We Were Doing Fine Until My Mule Bolted

Of all the emails and phone calls I receive, the most common and often the most desperate sounding ones center around mules that bolt. For no apparent reason and seldom with warning, someone’s mule took off like a rocket and scared the heck out of the rider or even worse, resulted in a crash. The caller usually says that the trust has been broken, the relationship severely damaged, and in some cases, the owner is wanting to sell the mule because of this event. They contact me to ask why it happened. They want concrete answers and they want them fast. Despite years of experience with mules and donkeys, I don’t have one simple answer. But I can offer a bit of a “checklist” which might explain a bolt. I cannot guarantee it will never happen again, but I can give you some things to look at to try to make sure you minimize your chances of a bolt.

When I look at a mule that had a behavior event, I often start by looking at the mule in his environment. And these are the questions I ask.

Is Your Mule Healthy?

  • Does he appear in good physical condition with no obvious injuries or sources of pain?
  • Have his teeth been floated routinely?
  • Is his farrier care up-to-date and are shoes in place if you need them?
  • Does he move easily and show good flexibility, muscle tone, and activity?
  • Has he been seen by a chiropractor, massage therapist, or vet lately? This is especially important if he has not worked routinely.
  • Is his feed appropriate for his activity? Most mules don’t need sweet feed.
  • Does he get adequate turn out? If trail riding is the only outdoor time he gets, he will be frisky.

Does Your Mule Have A Good Foundation?

  • Is your mule respectful of you on the ground?
  • Does he lead well?
  • Does he stand for grooming, tacking, and mounting?
  • Have you refreshed his groundwork before starting your trail season and then periodically throughout the season?
  • Does he understand that you are the leader?
  • Does he clearly understand cues?
  • Are his trailer manners intact?
  • Does he tie well and ground tie?
  • Does he only move when you ask him to move?

Are You Using The Correct Tack To Promote Comfort And Compliance?

  • Is your saddle a good fit for your animal and for you?
  • Is your saddle pad one that supports the saddle and prevents slipping?
  • Have you selected the appropriate bit for his level of training?
  • Do you have a breast collar and britchen and are they fitted correctly?
  • Do you have both cinches in place, connected together, with the back being the tighter of the two?
  • If you are using saddle bags or carrying items, have you secured them and have you introduced them to your mule before you take that long trail ride?
  • Are your reins ones that you can easily handle?

Have You Done What You Can To Manage Behavior Issues?

  • Is your mule buddy or barn sour?
  • Can your mule comfortably ride alone or does he need a buddy or group?
  • Are you the regular rider?
  • Are you a confident leader?
  • Are you able to address behavior issues calmly and confidently, or does your mule scare you?
  • Are you riding with reliable trail partners?
  • Do you have realistic expectations?

By now, you are saying, “Steve – you ask too many questions!” Well, there are these issues and many more possible causes for a mule bolt. And there are no shortcuts. You need to look at each and every one of these points and be brutally honest.

If I had to pick the most common areas where I most often find room for improvement – I would select these five:

  1. Many mules do not have a solid training foundation. Owners want to ride so they cut corners; the end result is that the mule does not have a solid foundation that will save him and his rider.
  2. The mule’s teeth have not been tended to. For some reason, people don’t seem to be as regular about floating a mule’s teeth as they are with horses.
  3. The saddle is one that pinches or stabs the scapula area of the mule. You can’t just set a saddle on and go. If your mule bolts while on hills, especially going down hills, it is almost certainly his saddle that is the issue.
  4. The bit is wrong for the mule. Lots of mules play with their bits. And thinking that you can control a mule with a bit is shear folly. The bit is a communication tool. Fit it well and use the bit that is appropriate for your mule’s training level.
  5. You are not a confident leader. I often hear people say that the mule is smart so they let him make the decisions. Well, you can sure let him have input – but you have to be in control and there must be consequences for behaviors that show disrespect.

Now again, I am not suggesting that you skip any of the other evaluation steps or that you ignore other possibilities. Sometimes an animal will just spook and take off – mule or horse, this can happen.

So How Can We Put This All Into Practice?

Here is an actual client story:

This rider lives in an area where there is a lot of snow and cold in winter. The lady is older, so she is not a fan of winter riding. She turns her mule out each day all year round and her mule gets good quality first cut hay and a ration balancer (no sweet feed!). In summer, she is on pasture as well. The mule is regularly vetted, sees a massage therapist, gets her teeth floated every year, and has an excellent tack package (not to brag, but she selected my saddle, pad, britchen, breast collar, cinches, and correction bit). Each spring, she refreshes her mule’s training in the round pen. During those cold winter months, she also works in the stall on this mule, keeping her supple, flexible, and obedient about picking her feet up, standing for grooming, etc. After several round pen sessions, she takes the mule on some walks around her farm. She can evaluate how the mule is moving and how she responds to seeing things she will see on the trail. This all happens BEFORE that first spring ride. This has been her practice for five years.

