Last week I attended the Sanctuary's Practical Mule Handling Course at Town Barton Farm run by Ben Hart our resident behavioural expert. I have been looking forward to this course for a long time; it is a follow on from the Mule Theory Training Course I wrote about in November where I spent an idyllic morning with the 130 resident mules and hinnies that live at the farm based just outside Exeter, whilst learning about the practicalities of behaviour training.
The course started off with some health and safety: working in a group of mules is far more dangerous than being in a group of donkeys, because they are more flighty and easily startled. Also most of the mules are bigger than the donkeys we have here at the Sanctuary. When working with mules you should always be aware of your surroundings and things that could startle the group, gloves should always be worn, and the fact that large animals have the capacity to injure you should be respectful at all times. Mules are great levellers; you may think you are the best trainer in the world and they will bring you back down to earth, unless you take into account how clever they are.
Ben had a selection of mules with different behavioural problems for us to meet and discuss. First we met Muffin (pictured above), a 10 year old mare who was relinquished in 2009 by her elderly owner who could no longer cope with her. Muffin dislikes being touched anywhere on her body except her head, she puts her ears back, shakes her head and tries to bite. If she continues to feel pressured she will also try and kick out.
Ben’s diagnosis of this mule was that she can’t tolerate being touched, so her training plan needs to go back to basics and not have too much asked of her; you cannot expect to pick up her feet if you can’t even touch her legs. By the end of the session Muffin was starting to enjoy a scratch on her neck - Ben says the temptation to try for a little bit more should be resisted, sessions should be kept short and need to end on a good note, so when you get something good; walk away!
Next we met Morris, a five year old gelding who was abandoned on the Mendip Hills after the annual Pridley Fair. He was left to fend for himself with his companion Molly on 100 acres of moorland with a herd of Exmoor ponies. Ben was given the task of catching him so that he could be brought into the safety and care of the Sanctuary. Ben liaised with the owner of the ponies and created a large triangle of fencing that led into a catching area, where she put food out for Morris and Molly for several days to make them feel like the catching area was a good and safe place to be. Ben was then able to lure the pair of mules into a trailer using food without having to catch them, which would have been thoroughly upsetting for them. Ben says that Morris had clearly never been handled yet he had been castrated at some point which would have been immensely stressful for him and will have added to his mistrust of humans.
Morris is the most nervous mule Ben has ever come across, he is very fearful of everything, the slightest noise makes him flinch, and if he feels trapped he will try and escape even if it means jumping out in a panic. When working with such a mule you must wait for them to stand still before you approach them, because if you put them under too much pressure they could explode and jump out; which would be very dangerous to the mule and handler, not to mention detrimental to the training programme. Mules have a super awareness of their surroundings and even having a hand near them can be a really big thing for them. Little steps are a big success where Morris is concerned - just getting him to stand still while you are close to him is an achievement. Ben says you have to see the glass half full when working with an animal like Morris, a tiny tiny thing like nearly touching him really is great. However training mules is a complex business, you need to push the boundaries a little bit because if you don’t you will never make any progress. But on the other hand if you push too far, too much pressure will make them associate the trainer with feeling uncomfortable and trust will never be gained. Mules can train you not to push them and this is why training them is no easy task!
We also met:
- Fidget an eight year old gelding who does not like being restrained whatsoever, which is a huge problem when it comes to having his feet farriered and dentals;
- Spock who bolts when he does not like a situation which is a problem because he has sweet itch and he needs to have medicinal cream applied on a regular basis;
- Cameron who has made huge amounts of progress since he was first relinquished but will not walk on the lead rope;
- George who is extremely reluctant to be caught;
- and not forgetting dear little Rags who is only a year old and has no confidence in herself let alone a human.
When we had finished watching all the practical demonstrations we had a group brainstorm about what we had learned about working with mules and the results were:
- Be patient, shape the behaviour and take small steps
- Don’t give up, persistence is key
- You can't rush training, make sure you have enough time for what you are trying to achieve
- Be consistent
- Be safe
- There is a very small margin of error - mules do not forget mistakes
- It doesn’t have to make sense with mule behaviour, sometimes the strangest/smallest steps can be successful
- Donkeys are more forgiving, it takes a lot to rebuild a mules trust
When I watch Ben at work there is always a recurring pattern. He steps back, takes a look at the bigger picture and by going back to the beginning, working in the right environment, with the right equipment and by setting small achievable goals he always manages to come up with a logical solution to what seemed like a massive problem. It is a real pleasure to watch him working with the mules.
Another thing I always enjoy about Ben's courses is the little quotes that he likes to leave us with, last time he said “Mules are like marmite, you either love them or you hate them” which is just so true! This time he left us with “In a battle between water and stone, the water always wins because it isn’t the strength that will win but persistence”. What he was trying to tell us was that if at first you don’t succeed when training - keep trying and it will pay off eventually. I can’t wait until my next visit to Town Barton to see how Muffin and her friends are getting on.