengaging the hindquarters?

It comes time when a lot of horse trainers have started taking to being mule trainers and they’re bringing over this technique of disengaging the hindquarters.

And boy, does it look really good when you’re out there on flat ground.

Unfortunately, my client who hit the ground in the story above wound up on the ground because of these horse techniques. It may look good, but for her it didn’t feel good having to be helicoptered off the side of a mountain.

Lateral flexions and disengaging the hindquarters will only look good and work for a short time, but when you need to stop all of a sudden, you won’t be able to stop them, it won’t work.

Bad Bits You Want to Avoid

There are some sorry bits out there and the worst one, by far, will look like a chainsaw blade on one side and rounded on the other. A lot of people call them ‘mule bits’ but they ain’t no mule bit. It is a horrible bit to use on a mule or donkey.

Another bit that folks will use is called a sliding gag bit. There are several manufacturers of these bits. They are meant to communicate with the nose, the mouth, and underneath the chin.

No longer a bit I use, this is a light port mule / donkey bit that is part of my collection.

These bits put the mule or donkey in pain and those animals get so tired of it that they start to just flat out runaway. Folks want to know why their animal is running away and I point right to that bit.

If you have a bit that is communicating to the nose, the mouth, and the chin, you better not be using it because the time is coming where you won’t be able to stop Mr. Mule and you’ll pay for it with, at best a few sore spots and at worst, your life.

Using the Same Bits for Mules and Donkeys

As mentioned above, the mule gets so much of his structure from his daddy, the donkey. Because of this you can use a mule saddle—my saddle, a Steve Edwards saddle—on a donkey.

In the same way, I use the same bits for mules and donkeys. They share the same mouth structure and require the same communication.

I have designed my own bits because I just could not find bits that communicated to the palate of the mule and donkey. My bits are as follows:

  • Mule Rider’s Martingale: This is a snaffle bit complete with bridle, head stall, and reins. This is what I use for starting colts under three years, it places the correct amount of pressure on the tongue during training, more info here.
  • Trail Riding Bit: This is a finished bit used for animals that are finished and require refined communication. This is for when you’re communicating 80% with your legs and 20% with your hands and removes pressure from the tongue, more info here.
    Driving Bit: This is a training bit and can be used as a correctional bit; the full-cheek gives you extra leverage to keep you from pulling the bit through the mouth, more info here.
  • The Liverpool Bit: This is a finished driving bit and is not to be used for training, more info here.
  • Mechanical Hackamore: This is a wonderful communication tool that goes across the nose and underneath the chin. You start by placing it two fingers above the nostril and as you progress you move up to three fingers below the cheekbone and approximately three fingers below the corner of the mouth. This is not a bit, but does give you communication, more info here.

While you can use these bits on a mule or a donkey, there is another component to be aware of: mouth size. The average standard or saddle mule and the average donkey all use a five-and-a-quarter-inch bit. When you start talking about draft mules, you can increase to a five-and-a-half-inch bit. The overall value is to get the right bit for the animal, rather than try to force one on the animal that might do more harm than good.

Incorporating Bits Into Your Training

It’s easy to get excited about saddling a mule and get to riding, and it’s easy to get excited about introducing a bit as well. It is imperative that you first do your ground work with a rope halter.

Mules and donkeys care about their nose more than anything else—start all groundwork with the come-a-long rope and the rope halter. You want to see the mule or donkey start to bend easy and soften all fiver major neck muscles.

After this foundation ground training, you will go from the rope halter and come-a-long rope into the snaffle bit, which is the Mule Rider’s Martingale.

From the Mule Rider’s Martingale and snaffle bit, you will move into a finished bit, The Trail Riding Bit.

But getting back to foundation training, you want to spend about six months, training 4-6 hours a week to build a good foundation and then, before you know it, you’ll start riding and boy will it be awesome!

Ripped Tongues and Sore Mouths

It is important to note that when you start training your mule or donkey for riding, you want to use the snaffle bit, not the smooth snaffle bit. Everybody thinks if they use a smooth snaffle bit it will be easier on the animal.

Wrong answer.

I have seen more ripped and torn tongues and more sore mouths because people will tend to pull with the smooth snaffle bit. Mules and donkeys care more about their nose than they do their mouths, so many owners end up pulling hard on the bit, hurting the animals.

Introducing the Snaffle Bit

The snaffle bit is not an everyday use bit. This bit is used to fix a problem or to start training a young mule or donkey. It is very easy to stretch out the mouth if you use a snaffle bit because it communicates to the tongue, the bars of the mouth, and the corners of the mouth.