This spring, while taking her mule for a walk, the molly spooked and took off. She pulled the rope away from the woman and ran around like a crazy animal with no provocation and no obvious issue. She was hard to catch, but when she was finally caught, the owner, being confident that this was not a physical issue but a behavior one, put the mule immediately into corrective work. Now, what does that mean?

It means she picked up the lead rope and took the molly who was winded and tired from her excursion, and put her in the round pen and had her work – and work hard. She did circles at a trot and a canter, she backed, she side passed, did figure eights, she yielded her hinds and her fores and she did it some more. There were no breaks. The molly was soaked with sweat and just wanting to eat after her walkabout – but the owner said, “No! – you want to run around, we will run around – you decided, not me.” After about 30 minutes of strenuous work and once there was complete and total obedience and submission, the woman let the molly slow down and let her stop. But still no food. She then did a thorough grooming and left the molly tied for another 30 minutes until she cooled down. Then she was walked back to a small paddock and placed on a dry lot for the remainder of the afternoon with fresh water and a salt block. She let the mule digest this experience and three days later, she took the mule for a walk in the same areas and she jokingly says that the mare was so quiet and slow that she had to “check for a pulse.”

In other cases, you need to evaluate possible physical causes. A mule that is generally very good but has an issue going downhill through ditches may have a saddle problem. A mule that throws his head around and then takes off may have a tooth or bit problem. A mule who consistently fails to respond to seat, leg, and rein cues likely has a foundation hole. Be a detective! You can probably even add to the list above when it comes to checking things out. But know that bolting does not have a single cause. There is no stock answer. And when you call me for help, I will ask a lot of questions. I will ask you to send me pictures. I will ask you about the training you have done and how your mule did with those lessons. My answers may only be as good as the information you give me. But in many cases, you can answer the questions yourself if you follow the checklist.

I don’t consider any question a dumb question. Please feel free to give me a holler!

Training A Mule – Don’t Create An “Ass From Hell”

I recently received a letter from a man who has a couple of young mules. I must first commend him on asking for help. But then I have to get really firm with him, because he is making some strategic mistakes that can jeopardize his safety. Let me begin by paraphrasing his issues.

Understanding Your Mule’s Behavior

We’ll call the writer “Fred” to protect his confidentiality. Fred wrote that he and his family were offering his mule some apples when the mule bit him. Apparently, the mule has done this with others as well. and they’re complaining that the bites are painful. He asked how floating the teeth fits into this situation, if at all, and then asked a bit about general behavior. He reports that the mule is leaning into him and pushing him around.

Where to start? I think for safety’s sake, we have to begin with the mule respecting the owner’s space. I can tell you a story from my days at Pierce College when some of my students were watching a hundred-pound, petite lady fight with her 17-hand Shire horse at a show. She was being tossed around like a rag doll in the midst of a busy venue. She had a chain on the horse, but it was not effective at all. I could see that disaster was just around the corner. There were lots of people around, kids running, babies in strollers, etc. So, I asked one of my students to fetch my Come-A-Long rope. In the meantime, I asked the woman if I could be of assistance and she was happy to hand her horse over to me.

Show Your Mule or Donkey Who Is In Control

Once I had the Come-A-Long in place, I was able to control the horse’s feet in a matter of a few minutes, meaning he learned to stand still. I am a firm believer that the equine should stand still at a safe distance. But this carries with it the responsibility of the owner to stay a safe distance away from the mule. When people run up too close to the mule or horse, their natural instincts will kick in.

Remember, mules have a fight or flight response. If you move in too quickly or with a posture that makes the mule question your motives, he will either take off OR he will push back. Neither is desirable. In using the Come-A-Long rope, our goal is to establish that we control the mule’s feet and will have a safe buffer space between us at all times. No questions asked.

Now to do this, nobody has to be mean to the animal. Trust me when I tell you that the mule is grateful to have a responsible, consistent and fair leader. You must set the rules and you must follow them religiously. The mule cannot live in a world where sometimes you do it one way and sometimes you do it another way because you are tired, want to hug him or whatever. He wants black and white. He wants to know exactly where he stands.

Establishing Leadership With Your Mule Or Donkey

Using the Come-A-Long allows me to draw a clear line between comfortable and uncomfortable for the equine. Do what I ask and there is no pressure on your precious nose. But give me attitude or move in a way that is not acceptable and your nose will suffer the consequences. It’s that simple and direct. Mr. Mule will always opt for comfort when given the choice between comfortable and uncomfortable.

