Mule Notes: Backwards is Forwards

Faithful readers might have wondered about Jolene. The beloved mule, who I’ve come off several times, has gone back to basics with me.

Jolene, the challenging mule

Since an incident that traumatized both of us, I’ve only ridden her a few times. Instead, we’ve done a lot of ground work, ponying, and chilling. Plus, I’ve gotten some help.

Muleman Tyler Willbanks loves Jolene. He loves her so much, he offered to buy her at first sight. Sorry, Tyler, she’s not for sale!

Willbanks has decades of experience with all variety of equines and runs a horse-powered farming operation here in Mancos, Colorado.

Once he started working with us, he agreed that she needed to rebuild her trust and ride-ability. He feels strongly that she has experienced some trauma (probably in Missouri, where she came from originally).

His suggestions are valuable for any skittish

Tyler Willbanks teaches a course on horse packing


  • Use the round pen for building trust, not respect.
  • Go through a lot of gates (since she can balk at them). Make sure to wait her out and be patient.
  • Give her a rub on her shoulder, but then push her away or move away. Use space as a reward. She appreciates space more than petting.
  • Use a tarp or other objects to put her in discomfort, but don’t let it be you that is the discomfort or the scary object. Have it be something else.
  • She’s stand-off-ish. But be the more stand-off-ish one. She’ll say, ‘oh, wait. I thought I was the stand-off-ish one’ and will be more interested.
  • Back up and have her come to you. Have her back up and give you space.
  • Saddle her every day. If you pony her, pony her with a saddle on.
  • Once you’re riding, Jolene will benefit from moving other horses as well as cows. It will be good for her self-confidence.

Thanks, Tyler!

Jolene as a ponied mule

Backing up to move forward

Last fall, before making the move to Colorado, Jolene and I took several mammoth leaps backwards in our training progress. Read more about the debacle.

Since then, we’ve gone back to the very basics: ground work, round pen work, roadside walks, jogs, and hikes on a lead line. They are all exercises in building back the confidence and partnership that we lost in one unfortunate afternoon. I did get back in the saddle a few times last autumn, but I could feel nervousness in both of us. It seemed right to spend time with more rudimentary work.not too old to learn challenge

In the process, we filled in holes I didn’t realize existed. Specifically, the exercises covered the very basic stuff that I thought we had a handle on:

— lateral flexion– yielding hind quarters

— yielding front quarters

— backing

— forward impulsion.

We could do those elements. But could we do them with lightness and softness? Could we do them under duress?

In the past, my human need for meeting goals and “making progress,” did not jibe with my equine partner, nor did it tell the real

The nostrils say it all! Excited but choosing to stick around

The nostrils say it all! Excited but choosing to stick around

story of where we were as a unit. An example: With the mule in a rope halter and a long line, I could ask her to move to the left of right and she’d comply. But if I asked her with too much energy or with distractions around us, she would either plant herself or bolt.

So, for days, we worked on moving away from pressure, with Jolene going left, then going right, away from me and backwards as I pushed her with my advances. If I moved quickly and demonstratively (with the help of the contained space of the round pen), she learned to stay with me instead of bolting.

When we had this down solidly, I took her out of the round pen and gave her more space. She could bolt across the pasture if she wanted to. Jolene assessed her new surroundings and chose to stay with me.

Next, I took her out on the road, and as I’d done in the round pen, raised the energy level higher than was her comfort. Again, she learned more and more that it was a pretty good deal if she chose to stay with me.

Moving Jolene from L to R.

Moving Jolene from L to R.

At the same time, I reminded myself to work as lightly as possible, to get my cues as soft as can be. The efforts have paid off. For example:

— While leading her, I can go from a walk to a jog without any additional pressure on the line.

— While standing just ahead of her (both of us facing forward), she will step back as soon as I indicate that I’m going to move backwards.

Suffice to say, the understanding, confidence and relationship pieces are more solidly in place than this time last year, when I thought we had a good thing going on (but definitely did not).