The double-twisted wire snaffle bit is meant to communicate with the entire tongue, and if you get heavy handed, the continual pushing on the tongue will be very stressful for the animal. In addition, even if you’re using a smooth snaffle bit—which you shouldn’t—that big can still cut the tongue.

When you introduce the snaffle bit you want to avoid having the bit do all the work. What I mean by that is you want to allow the bit to work in conjunction with your hands. The mule or donkey will have the bit in their mouth, trying to find a way to be comfortable. When they finally find a comfortable place, you want to allow the bit to work, rather than using drastic movements, trying to force it to work.

Start with Small Steps

Training with a bit starts with small steps. You have your reins in both hands, using direct reining communication. At this point, both hands are part of communicating to the snaffle bit. You have a lot of power in your hands.

It’s easy to want the animal to make a right turn and then move our hands in a big fashion to the right.

Nope. Wrong.

What we want is to start with just seeing the nose move toward the right. Once we get the nose, then the neck, then the shoulder, then the feet and eventually from the feet, front and rear, we will make our turn.

It’s a progression and it starts with the bit. Making the bit work is a giant move with our hands. Allowing the bit to work is just slight communication to get the nose to turn.

See the difference?

Fixing Problems with the Snaffle Bit

The snaffle bit is for training young colts and is to be used short-term. When I say short-term, I mean six months of foundational training, four to six hours a week max! That’s all you need.

These animals have a brain about the size of a walnut and they can only take in so much information. Most people will wind up overdoing the training, exhausting the animal and themselves.

I say work in steps of 3, 6, 9, 12.

Today I get the nose to tip to the right three times, the nose to tip to the left three times—now I’m done for the day.

Small steps like this eventually build a solid foundation.

Moving to A Finished Bit

After training or making corrections, introduce the finished bit. I use my finished riding bit, The Trail Riding Bit.

The Trail Riding Bit is a finished bit used with mules that are finished.

The finished bit has six-inch shanks on the right and left side, compared to the snaffle bit which has O-rings on each side. The purpose of the shank is not so you can have leverage, but it’s so you can ask the mule to stop, turn, and back up very easily. This finished bit is meant to mainly be used when riding one-handed. If you must communicate using direct reining, you can use two hands for a short time.

The finished bit has a port that goes up over the top of the tongue, so you are no longer communicating with the tongue. This port now communicates to the roof of the mouth, your communication is more refined, and life is a whole lot easier on your mule.

Hand Communication

It’s easy to experience problems and blame them on the bit, when in actuality, the problems are originating from our hands. We make mistakes pulling, don’t get the results we want, and blame it on the bit, or the mule.

That’s the key word there, we PULLED rather than just turning our wrists.

You want your hands in direct training position:

  • Looking down at the pommel of the saddle
  • Hands should be as wide as the pommel
  • Both hands in a “holding an ice cream cone” position

When you make your turn, slowly your right hand twists the bit—you move your right hand from the ice cream cone position to your palm facing down and your knuckles are up.

Continuing, the right hand moves to the right, the left hand, which is still in the ice cream cone position, goes with the right hand. As the right hand moves to the right, the left hand goes with it because it’s connected to the reins, but my left hand only goes as far as the horn.

Why only as far as the horn?

If your left hand goes past the horn, now you’re pulling the mule, now you’re pulling the donkey. Their response will be to brace all five of their major neck muscles to protect themselves. You feel the resistance, but it’s not because they are fighting you, it is because they have an instinct to protect themselves. They are trying to keep you from making them uncomfortable.

Bit communication is less about the bit and how it is designed, and more about direct hand communication for the desired command.

Before You Get In the Saddle

Be patient during groundwork. That’s the most important thing. Go from groundwork into the saddle. If they’re not being good and responsive on the ground, then do not go into the saddle.

Additional Tack and Equipment to Go With the Bit

Selecting the correct bit for your application is half the challenge. The other half is completing the tack to ensure the bit works as needed. You are going to need a few more pieces for the Ole Fluffy puzzle.

  • Saddle designed for a mule (not a mule saddle: a Steve Edwards saddle).
  • Britchen—not a crupper.
  •  Reins
  • Bridle

If you’re going to be starting with the Mule Rider’s Martingale, it will come with the reins, the bridle, and an instructional video.