First and foremost, communication with your mule begins with establishing that you are the leader. You say when and how he can move. And you say how far away from you he must stand. Sometimes, I even kick a little dirt at a mule who is thinking about encroaching on my space. It’s a gentle “reminder.” I have a DVD about communication with your mule that goes into this in more detail.

Should You Give Your Mule Or Donkey Treats?

Now, let’s talk about the treat situation. The woman that I mentioned above told me how she loved to give her horse carrots. The problem was that one time she reached up to pet his nose and he thought her finger was a carrot. She now has half an index finger where he bit it off. The crushing power of a horse’s or mule’s jaw is intense. Our little body parts are no match.

Any behavior that encourages mouthing is totally unacceptable. The mule should have a quiet mouth at all times when in our vicinity or doing anything with us. Folks seem to always want to give treats to mules and horses – I cringe when I see it. They are not dogs. Training for a horse or mule does not need to involve a treat. The training itself is a reward and the treat does not reinforce the lesson. In fact, it may well undermine your good intentions by making the mule “demand” the treat; eventually Mr. Mule won’t perform the task without a treat. Remember, they are smart!

In the Grand Canyon, lots of people want to “treat” their mules. That is, until they get bit. There are huge signs telling people not to feed the mules, but people still get bit because they will offer grass or some goody on the sly. Mr. Mule will not look at you adoringly like your puppy does after he gets a good treat. Instead, he will either totally dismiss you when he sees you have no more OR he will get pushy and demand more. Neither is good. While we do control the food, it must be on our terms. We are not feed bags.

There are times when offering a treat does foster training and communication. But these times are limited and should be done only with a clear understanding of the goal. For example, if you can’t get a mule to approach you, you can entice him to come closer with a treat. But when he reaches a reasonable distance (3-4 feet from you), you should either drop the treat, so he can pick it up OR hold it out at full arms length in an open and flat hand, so he can’t grab your fingers.

Giving treats is a hot topic among equine trainers. Some insist that no treats should ever be given by hand. At the other extreme, some say that the equine should be trained to be gentle enough to take a treat from a child. I am somewhere in between, I guess. But generally, I am not a treat person; I think you can see why.

Treats Are Not Always The Best Solution

Before I get off the treat issue, I want to share one more story. I knew a lady who decided that if she gave her mule treats while she was preparing to mount, the animal would stand still enjoying the treat so she wouldn’t have to work so hard to teach her molly to stand still at the mounting block. This is trouble for a couple of reasons. First, you may have to mount when you don’t have a treat handy and the mule will surely make you pay for that mistake. Secondly, her mule learned to wolf that treat down pretty quickly and would “beat her to the punch” – the treat would be gone, the woman would be half on and the mule would be dancing around looking for another treat.

The Health of Your Mule’s Or Donkey’s Teeth Matter

Fred asked about floating teeth and if that led to the biting behavior. Floating the teeth has nothing to do with biting behaviors. It does influence how well the mule tolerates a bit. Now teeth do play an important role in behavior and the overall health of the animal. Abscessed or broken teeth or teeth with sharp points will cause the mule to have difficulty eating and may lead to him giving you trouble. Floating the teeth of the young mule that Fred described would not solve his biting problem; though he should have the vet check Ole’ Fluffy’s teeth routinely when he comes for annual shots.

Ask, Tell, Demand

Through all of this, I want Fred to understand that all interactions with his mules follow the Ask, Tell, Demand pattern. This is the same between animals in the pasture. Either you or the mule are going to be herd leader. It’s up to us to make sure it’s not Mr. Mule. Here’s how it goes among the equines themselves.

ASK – The lead mare pins her ears and asks Mr. Mule to get out of her space.

TELL – The mule does not get out of her space. The lead mare then pins her ears and swishes her tail.

DEMAND – The mule keeps coming, so now the lead mare spins and kicks. If she connects, that generally gets the job done.

The fact is Mr. Mule will use his body to communicate with you. If he can push into you and make you move out of his way, he is herd leader. If you don’t allow him into your space (ask, tell, demand) and you insist that he is the one not moving his feet, you are herd leader. That is not being mean.

Owning a mule or donkey is not a democracy. For everyone who thinks that they should offer the mule choices or give him breaks for good behavior – you are actually causing the mule to be more uncomfortable. He likes direction, black and white, and ease. He is inherently lazy and if you are a good herd leader, he knows you will take care of him and he will not test you. But plant that seed of doubt and he starts thinking, “Oh my! I better take control here.”

