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Enjoy The Ride

A few days ago, I was walking down my small lane with a young mule. He had been here for only a few days and had minimal handling experience. He had a bad habit of running past/through me, but we were working on it each day and making progress. As we passed a gated yard, several dog's came flying out, barking aggressively against the fence line. The mule did just as I expected...he ran right past me. As he hit the end of the lead rope, I braced myself for what I call "jet skiing," You know where the animal runs off and you try to convince yourself you can stop it by hanging on. We've all been there!

As I bared down, I noticed my feet weren't moving. The mule had stopped. (The mule had stopped?!) I watched his eyes go from the dogs to me, back to the ranch then back to me. He was in the midst of thinking this out. I gave him a couple seconds and then something magical happened. He walked back over to me. I praised the living heck out of him and threw a little party for us right there in the middle of the street. Magical! It was that moment that he accepted me as his leader and trusted I would keep him safe.

Training animals in general can be unpredictable, funny, dangerous, fulfilling, scary, rewarding, frustrating and beautiful all at the same time. And just when you think they "get it" they throw you for a loop and you start to question your own ability to teach. At the end of the day you usually learn more about yourself than you did about the student (kinda like having children, huh?)!

About a week ago, our group took in the above young Jack mule who found himself at a feed lot. A wonderful woman rescued him and asked us to help her with some initial training. Jack Daniels (JD) asserted himself as a fearful, unsure, likely mishandled youngster. There's a big difference between an animal who wants to hurt you vs. the one that wants you to NOT hurt it. He was the latter.

We started with some ground rules: It's not okay to strike out, kick me or bite me for being in your space. I'm a fair handler. Don't give me a reason to get on your ass and I won't. He figured that out quickly and his "fearful self preservation kicking" turned into "I'm not ready for you to do that yet" kicking. Okay. I can deal with that...

I'm a win the war, not the battle type of person. While I hate when owners make excuses for their animals bad behavior with human emotions, it is important to note that animals do have their own set of feelings. Acknowledge that, find where it fits in to your pet's behavior and go from there...but don't turn it into a Dr. Phil session.

This mule is a perfect example. His feelings are pretty black and white: I'm afraid of you. I want to trust you as a leader but I've been wronged before. I'm willing to work with you, but I need time to trust you with invasive things like handling my back feet.

We are an instant gratification society. We have emails, text, check deposits via photos, and scheduled c-sections. We are breeding people who have lost patience and their ability to let things flooooow.

(Newsflash-animals don't give a poop about your time schedule. If you're in a rush, don't own horses. No, really. Don't. You are the folks who mess them up. You send them to trainer after trainer, you put human conditions upon them and then abandon them when you feel you have done "everything in your power" to help said horse. What you really mean is "you did everything in your power to rush the animal and he isn't moving fast enough...NEXT!")

It's a sad reality here in the rescue world. Timing is everything. If you go too fast, you mess the horse up; if you go too slow, the horse has got your goat.

JD, the mule, could go either way in the wrong hands. He is intelligent and willing but has baggage. It would be wrong of me to find a cookie-cutter training method and expect him to fit into it. Would I win? Maybe, but it would be an uphill battle and neither of us would enjoy the journey. Instead, I'm listening to him and his cues. I'm compromising with him. I'm allowing him to have a say about what he is ready for and what he isn't, but I'm NOT allowing him to walk all over me.

There needs to be balance. Two living beings with very different life experiences need to find a way to meet in the middle. Listen to your horses. Build them up when you find their strengths. Having an equine partner isn't just about the punishing them when they do something wrong! There is a big world of opportunity in the land of "positive reinforcement." So many times we get horses here at HCHR who have been taught how not to act, but no one ever gave them the tools to succeed. Imagine the anxiety one would face if we practiced that method in the human world. Every action could potentially be punishable, but we don't know it until we do it. No wonder we get head-shy, flighty, ulcer-ridden horses. We expect them to learn at our pace and read between the lines? Not going to happen.

Be patient. Animals don't have the ability to verbalize "hey, I'm unsure about what you want from me, can you slow it down a bit?" So when you're getting a less than desired result (i.e.: the mule still kicking when I touch his back feet) take into consideration that maybe he just isn't ready yet and THAT IS OKAY. Training a horse isn't a race. Give them some time, focus on something they ARE good at to help build confidence and trust. Take a day off, turn them out into pasture, go on a walk, read a book with your horse, but DON'T fight them. Don't burn them out. Don't make them carry the burden of a human schedule, but most of all- PLEASE DON'T PUNISH THEM if they truly don't know any better.

It's our job to find a way to fit into their world, not vice versa. When they accept you as their leader, it's magical. Don't sacrifice that amazing connection just to save yourself a little time. Breathe. Enjoy the ride. Let your horse enjoy it too. It may take a little longer, but if you do it right, the result is like nothing you've ever known before.