Don’t Jump, Dangit!
By Brandy Von Holten
You see a ditch crossing in your path coming up and you know exactly what your mule is about to do; JUMP IT! Now, if your mule is anything like my old barrel horse, it can’t just jump it enough to clear the ditch. Nope, your mule has to clear something as wide as a lake and as high as a mountain. You know you’ve got to deal with this issue, but you are just happy you didn’t die at this point. Does any of this sound familiar?
There is much that can be done before the trail ride with ground work and crossing any object without jumping. For this article, let’s move to in saddle training. Breaking any equine from jumping ditches is not a quick task. Be prepared to put some time into creating your dream ride.
The most effective way I have found to train your mule to not jump is to approach the ditch at an angle. Basically, I want them to walk in the ditch a few steps going the length of the ditch rather than just getting across it. This reminds me of my father’s semitruck driver friend that went by the CB handle “One Step”. He found himself at the base of a long stretch of interstate that was snowing and had two other truck drivers help him make it through that patch of uncertainty “one step at a time”. So many people focus on their target rather than their actions. Your actions need to include not pushing your mule too firmly or too quickly. You need to not look at the creek by looking down. Remember, you are a predator and if you look at the creek then you are concerned about the creek and so should your mule be concerned. As soon as your mule puts the tiniest amount of effort into even moving closer to the ditch, rub their neck and let out a huge exhale and just sit there for a half a minute. This is typically the time that we as riders lose patience and start whipping, kicking, and spurring. Wrong answer. Apply constant pressure until you get the tiniest amount of try and then take all pressure away. You must reward the simplest and purest amount of try. You need to reward them even if you think they are going to try. If your mule walks through the creek but acted like Nascar, do not punish. It took a lot of bravery to walk through the ditch. Do a gradual turn around rather than jerking on their bit and go right back to the beginning, but with no emotions or anger. When you get in a hurry, they get in a hurry, and the fastest way over that ditch is to jump.
In addition to the “One Step” method, I also like to use a buddy system. I have put myself in the ditch on another equine until we were able to get that first step into the ditch. Equine have a herd mentality and want to buddy up especially when they are unsure. As soon as you get the slightest try, just hang out in the ditch, chit chat, and relax. When the ditch becomes nothing of importance to you, it will become nothing of importance to your mule. Make sure the ditch you are practicing on is more flat than deep.
I would highly recommend having a cue for when you want your mule to jump a ditch. What if there was glass or a snake in the ditch? Also, your mule would be less likely to jump a ditch if you have not cued it to jump. This is further down the road for your training, but something to keep in mind. The cue could be something as simple as a verbal cue or body positioning.
If you are scared to death about your mule jumping a ditch, hire a trainer for a week or two and tell them the exact problem. Make sure you ride your own mule at the conclusion of the training.
Before you get what you want, you must change what you accept. If you do not want your mule to jump ditches, then do not settle for anything else.