mule diaries

Adventures in mulemanship.

Squared turns

When I tried Red out a million years ago before I discovered Catherine and Common Sense Horsemanship, his only reaction to leg pressure was at best mild alarm and at worst MULE PANIC MODE ENGAGED.

Now, as you can see, he is much more confident with leg aids.


Through the turns I use an outside urging leg and at the trot Red often gives me a little more speed because the urging leg asks for more energy, but more energy isn’t the same as a meltdown and it took me a few lessons to relax and understand what Red was giving me through his turns at the trot. I limit my rein aids to an inside leading rein only, so Red has absolutely no reason to misinterpret my signals and get confused. Through any given turn he is being urged through the outside and led from the inside and I’m completely off of his back to give him all the freedom he needs to use his longitudinal back muscles in the turn. I always make a point to look in the direction of my turns even when I’m in forward balance position because even though Red cannot feel my seat bones he can still feel the subtle lightening in my inside stirrup that occurs when I look in the turning direction.

More updates later!


Page of the Day


A simple and nonchalantly dropped statement, “this was a good performance,” if analyzed reveals that good performance is a complicated combination of many items…

~ Vladimir S. Littauer, Common Sense Horsemanship

Red under saddle!

This is Red at our new barn in Jupiter, NC dutifully carting me around the arena at the walk and the trot. After several weeks of successful groundwork and lunging at the walk and trot, we started doing mounted work at about the same pace you’d start a three year old. All of the work we do is on a long rein and all of it includes voice commands, which translate wonderfully from all of the work done on the lunge line. Red is quiet and attentive under saddle and enjoys working and being rewarded.

Catherine moved her entire operation closer to town to accommodate her new carriage business and I opted to move my tiny mule herd with her. We have a sturdy little arena, several hills, and a wide grassy spot suitable for riding. There is also an ocean of grass. I’m not kidding. The fields are so lush that they necessitate the use of a grazing muzzle to keep Red from ballooning into a rotund hippo-creature. 


Red despises his Lecter mask, but I have assured him that he only has to wear it until Fall when the dangers of founder and comical obesity have finally passed. John Henry is picking up plenty of much-needed weight after a hard winter and appreciates having an opportunity to mow down large patches of clover. John Henry is a clover hunter. No clover is safe.


Red continues to improve on the ground and under saddle. The wash rack remains a challenge, but I’ve been hosing him outside next to the arena and water is no longer a source of anxiety. If anyone has any tips or advice on how to get a reluctant mule to feel confident in the wash rack, send them my way. I mean if you think about it for more than 5 seconds, the wash rack really is a terrifying place if you’re an equine. It’s dark, it’s noisy, it has a drain in the center. Don’t drains eat horses? Red won’t stick around long enough to find out. More on my continued critter adventures later!


Who is my target audience?


If you own a horse that you’re afraid of, or that you can’t ride or handle because of severe behavioral problems, you are my target audience. If you spent money on an animal only to find that he doesn’t have the training that you thought he did or that he’s spooky or has a history of abuse and neglect, you are my target audience. If you’re feeling hopeless about how you’ll get your animal from point A (green, frightened, confused) to point Z (capable, confident, cooperative) then congratulations, you are my target audience.

The great thing about blogging is that I have an opportunity to reach readers in real time. This isn’t me coming out after the fact to describe the miracle cure for my animals’ disastrous behavior with 30 days of running their guts out in a round pen. This is me starting from day one with two animals that I don’t have the tools to train on my own, working with a trainer to solve their behavioral problems and help get them to a better place mentally and physically. We have a really, really long way to go and if you’re like me and you’re feeling a little lost with your horse or mule or if you’ve just started the process of training or retraining your animal, you’re not alone. I’m just like you and I’m working through this one day at a time, one lesson at a time, one goal at a time.

Wherever it is that you are right now, I’m either right there with you or I was just there and yeah, it was tough, but I got through it. Red had grande mal meltdowns. He kicked a staff member at the barn. He tore down fencing. Things got bad, and then I made the decision to start clawing my way out of the whole I’d dug for me and my animals and it’s working.

Financially, it’s difficult. Board is expensive and training are expensive, but 100% necessary. It’s also difficult to work a full time job and make it out to the barn 3 days a week to work with my animals, but it’s not impossible. There isn’t an obstacle in the way of success that I can’t overcome by just working harder.

So if you’ve ended up on my blog because you’re in a situation similar to mine, I genuinely hope that you feel a little less alone and a little more optimistic about your circumstances. We can totally do this, you guys.


Saddle For Sale

I’ve decided to sell my 15″ semi-quarter horse bars barrel saddle and instead buy a used Wintec 500 or Wintec 250 all purpose saddle. I’ve never actually owned an all purpose saddle, although I’ve ridden in them dozens on times. I had two dressage saddles up until last year when I donated them both to Wears Valley Ranch in Sevierville, TN and much of my Western tack will likely find its way there in the Spring.

