Training the Runaway Mule with a Foot Rope

In the fall of 2015, I began training a 2-year-old Percheron mule named Pete. The plan was to not work him hard, but to bring him along. He would be ready for more steady work and an increasing load the next year. While I have started a few mules and horses, I don’t consider myself the world’s greatest trainer or anything like that. I usually enjoy the work and find I learn a lot with each animal.
ponies packing
Pete and Jesse getting ready to go out to do some winter logging.

Pete was a sensitive mule from his earliest days. He once jumped over the top of a round pen, just because someone entered. While he appeared super smart and inquisitive, he was also very sensitive to the slightest pressure. His basic nature is what led to my initial problems. He got away from me and a few other people, either while driving or leading, and, before you knew it, a pattern had formed.

He gradually improved and learned a few new things, but, just when you thought his habit of getting away was behind you, there he went again. Most of these events amounted to little more than a loose mule trotting back to the barn, but he also ran away and broke a pole on a forecart in one case, and, in another, he wrapped a doubletree around a tree. Not the ideal experiences for a young mule.

To make a long story short, I knew I needed to change something I was doing. Pete had established a pattern of “if you don’t like something, leave it behind,” and waiting for that to go away was not the answer, making it stop was.

When I was just a beginning teamster about 25 years ago, I had seen a running W attempted on a young mule hooked to a good sized Shire. A running W is supposed to make an animal fall on their face by pulling both front feet out from under them. In the case of the Shire and the mule, however, it did nothing of the sort. We either didn’t have it rigged right, or didn’t know how to operate it properly, or the 800-pound mule was just too fast and tough for us. My friend had assured me the running W would work, but it didn’t help at all.

Since then, I have not wanted to try anything that involved pulling feet out from under a running animal. Then I saw Walt Bernard of Work Horse Workshops in Oregon, post on Facebook about using the foot rope to lift one foot. This method that he had learned from Don Yerian of Montana fame involved picking up only one foot and allowing a horse to hop to a stop but not really go anywhere. These animals didn’t need to fall down to stop. Walt’s comments suggested this was just the trick for starting a green animal and especially one that you even suspected might have a run in them. Would it work for Pete, I wondered?

ponies packing
Five abreast on a forecart pulling and powering a hay baler in the summer of 2018. Pete is on the left.
The foot rope seemed to be a safe and effective way to control an animal’s energy, while still allowing them to stay engaged and continue to learn. Picking up one foot is also an advantage to the operator. With the running W, the hard part was always lifting the foot that was on the way down, which required a lot of speed and leverage. There is always at least one front foot coming up so, with a foot rope, all you needed to do was catch the foot while it is up and keep it up. Once an animal has settled for a moment, you can choose to “give” the foot back as soon as you want to.
packing fjord with pannier
Hooking up a foot rope to the harness.

All the pictures I saw of this "foot rope" being applied were to green horses in training that had not actually previously run away as Pete had. It was usually shown being operated by one person holding lines and also the foot rope. For our purposes with Pete, I expected to test this system so we started out with two people. While we did start out ground driving him this way, we had one incident where one person tripped and fell down, and he went back to the barn without us!

We quickly decided to get him hooked to a sled and started to use the foot rope to great effect. He hopped for more than 100 feet the first time he really tested it. It was easy to settle him and start again. Gaining power over him and his situation was the key to turning this around. While I put the foot rope on him every time I drove him for several months, there weren’t that many more times that we really needed to pull it. As with many aids and tools, he quickly identified it for what it was. You could actually shake the rope a little to tell him not to try running.

I quickly got him hooked to a forecart with the help of a couple of people and kept hooking him to the forecart for a good while. He was finally learning to accept this activity and work. Gradually, I got to the point where one person could hook him alone. Most of the time we were driving him as a team, Hooking up a foot rope to the harness. where  we were also using a butt rope to connect the two of them around the back. Usually I like to get rid of these aids as quickly as possible, but, for Pete, these little changes were all a big deal and took time. We used the butt rope for more than six months because it was easier to hook him up that way. Then one day I realized I didn’t need it anymore.

After success on the forecart, some barn cleaning and other work, I actually had to go back and do some things I would normally do first. Both driving him single and ground skidding logs required a brief reintroduction of the foot rope. With Pete, I knew better than to try something like that unprepared. In each case, it only took a few days before I could work without it, as his acceptance in each case came more quickly and easily.

ponies packing
Pete poses with his foot up in the air.
ponies packing
Holding the lines and foot rope while driving.

I think the last time I put the foot rope on him was the first time I hooked him to a mower. He might have made it without that aid, but we did stop him once by pulling on the rope. I think the foot rope worked great for introducing this piece of equipment to him. I had the foot rope taken off while I was still mowing, and he has been a mowing champ ever since.

I know there are many things I could have done differently in Pete’s initial training that would have had a different and better outcome. My style has always been to go out in a big field, try a few things and respond to what an animal tells me they can do. With Pete, I misread these signs on more than one occasion. I typically like to drive a horse with nothing and then drag something light and work my way up. For Pete, I would have been better off hooking to a cart or a sled sooner.

ponies packing
Holding the foot up with the addition of a pulley.
ponies packing
Holding the foot up with the addition of a pulley.
packing fjord with pannier
Donn Hewes illustration.

There are several things about using the foot rope that I really only appreciated after I had used it. One is the ease with which you can hold a horse’s foot. Another is that a horse can continue to think while you are using it. In training a horse to a foot rope the first time, you can simply pick up the foot while standing still. Finally, imagine you are driving a horse and you know it is close to taking off. You are forced to tighten up on the lines in order to try and manage or control what might be to come. With another person along and holding a foot rope, you are actually free to drive with the hands you want to have. This alone helps a horse stay loose, because you are.

Here are my final takeaways from using this tool. It is fast and easy to use. I used a pulley a few times, but it really works just fine with a large ring or carabiner attached to the harness. I would use it on any young horse just starting training if they were at all excited or nervous. I wouldn’t wait until after the animal ran to put it on the first time, if I could help it. If it is a nice, quiet animal, ground driving with the foot rope in one hand should work fine, but, if I had any doubts, I would use the foot rope with a sled or cart right from the beginning.

Pete has come a long way since the fall of 2016 when I first put the foot rope on him. For the last two years he has been mowing, raking, tedding and baling hay. This summer he advanced to some market garden cultivating and even got to move a big, scary chicken coop a few times. In the last six months, I have seen him just starting to relax at work. That is the real goal for any teamster or trainer, in my book. If you have comments or questions about this subject you can find me on the DAPNet discussion group on FB, or send me an email: rh house logo

Donn Hewes manages Northland Sheep Dairy with Maryrose Livingston in Marathon, N.Y. This article appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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