Progress gets bloody & backwards

If progress is measured by two steps forward and one step back, then this summer would follow perfectly along that zigzagging course.not too old to learn challenge

Recently, Jolene and I have successfully partnered up several times a week to tackle our weak points:

She’s more comfortable with having a horse behind her on the trail.

She can pony another horse without panicking.

She can carry a packsaddle.

She can stand and bend and stop with light or no touch on the reins.

IMG953234So, it was with joyful anticipation that I saddled her and Pep for a long trek into the Oquirrhs with friend, Raechel Nelson. It’d be a celebratory summer ride, since we both felt these glorious days were winding down and darned if we didn’t make the most of them. It’d be a 16-mile ride with about 2,000 feet elevation climb over rugged, ledge-y terrain with temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

We were quite a crew since we each decided to pony one horse and ride another. We took our dogs. Plus, I took Wallace, the burro. [Wallace has made great progress since we acquired him from the BLM last fall. He seems to LOVE coming on trail rides at liberty, not unlike Donquita in Unbranded.]

IMG_8933Jolene wore the packsaddle, full of water and goodies for humans and animals, and she followed contentedly behind Pep.

After three hours, we finished our climb in the shadow of the Butterfield Peaks (at about 8,000 feet), stopping in a meadow to enjoy snacks, rest, and rehydration. The horses grazed and the dogs hung out in the shade. I switched the saddles to ride Jolene and placed the packsaddle on Pep.

Although by now Jolene has ponied another horse on a dozen outings, something made her nervous this time. Maybe it was the packsaddle. Maybe it was her new role as riding horse after hours as a follower. Maybe it was the flies. Or the dogs.

Whatever. By now, I should know that Jolene’s past familiarity with an action or a plan has no bearing to how cool she’ll be with it on any future day. “I know you and I trust you, but that doesn’t mean I know you and I trust you,” she seems to say to me.

So, figuring I had herd numbers working in my favor and seeking to alleviate the mule’s angst, I dropped Pep’s line and we headed homeward, down the mountain. Pep would surely follow.

Pep, however, did not tag along behind; she was perfectly happy to continue grazing. We – two riders, four equines, four dogs – rode

Myself, Wallace, and Jolene just before things went sideways.

Myself, Wallace, and Jolene just before things went sideways.

out of sight, a half mile yonder. Pep still didn’t follow.

Jolene and I hustled back to retrieve her, with Wallace trotting along side. Raechel waited up ahead, just above a steep descent for which we would have to dismount and scrabble on foot over ledge and loose rock.

At this point, I’m growing impatient. Raechel and I had hoped to get home by early afternoon. Time’s a’ wastin’.

I grabbed Pep’s lead line and recommenced ponying her, this time at a trot. Jolene continued to get flustered. A few times, I awkwardly one-rein stopped her. You can imagine how silly this must have looked, trying to bend and stop a mule, while holding onto a frisky pony, and having a little burro in the mix.

— I should have taken the time to calm my mule.

— I should have dropped Pep’s line and let her follow at her leisure.

— I should have relaxed about the time, since rushing a horsemanship moment always, always ends badly.

Instead, I continued downhill at a trot. With Wallace and Pep right on her haunches, Jolene commenced to panic. With my hands full, the trail cramped, and my mind frazzled, things got ugly fast.

It was a hard landing and my mecate rein, looped through my leggings, somehow got tangled. Jolene dragged me for a stretch on the rocky, unforgiving path. (Years ago in Maine, I came off Shea whilst riding bareback and ponying the girls to a neighbor’s field. Then, I landed on a swampy, moss-coated path, like landing on a pillow-top mattress. I do miss Maine.)

On the ground, I thought first of loose horses and then of whether I’d be able to get home. I seemed to have scrapes everywhere, my ribs hurt, and my right elbow was bubbling up oddly beneath the dirt and blood.

Raechel gathered the horses and had them ground tied or tied to trees within a minute. She rushed to my side and was the best First Responder a friend could have:

— No, you will not be standing up quite yet.

— Let’s have you sit in the shade.

— Let’s get those cuts washed off.

— Where else does it hurt?

— Drink some water and let’s assess the situation.

I was bloodied but not concussed. I thanked the heavens for my helmet.