If you are ready for a finished bit, The Trail Riding Bit comes by itself. You will have a decision to make on whether to go with an all leather bridle or whether to go with a beta bridle. You’ll also have the same choice for your reins—all leather or beta?

Leather has the traditional look that a lot of folks want. You’ll want to maintain the leather, keep it oiled, and invest a lot of work in cleaning. Beta, on the other hand, is much stronger than leather, is easy to clean, and looks great!

Ultimately, the material you choose is going to be your preference for what you want to look at. Both are good-looking materials. Regardless of which you choose, if you go with QVMR bridle and reins, both materials will have QVMR Conchos that provides a really nice look.

Which Bit to Ride With Today

I pretty much always ride with the same bit. You won’t find me changing the bit from ride to ride.

However, I do not put the bit on in the same way everyday.

I loosen up the bridal when I take it off. When the bridle is loose it is a lot easier to remove and the mule won’t be so ear shy.

After loosening up the bridle like this, when I put it on, it’s two holes below where I usually adjust it. After I put it on, I let the mule stand there and chew on the bit, pick it up, put it down, and move it around. When he is comfortable, I’ll adjust it where he keeps it. Sometimes it’s the second hole up, sometimes it’s the first hole up on the bridle.

Which Bit to Drive With Today

I drive with the Liverpool bit when the mule is finished. I train with the double twisted wire full cheek driving bit when I’m training.

Riding With Two Hands Versus One Hand

The most common question folks will ask about bits is, “Which bit should I use?”

The short answer is if you’re training, use the double twisted wire snaffle bit. If you’re mule is finished, you want to use the Trail Riding Bit.

However, the long answer is important to know so you don’t destroy the mouth of your mule.

If you are riding with both hands on the reins, you are using direct communication. If you’re using direct communication and you’re using a finished bit, i.e. my Trail Riding Bit, two hands will be putting too much pressure on the bit—this finished bit is meant to be used one-handed.

For those who are using two hands, why are you using two hands? Is it because the mule won’t turn? Is it because the mule won’t stop?

If you’re having communication issues and the mule isn’t responding, then you need to be using the Mule Rider’s Martingale. The double snaffle bit will give you cleaner communication.

The Unfortunate Side of Riding with Two Hands

Unfortunately, most people ride with two hands all the time, just like their hands are on a car’s steering wheel or bicycle handlebars. Two hands on the steering wheel and on the handlebars is the safe way to drive a car or ride a bike, but it is too much pressure for the mule.

It’s all over the internet, people riding with two hands. If you look at any photo of a rider with two hands on the reins, photos from Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see the mule’s head is up and his nose is sticking out.

The mule lifts his head up to try and get away from the pressure you’re putting on the reins.

The mule’s nose is out to keep you from pulling on him.

Folks just don’t know what they’re doing to their animal. An owner will have a real nice animal and they’ll even say, “He was a really nice animal when I first bought him. He was doing everything I wanted. Now, he’s not doing that any more.”

Folks, you’re going to make mistakes and it’s okay. Keep learning, make adjustments, and leave the past in the past. If you watched some of my training from 10 years ago, then watch my training today, you’ll see I do some things differently.

Why?

Because I learned from the mule. I listened to him. I saw that there was a better way to do things and I did what was best for him.

A lot of problems have developed in recent years because more and more folks are coming to mules and donkeys from the horse world and they’re bringing their horse knowledge with them. You cannot train mules and donkeys like horses. I cannot use horse tack on mules. You cannot ride the mule or donkey like you ride a horse.

You want to eventually get to a point where you are riding, communicating 80% with your legs and 20% with your hands. That should be your goal.

If you need to go to a double snaffle bit to make some corrections, do so. Make your corrections, get your communication clean, and get back to the finished bit.

When Not to Use A Bit

You should always use a bit any time you are riding. Anytime you are on the ground, you want to use a properly adjusted rope halter. If you’re teaching something new, use a come-a-long rope.

Your come-a-long rope will always give you the ability to communicate when the mule’s stress comes on.

Same thing with the Mule Rider’s Martingale.

When there is a lot of stress, for instance, when the mule is going to a new venue where they will be shown and they want to see all the new animals around them. This is the time they will stick their nose out and throw their head up in the air.

The communication that comes with the come-a-long rope or the Mule Rider’s Martingale allows you to foundation train them and get them back to their right mind again.

Still Have Questions About Your Bit?

There is a lot of misinformation out there about bits, and you want to do what’s best for your animal. You want to avoid mistakes as much as possible. If you have any questions, you can always give me a call. I want to help the mule, the donkey, and most of all I want to help you. I want you to experience the best your animal has to offer.

