Here’s something I really want to put out to the world… there’s nothing like a good mule! I love mules and I have a deep appreciation for Jim Masterson and his creation of The Masterson Method® of Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork. If you have mules in your life, understanding a few of The Masterson Method principles can really be a game changer if you want to improve performance, refine communication and/or deepen your relationship with these equine hybrids. It’s hard to explain the law of attraction to mules. They are fun, quirky and once you get to know their personalities and big hearts, life is never the same without one in the herd.
I’ve worked with and known a lot of exceptional mules. In Yosemite, the mules in my string would gladly work from dawn to dusk for a nosebag of grain at the end of the day, the comfort of being with their herd and a good roll in a soft place. I took care of them and they took good care of me, it was our unspoken agreement. Some of the most talented mules I know can out-perform a good horse on their best day doing anything a horse can. Mules can also be very good-minded, keeping a level head when things get scattered or scary. I’ve also known mules with physical issues that covered up their discomfort deep into lameness because that is their self-preserving nature. Today, I own three mules that are the best equine partners a gal could ask for! But this trail wasn’t always so smooth.
When I first started working with mules in 2005, my knowledge and understanding of their nature was limited. I made mistakes with them and had wrecks while asking them to do their jobs, usually because I wasn’t paying attention. Although I had been around horses most of my life, I learned quickly that mules were different. What worked with horses didn’t seem to consistently apply with mules. If you hang around folks who know mules, you’ll likely hear that “a mule is like a horse but more so”. To that I would like to add that a mule is like a donkey but less so. Having a sense of humor will serve you well, as will keeping in mind that Momma was a horse, Daddy was a donkey and each mule is an individual with a mix of nature/nurture from both parents.
Mules today are being bred for performance and pleasure. A wide range of breeding from the horse side produces offspring in a plethora of sizes, shapes, talents and dispositions. Thus, we are seeing mules with various exposure to the world, in different degrees or shades of what I call horse minded training. Sadly, the training regimen that a horse can accept, doesn’t necessarily work well to developing a willing mule partner. Mules learn quickly but will shut down fast if being asked to do something that doesn’t make sense to them. If one thing has stayed consistent, it’s the breeding of the donkey side of a mule. It is the donkey’s disposition that is often the overlooked factor when it comes to understanding mules.
Here’s a generalization about the nature of equines: if a horses is on the flight end of the behavior spectrum, then a donkey is on the fight end and mules land somewhere in between. Yes, mules can be challenging to work with. It takes time and patience to earn their trust. Mules are intelligent, sensitive, sensible, inquisitive and above all else their self-preserving nature means that they will often think things through before acting. Mules can be willing to please and seek the “right” answers, but their processing and reaction time is initially slower than a horse. If you can get to know mules by being predictable, consistent, clear, confident and especially patient, they will do just about anything for you, not because they have to but because you ask them to.
Jim’s book Beyond Horse Massage holds many universal equine truths that anyone can use and apply to be more successful with a horse, mule or donkey. When an equine lets down their guard in response to your touch, shows you a release of tension like a big yawn or gives you the weight of their head on your shoulder, it’s a very intimate experience and it’s one you never forget. A worldwide interest has been sparked by the success of The Masterson Methods. Here are a few excerpts from Jim’s book with some additional mule specific notes:
“The horse’s instinctive survival response is to brace against intrusion, discomfort or pain. If you bypass this bracing response by softening, you can get the equine to release tension.”
A mule can brace all day long! In fact, the more pressure they feel and discomfort they sense, the more they will brace (that’s the fight nature). Mules are perfect candidates for bodywork and a small release of tension, especially if you help facilitate it, will go a long way to keeping them feeling good in their bodies. With The Masterson Method, we often work in the space called Air-Gap. It’s where we first recognize there might be an area where the equine is holding tension or experiencing pain. Air-Gap can command a wide berth or it can be effective from the heat of your finger, while barely making contact with one hair. By being sensitive to where this invisible line is (I call it a bubble), it allows us to work under the brace response. When you recognize where a mule’s bubble is, it creates a simple way of saying to them, that you respect where their edge is. It will not take long for a mule to recognize that you are softening in response to their resistance. As a comfort seeker, a mule will search for the path of least resistance. Be the path of least resistance that guides them.
Check out the Bladder Meridian Technique video from The Masterson Method website or on YouTube. It is something that is so easy to do, takes just a few minutes to learn and can really help take the edge off of an ultra sensitive horse or soften a stoic long-ear. It holds great potential for creating connection, establishing communication and releasing tension in the entire body. This video goes into a deeper explanation of levels of touch and responses that we work with.