With Raechel’s help, I put the pack saddle back on Jolene and alternated between riding Pep and walking the eight miles home.

It’ll take another week to heal from the scrapes and bruises. That’s considerably more time than it’s taken to learn (again) from my mistakes.

My partner, Steve Peters, winced and laughed after hearing about the event: “You know, Jolene is making some good progress. Despite your efforts,” he said.

Read a poem of the psychology of an exciting moment.

A “Big” Scare

Since Sackett’s death, I’ve been more wary of our horses’ wellness, especially when it comes to anything related to possible sand ingestion. Read about sand colic and other forms of colic.

IMG_0420Over the last month or so, Jolene seemed to be getting bloated. She was eating and drinking well. Her poops were fine. She seemed to be in good spirits. Her heart rate and digestion noises were fine, but at one point I thought I could hear the swooshing of sand when I listened to her gut with a stethoscope.


Sackett had had “shovelfuls of sand,” said my vet when she performed a necropsy. Could Jolene be quietly suffering, too?

Dr. Kate Schoenhals of South Mountain Equine agreed to try to get to the bottom of things while still keeping an eye on our budget.

The Vet Visit


Dr. Kate Schoenhals

The mule has been challenging to train. So, it wasn’t surprising that Jolene was challenging to medically treat, too. In order to examine her (draw blood, take abdominal x rays, perhaps do a rectal exam) and knowing how difficult she can be, I gave her a full tube of Dormosedan gel 30 minutes before Schoenhals arrived.

It had almost no sedative impact.

When Jolene saw the vet, she became anxious. Kate had given her spring shots, after all. In this mule’s mind, that made her Public Enemy No. 1. (Mules tend to be less forgetful and less forgiving than horses.)

We thought perhaps a less familiar visitor would be more effective. Schoenhals’ vet tech, Shylee, stepped forward to administer IV sedative.

Or not.

Just getting this big, molly mule sedated became a lengthy, three-person challenge that included snubbing, gentle ear-twitching, and crafty vet work. Not coincidentally, she stayed reactive even with an inordinate amount of sedative on board.

Schoenhals took x rays of several aspects of the abdomen and saw no sand to speak of. She drew blood and we later found everything, including liver and kidney function, to be normal. I did not opt for further diagnostic work to rule out enteroliths or cancer, figuring it would be a costly pursuit of discovering something that IMG_7942we could do almost nothing to remedy.

What x rays did show was something I had missed in my worried, colic-focused state: a thick layer of fat.

In hindsight, I noted that her added weight coincided with a new load of good quality hay. This hay replaced a six-month supply of poorer stuff. Mules – as noted by many, including the Baja vaqueros here – can sustain themselves quite well, even on crappy forage. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Jolene would bulk up on good hay. And, since mules tend to carry their chubbiness a bit differently than horses, I had missed what was staring right in front of me.

Marching orders were clear: more exercise!

(Orders also could have included less hay, but that’s a management hurdle when Jolene is fed with herd mates. Separating them would mean more work for me, more stress for her.)

I had been riding Jolene about twice a week. Now, we ride about four times a week. She also might hike with me and the dogs, or come along as a ponied mule. Slowly, she’s trimming down.




Expanding the Circle of Comfort

not too old to learn challengeThis month, Jolene has weathered many new experiences, but never without worry. That’s Jolene. Anything new (new helmet, new gear, new trail, new visitor) is cause for inspection and concern. I’ve become more patient with her than I typically am our other equines. I understand that review and consideration cannot be fleeting, unless I want bolting and distress.

Read more about the Not too Old to Learn Challenge.

Even saddling, once an hour-long event, now honed to 10 minutes, can still be subject to review. Read about saddling challenges here.

Jolene is extra wary when riding in a gully with steep sides.

Jolene is extra wary when riding in a gully with steep sides.

As we ramp up the trail riding, we’ve worked on these elements:

  • Riding in a gully. It’s scary because the path seems to have walls on both sides, rising up and making her a bit claustrophobic and vulnerable to predators (my interpretation here).

See photo at right.

