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Home > Imprint Training > Imprint Training Articles > Mules & Imprinting - By Bill Tennison

Mules & Imprinting - By Bill Tennison

Mules & Imprinting - By Bill Tennison
Mules & Imprinting - By Bill Tennison

Originally Published in Western Mule Magazine, March 2008


By Bill Tennison   


Some sixteen years ago I saw my first imprinted colt. It left a lasting impression on me.

    Having been around colts all my life I knew little about them. All I knew about colts was they were cute and you really didn’t want to bet on what color they would be when they grew up. Thirty years ago mule colts and horse colts were rarely touched until weaning age and handled minimally then until eighteen or twenty months of age in preparation for the saddle. Catching colts up at eighteen or twenty months of age and working with them on the ground for a few weeks or months was considered advanced colt starting considering how colts were stared just before that. I grew up on the tail end of the days when many colt’s first hands on contact by humans was the day they saw their first saddle, those being the days of saddle ’em up and let ’em buck. 

    My dad and I started several colts when I was a boy. At a very young age, with Dad on the lead on the ground or snubbed to another horse, I learned a horse could buck forward and suck backwards and get ya when you thought you were unbeatable. I later worked for my cousin, Dutch Snyder, who was a successful, professional horse trainer. I was hired on to start colts. At that time we did it different than most. The two year old was snubbed to another horse or was on a long lead being worked from the ground to help control the colt’s movement. Pulling the head around would take away the power from the hindquarters. Doing it this way normally eliminated the ride becoming too stormy and normally in a short time the colt would relax and settle. Little did we know it was called becoming desensitized to the saddle, rider and leg movement? All I knew was hang on it would get better. After the colt settled, something you could see and feel, I was on my own. Today that is done from the ground and you bet I think, NO, I know it to be a better way for the handler, rider and the mule or horse.

    While shaping certain desirable behaviors and attitudes in these colts I don’t really think my dad and Dutch came to this method of colt starting thinking this might be a better way for the horse as much as a better way to keep their eighty pound, ten year old cowboy safe. 

    My dad and Dutch Snyder were very much from the school of saddle ’em up and let ’em buck. When I did get into a storm on occasion they always had a grin on their faces like a kid in a paw paw patch whether I was in or out of the saddle.

    A lot has changed in the equine world in fifty years and how we handle the colt may be the biggest change of all. When Robert M. Miller came out with the concept of imprinting the newborn foal I was very accepting of it. Not because I knew a thing about imprinting but because prior to hearing of imprinting foals I had been practicing a new concept in dog training. Yes, I’ve trained dogs also, retrievers and bird dogs.

    The new concept in dogs and their training back in the late 70’s was to take a forty nine day old pup out of the litter and the pup would take to you like momma. You were the Alpha. You exposed this pup to everything you could think of before he was twelve weeks old leaving him unafraid of what he would be exposed to for the rest of his life. Beginning the pups training when he understood his name, generally at nine weeks and by the age of fourteen to  sixteen weeks old you had a pup that would sit, stay and come on command and in six to nine months you had a dog that would walk at heel, stay until told to retrieve, stop and sit on a whistle and take hand signals left, right, back or in. All this dog was looking for, as a reward was to be with you, get a pet on the head and to be told how good a job he was doing. It worked. This worked for me so well that my dogs and I were asked to shoot four national television-hunting shows in the late 80’s. Hunting shows were something else that was new at that time.  The old school of dog training and I lived it, believed you shouldn’t begin training until the dog was nearing adulthood. I had trained lots of dogs with the old school method successfully but this was a far, far better way.

    When I witnessed my first imprinted foal it wasn’t just one foal it was six or eight mule foals all in on pasture. When the owner yelled for them from the other end of a twenty acre pasture they threw up their little heads and the one’s that were stretched out in the sun jumped up, all leaving their mothers and came running to greet the owner and the two new people in their pasture, Neta and me. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I sure didn’t understand what I was witnessing. But I was sold on imprinting then and there.

    I don’t raise mule colts but I certainly have had many in my possession that were imprinted. I like imprinted foals. They are so much easier to be around, trusting, easy to handle and train. Provided they were imprinted properly.

    I have seen two mules that were improperly imprinted in my life. I’m thankful I had that experience. For me it revealed the greatness of imprinting when done correctly. I truly feel you have to experience the negative of a training technique done wrong to fully appreciate the positives of a training method.

    I saw my first improperly imprinted mule approximately thirteen years ago as a two year old. This mule was anything but trusting and easy to handle. This is what I saw.

    A gentleman called to ask me who would be good to start a two-year-old mule colt that had been handled a lot and had been imprinted at birth. At that time there was a young girl fifteen or sixteen years old down the road about a mile from me by the name of Monica Erman (this was before she had received her certification as a John Lyons Certified Trainer).

    I had watched this young lady work with horses and mules for the past few years. She came to Missouri with some very well trained horses that did tricks, rode and handled great. She had trained them when she was very young while living in California. She was good and was becoming an even better trainer by the day. I had developed a great respect and love for this young lady and her ways and she was becoming like a daughter to me. There was something special about her. She was using ‘Natural Horsemanship’ and understood it. Monica had by then started a few horses and mules and had worked with several problem mules and horses. She had sent all those mules and horses home as trusting and willing equine and she was also sending home owners who understood more about their equine and why they had become problem equine, simply because she had taken the time to teach it to them.

