One of the multiple treats of the 16th annual Equine Affaire was a clinic given by Steve Edwards, Professor of Equine Science at Pierce College in Los Angeles, CA, titled, Why does my Donkey or Mule do that?: Understanding Donkey and Mule Behavior and Thought Processes.”
After enjoying pleasure packing in the 1970s, Edwards began packing for the United States Forest Service in the 1990s, and currently travels throughout the United States giving clinics on donkeys and mules.
“Every mule, every horse has a different mind frame,” said Edwards, owner of Queen Valley Mule Ranch in Queen Valley, AZ. The key is to learn how they think. Donkeys and mules are thought to be irascible, but mainly they are letting people know they are uncomfortable. People bring theirs to Edwards when they don’t know how to proceed.
“What I like best about mules because they are so highly intelligent, let you know in advance how uncomfortable they are, unlike a horse that will buck or run off right away. Mules try to show you by shaking the head, going downhill, holding his nose out, much more subtle than the horse.”
Someone once asked him how many mules he owns. He jokingly replied, “I don’t own any mules. They scare me to death.” Because people constantly bring him mules and donkeys, “I always have a new mule to ride. It’s pretty interesting.”
Mules’ brains do not have a parietal lobe, so their reining signals need to be taught on a right/ left basis, speaking to both parts of their brain. Forty years ago, he was a “whip ‘em, spur ‘em, and throw ‘em down on the ground, and when they were down, beat’ em” rider until he learned how the mules’ brains work, that they require custom-made directions, pulling left/ right on the reins, and learned how to follow their cues.
Mules grow until they are seven years old, including their teeth, which need floating once a year. He demonstrated testing whether or not they need floating, by pushing what he termed a TMJ (temporomandibular) tendon behind the eye socket. If floating is needed, the deep impression above the mule’s eye will visibly plump up when you press on the tendon. “If the TMJ is not correct, they cannot chew correctly. First time they are floated, they should be in complete balance.” Wolf teeth should also be removed.
When the bit is bumping on the front teeth — canines for a john mule, and incisors for a molly mule — they are uncomfortable and pick the bit up. A snaffle bit is used on a two year old. “What that will do, palette to corner of mouth, a chain goes to nerves underneath the chin, communicates to tongue and corners of mouth, the only part you communicate with first three years of training.” After three years, start looking at finished bits, “The day I can one-handed go to right/left, back up and stop.”
The benefit of a snaffle bit is that when it moves in front of the teeth, a mule can reach down and hold it, “packing it where they like,” never reaching the point that he runs off because he’s not uncomfortable. Unschooled owners often attach a caversson, a piece of leather all around his nose when the mule has given signs of head shaking or running off due to being uncomfortable, that makes him even more uncomfortable, and he starts elevating his head, sticking his head out, every time the rider picks up reins, until one day, “I’ve had enough of this and runs off.”
He advises taking blinders off when driving, because donkeys and mules want to know what’s going on. “Blinders don’t keep him from being afraid of anything. If anything, they increase fear.”
Not only should the rider watch for cues from mules and donkeys, mules and donkeys need cues from their rider. He cues his mule that he is going to try him in the saddle by shaking the saddle, and repeating it, so the mule knows to expect being mounted when saddle is shaken.
To stop, cue him by pulling the reins right/ left, right/ left. Avoids turning a mule in a circle to stop, since you, “don’t want to go in a circle on the Grand Canyon, with a 1000 foot drop.”
He gives the mule three things to learn the first day of training, adds three more the next, then three more the next, and is consistent, laying a foundation, preparing for anything; mules, “Go across rivers, through brush, because if this mule decided to take off running, it’s a long way to go,” if a saddle doesn’t fit right.
One of the two riders at the clinic was 12-year old Paige Ulcas of White River Junction, VT. on her 14-year old mule Fancy. After showing her the right/left rein movements, Edwards directed, “Ask her for a stop, right/ left, right/ left, pick up on your reins, ask her for a whoa. Now look at that stop,” he said, as everyone clapped, for Fancy stopped instantly on Ulcas’s right/left direction, taking care not to cross her hands over the pommel.
To turn Fancy to the right, he directed Ulcas to turn her wrist right to direct the mule. “Least amount of work for least amount of effort. All she had to do was turn her wrist and the mule moved. Mule’s way smarter than you. Just turn your wrist.”
Using the right/ left hand movement, with hands not crossing the pummel, she turned the mule on her hindquarters, something mules are not supposed to be able to do.
Sue Syme of Townsend, MA, age 40, rode her eight year old mule Hank. “He has only been under the saddle since Sept. 1,” she said. “It’s pretty remarkable to bring him to one of these clinics. This is not my first clinic. When I first met Steve, I didn’t know anything about mules. Steve helped me understand the first thing you need to lose is your ego. If you’re not a humble person, once you’ve owned a mule you soon will be. Can’t help but learn something. Once again I learned my mule is way smarter than I am.”