Who is Leading Who?

by Susan Dudasik, Salmon, Idaho
 

 
Does leading your mule feel like dragging a ton of bricks?
Be consistent with your cue to "walk on," wait a second and if your mule doesn't step out, follow up with a tap of the crop or lead
When leading your mule, confidently expect him to be with you. If he isn't, it's because you trained him not to

Does leading your mule feel like dragging a ton of bricks or does he lay on you when you’re leading him? If so, the root of your frustration is that your mule doesn’t respect you. Much of our mule’s attitude comes from us; they are herd animals needing a strong leader. If you allow your mule to intimidate you, he will. This doesn’t mean you need to beat him, just be persistent. Once he begins respecting you on the ground, his under-saddle performance will also improve.

Many of our mule’s problems arise because we don’t take the time to understand their nature or be consistent. We allow them to do something, then get mad because they do. Our mule pushes us. What do we do? We let them, until it becomes an annoying “bad habit,” one we taught them. One of the biggest obstacles you’ll face in reforming your mule is reforming yourself. We must earn our mule’s trust and respect by giving them precise guidelines of acceptable behavior, much like their mothers did. Watch any mare and foal. She’ll tolerate just so much then give the colt a warning like ears pinned back or a nasty look. If the colt doesn’t heed the warning, the colt receives a good swift kick or bite. We, on the other hand, pick at and annoy our mule. We get after him by giving him a swat. It has no effect so we swat a few more times. Before long, the mule completely ignores us. If we did like the mare and gave him one good sharp, fast smack or jerk on the lead he’d think twice about his behavior.

To start reforming Old Ned, teach him to lead and respect your space. You’ll need a halter, leadrope with a tail, or a crop. Lead your mule about 20 feet, then stop and analyze what you did. Did you pull him to start? Were you holding the lead in a short deathgrip? Were you staring at him? All this affects his behavior. Try again. Hold the lead about sixinches from the snap, look straight ahead, ask him to walk on and when he takes the first step, boldly step out with him. Expect your mule to be there. If he doesn’t it’s because you trained him not to.

Look at what you’re doing. Holding the lead short and tight tells the mule there’s something to worry about. Staring at him is intimidating and you’re telling him you don’t trust him to be there. By hesitating as you step off, you’re telling him you’re not sure of what you’re doing. Would you follow someone sending you these messages? And, here’s a big consideration, be considerate and ask your mule to step off before you start to walk forward. Get his attention and have him start moving before you move. Think about it this way, you know you want to walk off so you do. He has no idea you are going to move until he feels a tug on the lead. You give the cue; it goes from your brain to your hand. Then it has to go to your mule feeling the tug on the halter to his brain then through his whole body to his feet. That takes a second to happen. If you give him time to respond, then walk off, most likely the two of you will walk together with no tugging on the lead.

So, to get your mule leading with little effort, hold the slack lead in your right hand and your crop or lead tail in the left. Look straight ahead and tell him to “walk on.” Give him a second to start moving before boldly stepping out. If he doesn’t move, as you lift your leg to step forward, reach behind you and give him a tap low on the rump with the crop or tail. Be cautious, he may kick. Correct him with a hard jerk on the lead and a loud, sharp “NO!” Take a deep breath and calmly try again. If he kicks again, get professional help immediately!

Some mules will give a little jump or trot forward. Let him. Keep your lead slack so you don’t accidentally jerk him. You want him to go forward. Usually he’ll walk fast or trot a few steps then settle. Praise him. Be consistent with your voice cue to “walk on,” wait a second and if he doesn’t step out, follow up with a tap of the crop or tail. Before long he’ll get the idea and move on voice alone. If he pulls sideways, you might want to work about 10 feet from a fenceline to help hold him. Eventually he will move off in a straight line.

When leading, never allow your mule to bump or walk on you. If he does, tightly place the crop under your right arm pointed straight at his side. When he leans into you, let him poke himself with the crop. After a few unpleasant pokes, he should back off and respect your space. If not, throw your weight into him and lean as hard as you can on him. Make him as uncomfortable as he’s made you. Don’t get mad, just be persistent. He’ll soon get the message, then praise him.

Teaching your mule to lead well and show respect is an important aspect of any training program. It just takes giving your mule a chance with a little time and patience. Susan Dudasik is an equine journalist, PATH Intl. Certified riding instructor and a mule enthusiast. She’s competed in numerous trail class events, holds clinics and teaches groundwork and trail classes at Misfit Farm in Salmon, Idaho. The advice given here is meant only as a guide. A professional trainer should handle any serious mule training problems.