  • Going fast. Last year, she bucked me off a few times. And I think we were both a little uncomfortable loping and galloping together. Finding good running room is challenging with all our rocky terrain, but we found some and have opened things up a bit. Read what Buck Brannaman has to say about “dialing it up.”
  • Being light and soft. Jolene’s lateral flexion can be easy sometimes, clunky the next. So, when we’re trailriding, we practice one-rein stops and general listening back and forth. We’ve worked on softer, finer cues with hands, legs and seat.
  • Creek crossing

    Creek crossing

    Other new experiences: a creek crossing and going over weird, man-made earth cylinders, meant to deter erosion and set up like small interval jumps.

  • Saddling up in a confined space (between a building and a truck).
  • Introduction to packing. In photo at left, Jolene is wearing a saddle with over-the-saddle panniers from Outfitters Supply of Columbia Falls, Montana. She did marvelously with her first hundred-pound IMG_7977load.

Other learning opportunities:

In an effort to expand the circle of comfort and get everyone in shape (or “legged up,” as they say around here), I’m riding all our equines.

I’ve learned:

Jodi is like a Golden Retriever. She benefits from lots of encouragement and praise. She’s a plug compared to Pep or Comet, lovable but perhaps lacking confidence. But I’m working on improving our connection and her go-getter-ness.



Brooke is the most challenging, our temper tantrum girl. She benefits from a strong, firm rider who can have a conversation without riling her.

Whenever we return home, she’d prefer to do so at breakneck speed. My strategies: making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. If she starts racing, she gets put to work in circles or in the opposite direction. If she whinnies for her herd, she gets to back up several paces. Soon enough, she finds relief with good behavior and we’re returning home on a loose rein, having stopped to graze and enjoy the scenery.


Introducing the ‘Not Too Old to Learn Challenge’!

not too old to learn challengeWe’ve been celebrating the NickerNews and BestHorsePractices community with guest columns and photo albums dedicated to our readers and their equines.

Inspiring stuff.

And as often happens in the dark, quiet months of winter, I got to thinking:
Let’s do something with these inspirations. Let’s use them to boost our own horsemanship goals.

Credit goes to Debbie Hight, Rob Rowbottom, Randy Rieman and Joe Wolter. With actions and comments, they’ve motivated me to set goals and hold myself accountable.
Debbie and Rob are working with Postcard Jack, Maine’s most winning harness racer. Read more here.
Clinicians Randy and Joe urge riders to constantly challenge themselves and step outside comfort zones. Read more about Rieman here and Wolter here.

Welcome to the Not Too Old to Learn Challenge!


From top: Wolter, Hight and Rowbottom, Rieman

I have two goals: to horse pack in the backcountry and to compete in the Impact of the Horse, a versatility-type event to benefit mustangs, held annually in Heber City, Utah. I’d like to bring Jolene, who would be the first mule ever to compete. Read about the event.
It’ll be quite a challenge. She’s a tough nut to crack and I’m just your average rider, with next-to-no formal education. Read more about Jolene here.

In other to accomplish the Challenge, I’m breaking down necessary steps.

1.    Agree to the challenge and sharing your initiative with a few friends. Call it an ‘initial commitment.’
2.    Set small, incremental goals. Neither of us feel comfortable in arena settings, for instance, so we’ll visit arenas regularly.
3.    Assess strengths and weaknesses (like the aforementioned nervousness in public settings).
4.    Find support when needed. I expect to ask Steve Peters regularly for insight on training hurdles. My friend, Raechel Nelson, has agreed to the Challenge, too.
5.     When things go sideways, just say it’s OK. To be challenged is to win. I’m fine with things not going as anticipated, as long as I try my best.

Consider hitching your wagon to the Not Too Old to Learn Challenge. Throughout the year, we’ll be staying in touch and profiling readers as they work through their Challenges.
Giddy Up!


Saddle Struggles and Progress

If progress must be defined by always moving forward, then my progress with the mule would not be progress at all.

Since my last posts, we’ve ridden many miles. Most have been pleasant, full of camaraderie and connection. There’ve been some unexpected bolts and bucks and I was happy for my tool kit: a one-rein stop, a smidge of confidence, and a healthy dose of humor.

