She was beautiful. The most beautiful grey I’ve ever seen; dapples for miles and the color of steel sprinkled throughout her coat. I never knew a mule could look like that. Her owner was a guy from Cody; he wanted her to hunt and pack in the back country. Bell was about 15.2; the perfect size. He dropped her off and asked if I could get her broke in two weeks. Ummm...ok.
He said he’d already had her saddle broke, so getting on was all that was left. I still had no idea how to say ‘I can’t do that in that amount of time’. I was just taking whatever work I could get and made sure I worked hard to make it happen.
But, this time was different.
When he dropped her off, he left her halter on. I didn’t think anything of it. I was running through the schedule and making sure he understood my plan. Tim and I fed a little later that night so I could check on the new horses and mules that came in that month. Bell seemed to settle in just fine.
The next morning I came out to start working horses and mules and I always gravitated towards the new ones that I felt were the biggest challenge. Bell was first on the list. Could I get this mule started in two weeks?
Her paddock was a 12’x12’ shed with a run coming off of it that was about 20 feet long. There was plenty of space for Bell to move around, and I’d be working her 6 days a week. I went in and started walking up to her and she immediately darted to the far corner. Hmmm... I tried again; same result. I couldn’t get within 10 feet of her. My first thought, ‘so this is how we are going to start off’.
I noticed she had a little nubby lead rope tied hard to her halter. After about 20 minutes, yes 20, I was finally able to get close enough to her to grab the nubby. Wow, was this guy for real?
Session one in the round pen was much of the same. Thank god for round pens... I worked on moving her feet and was just trying to get her to trust me enough to just look at me.
The next few sessions, I didn’t even bother trying to catch her first. I just herded her into the round pen through a chute. By the end if the first week, I only had her looking at me and I was able to walk up to her a little more than half way before she would turn and take off. She was terrified. This is not normal behavior for a confident and well treated animal. It was going to take a lot to gain her trust.
The next two weeks, I worked on just that - trust. I’d move her feet methodically; inside turns, outside turns, turn and face, come to you cue. No response - push her forward and start again. Most of it was her standing and staring at me, me at her and me walking towards and away from her a million times until she trusted I wouldn’t hurt her. I would get frustrated because I thought I was being patient, but it was too fast for Bell. Day 2, 3, 4.... 10 - same thing, push her, back off, push harder, back off, go slower, back off... which was the right answer? I finally got her to trust me enough to put a lead rope on her, a real one. Then, the slightest movement and she’d take off, dragging me across the round pen. I went sand surfing a lot with Bell. One thing I quickly learned about mules, if they take off and you let go, they will keep trying to get away; you can never let go of a mule.
By the end of two weeks, I could catch her and lead her into and out if the round pen with no issues. It was time for the owner to see her progress.
He came to the farm and I went into Bell’s pen. I’d been putting her lead rope on very easily the last two or three days. The day her owner came, she took off. I was confused but just thought it was a minor set back, which can happen. I finally caught her, put her lead rope on and took her to the round pen. I was so happy with her progress thus far. I was sure to tell her owner how important gaining her trust was in order for her to be safely ridden. I worked her and she did great; calm and confident. I asked if he wanted to try what I had been doing. He went into the round pen... and I was shocked and saddened by what I saw. The instant he walked towards Bell and she heard his voice she bolted to the other side of the round pen and began trotting back and forth, trying to get away. Again, I immediately felt sadness. I asked him how he was able to get her saddled and bridled so easily... he said “oh she’s a pain in the ass. I just rope her and tie her up and throw her on the ground. I let her up after she is saddled”.
At that very moment, my mind was made up. I asked him if he really wanted her. He said he’d let her go for the right price. I asked how much, ran in the house and got a check. I bought her on the spot for $400. She never left my farm again. I couldn’t in good conscience let her go back to that. I finally realized she was bullied and treated so inhumainly that she had absolutely no trust in humans.
Now, I had all the time in the world to teach Bell to trust. All the time to teach her.... From the Ground Up.