Bits are a very popular topic on my live stream events as well. You can catch all my past live streams at the link below.

Happy Trails!

What Do I Need to Consider When Choosing a Halter?

Someone recently asked me for a halter they could snap to the bit of their mule. Now, there’s something important I want to address here. When you’re building a proper foundation with your animal, you want them to be very comfortable and for their bit to be properly balanced in their mouth.

Most folks don’t consider the halter/bit combination an issue initially because a mule will appear to be doing just fine with it at the start. My response to that is, “he might be doing fine today, but what about a year from now when he’s starting to learn a bunch of bad habits?” You’ve got to think ahead and consider what future problems will develop when using any bit.

The downside of the halter/bit combination is that it does not balance the bit correctly because of the snaps hanging on the bridle. I do not suggest you use halter bridles. It won’t balance the bridle correctly and it won’t balance the bit correctly. I always suggest a separate halter and a separate bridle.

What About Blinders?

Now you might also be wondering about blinders. Personally, I do not use blinders at all with my mules because when you start colts out for six months of training, they need to see a full 360° all the way around, and blinders will just focus them straight ahead. But if your animals are showing that they HAVE to have blinders, I do have a couple of simple recommendations for you: avoid clip-in bridles and avoid halter/bridle combinations. You do not want these. Again, they do not balance the bit correctly, your mule will be uncomfortable, and they’ll want to run through the bit.

Steve’s Recommendation

Overall, my recommendation to you is to use a rope halter and a separate bridle. Put the comfort of your animal first; get the correct bit and bridle – your mule will learn good habits and form a proper foundation for you.

Q&A My Mule Is In My Space

I love hearing from all the mule and donkey owners around the world – and there are a lot of you. Pretty often I get questions from you that I’m happy to answer – love helping mules and owners. Here’s a question that I recently received, along with my answer.

A Question About A Mule Leading The Way

Is it ok to allow my mule to walk off ahead of me? Is allowing my mule to get to the barn ahead of me lowering my position in the herd and making him think he is leader?

Steve’s response

Your mule is to always walk with his nose at your right shoulder, about two feet to your right. If he gets ahead of you, then you’re going to get yourself kicked. Oh yeah, he will absolutely think he’s the leader if he gets to the barn ahead of you. Cutting you off makes him the herd leader.

You’re better off getting my Ground Foundation video and watching that. It will explain everything you need to know about starting over with your mule and training him in foundation work. You’ll be so happy you did.

I’m Here to Help

If you are training a mule, I hope this advice will help you, as well. Just remember, it all starts by building a foundation with your mule.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Watching for signs of a runaway mule

Runaway Mule – Ground Foundation Training

How do you train a mule to prevent him from running away out of control? What should you do if he starts running away? How do you move forward with a runaway mule? Runaway mules are a common topic from clients who message me asking, “How do I get him to stop?”

If you’ve never experienced an out of control mule, that’s great, but if you spend any significant time with mules, you will experience a time when you can’t gain control. Knowing how to prepare – both in your training and then for that moment when he wants to do his own thing – is very important in order to avoid some of the more serious consequences.

Most folks think the best way to avoid a runaway mule situation is to buy a mule that has been there, done that and doesn’t do it anymore, but you know what? That mule doesn’t exist.

What Is A Runaway Mule?

So what do we mean when we say ‘runaway mule’? We’re not talking about a mule that decides to run away from home. What we mean is a mule who won’t stop, won’t turn, and is just flat out, out of control. Your mule’s ‘steering and brakes’ don’t work and he basically goes about doing whatever he wants.

After you’ve experienced a runaway episode, the best thing to do is to stop all recreation and start building a better foundation. Stop riding, stop driving, and return to the pen for ground foundation training.

Signs to Look For In A Runaway Mule

Training ahead of time is the best thing you can do to avoid a runaway situation. Again, you can’t remove the possibility altogether – these animals have fright and flight built into them.

That said, when you are nearing a runaway situation, the mule will give you several signs that most mule and donkey folks aren’t looking for.

  1. The mule will stick out his nose. Now he has a hold of the bit.
  2. The mule will tighten all five neck muscles. Now he is bracing against you with all his strength.
  3. The mule will tighten his throat latch – right where the neck and throat come together.

