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Social call with a Mule

I recently had a social call with a mule. She's a lovely little girl but very anxious and worried, particularly with people she doesn't know.

The first time I trimmed her hooves I worked very slowly and quietly and we managed to do a complete trim. Unfortunately the following week she had a vet visit to remove some sarcoids from her hind legs under sedation. When I went back to do her second hoof trim she allowed me to do her fronts but then suddenly went into double-barrelling and bucking mode when I started to run my hand down her hind legs.

She is my first mule client, although I have been trimming donkeys for a number of years. So it is very possible that I missed some smaller behavioural indications that trimming hinds was not permitted that day. But I certainly didn't see such a big reaction coming. It appears that she was probably still in some level of pain following the sarcoid removal and there would have been psychological associations with the vet visit as well. So plenty of justifiable reasons for the trigger stacking, particularly when she was already anxious about trimming in the first place.

We needed to go back a bit in shaping her hoof handling and, since on that occasion she then also wouldn't let her owner handle her hind feet, we decided to give her a break and for the owner then to spend a few days or perhaps even weeks re-shaping her from the beginning.

When you need to restart a shaping plan it is not a failure or sign of "everything going wrong". It is an opportunity to reinforce earlier learning and create a stronger foundation for the behaviour. This little mule is extremely lucky in that she has an owner who understands this.

So she is now at the stage where the owner can handle her feet again and introduce a rasp. With most horses I would normally be able to take over trimming again. But this still feels like a huge leap for her, hence the reason for my social call.

The "owner handling the hooves alone" is a very different behaviour from the "owner handling the hooves in my presence" and so this is the extra sort of shaping step that we are including. And as we don't want to rely purely on desensitisation, we are also including lots of loosely conditional treats to aid counter-conditioning.

So before I try to trim her feet again we will insert a few more of these social visits so she can engage in these behaviours with the owner but in my presence, have me start to interact a bit more and eventually build up to me handling her feet again.

Shaping steps like this often feel long-winded and nitpicky. But this is exactly what we sometimes need to do, ironically in order to save time in the long-term as you can avoid set-backs. I confess to taking shortcuts sometimes and doing "what I can get away with", albeit still shaping in small stages by conventional standards. But sometimes you meet that equine client who has no intention of letting you get away with any skipped steps and these are the equines who teach you the most.

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So what happened next? Was this just a one-off that I could use as an ego-boosting social-media update? Or did we follow through and lead to behavioural improvement?

I returned a few times to just be present with her and her donkey companions. I would feed them all carrots and make as much fuss of them all as they tolerate - which isn't very much but it is more about them sniffing me and receiving treats that are not conditional on any behaviour, all with a view to building good associations with me.

I think it was the second time that I started handling the donkey feet again, just picking out and "fiddling". While the donkeys weren't "problematic" to trim, they were still nervous and benefitted from some additional handling practice with a less familiar person. It also gave me an excuse to be there for longer, interacting and making noises with tools. The next session I handled the mule's front hooves. And then on about the 4th session I picked up her hinds as well.

All this gradual practice and shaping led to me being able to trim again. I still have to be careful when I trim her, particularly the hinds. She is incredibly sensitive and when she's had enough we need to respect that pretty much instantly. We still include lots of treats on a semi-conditional basis and all three of them are becoming more comfortable with my presence. Perhaps hardest for me is that the mule doesn't like to be touched - stroking and scratching horses is so second-nature to me that I have to really concentrate on not doing it to her! Not even running my hand down her leg to the hoof, just ensure she is expecting me and go straight for the hoof.

So the system of social calls has indeed worked extremely well for acclimatising them to me. And - in the interests of honesty - it has also helped me acclimatise to the mule. I freely admit to being a bit scared when I get double-barrelled - or hurt or nearly hurt in any other way - and I have been shaping myself as much as I have been shaping her in getting back under her. I am getting better at reading her tiny signs of having had enough and am relaxing a little more each time I see her.

Incidentally, for the sake of anyone reading this who thinks that this shaping lark is "money for old rope" and that I have been stringing the owner along, I didn't charge her for any of the social calls. They were only brief, they benefitted me, she lives near me anyhow so is convenient to visit at the end of a day's trimming and in this sort of situation I like to be true to my values without money getting in the way. Not that this owner would have queried anything as she is lovely, thoroughly understands shaping and has the animals' welfare truly at heart.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2019