How To Treat Feeding Time

Other behaviors often revolve around feeding time. I was helping some folks who had Percherons that were causing some pretty big injuries, like broken toes. It seems that the folks were bringing out buckets of feed and the horses were charging in and being very physical in order to grab the grain. Thinking this through should lead you to preparing feed in a separate area and then allowing the horses access to a trough or bucket. A human holding food is nothing more than a target for an equine who wants that grub.

Your Next Steps

Phew! I have covered a lot of ground in answer to Fred’s questions – but I want to save him a trip to the emergency room and I want him to avoid creating the Ass from Hell. He is doing no favors for his mules or himself by continuing his current plan. My response to Fred is simply this.

  1. You have to be herd leader. You must be confident and consistent.
  2. You have to learn more about communication with your animals. They aren’t people and they aren’t dogs. Something like my Ground Foundation & Communication kit will help you establish that open and meaningful line of communication.
  3. Treats have no place in mule training. The mule may want them, but he does not “value” them. And if he can get treats from you on his terms, he is showing you how much smarter he is.
  4. You are not being unkind or mean by insisting that your mule keep a respectable distance from you and by insisting that he not “mouth” you or frisk you for treats. It’s all part of being the leader. The leader controls the food. The leader moves the feet. The leader controls behavior. That leader must be you

You will be surprised how much sweeter your mule becomes once he feels he can depend on you to look out for him. He likes structure and rules. He feels insecure and unsure of himself when he has to question what should be done.

Fred, you have started to make your mule an “ass from hell.” But the good news is that it’s not too late! Get that foundation kit and spend 4-6 hours a week for 30 days training your mule; you won’t believe how different your life with a youngster can be. Kudos to you for seeking advice – now it’s time to get to work!

Proper Breast Collar Placement – Breast Collar for Mules and Donkeys

Correct breast collar placement for a mule or donkey? It’s a question that comes my way several times a year and it’s one that mule and donkey owners definitely need a specific answer to.

Basics of Mule and Donkey Movement

Mules and donkeys are very lateral when they’re walking. Every time their shoulder hits the breast collar, the breast collar is telling the saddle, “stay here.”

The problem is that mules are v-shaped in their shoulders. Why does that matter? The shoulder shape on the mule and donkey is the exact opposite of the shape you’ll find on a horse. If you choose to use a horse breast collar which attaches to the rings on the saddle or a pulling collar (which is the worst) that attaches to the pommel, it is going to pull the saddle forward. Anything that’s attached hard and fast will pull your saddle forward.

Are horses different from mules and donkeys? You betcha! Horse trainers might mean well trying to train a mule or a donkey, but you want to work with someone who understands HOW mules and donkeys are different from horses and how to communicate with them based on those differences. A horse saddle may be able to sit on a mule or donkey, but you’ll never get the best out of that mule or donkey because the horse saddle is causing them excruciating pain.

And in the same way, a horse breast collar may ‘fit’ on a mule or donkey, but in an effort to repurpose your tack or save a few dollars, you will be damaging your animal and holding yourself back from getting the best out of Ole Fluffy.

A Breast Collar for A Mule or A Donkey

For the longest time, folks didn’t realize the differences between a breast collar on a horse and a breast collar on a mule. Just like they thought an equine saddle is an equine saddle. The mule and donkey would be in pain, the owner would just think that the animal was stubborn and go on using improper equipment.

I never got into the mule and donkey world thinking I would develop a breast collar, but when I realized the difference in movement between a horse and a mule, I had to do something.

No breast collar existed which would compensate for the unique movement of the mule or donkey. So I could either continue to hurt the animal and have the saddle keep pulling forward or I could create something that showed my animals I cared about them – not to mention, get the most out of them.

My breast collar is attached to the pommel, but if you look closely you’ll see that it actually isn’t ‘attached’ to anything. Instead, I have a small strap attached around the horn and the breast collar actually slides through that strap. As the mule moves, the breast collar moves back and forth. It gives to accommodate the movement of the animal.

Front view of breast collar pummel strap

The 28-inch pummel strap goes through the pummel to create an X.

Front view of the pummel strap with adjusting strap inserted

You can see the breast collar adjustment strap running through the pummel strap. you can pull on either side of the adjustment strap without the saddle moving.

Pummel strap top view

Another angle of the pummel strap creating a X for the adjusting strap to go through.



The only time my breast collar is going to pull on the saddle is if I’m dragging a calf to the fire or going up a hill. If you’re using a pulling collar, you want it to fit right alongside the shape of the neck. If you use a flat one, it’s going to inhibit the shoulder. If you use one that goes over to the d-rings it will also inhibit the shoulders.

