Deworming Rita the (still) Unapproachable Mule

Rita, the Unapproachable Mule that I’m working with in the Donkey Refuge is making progress! I still can’t approach her so close that I can touch her, but she comes pretty close to me now.

Husbandry skill: deworming

The herd she’s in (all donkeys, she’s the only mule) needed their deworming done. Rita hasn’t been dewormed in 6 years because there is NO WAY you can approach her.

They have tried everything and even tried to sedate her in the hope they could get her, touch her or approach her, but nothing worked…

When I started with positive reinforcement (May 2022), it was really hard. I had to learn Rita’s language (I never worked with a mule before and Rita was on top of that very, very traumatized. Still is!)

Anyway, two weeks ago the herd needed to be dewormed and Rita too.

The staff makes these ‘food balls’ with soaked pelleted and sweet food, in which most animal would eat their meds.

Not Rita!

We tried putting the dewormer in these magical balls because she did take them with her antibiotics last month when she got hurt!

Rita bit into the ball and spit it right out! Yak!

I thought, why risk damaging the trust by ‘tricking’ her into eating the dewormer paste?

Here comes Key to Success #1 for Trainers: Principles of Learning & Motivation!

Instead of tricking her, I made sure that every interaction with the food ball with dewormer was positively reinforced.

nstead of putting the dewormer in the inside, I asked the staff to put it on the outside… (Yes, they gave me a puzzled look)The Principle is, to train Rita to accept an aversive (with positive reinforcement and choice).

Choices in Training

I gave her choices: There was more to eat than just the ball with dewormer, she got treats (normal food pellets) in other food bowls and on mats.

The aim of deworming training was simply to teach her that the smell is OK. I put food around the edible “deworming ball”

t took a while for her to approach the deworming ball, since she was unpleasantly surprised before when she bit in one of them and got a (not so nice) surprise…🤮

Next step in the deworming training

Reinforcing her to touch the food ball. Again, deworming was on the outside of this edible ball. That took also a few training sessions to teach her to touch it consistently. Goal was to make the smell (and later taste, too) familiar and to associate it with good things happening.

Then I reinforced ‘using her lips to touch’ it and also reinforced pushing it with her chin against the rim of the food bowl and so she squeezed it. At the end of our training she finally ate part of the ball!

Training after that, she ate part of the dewormer food ball, again.

Last training she ate the whole ball, at the end of our 1-hour training. The training after that, she ate it again. All of it. It took her a whole hour again!

Today she choose the food bowl with the dewormer ball first! Which was interesting!! And gave hope! Within the first 15 minutes of our training she ate the ball! WIN! 

Each ball has just a few ml of dewormer on it, but this is such a promising start!

I hope to get her dewormed within the next 3 sessions. I’ll keep you posted!!

What are YOU working on?

I would love to hear from you! What are you working on with your horse right now? I would love to get to know you. Tell me about your horse and your clicker training in the comments!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc., founder of HippoLogic & HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy

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‘Rules’ vs ‘Principles’ in Horse Training (this might be eye-opening!)

When people learn to interact with horses it usually starts with riding lessons or they learn from a seasoned horse person. You’ll learn the ropes, which usually means the ‘rules’ of how things are done. Then one day, you discover that the rule doesn’t apply anymore… Why is that?

Why Rules Not Always Apply

Over the years you already might have learned some rules don’t work for you or the horses you work with. Why is that?

Why rules in horse training not always work

Because when you’re focused on the rule, you miss the principle behind the rule. That’s why it’s not working. Learn the Principle and you discover the Gold! That’s why I teach all my clients to base their training on Key Lesson #1 for Trainers: The Principle of Learning & Motivation.

It’s like Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day (rule), if you teach him how to fish (principle) he’ll never be hungry.

What’s the Principle behind the Rule?

That’s what I’ve been working on the past 3 decades and that’s why I can lead others to success in horse training. I don’t work with rules, I teach clients principles. They are way more worth, because it sets them up for life!

Examples of Rules that Not Always Work

These are rules that apply to some or maybe even most horses, not to all horses!

1. Horses will work for carrots.

My horse Kyra was born in a nature reserve and foals learn to eat what moms and other herd members eat. In nature horses don’t feed on carrots because they don’t grow in their habitat! Kyra literally had to learn to eat carrots, apples and man-made treats. Foals who are born at a barn have already learned that what people feed you is edible.

So what would be a principle behind this rule? The principle is that the receiver determines the reward (read: appetitive).

Some horses like to work for carrots, others prefer grain, grass pellets or something else. As trainer you have to figure out what motivates your horse.

You know that not all horses can’t be lured out of the pasture with a carrot. The carrot is simply not appetitive enough in those cases. More principles could be at work why the horse won’t come and how to determine that, is a whole other topic.

Still people are asking on the Internet: ‘What treats are best for in clicker training?’ The answer is… it depends on the horse and the situation. Appetitives can change in value.

If clicker training doesn’t work, it’s because people don’t apply the Key principles of Learning and Motivation, they try to apply ‘rules’ ~ HippoLogic

The rule people hear is:

2. “Pressure-release will make the horse do what I want”.

Look at people that have trouble loading their horse into a trailer. They apply pressure, they apply release and still the horse is outside the trailer.

In training it’s about the timing (learning happens when the aversive stimulus is released) and also about the strength and direction of the aversive (if the trailer is more aversive than the applied pressure, the horse won’t go in) or if an appetitive stimulus outside the trailer is stronger than the applied pressure the horse won’t go in. It’s about how the learner experience the aversive stimulus.

When I started to figure out the principles at work behind every rule in horse training things changed quickly. My clients got better results and problems were solved quicker and with less struggle.

3. Heels down, hands low, back straight, chin up!

This is what I was taught in riding lessons for many, many years. It didn’t make me a good rider at all. These are rules, the principle behind it (that they never taught me in the riding school), is to sit in balance.

When I took Centered Riding lessons I learned how to sit in balance. I learned that balance starts at the position of my pelvis: tipping it slightly forward it created a hollow back, legs that went backwards, heels went up and hands that were moving very much in order to keep my balance.

When I had my pelvis slightly tipped backwards, I rode with a curved back, my legs were in chair seat (before my point of gravity) and my chin was down.

Only if I kept my pelvis in ‘neutral’ (this is where your balance starts!) I was able to keep my legs in the right position, my back straight and could move with my horse instead of being before or behind my horse’s movement.

Only when I keep my pelvis in ‘neutral’ I can move with my horse. I am balanced, my hands can become soft because I move them in the rhythm of the movement of my horse’s head instead of my own body. My legs become still (in relation to the horse flank movements) because I don’t need to squeeze them in order to keep my balance. I became confident because I felt safe! That’s when I became a good rider.

Now you can see why these rules started: heads up, back straight and so on. They want to solve the symptoms of an unbalanced rider. Unfortunately they don’t work (how many times have you heard them!?) because they don’t solve the problem (balance). The principle of riding does: where does balance in a rider start? Right, in the pelvis! And that’s why it’s called ‘centered’ riding.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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