All three of these signs point to the mule telling you he is in charge and when all three of these happen, he has you. You start trying to stop using a right rein one-way stop – most people will use this to make an emergency stop. This does not work on the mule and the next thing you know, you are bouncing on the ground and your next ride is to the hospital – either in an ambulance or a friend is taking you. Needless to say, you want to wear a helmet for safety.

Steve Edwards training a mule using the come-a-long rope.

Proper ground foundation training is your best guard to lessen the likelihood of a runaway mule. Use a 12’ lead rope and do all training in increments of 3, 6, 9, 12.

How to Train In Order to Avoid Having A Runaway Mule

Folks, first and foremost you need to know that equines are dangerous and there is absolutely nothing you can do to take their fright and flight nature out of them. The good Lord gave them that nature and it is there to stay. So no matter how much training you put into your mule, he will still have a runaway nature in him. The best we can do is train him to see you as herd leader and give you the tools to help take back control when he gets a mind of his own.

You want to begin your training from the ground with halter work. After working through ground halter work, you want to move to the Mule Rider’s Martingale, i.e. snaffle bit, and then move into the finished bit. Before riding again, you want to complete six months of training at approximately four to six hours per week and it is critical to train every week. Don’t overdo your training and don’t train every day. It’s easy to want to keep going and accelerate the training schedule, but that’s not how mules work. When you are doing foundation work you want to do everything in stages of 3 – 6 – 9 – 12.

Ground Foundation Training Example Schedule

Every animal is different, but using the Ground Foundation Starter Kit, here is an example of what this might look like.

Today, we start by teaching the mule to go in a clockwise circle to the right three times. After he completes three of these reps, then take him three times counterclockwise. Teaching them to walk in this circle keeps you in the middle of the circle and they are walking around you at the end of a 12 foot lead rope. They are walking slowly and listening to you.

So what constitutes a successful try? You want to see the mule trying to understand and comply with what you are asking him to do. Look for the smallest ‘try’ he gives. If you see him making a stab at what you’re asking him to do, that’s the first circle. The second circle should be better than the first. The third circle should be even better than the first two.

After we get our first three successful tries, we can stop and pick things back up the next day or we could wait until the next week. Ideally, you’d wait 2-3 days before going back to work. Too much training will freeze up the mule. Their brain power for learning something new is like the size of a walnut – so not a lot of power.

Steve Edwards training a mule using the come-a-long rope.

Don’t train every day. You will wear out the mule’s ability to learn. You should train no more than 4-6 hours a week and all training should be done over the course of 6 months or so.

When you return to training after a few days, do three circles in each direction and then quit. Each training session should be about 5-10 minutes and you will want to accept the mule’s smallest try if it’s in the right direction. Two to four days later do six circles each way. Then two to four days later do nine circles and then a few days later go after your 12.The circles are just an example. You’ll want to go about other ground foundation training to establish a good foundation and to let Fluffy know that you are the herd leader.

This is a great series of videos that covers ground foundation training and helps owners learn how to establish leadership over their mules and donkeys.

It doesn’t matter what type of mule you buy or what you want to do with ‘Ole Fluffy – your ability to communicate is what will help you when it comes to the runaway mule. Putting in six months of proper training to build a foundation is the best way to guard against the runaway mule.

How Long Should A Colt Stay with Its Mother

How long should a colt stay with its mother? What a great question. When you’re fixin’ to invest a lot of time, effort, and money into raising this colt, you want to do things right from the very get go and knowing how to manage the momma/baby dynamic is very important to the process. Don’t underestimate the importance or you’ll wind up with issues years down the road that are either very difficult or impossible to correct.

I was actually very pleased to receive a question recently on this very topic from one of my clients. The message read:

Our mule just had a baby! How long should the colt stay with his momma before he is weaned?

Pregnant Mother and Newborn Colt

Mules and donkeys are usually pregnant for 11 to 13 months, generally around 12 months. When the foal is born, it will be on its feet within the first hour. Equines are fairly developed when they’re born – the baby can walk and run on its first day. An equine foal is usually able to eat adult food, like grain or grass, when they are around a month old, although they don’t get much value from it.

The mare’s milk is at peak nutritional value for the first six weeks after foaling. By the time the foal is three months old, he isn’t getting a great deal of nutrition from his mother’s milk, although he will nurse as long as they are together, mostly for comfort.

When to Wean A Colt From Its Mother

So when should a colt be separated from its momma? My experience teaches that it all depends on the individual animal.

When a jack’s testicles have dropped they should be castrated and have their wolf teeth taken out – and then be separated from their mother. These jacks have a much better mind when it’s done early.