How to Tell If My Mule or Donkey Is In Pain – Short Strides

Watch your mule. When he gets tired of the pain and pressure from an incorrect breast collar (or saddle, for that matter), he’ll start short-striding. He will get all up underneath himself in the front end. Short striding means a mule’s front legs are working harder than their hindquarters. They’re trying to get away from the pressure of the breast collar because it is bumping their shoulders. Rather then stretching their legs out full-length (like you want them to), they will come up short stride. Instead of an 18-inch stride, they will restrict their movement to a 9-inch stride.

Proper Placement of A Breast Collar On A Mule or Donkey

One of my clients, Cheryl, sent in three photos of her mule wearing my breast collar. In the photos, she has the collar attached directly to the pommel. The pommel is the front of the saddle below the horn.

example of incorrect breast strap page

You can see that the breast collar adjusting strap is incorrectly running through the pummel.

Breast collar strap incorrectly running over the pummel

You can see the adjusting strap incorrectly running OVER the pummel in this picture.

Another wide angle view of the incorrect breast collar placement.


There is a strap that is 28-inches long called a pommel strap, that is supposed to go around the pommel and the breast collar goes through that strap. By going through the pommel strap, the breast collar is able to move easily. In the photo, Cheryl isn’t using the pommel strap so the breast collar is constantly pulling on the saddle, making the saddle go forward. In addition, she doesn’t have a rear cinch on her saddle (always ride with two cinches, tight in the back, loose in the front). Without a rear cinch, or a britchen, the saddle will move forward and the breast collar is not going to work correctly.

As mentioned, the breast collar – my breast collar – should be connected to the pommel with the pommel strap that comes supplied with the breast collar. I attach the pommel strap first to the pommel, which creates an X. Take that strap through the hole in the pommel, come back around to the top of the pommel on the right-hand side of the horn, then cross and go under the pommel again, and finally come across the top of the pommel. That is what makes the X – a simple loopty loop.

Once the X is created with the pommel strap, take the long strap from the breast collar and go through the 28-inch strap. Finally, buckle on the right-hand side.

Mule and Donkey Rear Cinch

As mentioned above, in the images Cheryl sent in, she does not have a rear cinch on her saddle. Not only is the saddle going to ride forward which is inconvenient for Cheryl, but it will cause the saddle to hit the mule’s scapula as well as the sixth and seventh rib. Inconvenient for the rider, hell for the animal. Unlike a horse, the mule needs to have two cinches, loose in the front and tight in the back. Horses are different than mules and donkeys. Their needs are different than mules and donkeys. Treating a mule or donkey like a horse will destroy an otherwise awesome animal.

Sure, everything will ‘look good’ and the animal will appear to be doing fine, but a year from now you’ll see the mule begin tripping and showing signs of strong discomfort.

Finer Details of A Breast Collar and Final Thoughts

On the breast collar, each part has a name:

  • The 28-inch piece is called a pommel strap.
  • The strap goes between the mule’s legs and hooks to the front cinch is simply called a cinch snap.
  • Coming up from the cinch snap is the breastplate. This is the bigger, wider piece that’s somewhat V-shaped on the bottom and round on the top. It’s attached to a ring.
  • The two straps that go up on both sides are called neck straps, right and left neck strap.
  • The adjusting strap is the one that comes from the right neck strap, through the pommel strap, and then into the left neck strap.

That’s a lot of information about breast collars. The most important thing to take away from everything above is this: mules and donkeys are different than  horses. Treat a mule like a horse and you’ll have an animal that is unhappy and will eventually sustain serious injury. Treat a mule or donkey like a mule or donkey and you’ll have a lifelong friend who will do whatever you ask them to do.

You can find my breast collar here on my website. No matter what you buy, make sure it’s designed for the mule and donkey and does not sit fixed to the pommel. You want it to have give so it can move with the animal.

If you have any other questions about breast collars or anything related to the mule or donkey, give me a holler, 602-999-6853.


halter training with a mule

How to Install the Come-A-Long Rope On A Mule or Donkey

The Come-A-Long Rope is one of the most effective tools you have for ground foundation training. What makes it so effective is that it communicates in three places: the pole, the top of the nose, and the bottom of the nose. Why does it work so well? It makes your mule uncomfortable in the right place at the right time.

If you do not yet own a Come-A-Long Rope, they are available for sale here from the QVMR store.

Mules and donkeys care more about their nose than anything else and the Come-A-Long rope communicates directly to the nose. When pressure from the Come-A-Long Rope comes down on the mule’s nose, the mule is compelled to move. When the mule doesn’t move, I implement a communication process of ask, tell, and then demand. If I ask the mule to back up and she braces me, I will then tell with more pressure. If she still braces me, I will move into demanding.