    Monica had the patience of Job. I recommended Monica to this gentleman and without a doubt I knew she would do a fine job with the mule.

    The two year old soon arrived and I happened to spy Monica in the round pen with the mule one evening on my way home so I stopped in to check out the new client and how things were going. When I stepped up to the round pen this two-year-old mare mule was scared to death, she was trembling and her eyes showed it all. Asking Monica what was up with that? She simply replied, “You should have seen us getting her from the trailer to the stall.” Standing there watching Monica work with this mule for quite sometime, going through my head was, ‘This guy said he handle this mule quite a bit and he had imprinted her.’ I had never seen an imprinted mule act like this. When Monica touched her about anywhere she trembled.

    I stopped in on occasion to see how it was going. On about the tenth day Monica was now touching her without her taking flight but the mule was anything but comfortable with it, Monica as always was super positive. I don’t think I was.

    Somewhere around the thirteenth to the fifteenth day I saw the light bulb go off in this mules head. Which meant she was no longer trembling, this mule to me was acting a lot like a mule might be acting in a strange place with a strange handler on day one. The mule had just arrived at square one and now training could progress forward. The mule was trying to trust. That patience, that persistence and kindness that I so admired in this young lady was ever so present. She was gaining this mule’s trust. I saw it loud and clear.

    About week three the owner of this mule called me and was a little upset by the fact that Monica wasn’t riding this mule by now, she hadn’t even had a saddle on her yet and he felt she should have already had her on a trail ride or two. I explained the mule had problems and Monica was just now getting her to the point where the mule could stand to be touched.

    A week later Monica was putting the saddle on and this mule was accepting with still some apprehension but ten fold better than what I had seen three weeks before.

    I got a call from the owner toward the end of the thirty days. He was now very upset that Monica was no farther along than she was. I questioned him about how he imprinted this mule. “Yes she was,” was his reply, “I rubbed her all over her legs, her whole body when she was born, her ears, her head, all over. She was the first one I had ever imprinted,” he said. I asked how he handled her after that? “Very little until a few weeks before I brought her to Monica,” he said. He went on to say that he had worked her in the round pen, “She never did slow down,” he said.

    I had heard a new term weeks before this conversation, ‘Sensitizing’ I don’t know if I read it or if I’d had an actual conversation with Dr. Miller about it, none the less, sensitizing meant just the opposite of desensitizing. I suspected this is what had happened.

    Still upset, this fellow said, “There’s not anything wrong with that mule, if I had taken her to the Amish they would have put her in between two broke mules and they would have had her going by now.” Maybe he was right, but I believe it would have been after she had tore up a lot of harness and I believe the Amish community would still be talking about this mule that was so hard to handle. I also believe she would have been nothing more than a common mule or a complete idiot and this mule would have spent a lifetime trusting no one.

    Buy now I was getting a little up set myself. This fellow was obviously questioning my ability to choose a good trainer and this trainer I chose that he is so disappointed in is like a daughter to me. From this conversation and others it was obvious he couldn’t admit he might be the problem. I without hesitation told him what I would give him for his mule; he hesitated for a moment and came back with a ridiculously higher price. “I WON’T GIVE IT,” was my reply and hung the phone up.

    Two days later he called and asked me to send him a check for the amount of my offer. I wrote his check out and then I drove to Monica and handed her a check and asked her to ride MY MULE for another thirty days. I simply told her I bought the mule never explaining what had been happening on the phone. Only a couple of years ago did I tell Monica this story.

    To this day I have that mule in my barn. Remember me mentioning a mare mule in a resent article of ‘Them Mules’ (December 2007, “Mare Mule or Horse Mule?)? That mule acted a lot like a horse mule and she was the smartest mule I have ever owned. That mule is the mule I am writing about. She is now fifteen-years-old has packed elk out of the mountains and has been hauled to many places in the United States trail riding. I’ve ridden her, Neta has ridden her and now our grandchildren are learning to ride one her. Our grandson took his first Colorado mule trip riding this mule. Our oldest granddaughter has been riding her in parades, on trails and in shows since she was six years old. I wouldn’t let my grandchildren ride just anything that wasn’t safe. If someone comes and knows nothing about riding this is the mule we put them on. She will take care of them. She’s far from a common mule. She’s a great mule.

    Imprinting newborn foals is one of the greatest things that have come to the equine industry. But as with all training it can be done wrong, Dr. Miller explains perfectly how to imprint correctly in his book and on video. In this issue of Western Mule Magazine Dr. Miller explains the most common mistakes made when imprinting the newborn foal. (Please see page 16 and read it.) Colts that have been imprinted make the mule experience much more enjoyable for anyone, and for the mule, the human experience much more acceptable.   

    I got to see something the owner did not and many may not see in a lifetime. I saw a sensitized mule come to be a desensitized, trusting and a willing mule. I have enjoyed the result; my grandchildren are enjoying the results and you wouldn’t believe this mule had ever mistrusted anyone.

    I also got to see something else that has been important in learning about different training methods. ‘Natural Horsemanship’ methods were used on both mules to pull them out of a negative mindset. Intimidation would not have worked on either of these mules. How do I know? I lived in the days of intimidation and coercion as training methods, I used them and they worked. Just as I learned with dog training there’s a whole lot better way. As for equine, this ‘Natural Horsemanship’ is a far better way to do away with fear, resentment and distrust for any mule.


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