Rural Heritage Village Smithy

What to Do When a Mule Kicks
by F. Thomas Breningstall

“What can I do about a mule that kicks?” asks Dan Lawson of Port Angeles, Washington. Dan's farrier recently came out to shoe Dan's horses and his mule. When the farrier lifted the mule's front foot, the mule kicked with the back foot on the same side, barely missing the farrier's head. “That kick was meant to kill,” says Dan. Needless to say, the farrier passed on the mule. “Not a whole lot of folks up this way know much about mules, so I'm hoping you can offer some help.”

Dan's farrier showed good sense in not working on an animal that kicks. The farrier is not responsible for training or breaking, which are up to the owner and should be done as soon as possible after the foal is born (see Foal Feet Care). If owners would imprint in their foals' minds that people are part of everyday life, then breaking and training grown horses and mules wouldn't be so dangerous. Always work carefully around an animal that tends to kick. Unless you know the animal's history, trying to figure out why it kicks is at best a guess. Horses and mules kick as a means of defense (to fend off) or as a means of offense (to attack). Either way, it's part of their inherited fight-or-flight instinct. When they kick they are:

  1. afraid,
  2. trying to defend themselves,
  3. just plain malicious,
  4. hurt and fighting the pain, or the possibility of pain,
  5. remembering a time when pain was inflicted (such as getting quicked by a nail, nippers, or knife).

The following suggestions on restraints and training aids are offered as information only. Please do not try any of this stuff without the assistance of a professional horse trainer or handler. You may ask your farrier to help, but only if he is fully informed, is capable, and is paid for his time.

When a horse or mule is afraid, the use of restraints may make it more afraid. If it is mean or angry, the use of restraints may make it more irate. And if it hurts, restraints may make it afraid and angry. If you have tried restraints and still can't trim or shoe the animal, ask your veterinarian for a pharmacological aid.

Drugs. The safest way to trim or shoe a kicker is to have your veterinarian in attendance to administer medication to help the animal overcome its phobia. The type of drug used is between you and the veterinarian. But remember, drugs are not training aids. The horse or mule you drug will not learn well under the influence.

Twitch. A twitch is a loop of rope or chain on the end of a long handle. The loop is placed over the mule's upper lip or nose and then twisted to create pressure on the nose. The twitch can also be put on the base of an ear. Either way, its effect is to calm the animal while the twitch is in place.

Stud Chain. A stud chain or lead chain is a chain with a clasp on one end and rope on the other. Cotton rope is best, as it will not burn your hands as nylon rope will. Put the chain through the left lower ring on the halter, then bring it over the bridge of the nose, and attach the clasp to the lower ring on the right side of the halter. If the animal acts up, a quick jerk on the lead rope will sometimes change its ill ways. This chain can also be placed under the upper lip, over the gums. Give a quick snap only when he acts up.

Hobbles. Scotch hobbles and side lines can be used to tie up legs or to hobble the legs together, but should be employed only by people with the skills to use them. We don't want to injure the animal, just trim his feet.

Stocks. Some farriers use stocks to restrain the animal for trimming and shoeing. [You'll find more on stocks in the Spring 1997 issue of Rural Heritage.]

Desensitizing. The best way to train a mule or horse not to kick is desensitizing the animal to the fear stimulus by getting him so used to it that he no longer takes notice. Desensitizing takes time, skill, and sometimes (at least initially) drugs.

In the long run, the skills of a good trainer can be of great help. I can't stress strongly enough the idea that you should not try to break a kicker by yourself.

Not to disappoint you, but some horses and mules are just plain nuts. They have a total inability to control their rational processes. In such a case, euthanasia is the only safe way to stop a kicker from hurting or killing someone. I have been kicked, and kicked at, by normally calm horses that had been startled by me or by audio, visual, or physical stimuli over which I had no control—everything from thunder and lightning, gunfire, wind, rain, snow, kids playing, dogs barking, car horns, trucks rattling, horses running, and cats jumping.

You are never really safe when you work around mules or horses. So treat them as you would treat a bundle of dynamite with a short fuse that at any moment could blow up without warning. Always think safe and work safe around horses and mules.


F. Thomas Breningstalll is a full-time farrier living in Fowlerville, Michigan. His column “Hoof & Hammer” appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column was in Winter 1997 issue.

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31 October 2011 last revision