The Come-A-Long Rope is such an effective tool, however, one of the biggest struggles mule and donkey owners run into when using the Come-A-Long Rope is actually installing it correctly.

Over the years I’ve had numerous videos capture me installing the Come-A-Long Rope from various angles. To better help my clients get the installation correct, I have compiled the best videos below for reference.

Can A Horse Trainer Train A Mule?

Many people that I talk to about behavior issues with their mules or donkeys, start out by telling me that they have either taken their mule or donkey to a trainer or had one come in. It only takes a couple of minutes to get to the fact that they used a horse trainer for their animal. This pretty much explains the failure to correct the issues the person is having. Let me elaborate for you.

Horse Trainers and Mule Trainers

I have a great friend named Dr. Robert Miller. Bob is a veterinarian who had an interest in mules and donkeys. We use a lot of long ears in the Arizona area because of the heat and the terrain. Since we are friends, I have done some training for him and we have become very like-minded when it comes to mules and donkeys. We have talked at length about mulemanship, horsemanship and the differences between the two.

We traveled together to Brazil in 2006 when I was invited to International Equus where scores of world renowned trainers gathered to share and show their equine ideas. There, we met Fernando Rolin who was our host for the event and was extremely interested in expanding knowledge about training donkeys and mules.

Fernando was a natural when it came to communicating with mules and donkeys. He had a quiet, confident way and a natural ability to work with the animals. I was amazed at how quickly he digested the information we were telling him about mules and donkeys and put it to use. He was so taken with mules and donkeys that he visited the States; I had the opportunity to work with and train him on three different occasions. We even went on an elk hunt in Montana during one of our trips.

A Rushed Approach vs Building a Solid Foundation

While we were in Brazil with so much talent all around us, Bob mentioned that he felt that horses were more forgiving than mules and donkeys. During this discussion, he pointed out that lots of horse trainers take a bit of a rushed approach to accomplishing tasks, rather than building a solid foundation. We agreed that foundation is the single, most important thing you can give a mule or donkey. And we agreed that a good foundation can take around six months to build and solidify.

Most horse trainers work on the “thirties” – they will have a horse train for 30, 60 or 90 days. Rarely does an owner want to pay for or wait for six months while their horse is being trained. With horses, you can often get away with such a schedule because the horse thrives on repetition. But a mule or donkey will not be bullied or bluffed into doing what he feels is not in his best interest. They are smart. That foundation building time is worth its weight in gold when it comes to long ears.

Speaking the Mule or Donkeys Language

But getting back to our Equus experience, I had done a demonstration with the mule. The standing ovation deeply humbled me and I was delighted that so many people were interested in mules and donkeys. I followed Dennis Reese, who did an awesome job of colt starting. His colt was a 14 hand horse that gave him a real run for his money – fighting at every turn. But Dennis is great and he got the job done.

Fernando was next into the round pen and he was working with a young mule. He was attempting to move the hindquarters of the mule. He tried using conventional horse principles and was not having any luck. Mules, you see, need to have this process started from the nose. No amount of looking at the rear end or using s crop or whip will be successful. In fact, a mule is most likely to give a kick or two if you don’t “speak his language” and start your communication with his nose. That is exactly what happened with Fernando. To his credit, he noted that he was surrounded by world class trainers and asked for help. The early responders wanted to tie a hind foot up to get the mule to give authority to the trainer. Bob was on his way to the round pen as was I, and at the gate, he said to me, “that mule doesn’t need to have his foot tied up.”

I went into the round pen and asked to have the mule. The horse trainers were not particularly happy with the challenge of their principals, but within a few minutes of using the come-a-long and a properly adjusted rope halter, I was moving the shoulders and the hindquarters with ease – no fight or fuss. My success was met with a standing ovation and many requests for autographs and pictures.

Foundation is Everything

Now make no mistake – I was not looking for a pat on the back. I was thinking only of the mule and what would make sense to him. There is a big difference between the repeated repetitions and blind faith requests that horses can appreciate and the psyche of the mule. The mule has a great sense of self-preservation and he is smart and cunning about it. He is a thinker. He judges the wisdom of the request, then he plots his response. For him, foundation is everything.

Proving that you are a worthy and knowledgeable leader who builds from groundwork to saddle work without rushing and without setting deadlines is key and at the heart of your success in training a mule or donkey. Teaching your mule that you want him to stand quietly for tacking and mounting, be a good barn and pasture citizen and a great partner in work or under a pleasure saddle starts with groundwork. For me, that means the come-a-long, a rope halter, the mule rider’s martingale, and a pile of patience. Repetition is not as important as making good progress, then allowing the mule to “think it over.” Training all day, every day will not get you as far as training well for a few hours, then let the mule “digest” what he has learned before asking him again.