In 2006, I was living in Parachute, CO studying to become a John Lyons Certified Trainer. From April to November, I was soaking up all that John and his son Josh could teach. There were eight of us at "Cert" during that time; Shantell, Carissa, Makayla, Wayne, Louis, Tim, Laura, and myself. Tim...Doud was a nice guy; I didn’t know much about him other than he was a mule trainer and outfitter from Cody, Wyoming. We were both at the certification program since April but didn’t talk much until August. I was pretty focused on learning this new trade.
One morning, we were all out to breakfast before class. I was totally surprised that a guy as gruff as he was an outfitter... “what kind of clothes do you make?”, I asked. Obviously, my naïveté had taken over and everyone laughed. I was east coast all the way, and the only English rider for miles. I quickly learned that Outfitters are big game (Elk, Moose, Big Horn Sheep, Black Bear) hunting and trail guides that take individuals and families on pack trips into the national forest and wilderness. I had no idea…Wilderness…was that the even possible?! Needless to say, we talked more and more after that. Almost every day. I was even able to go up to drive five hours up to Cody while we were on a two-week break from “Cert” to take one of those pack trips into the Washakie Wilderness. The Washakie boarders Yellowstone National Park, which covers the northwest corner of Wyoming and also crosses the continental divide. It’s was so breathtaking and very humbling; gorgeous scenery, beautiful blue skies every day, and lots and lots of… mules? Tim actually bred mules and did a lot of mule training. He also used mules to pack all of the equipment and guests up to base camp, which was 22 miles from the nearest road and 66 miles from the nearest hospital. I couldn’t even grasp this concept, until I saw it for myself.
The mules were the worker bees of the operation. They carried everything to base camp; food, tents, bed linens, the kitchen, the shower, extra tack, and so on. Tim would ride his lead mule Angel and pull a string of 10 mules behind him, all of which were tied nose to tail and packed with panniers full of supplies. These panniers were meticulously packed, weighed to the exactness of an ounce an paired with an equally weighted pannier, then mounted on a sawbuck saddle on the mule and tied with a diamond hitch so they would not fall off the mule during the 22 mile trek to base camp. Approximately 22 of these mules were pulled up to camp by four guides each week from August 1 to October 17 each year. The law in wilderness areas requires any visitors “leave no trace”. So, everything that is taken into he wilderness must be taken out. The mules typically logged 50 miles a week, 200 miles a month, and averaged 500 miles a season.
I was starting to see that mules were pretty amazing animals that I previously knew nothing about. I also learned how versatile mules are. Not only did Tim use a lot of mules in his outfitting business, but he also bred them. He initially bred mules for his outfitting business, but then refined his breeding program to also produced mules that were used for racing, dressage, and western disciplines such as pleasure and ranch work. They were beautiful, but ai I soon learned they are also smart and hard to train. Mistakes were disastrous because mules remember everything. And a nervous or scared mule will push your training abilities to the limit, whether you like it or not. The saying goes "a good mule is 10x better than a horse, and a bad mule is 10x worse than a horse". A lack of patience is a mule trainer’s demise. Are mules harder to train than horses… Yes!
After “cert” Tim and I kept in touch. Tim had a lot of work in Cody training mules. I had no work... In early 2007, I decided to join Tim in Wyoming to train some mules. I packed up my horses and drove across the country, planning to stay for just a few months and make a little money training mostly mules and honing my craft; but that timeline went out the window. I ended up staying for seven years, training mules and horses, helping run a mule breeding business, helping run an outfitting business and living in the Rodeo Capital of the World.
Little did I know, my education had just begun. I was about to be thrown into the fire and really learn how to become a professional trainer… From the Ground Up.
Soccer became my outlet; I loved it. I was very competitive and my ego was big. I always had to be the best and that was the challenge I needed to work hard. I went on to play in college and eventually professionally for two seasons for the Delaware Genies. I tried to forge a career in soccer by coaching a lot of college and youth teams, but it wasn't enough to survive financially.