My decision to sell my Western saddle came after a conversation I had with my instructor about building my mules’ longitudinal muscles through lunging. I recalled a friend of mine who decided to become a personal trainer and, after several months of weight training and cardio, found that she went from a size 0 to a size 4 in jeans as a result of building the muscle groups in her legs and glutes. She spent a ton of money on new jeans and pants to accommodate her figure, which was the only real downside to her workout regimen.

My Red mule is now also undergoing a physical transformation through exercise and better nutrition and I know from experience that it is considerably more difficult and less effective to shim and improve the fit of a Western saddle than an English saddle, especially with the added benefit of Wintec’s adjustable gullet system.

I’m selling my saddle with the cinch and breast collar, and I’ll throw in the pads too if you need them. I paid $300 for the saddle and both the cinch and the breast collar are relatively new (used about 10 times) and were purchased separately. I keep all of my equipment clean, dry, and well oiled. Make an offer.





Our current approach with both Red and John Henry is to begin with groundwork and lunging. This is the obvious place to start when training a young horse, but is often overlooked when retraining the spoiled or sour horse. In the case of my mules, a solid foundation of groundwork and lunging will serve as essential to both their psychological and physical well being. Later I will cover our progress with lunging, which serves several very specific purposes and warrants a post of its own. For now I would like to focus on what I did with Red, under the supervision and tutelage of an instructor, in the first two lessons and in the time I spent working with Red an John Henry on my own.

Our groundwork is done in a nylon halter with a stud chain. Sometimes I carry a driving whip, but I don’t often use it during groundwork. These tools are necessary for my safety and the safety of my animals.

Groundwork establishes boundaries. It demonstrates clear roles for the handler and the equine as the leader and the follower. Red is tremendously insecure because he has had few clear boundaries established in terms of what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not. Before we began establishing boundaries with groundwork, Red’s anxiety dominated all of our interactions. He was virtually un-catchable (an equine that does not want to be caught will go to spectacular lengths to avoid a human with a lead rope, I have discovered) and under halter he was anxious, often clapping his lips together in agitation the way very young horses in tense situations often do. My animal was in a state of arrested emotional development  essentially. He was not just green, he was psychologically stunted.

In the beginning we focused on leading and the set of guidelines that accompany leading. Through voice commands, checks with the stud chain, the occasional tap with the driving whip, and generous reward that included lots of treats and grain in addition to verbal and physical praise. I cannot understate the importance of reward in this process. There are movements within the horse community that have diminished the significance of reward as an essential aspect of training. Reward is not just a release of pressure and in the case of my psychologically fragile Red it is not nearly enough of a reward to instill in him the confidence to try. If there is punishment as the consequence of an incorrect response, but not a strong reward as the consequence for a correct response, the dichotomy creates little incentive for the horse to attempt to solve problems like “What do I do when I hear ‘WALK’?” or “Where is it acceptable to stand in relation to my handler?” Punishment without reward creates only a the fear of punishment. It does not create a healthy mind.

The process of Red re-learning how to be led and handled (and me re-learning how to lead and handle him) included not just leading, but also standing quietly, respecting my space (as in Red understanding that he is not to crawl on top of me when he is anxious and me actively reinforcing this rule) being led in and out of a stall, and being caught. Using the principles discussed in Common Sense Horsemanship that I will discuss in a later post, I was able to improve Red’s manners and state of mind on the ground and under halter by leaps and bounds. The transformation was really impressive. Red is now easy to handle, easy to catch, and he is able to stand calmly in cross-ties. These are small wonders for an animal like Red, whose anxiety has in the past resulted in absolutely terrifying behavior.

So yeah, now I can lead my mule around without tempting fate. And I can catch him, but I wouldn’t call it catching because it doesn’t actually require any effort. He trots up to me and politely waits while I put his halter on. I’m beside myself with joy at this point. I’m a 12 year old girl with her first pony again.

We’re doing all right so far.


My Textbook: An Introduction to Common Sense Horsemanship

Common Sense Horsemanship by Vladimir S. Littauer, Formerly Captain, First Hussars, Russian Imperial Cavalry

Horsepeople tend to choose and then adhere to a philosophy of horsemanship that most suits their needs and the requirements of their discipline. Conscientious horsepeople tend to choose and then adhere to a philosophy of horsemanship that suits the needs of their animal. I used to be the former until I could no longer ignore my animals’ desperate need for leadership. Now I am working towards becoming the latter, and I’m using what I know to be a method that satisfies what I feel are the necessary criteria for a way of training on the ground and in the saddle to be good for all parties involved.