Horses and Mules Thrive on Different Leadership Styles

I am not criticizing or bashing horse trainers! Not at all! But they are working with a different animal. They are working with an animal who thrives on repetition and being led without a ton of questions. They are training an animal that counts on you to think for him in many instances and he agrees to follow your lead. They are dealing with an animal that wants to be released as his reward and will perform consistently to get that release.

Mules get much of their intelligence and baseline talents from the donkey. Donkeys are awesome to work with – showing you that you must prove yourself as a leader. Whether you want them to pack, drive or ride, you need to create an environment that works with his sensibilities. You need to take your time and build the foundation, one step at a time from the ground up. The same is true of mules. The mule is not seeking the same “release” that is so highly successful with the horse. While a release may work for some skills, the biggest thing Mr. Mule is seeking is the belief that you and he are on the same page. No treats or whips or dozens of repetitions are going to get you far with a donkey or mule. But a clear mind, an honest intent and a reasonable way to work together will get you not only the behaviors you want but the devotion of your mule.

If you think of the typical horse clinic, you will hear about lateral flexion, helping the horse seek and find “release” and such. I’m here to tell you that you can put a mule’s nose on his side and he can still run full tilt. But give him a reason that he understands to be light in the bridle, and your mule will comply. Watch for part two of this article next month. In the meantime, when looking for a mule trainer – make sure you are not hiring a horse trainer who thinks mules can’t be too much different. Find out how many mules the trainer has trained, get references, and if you can visit some mules that he or she has trained. The proof is in the pudding.

Thanks for reading, and remember I am always available for questions. Just give me a holler.

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Getting Your Mule to Trust You And Catching Them In Pasture

Getting your mule to trust you and catch him on your terms is something that every mule owner needs to master. Are you the herd leader? Are you the one they’re looking to for leadership? Are they looking to you to provide for them?

The answer to all the above should be yes.

In the video below I go over how to catch your mule on your terms – while in a stall.

But what about catching your mule on your terms when he is out at pasture?

Here is my very simple answer: You just about can’t catch a mule out in pasture.

When your animal is out in pasture, he has everything he needs. He doesn’t need you for food, he has all that “free feed” available. He doesn’t need you for water. He doesn’t need you for companionship. He has everything he needs – so why would he come to you?

Moving Your Mule Out of Pasture

Your mule needs to be pulled out of pasture and moved into a 20×20 stall. Why? Because that mule needs to be dependent upon you for everything. He needs to know that you are his provider and you are his herd leader.

Get that mule out of pasture and put him in that stall – and then leave him there.

Often we think of mules as dogs and want them to be “happy” – so we talk in high affirming voices, we give them treats and we love on them and show affection. Your mule is not a dog. That mule is not looking for affection and affirmation the way humans are accustomed to, and not even the way dogs are accustomed to. That mule wants leadership more than anything else.

By removing your mule from pasture and placing him in a 20×20 stall he will come to see you as the herd leader, and that leadership will bring him more joy than any feed ever would.

As a matter of fact, you are, in many ways, damaging and hurting your mule by leaving him out to pasture with all that feed. In my article, Mules Can’t Stand Prosperity, I talk more about this.

And let’s talk just a bit more about using treats. Do I use treats? Yes. There are two times when I will use treats from a distance to get them to reach to me. As soon as they figure out how to reach for it, then I will give it to them near their chest so they have to back up to get it. That’s it!

Treats often lead to the mule getting into your space – you don’t want them in your space. Remember, you are the herd leader and the herd leader says, “stay out of my space.”

Once Your Mule Is In The Pen

Once your mule is in the pen, you can’t just leave him there. You have to teach them and give them training. You see, the mule is not like a horse. The horse will get out there and just run – not the mule. The mule doesn’t see any sense in running. I will move them from the 20×20 pen into a round pen to teach that mule how to “catch me.” Notice that I use the phrase, “catch me.” You don’t want to be chasing down the animal.

What does that look like? In the first of my instructional videos, How to Communicate with Your Mule, you see a woman with a mule that is hard to catch. By the end of the video, she is doing everything right and you see what catching should look like.

Can You Move Your Mule Back to Pasture?

In short, no. Don’t move your mule back to pasture because he can unlearn everything you worked on and go back to being dependent upon everything else but you.

Sure, it’s cheap feed and that’s a great way to save money, but folks, like I said above, you’re not saving money because you don’t know what’s in that feed. You don’t know how much they’re getting. You’ll see that all those carbohydrates can lead to grass founder and fat pockets. You end up killing that mule by leading them to the smorgasbord.