While I coached, I took a few corporate jobs: sales, sports reporter, then a research analyst at McGraw-Hill; none were fulfilling. I wanted something else that would challenge me and give me the possibility of a career. Corporate America wasn't it.
In 2001, I had the urge to start working around horses again. I definitely missed it so, I looked in the yellow pages for horse farms in the area and found Mile View Farm in Doylestown, PA. I called and asked if they needed any help, even just cleaning stalls. I wasn't sure what would come of it, but it was something different. Hanne' bought Mile View just two years earlier; it was a fifty stall barn with horses everywhere. I was hired and was a horrible stall cleaner; I was told that for about two weeks, but I worked hard and that's what saved my job. A few months after starting, I began spending all my early mornings at the barn helping any way I could. It sucked me in pretty quickly. I didn't care how much I got paid, I just wanted to learn about all the things I never learned as a younger rider. How do horses interact? What was I doing when I rode? How do horses think? I became a sponge; probably an annoying one, actually. I asked a lot of questions and did anything and everything I could to learn more. I also started taking lessons again with a dressage trainer. I had no idea what dressage was, but I was so thrilled to be riding again. I was seen as the kid at the barn that might have a chance to get a horse one day, but I soon knew this was the only future I was going to have.
I learned a lot in two short years. In 2003, I bought a horse; a baby no less. I bought him off a video tape. Yep! Back then we didn't have Facebook or text message videos. I would tell anyone today that it was a bad idea. He was a "leftover" for $2,000; an 18 month old TB by Viscount bred to be a show hunter, not for the track. Jedi was his name. He became my world.
The first night he was at the barn, he rolled in a mud puddle. I went to the barn the next morning and was beside myself. Who dumped all this mud all over my horse. I couldn't believe someone would do that to a baby horse. I was clueless; I needed a lot of help to say the least.
I decided to hire a local trainer, JR Rosenburger, who was recommended to me because he was good with baby horses. He was John Lyons Certified; John Lyons is "America's Most Trusted Horseman". I had no idea who that was or what that meant. But, JR was good with baby horses and that's all that mattered. JR came out once a week to teach me how to handle Jedi. That's all I could afford at the time. So, there I was, immersed in whatever it was I was learning. Move this, bend that, give here, give there. It made no sense......until it did.
I practiced every day. I was once again a sponge; the more I learned, the more it made total sense. But I still knew nothing.
A few years had passed, Jedi was now under saddle and he had been to a few shows. It was the summer of 2005 and JR got hurt. A horse he was training threw a buck and JR was pushed into the horn of the western saddle and he fractured his pelvis. He asked me if I wanted to help him with a few clients until he was able to ride again. I said yes, of course. I only worked with a few of his clients, but those next few months gave me the confidence to take the leap. In 2006, I quit my corporate job and moved to Parachute, Colorado. I spent six months in Parachute and learned so much from John and Josh Lyons; how to train a horse, how to read a horse's body language, how to think like a horse, how to respect a horse, and a million ways to problem solve. But I wasn't done learning. I never am...it wasn't until years later that I actually figured out how to put it all together.
Fifteen years later, I get all types of horses in for training. Horses that aren't rideable, aren't trainable, aren't safe, horses that buck, that don't lunge properly, that don't load on the trailer, don't lead without taking off, don't pick up their feet for the farrier, are aggressive, refuse jumps, don't go forward under saddle, and so on.
What I've learned is that I don't know everything. I don't do anything special with them. I don't have any magic recipe. I just take my time and give them a chance to learn. I look at their eye and make sure they understand, I watch their ears to make sure they are listening to me, I watch their head to make sure they are lowering it with confidence, I watch their breath to make sure they exhale.
I hope you enjoy my blog. In future entries, I will talk about horses I have in training at my facility, previous examples of similar horses, experiences I've had with horses in the past and my life's adventures. I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to helping just one horse "from the ground up".
John Lyons Certified
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Jessica Forliano is a John Lyons Certified Trainer specializing in Problem horses / behavioral issues and starting young horses and ponies under saddle. Her passion shows through the accomplishments of each of horse or pony she works with as they reach their potential in the show ring.