Creating Trust and Respect with mules and donkeys Is Easy as 1-2-3

by Brandy Von Holten, Mora, Mo.

(Originally published in our January 2018 issue)


Have you ever had someone demand something when you would have gladly done it if they would have asked nicely? Have you ever had a boss that was too bossy? Think about how much more could get done if every request was asked, then told, and then demanded. This is the basis of earning the trust of people and of your mule. Of course there is way more to this than asking, telling, and demanding a cue. You must always ask first, and you must always follow through with your demand. If you are wondering what in the world I am talking about, then read along with me and learn how creating trust and respect with mules and donkeys can be as easy as 1-2-3.

All training begins on the ground. I ask that my mule back up, demonstrate all gaits from the ground, and yield the hind quarters. Let’s start with sending them around. With my lead rope in my left hand, I will raise my left hand, point, and look at my pointing hand. This is me “asking” my mule to read my body language, which I consider a level 1. If the mule does not depart, I will then cluck or kiss once. It is imperative that you only make the noise for a short amount of time, because if you turn into a kissing machine or clucking machine, you are begging.

The verbal cue is a level 2. If your mule has still not budged, it is time for level 3, which is the demand. I will actually make contact on the hind quarters with the extra rope in my right hand. It is crucial that you do not threaten with the rope but go ahead and fulfill the demand. When I explain this concept to my students, I discuss children that know that there is a consequence and children that know that there is not any follow through. I would disengage the hindquarters and begin again. The most important part of this training exercise is that I must always present the level 1. No matter how many times you are forced to go to a level 3, you must always start with a level 1. Here’s why.


Your mule is trying to learn how to communicate with you. If you are predictable, and always do a level 1, level 2, and then a level 3, then your mule will understand to start seeking to complete the task at a lower level. Eventually you will be able to get your mule to a level 1 in all commands from the ground and saddle. Your mule will respect you because you fulfill the level 3, but can trust that you will use the lowest level if they comply.

In the saddle, the exact same philosophy can be used. If you wanted to turn your mule to the left, you would first look to the left. Looking without the use of your hands or legs is a level 1. A level 2 would be to squeeze with your right leg. Level 3 is to lift with your left rein. So many people completely leave out level 1 and level 2 when turning and immediately go to using their reins. From the mule’s stand point, you are a jerk. He/she had absolutely no idea that you wanted to turn and you went straight to the piece of metal in their mouth that works by pressure on the tongue, the corners of the mouth, the bars of the jaw, and possibly the poll and roof of the mouth. If you consistently turn by looking and then leg pressure, followed by the use of your reins, this allows your mule the ability to learn over time that he/she can trust that you will do the levels in order. 

Every maneuver I ask my mule to do has a level 1, a level 2, and a level 3. If you are predictable, your mule will learn to comply with the least amount of pressure. They figure out that they can rely/trust in your mulemanship. If you always give your mule two options before reaching a level 3, they will respect you because you always give them cues before you use your level 3. Trust and respect are as easy as 1-2-3, but now forcing yourself is the real problem. I have found that I have to implement change, one maneuver at a time and make a mental effort to always try to remember to use the different levels. Not only do we need help with our mules, but our mules need help with their riders.

Brandy follows this up in the June 2019 issue with “Simple Ways to Have a Better Relationship with Your Mule.” A single copy of the June issue can be purchased here: