Rural Heritage Mule Paddock

Making and Unmaking the Balky Mule
by Sophia Sarember

We use our equines for work and pleasure—to plow a field, to move a load, and to transport us. Good training always encourages the equine to move freely forward—anything less is the antithesis of horsemanship.

Balky mules are made, not born. If your mule has this habit you will have to retrain him, perhaps starting over from the beginning. If you are breaking in a young mule you must be tactful and careful not to teach him anything wrong.

Balkiness may be expressed in varying degrees: Lack of enthusiasm for work or a sluggish way of going; hesitation to leave the barn or herd mates; jumping into the collar and then stopping; refusal to go forward at all; and rearing. Causes vary. Most balkiness is rooted in improper initial training, poor handling, fear, pain, or ill-fitting tack.

All harness and equipment must fit correctly and be inspected regularly. Mules may be soft from lack of work in early spring or fit and hard in the fall, resulting from a long summer of work. Since their bodies can change seasonally you must make adjustments to maintain correct fit of harness, especially of collars. Check your mule's shoulders frequently for tenderness, hair loss, excessive or unusual heat, swelling or puffiness, and sores.

Examine any other place on his body coming into contact with harness. Keep collars and harness clean. Collar pads must not be lumpy or uneven and must be clean and free from debris. Hames must be of the right size for the collar and well fitted, traces of the right length, shafts the right width and length, carts properly balanced, and so forth.

Take into consideration the general health and well being of your balky mule. Perhaps he has a stone bruise or his shoes have been improperly set, causing pain in his feet. It is up to you to learn what is a proper trimming and shoeing job—not just to discharge unfit farriers, but more important to retain, reward and appreciate a good one.

Your mule must be properly nourished and well groomed. He must be conditioned gradually with slow, easy work. Improve his fitness with work increased by degree over time—just as you would for yourself. If your mule is once forced to work when he is in pain, he may develop a fear of pain when presented with a similar situation. You will have to gently insist that he go on, but be sure you have eradicated the source of initial pain or he will never again trust your judgement in such matters.

Mules are often taught to be balky by being forced to pull loads too heavy for their level of training or fitness. If you are starting a young mule or retraining a spoiled one, begin with the lightest possible load. Build up the animal's confidence by expressing your pleasure in its efforts, even if it has merely skidded a tree branch you could have easily carried yourself.

When I started teaching Stanley to skid logs I began with an empty cloth feed sack, then used one with a small flake of hay in it. The load was light indeed, but I was teaching him to pull, not testing his strength. Later we worked up to small (trimmed) tree branches, then fence posts, and so on.

These first steps must be taken quite seriously. Never progress more quickly that your mule can absorb his lessons. A slow beginning in training will produce the best results in the end. By teaching your mule to pull this small load deliberately with steady even steps, and be obedient to voice commands, you lay the groundwork for consistent and safe pulling when loads are heavier.

I like to introduce a mule early to the concept of a job. Once Stanley was doing well with skidding the feed sack, he learned that branches were to be picked up in the fields and brought home to the woodpile. Mules seem to relish the thought they have some kind of importance. Encourage this attitude by introducing your mule to simple tasks about the farm as soon as you can. At the same time, take care to never overwork your mule to the point of exhaustion or make his day drudgery. Donkeys and mules are so personable and willing that they really do enjoy their work. Those that become sluggish and loathsome of your company have been given a reason.

Asking a mule to pull too much weight too soon—whether it is pulling or backing up—spoils the mule. If your mule balks at the request to back a wagon, you may have to engage in some retraining by hitching him to a light cart. Ask the mule to back up while you stand by his side. If he hesitates you may need more patience. He may be unsure of the feel of the brichen and the weight of the cart as he backs up.

When he backs up up successfully, reward him. Then stand next to your cart (don't get in yet) and ask him to back up. Repeat the process until he will back up while you stand by the cart. Next place weights in the cart before asking for a rein-back. Start with a 10-pound weight (such as a sack of flour) and gradually add more weight in each successive training session. Do this work on easy ground, not in loose footing.

Once your weights are getting close to your own body weight you can get into the cart and ask him to back up. If a mule has been badly spoiled in this particular request you may need a lot of time for retraining. Do take your time and your mule may be encouraged to trust you again. This training may require several weeks. Whenever you have difficulties, always return to a simpler exercise until you have success. Remain calm and consistent; your mule will learn more quickly from kind and patient training.

It's a good idea to train your mule to work single, as well as with his teammate. Mules are conscious about what and who is around them and the way that work is done. If a mule is not taught to work alone he may have no idea it is possible and will refuse the simplest request unless he has a mate. This attitude ties in closely with being herd bound or barn sour. I believe mules must be taught early in training that they have to leave the company of their friends for lessons.

At first take your mule only a short distance from his friends and do some training where he can see them, and vice versa. Increase the distance away from his herd mates over time (but still within sight), until he is completely relaxed with the procedure. In subsequent lessons take him for a walk, or ground drive him, out of sight and then return.

Later you can have him perform tasks that he already knows well—-away from the sight, sound, and smell of his friends. Do not ask for any unfamiliar request or teach a new lesson while he is learning to work away from home, as he may become unnerved. Gradually increase the distance and time work is done, never pushing your mule to his limits, which only causes alarm.

Each time you succeed in this exercise and return to the barn and his waiting herd mates, his confidence will build. Consequently, he will never think of balking and refusing to leave his mates.

Similarly, teach him to stand quietly while tied (and later to perform simple exercises) while a herd mate is being schooled nearby. Later, in the same methodical and gradual manner, he must learn to stand or work while his mate is being lead away, out of sight.

This method of training teaches your mule that his friends will always be safe at home waiting for his return from work and if they should leave they will, in the fullness of time, return. You must always arrange this to be so until your mule is well broke.

The first time I took my mule back to an empty barn, the look on his face was one of utter astonishment. Since he had been trained to wait for the return of his stable mate he remained well behaved, but training a mule to this point of trust takes great forbearance.

Never lose your temper and react wrongly by whipping or pulling at your mule when he balks. Doing so only adds to his fear, mistrust, and resistance. Whatever the degree of your mule's balkiness, simple and methodical retraining can help bring the animal back to willing usefulness. Through time and trust he will become a pleasure to work with, and you will both enjoy each other's company.


Sophia Sarember trains mules in Tijeras, New Mexico. This article appeared in The Evener 2001 issue of Rural Heritage.

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15 April 2012 last revision