So what does your feeding program need to look like? You ought to check out this video I did all about feed. It is free, and very instructive on what a proper feeding program needs to look like. I talk about the feed I use, Lakin Lite, and why the pellet is the best feed out there.

A Bit More About Stalls

While this video is a bit off topic, it’s about two mules who are picking and biting at one another as sort of play, I talk a bit more about stalls and feed, and it would be good to check out.

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Featured Products on Mules & More Magazine

Hey folks, I recently had an advertisement featured in Mules and More Magazine and used that space to highlight my most popular mule and donkey saddles and tack. If you read Mules and More Magazine, have seen my ads, and are visiting my website for the first time, welcome! You can find direct links to the products featured in that ad below.

Again, these are some of the most popular items I’ve sold in the last several years – if you have any questions about whether or not a certain saddle or product is right for you, be sure to send me a message and I’ll get right back with you! That’s right… send a message directly to Steve Edwards… no operators, no agents… just a cowboy who wants to help ya out.

Click here to contact me

The Trailrider Saddle

The Trailrider Saddle is built on a durable molded polyethylene tree with an iron horn encapsulated into the tree to make it sturdy enough to use for packing or working cattle; even trail riding on the roughest terrain. Most importantly, I personally guarantee that this saddle will fit your mule.

I architected, developed and have used this design since 1986 – because it works. The seat, cantle and pommel are shaped to provide a secure seat and comfort for the rider who spends long hours in the saddle. And check out that buckaroo seat! Very comfortable (but don’t take anyone’s word for it – try it for yourself).


The Cowboy Saddle

The Cowboy Saddle was made with showing, working and trail riding comfort in mind. Built on durable, molded polyethylene tree with an iron horn encapsulated into the tree makes this saddle sturdy enough to use for packing, working cattle as well as trail riding through terrain – and guaranteed to fit your mule no matter what the task.


Neoprene Trail Cinch

I found that a perforated, neoprene cinch helps lubricate very critical areas that should not be dry. It also breathes to allow fresh air in. The other benefit of this cinch is that cleaning is a breeze. Simply hose off and in minutes you can place the cinch back on the saddle. The cinch is anti-bacterial, breathable and allows moisture to pass thru while helping to keep the saddle in place.

Available in sizes 24″ to 42″


Heavy Duty Mule and Donkey Saddle Pads

Mule Trainer, Steve Edwards' mule saddle pads

These high tech mule saddle pads are designed and field tested by Steve Edwards and his packers, specifically to fit mules and donkeys. Features soft, colorfast Herculon tops, genuine buffalo leather, and non-slip, antibacterial bottom. Provides comfort for the mule and rider!

Most Popular YouTube Videos of 2017

Another year is in the books. 2017 has been great and I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store. One thing that I’ve done more this year and plan on doing more in 2018 is videos. These short videos are great resources for your mule or donkey training. YouTube is a great tool and I’m looking forward to sharing more with you on that platform.

Make sure you subscribed to my YouTube channel to get the latest videos.

This week I’ve been sharing my most popular articles and products on my site and I want to now share my most popular YouTube videos listed below.

Most Popular Products of 2017

As 2017 is coming to an end, this is a great time to reflect on the year. Yesterday, I shared my most popular articles on my website (you can read that here). These are all great resources that you all used to help with your mule and donkey training. In addition to these articles, I also offer mule and donkey products on my website. Many of you have made purchases over the years and have been a big part of supporting Queen Valley Mule Ranch and for that, I want to say thank you.

My team recently took a look at our analytics to see what was our most popular products of 2017 and there was a little bit of everything. Everybody is in different stages in their mule or donkey training and you all have different needs. Folks, I’m just glad to be able to offer these amazing products to you all. So without further ado, here are 2017 most popular products.

Steve Edwards Most Popular Articles of 2017

Can you believe it folks, 2017 is coming to an end? And what a year it has been! This year has had its shares of ups and downs but has been full of blessings. After more than 35 years of being in the mule training business, I can’t help but be thankful for what I get to do day in and day out and that’s sharing with you all my knowledge to help with your mule or donkey.

This website is a great resource for you all and ya’ll are definitely taking advantage. From articles on The Difference Between a Mule Saddle and Horse Saddle to Establishing Leadership with Your Mule, you are bound to find the answers to your mule or donkey training questions. To reflect on 2017, my team went through and put together a list of the 10 most popular articles from our website during 2017. These are the articles that you found the most helpful in your journey. I’m just glad I got to be part of it.

Here are my most popular articles of 2017.