  • It utilizes the horse’s natural tendencies, instincts, and ways of relating to other living things.
  • It does not place the horse in danger.
  • It does not place the rider/handler in danger.
  • It works on virtually all horses that are of sound mind and body.

I have through my new instructor had an opportunity to work with horses at various stages in their training using the method described in Common Sense Horsemanship and was able to personally verify the efficacy of this way of working with the equine and that it is a safe, kind, fair way to bring a young horse or a green horse (or in my case, mule) along in his training. In short, I’m sold. And this is what sold me:

A perfect book on riding could be written only by a horse. Only he could easily answer all of the questions endlessly argued by riders. Only a horse could say positively how the rider should sit in order to abuse him less; how his rider should control him so that the aids are easily understood, and how the trainer should school him so that the training proceeds in a comprehensive manner.

When we approach the very idea of the modern horse, an animal that is born into servitude and has no real advocate but the individual responsible for his care and training, we should approach it knowing full well that as humans, as predators, we are ill-equipped to communicate with him and blind to his nature as a prey animal unless we actively and consciously work to understand him.

And that’s our starting point.


welcome to mule diaries

My name is Morgan and I own a pair of mules. They are delightful animals and I adore both of them, but as with most cooperative partnerships love alone is not enough. Domestic animals require training, and equines require very specialized training because they’re really, really big and could send you to the emergency room with a serious and lasting injury merely by accident. They often do and it is through no fault of their own, which leads me to my next point.

The people who handle equines require specialized training too, for their own safety and for the safety of the animals they are handling. Tragically, this aspect of the relationship between an human and an equine partner (be they a rider or groom) is often neglected at the peril of all parties involved. Case in point: Advertisements for “30 Days Professional Training”, maybe from a cowboy or maybe from a hunt seat instructor and trainer or maybe from someone who just wants to try their hand and training horses for cash. This is America after all and unlike our European counterparts in the horse world we don’t require any real credentials to set up shop as an instructor or trainer.

I only know this because I’ve been paid cash to ride, I’ve had teaching positions at large equestrian facilities, and I’ve even been paid to do competitive cattle work on green horses when in reality the entire time my horsemanship was still in its infancy. I can say “I’ve been riding and working with horses since I was knee high to a grasshopper,” but what I can’t say is “I have had quality instruction from well-qualified horsemen and women since I was knee high to a grasshopper.” That, ladies and gentlemen, means all the difference in the world.

So here I am, still a budding horseperson with just enough knowledge to avoid major catastrophe and a pair of mules with very real behavioral issues that absolutely must be dealt with because it just isn’t sustainable to own a 1200 lbs animal that has made a habit of being a bully. Red is a 14 year old saddle mule with a tragic history of abuse in the form of restraint, poor communication, malnutrition, neglect, and ill-fitting equipment. John Henry is a retired saddle mule who was left to his own devices in a pasture for about 2 years with no farrier work or nutritional supplementation, and although he is not as aggressive as Red he still exhibits what basically amounts to ZERO ground manners.  But again, I love them both. They are my babies. And these are not insurmountable obstacles in terms of training. Red and John Henry have very bright futures ahead of them provided I practice good mulemanship.

And it’s not like I’m going at this all by myself. I have LOTS of help. Red and John Henry live at a small but well run boarding facility in East Canton, NC managed by an experienced instructor and trainer and staffed by horsepeople who all practice a common method of handling the animals so that no one is getting their wires crossed in terms of communication. The rules for the Monday feeding with Person A are the same as the rules for the Tuesday Feeding with Person B and the Wednesday feeding with Person C. They key to good training is, after all, consistency.

I’m also taking lessons with the aforementioned trainer, who has system of teaching and schooling that utilizes the theories of good horsemanship and their practical application. What she doesn’t do is stick me on a schoolmaster and yell “Heals down!” from the middle of the arena. Anyone who has had any contemporary instruction from an unqualified “trainer” knows all of the familiar cadences. “Heals down! Eyes up! Good! Suuuper!”

Oh, and did I mention that I have a textbook now too? And reading assignments and homework for both myself and my mules? It’s like being in school again, which makes sense because the idea is to learn. Instead of relying on an instructor to make my decisions for me on the ground and in the saddle, my instructor is honing my critical thinking skills with the tools I need to make good decisions on my own. Few instructors teach their students to think and reason independently by sharing the theories if good horsemanship because if they did, eventually those instructors would be out of a job. I am fortunate enough to have found an instructor who doesn’t rely on getting her students in the ribbons as quickly as possible or keeping their horsemanship underdeveloped so that they will remain part of her lesson program indefinitely. Of course, she also isn’t exactly raking in oodles and oodles of money either because that isn’t the sort of teacher that we reward in our society. Ah, such is life.

Now you’re up to speed. Welcome to Mule Diaries.


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