A jenny, it’s going to be very similar.

My max time for allowing them to stay with its momma is six months. My minimum time with their mother is three months.

Making the Weaning Process Less Stressful for the Colt

For weaning to be the least stressful, your colt should meet certain benchmarks.

  • He should be at least three months of age, preferably between four to six months old, and in good overall health.
  • He should be strong and healthy and have a good appetite.
  • Don’t wean the colt from its momma when other stressful things are happening, such as a visit from the vet or blacksmith.
  • Don’t deworm or vaccinate when you wean and don’t introduce new mules or donkeys to the momma and baby.
  • Make sure they have their own pen. It’s okay for the baby to be close to momma, but they need their own pen and eating their own solid food.

There might be an exception here or there for one that is ill, but the sooner you get them away from the mother, the better-quality animal you will have and the better your training will go; you do want to start training right away. Don’t wait. Get started with training and make sure when you get them away from momma that you are training regularly.

Q&A: My Mule is Rearing Up

There are a lot of mule and donkey owners around the world. I love hearing from you all! Pretty often I get questions from you that I’m happy to answer – love helping mules and owners. Here’s a question that I recently received, along with my answer.

A Question on Rearing

My mule rears during training sessions when a can is kicked her way. The come-a-long hitch works fine throughout our training, but the rearing continues.

What To Do When Your Mule Rears

The rearing is because of the can, but I would have to see a video of how you’re doing it to give any ‘for-certain’ instructions.

That said, make sure the can starts from a far off distance and slowly work the can towards her.

The other thing that is important to remember is the timing. It’s not the mule’s fault. It’s not the can’s fault. It is all in the timing of the correction. You need to work on coordinating the can and then the ‘bump, bump, bump’ with the come-a-long rope.

Just from what you shared, I would get away from the can for the time being and go back to Ground Foundation Training using the Rope Halter, Come-A-Long Rope, and the instructions found on the Problem Mule: Building A New Foundation instructional video.

I’m Here to Help

If your mule rears just like this mule, I hope this advice will help you as well. Just remember, it all starts by building a foundation with your mule.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Should I Be Using A Mechanical Hackamore?

A lot of clients email me with questions about hackamores and I do my best to respond quickly, to get them the information they need so they can get back in the saddle. A recent question came in about using a hackamore. Here is what the client had to say:

What kind of bridle or hackamore do you use on your donkeys? I got a new donkey a little over a year ago and she is very spirited and a quick learner, but she likes to fight her mechanical hackamore when she wants to go. I have tried a couple other bits and hackamores but she doesn’t listen to them at all. I would really appreciate the help.

What Is A Mechanical Hackamore

First, it’s important to understand what a hackamore is and why it’s used. A hackamore is a bridle without a bit. A mechanical hackamore is a bitless bridle with shanks.

The shanks on the mechanical hackamore provide leverage. Rather than pressure being applied in the mouth, the hackamore has a special type of noseband that communicates to pressure points on the nose and chin. When the reins are pulled, the crown of the bridle is pulled down behind the mule’s ears, the nose piece is pulled against the mule’s nose and the chin strap applies pressure against the chin in a similar fashion to the action of a curb bit.

The noseband can be just a rubber hose over a bicycle chain on the mule’s nose or it can be a bicycle chain with braided leather on the nose or it can be a flat nose piece that goes across the nose, and some people even use use straight chain, which is not very comfortable for the mule. Those are four different types of mechanical hackamores. The noseband, the nose piece itself has different designs to get different results.

The braided leather nose piece is the one you start out with because it gives you more communication value and is a little rougher so the mule will start responding, getting his nose on the vertical. As you progress, you’ll move to a rubber nose piece which is not as aggressive as the braided one. When the mule gets really easy and light and you barely have to pick up the reins, then you move to the flat nose piece. These are some of the different stages, in general, for what it would look like to have these different nosebands.

What You Need to Know About Using A Hackamore On Your Mule or Donkey

A hackamore should only be used if you can ride 80% using only your legs. Mules and donkeys care more about their nose than they do their mouth; their noses are VERY sensitive. In this regard, you could be using a hackamore that is not properly designed for the mule and donkey, so it isn’t communicating with the nose. It is also possible that you have it in the wrong place.

There are two things I’d like you to do for your donkey.