“The Principle of Non-Resistance: Whenever you encounter resistance in the horse, if you soften or yield to that resistance it will allow the horse to release pain or tension behind that resistance. When a horse is bracing against you, he can’t release.”
The Principle of Non-Resistance is The Masterson Method equivalent of feel. Some folks are born with a natural sense of feel. It is essentially a way of communicating with movement, sensitivity and harmony. Feel is something that’s really hard to describe and even more illusive to learn and teach. It requires a level of commitment and study that a lot of folks are unwilling to spend the time or effort to learn. Here is where I want to encourage you to have some stick-to-it-ness. If you can be successful with these techniques, you can develop a sense of feel and ultimately earn the trust of many a skeptical equine, while helping the body to release tension. The equines in your life know where you are on the subject of feel and will give you honest feel-back if you are willing to listen.
By giving the equine nothing to brace against, the game changes, especially with the long-eared mindset. This gem of wisdom has served me very well and holds the key to unlocking the mule puzzle. Trying to overpower a mule is a game you can’t reasonably win and it’s no place to try to establish a level of trust from. If you really think about it, people are very much like mules. When things get uncomfortable, we resist too. Smile, it’s ok, mules are awesome!
“The horse is a herd animal and communicates through body language. It instinctively blocks pain and tension and covers up weakness to survive. If you can read what’s going on with the equine’s body as you work you can get the horse to release that pain and tension.”
A mule’s self preservation factor is of utmost importance to them and they actually have a high pain threshold. Thus, their communication can be even subtler than the most stoic horse. A small change in behavior, like not noticing when you come to the barn, a lack of verbalization at mealtime or an unwillingness to be with the herd, could be a forewarning. If you see the classic Disneyland character Eeyore stance, do some investigating.
In using The Masterson Method, we follow the blink of an eye to give us clues to where there may be tension. It’s the indicating factor we use to stay below the brace because it is a nervous system response, something the equine cannot control. I find the blink useful but more often than not, a mule can and will blink with only one eye and it will be on the opposite side from where you are working. Yes, I know I just said it’s a nervous system response. Don’t ask me how a mule can do this but they can, trust me. Therefore, if you can’t see (or haven’t yet developed the sensitivity to feel) a blink you need another tool. Lip twitches are pretty consistent, so I use them often as my guide. By being attentive and listening to what a mule is communicating, you might find you are speaking their language! Major mule points for you, because this places you as a part of their herd. That’s a good thing, really!
When I first started practicing the techniques with my mule Feather my motivation was to help her release tension in her poll, lumbar and groin areas so we could stay competitive. At that time, she was a pretty stoic molly mule, one who had seen many working days at a pack station. She was willing to work and great for getting a job done but didn’t really have a desire to be with people (or more specifically, me). After I started doing some of the techniques with her, I would find her in the pasture, the left hind leg relaxed and hovering over the ground, making a small circle. This sounds crazy, but she was actually doing The Masterson Method on her own. Her movements emulated a technique Jim calls Stifle In/Stifle Out. This tiny range of movement in a relaxed state released tension in her stifles, which helped the other areas relax too. Later, I discovered she had early signs of arthritis in her left stifle. To make this story more interesting, all of a sudden Feather was seeking me out and actually wanted to be with me. The bodywork not only maintained Feather’s level of comfort and performance, but it also facilitated communication and a deeper level of trust between us. The icing on the cake was that we had a very successful year competing!
To give Jim Masterson major credit, the foundational techniques are easy to learn and get results. When in doubt, defer to the equine and follow your intuition or try something different. If you’re willing to really listen, the rewards can be surprising and very beautiful. Jim says, “you can’t do this wrong, but you can definitely do better.” If you’re working with mules, keep a sense of humor and remember you are working with ½ an ass!
In closing, I have to share that I had an opportunity to visit with Mark Rashid at The Masterson Method Educational Conference. When I mentioned to him that I owned and worked with mules, I immediately saw a twinkle in his eyes, while he smiled and said these words, which in my humble opinion are worth repeating… “there’s nothing like a good mule.”
If you’re interested or curious about learning more about mules, there are some great resources available online:
The Masterson Method and mules have changed my life in profound ways that are hard to articulate. In learning to help my own mules and horses feel and perform their best, I have discovered something deeper in myself, that magnifies my appreciation for all equines.
Thank you, Jim Masterson, for creating a way that helps us humans to help improve performance, communication and relationship with horses, mules and donkeys. I am truly grateful for your brilliance and willingness to share your methods with the world!
All Equines Bodywork, Owner
The Masterson Method® Certified Practitioner, Instructor, Coach, Mentor
Bishop Mule Days Celebration Clinician and Competitor
American Mule Association Board Member
Professional Backcountry Guide and Packer