Jolene, Daniel Gorman, and the scary saddle

Jolene, Daniel Gorman, and the scary saddle

Saddling Jolene, however, remained challenging.

“A mule is like a horse, only more so” is the adage. If it means mules are more flighty, more challenging, and requiring of more positive reinforcement, then I agree whole-heartedly.

Initially, saddling was a 90-minute affair which included getting her comfortable with standing, being comfortable with the pad and the saddle coming on and off, etc.

Slowly, it got whittled to a 30-minute deal.

Then, because of holes in our training, it blew back to 60 minutes of frustration as the mule renewed her wariness and recommenced bolting at the sight of the monstrous saddle and pad.

Daniel Gorman, my friend from Collector, Australia, had some excellent pointers as he watched my struggles:

  • Don’t be results-oriented by having saddling and riding as the only acceptable goals.

Gorman watched as I picked up the saddle and walked towards her. And he watched as Jolene repeatedly spun and took off.

“Instead of taking the saddle to her, carry it and walk away with her, with the saddle on your hip until she’s more relaxed,” he suggested.

I picked it up with her on a lead line and walked off, letting her graze during a pause.

Brilliant. Read more about Daniel Gorman

Jolene got more comfortable with the saddle because it became a side dish to the main meal (walking with me and grazing).

The other problem was that I’d misjudged (again) her sensitivity to containment. I thought that by settling her into a three-sided, stall-like space it would be easier to get her saddled while still allowing her to move. But in short order, Jolene became less and less comfortable with the arrangement.

  • Gorman again suggested changing the set-up. I took the saddle and the mule to a grassy spot. I let her eat next to the saddle. I didn’t let her eat when she wasn’t near the saddle.
Finally, a relaxing trail ride!

Finally, a relaxing trail ride!

Another day, I let her hang out near the saddle in the paddock. If she wanted to take off and run from it, I did not offer her relief until she wanted to stand by the saddle.

For 10 days, the pair of us did nothing but hang out, saddle up, and hang out some more.

Three weeks passed since our last ride. Yesterday, we saddled uneventfully and headed out solo for six miles, a sweaty, rigorous ride with pit stops for treats, grazing, and gazing. It was sweetened by that hiccupping progress we’d made on the ground. From my perspective, that ground work deepened her trust in me.

Progress, in our own terms, is progress nonetheless.

jo copy

Mule goes up & over

IMG_2553_2 copySmiling through gritted teeth, I’m making some progress with the mule. Like a lot of paths of progress, it has its bumps, hazards, and hairpin turns.

Most recently, Jolene gave me a lesson in pressure. As I learned months ago, pressure with the new mule needs to be light and sensitive. And I’m not just talking about lead line or rein pressure. She showed me how light pressure of presence needed to be with a recent saddling incident.

I had Jolene on a lead line and was readying saddle and saddle pad. She was antsy and I asked Steve and a friend to block her from having an escape route.

The guys, both really good with horses, were relaxed and non-threatening. More like Cowboy A, than Cowboy B (at right). They stood a few yards away as I struggled to position her near a gate.

a not bJolene eyed them suspiciously. (She eyes pretty much everyone suspiciously.) Her discomfort at having them nearer, from twenty feet to ten feet, became too much. From a standing position, to get away from the pressure of these two men, she vaulted over the pasture gate.


Is she part kangaroo?

Apparently, mules excel at standing jumps. They compete in Coon Jumping; it’s a popular tradition, especially in the South and stems from when raccoon-hunting mule riders would drape a blanket or tarp over the top wire of a barbed wire fence and ask their mules to jump it instead of finding the gate and losing time. This I did not know. Watch record-setting coon jump video.

I eventually got her saddled, but the guys had to back off. Slowly, the whole saddling-up process has gone from 90 minutes to 30 minutes. But like anything else, it can be two steps forward, one step back. Or over.

PICT0104--Coon Mule Jumping Contest at Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Folklife Festival

Mule Progress comes in Leaps and Bounds

My first trail ride with the new mule was successful if success can be measured by staying on and nothing bad happening.