  1. Make sure the teeth are floated properly and done every year.
  2. Make sure the wolf teeth are pulled.

After you do those two things, try the hackamore again. If it still isn’t working, it could be in the wrong place. Here’s how you place the hackamore correctly. The hackamore should be placed two inches above the donkey’s nostrils, which is the beginning foundational position. As the mule progresses, you’re going to move the hackamore farther up the nose. Here’s a photo of correct hackamore placement on a donkey.

If you’ve fixed your mule’s or donkey’s teeth and the hackamore is placed properly, it might be that you need a mule and donkey hackamore. I use a mechanical hackamore on all my mules as a way to refresh a mule. This hackamore is top quality and features a rubber nose band and adjustable chin strap. Here’s a link to my mechanical hackamore. You shouldn’t have any more problems.

You can always call or email me if you have more questions about hackamores. I’m always happy to help mule and donkey owners get the most rewarding behavior from their animals.

Happy Trails!

A Great Example of Donkey Driving

I received this donkey driving video from Jana Schmidt, one of my clients. Jana is receiving coaching as she drives her donkey pulling a cart. She wanted to know what I thought of the donkey’s cart-pulling ability and if there was anything she could do to improve.

What You See From the Donkey

In the video, you’ve got a donkey that’s doing an excellent job of listening to the driver. The donkey is framed up and it’s head is down. The donkey is walking with a four-beat gait, which is good. The head is not elevated, it’s balanced and framed up, looking very nice; the nose is on the vertical and it all looks very good.

It looks like the tack and the harness are in a good place, right where they belong. I’m not a fan of the breast collar harness; Jana’s using a breast collar here. I prefer a collar harness instead. The collar harness goes around the neck. It’s a lot easier on donkeys and mules because these animals are very lateral when they are walking and their shoulders will hit the breast collar harness. A donkey can easily get what’s called a Sweeney shoulder, which is damage to the suprascapular nerve, tendons and things like this. So my preference is a collar harness, just be very watchful of the donkey tripping or maybe dropping his head; things like this are indications that the breast collar is putting pressure on the shoulder. My thing is I really prefer a collar harness over a breast collar harness, it does so much better.

What You See From the Driver

She’s doing a very good job of driving the cart. I appreciate that she’s wearing a helmet. That’s great! I can’t see her hands all that well, but it looks like she has great communication between the lines with the donkey. The donkey is extremely relaxed. If the donkey is relaxed, that means she’s communicating very well.

What You See Regarding the Cart

The cart is the right size for the donkey and it’s a nice cart. It’s got a fifth wheel undercut on it which is very, very nice for turning. I noticed that when she stopped, the cart went forward, past the front of the shoulders which tells me she needs to shorten the quarter straps that go to the britchen (the britchen is the brakes), so when she stops, the cart should only move about 2”. If I was going to do anything at all, I would adjust the quarter straps for the breeching so that she has better brakes.

Driving a donkey cart well isn’t easy, It takes time to improve. She’s doing correct training, in that she’s using obstacles to go in and out, that’s always very good. It gives the donkey something to think about. I don’t see her arms moving a lot which is great. That means her communication from her hands to the bridle is very subtle and the donkey is following through with it.

You gotta love donkeys for their disposition. A donkey will show you if they’re unhappy if you’re pulling on them. I think she’s doing a very good job all the way around.

 

How to Treat Mule Leg Sores

Leg sores are a topic that raises questions all the time. It can be frightening to see leg sores develop on your mule or donkey, especially if you haven’t noticed them early on and when you finally see them, they’re at their worst. One of my clients wrote in with a great question about leg sores and I wanted to share it with you so that you can apply the same solution if leg sores become a problem with your mule or donkey.

“I have a couple of mules that get bad sores on their front legs. The sores are caused by the mules biting at their legs. I have tried several creams and bug sprays, but nothing helps. I put wraps on their legs, but the mules just chew them up. The sores only show up in the warmer months. I asked my vet and he thought maybe it was an allergy, but he wasn’t sure. Only some of my mules have them and none of my horses. Have you ever experienced this? By the way I love the videos you have been putting on Facebook and YouTube.”

Options for Leg Sore Treatment

Don’t you just hate to see your mule in pain? This is a great owner who is doing everything he can for his mule – including talking to the vet. Folks, I can’t tell you how important it is to do your research and find a good vet who you can call on when your mule or donkey needs them.

In this case, since the sores are only showing up in the summer, there are several things that could be causing the leg sores and several ways you can help the mule.

Bot Flies Causing Leg Sores

One thing that causes leg sores on mules and donkeys are bot flies. A bot fly is a bee-like creature that flies around your mule and drives him crazy. These flies lay a lot of yellow eggs which attach to Mr. Mule’s hair. Keep the eggs off your mule’s legs and body using a bot knife; it’s safer that using a pocket knife. You can knock bot flies down with your hand and then step on them. Use a dewormer that takes care of bots before the bot season.

Chorioptic Mange Mites Causing Leg Sores

Leg sores can also be caused by Chorioptic Mange Mites. These mites are very small but can cause irritation, skin lesions, and licking or scratching of the fetlock. They can also cause pastern dermatitis. Mange mites are more common in the summer in equines that are pastured. They can be spread by direct contact or through grooming equipment.

Here’s what to look for on your mule to spot signs of the mites:

  • Reddening of Skin
  • Crust Formation
  • Hair Loss
  • Thickening Skin
  • Swelling
  • Stomping Their Feet
  • Rubbing Against Feeders, Posts, Fences

Here’s what you can do to get rid of these mites. Clip or shave the long hair on the pasterns to make cleaning easier and more effective. This also helps lengthen the contact time so the chemicals work better. Use keratolytic or selenium sulfide shampoo to help remove skin debris and mites.

Insecticides and endectocides have been used to try to get rid of these mites. Chorioptic mange is partly responsive to macrocyclic lactone drugs, such as ivermectin and moxidectin which are used to de-worm equines. Parasiticides used for cows or dogs have been used with some success when applied topically. Doramectin, fipronil and eprinomectin also show some success. The effectiveness of these options is helped when combined with clipping the long hair around affected areas and shampooing or scrubbing to remove all crusts, scales, and skin debris before the use of chemicals.

Leg Sores Caused by Jack Sores or Summer Sores

If it’s not bot files and it isn’t mites, it could be habronemiasis causing these leg sores. Habronemiasis is more commonly known as Jack Sores or Summer Sores because the sores occur most often in the spring and summer, when the fly season starts.

The wounds usually shrink during winter months and will appear to be healing – only to flare up again in the spring. These sores are caused by the larvae of stomach worms. Flies carry and deposit Habronema stomach worm larvae that can cause inflammation when they infect small wounds or other moist areas of the equine’s body.

In the normal stomach worm life cycle, flies pick up the stomach worm larvae in mule manure, old bedding, and rotten feed, then deposit them near the mule’s mouth. The mule eats the larvae that travel to the stomach and, in a couple of months, mature into adult worms that usually cause little damage to the equine. The adults lay eggs that are passed in the mule’s manure. Flies pick up the hatched larvae and cycle begins all over again.

The problem starts when the stomach worm larvae are deposited by house, stable, or face flies that feed on fresh wounds or moist areas. The larvae can’t mature into adult worms, so they move around in the wound and cause swelling and severe itching. The mule or donkey chews on the wound and swollen flesh that surrounds a healing wound, becoming a wound that doesn’t heal and can last for years, getting worse over time.

Here are signs to look for which indicate Jack Sores or Summer Sores:

  • Annoying and unsightly sores
  • Non-healing skin wounds
  • Intense itching
  • Formation of tissue that is red, moist, soft, and bumpy
  • “Greasy” look
  • Blood-tinged fluid draining from the sores
  • Yellow or white hard “rice grain-like” material from the sores

Young and thin-skinned animals are especially susceptible to the pests.

Treatment of summer sores can be difficult, requiring a number of approaches. In small wounds, deworming the animal with either an ivermectin or moxidectin paste dewormer will kill the worm larvae and allow the sore to heal. Wrapping the wound if it’s on the legs will protect it and prevent the mule from chewing on it. In serious cases of infected sores, surgery may be needed to remove the dead or diseased skin.

Best Treatment for Mule and Donkey Leg Sores

Unfortunately, the best treatment is prevention. You should setup a regular deworming program, about every six to eight weeks in warm weather, less often in winter.

Do everything you can to keep flies at a minimum, including the use of fly traps. Make sure to always dispose of manure and bedding properly from stalls and rotating pastures.

Always inspect for fly breeding sites; quickly and regularly remove all fly eggs from tack and the equine’s coat.

Be diligent in keeping flies from infecting the mule’s food and water. Keep infected animals away from the rest of the herd, as well.

Faithful application of a good repellant will also help keep infected flies away from our four-legged friends.

Before trying any of these treatments, you should check with your veterinarian to make sure you are using the right medicine and the correct dosage.