But Jolene’s lack of bend and the absence of a one-rein stop revealed glaringly large holes in training.
joSo, we added two elements to our work:

  • More lateral flexion (with instant release as soon as she offered it) from the ground and while being ponied as I rode Shea.
  • The snaffle bit. (The bit had, in fact, been introduced already but only to carry, not with reins attached.)

Given the precarious state of our “successful” first ride, I was more than a little nervous about getting back on. But with coaching and encouragement from Steve Peters, I banked on my progress, pushed back fear, and got on.

Not surprisingly, Jolene wanted to take off within the first 10 seconds. But I shortened my left rein and pulled tazher head towards my left knee. The young mule turned and turned and turned. We moved down the trail like Taz, the Looney Tunes character, but in slow motion. She was willing to bend, but not immediately willing to stop. Read article on bolting.

ponymule12 copyAfter five spins, she stopped. I released, nearly throwing the rein back to her. I rubbed her neck to comfort her.
We paused for a moment, allowing me to get undizzy before resuming our walk.

Almost immediately, she tried to bolt again. But I was ready with a one-rein stop. This time, she only spun three times before standing. Again, I offered her an immediate release.
It turned out to be one of those pivotal, memorable rides where horse and rider start in distant waters and end up together on an idyllic isle. After 15 minutes of consistent pressure, release, and positive reinforcement, something clicked. Jolene relaxed. I relaxed. (Up to then, I had had a veneer of confidence; only pretending to be competent and relaxed.) Jolene’s gait smoothed. She started looking around. She even stopped to graze.

Read more about confidence in riding.

Over the course of an hour, there were several times I could have jerked the reins or restricted her movement. Unlike past rides when fear had the best of me, I resisted those impulses. The reward was huge: a relaxed, seemingly happy and trusting new partner.

On a second outing, we headed out solo. Jolene tried to bolt several times and our Taz depiction returned, especially when a frightening stick got caught in her tail. But the rein pressure, quick release, and loving neck rubs prevailed.

Hooray for us!

First Trail Ride, Part II

The first trail ride with the mule proceeded after she gave me a few bucks and raced towards trees and our fence. (Thank you, trees and fence for stopping us.)
Read Part I.
j 1Steve and Comet were crucial riding partners. They rode ahead and blocked Jolene from bolting. And they gave her a reason for riding away from home.
I tried to relax, giving Jolene plenty of slack in the rein as we moved down the path. She lowered her head and loosened into our pace (a fast walk with some trotting).
Occasionally, I’d ask her to turn by bumping her with one rein. This made her tense, but she complied.
What I realized immediately was her unwillingness to bend her head and completely stop. Too much rein would speed her up, not slow her down.

All that vital lateral flexion discussed in the Bolting article?

All that ground and round pen work?

Forget about it.

Still, I wasn’t going to get into a big fight or do anything to make this first outing anything but a good time. With this mule, at this stage, a good time was my highest priority.  We’d work out kinks on subsequent rides.

Indeed, horsewoman Kyla Pollard provided some excellent pointers for the brace-y horse:

  • If you pick up a feel, like the one feel that you would like her to respond to and she doesn’t feel back to you i.e. a brace, hold that brace and bump her lightly, getting more and more annoying. Increase the level of discomfort in phases so she appreciates that first feel you offered her. Be sure NOT to put slack back in the rein when you are bumping. It must be associated with that brace.
  • Get way out to the side, turn your thumb down and with the rein in your closed hand. Use your triceps, not your biceps. Think: Out and high to tip that nose.
  • Remember: they don’t know how to push, brace, or pull until the human shows them. If she gives to the ‘bumps,’ throw slack into that line so she hunts that soft feel up.
  • Think steel hand in velvet glove on that rein. Don’t let it slip out, but, definitely release on the slightest try and throw slack right back at her if she comes off that feel.
  • Remember, pick up a feel. If there is a brace, bump, bump, bump until she is so uncomfortable and gets off of it.

Next, ponying gives Jolene an alternative lesson in bending and feel.


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