If you have a good grip on how animals learn, then you’ll be in a good position to understand how mules do it. There are some big differences between mules and horses which any trainer should keep in mind. Most mules are smarter and braver than most horses. They learn faster, and will usually be more willing to show you how to do their new tricks on the obstacle course. They are steadier on their feet, so are easier to convince to walk a narrow bridge or teeter totter. But despite these differences of degree, there are no differences between horses and mules in how they learn.

Our armament in teaching a mule is simple: they learn by observation, like all birds and mammals. And like all animals, they follow the same laws of reinforcement and punishment. They respond to positive reinforcement – receiving a pleasant stimulus – such getting a treat or praise. They respond to positive punishment – receiving an unpleasant stimulus – such as getting a yank on the bit. They respond to negative reinforcement – removing an unpleasant stimulus – such as when you relax the reins. And they respond to negative punishment – taking away a pleasant stimulus – such as what happens when you stop grooming to answer your cell phone. This sounds complicated, but it isn’t: “positive” means adding, “negative” means removing, “reinforcement” is anything that increases the probability of a behavior that it follows, and punishment descreases that probability.

A key requirement in learning is that the reward or punishment must follow the behavior immediately. I’ve heard riders tell me “I give her a carrot when we get back to the barn, if she’s been good on the trail.” This rider is teaching her mule the value of getting back to the barn, not anything that happened on the trail. If you want to be effective as a teacher, cut the time between your mule’s behavior and your reward or punishment to seconds, to give your mule a better chance of figuring out what she did right or wrong.

Many trainers now use clickers to signal that a behavior is about to be rewarded, to bridge between the two. After a little practice, you’ll be able to make a click a lot faster than you can dig out a slice of carrot. Your mule will quickly learn that click means both “good job” and “carrot is on the way.”

Rewards and penalties are very different in how they shape learning. Very mild punishment seems quicker at changing behavior, and reward is better at maintaining behavior. For something like trailer loading, reward works much better than punishment. And if you’d like your mule to love you as a byproduct of your training, emphasize reward.

We often confuse motivation and learning. A mule that won’t load onto a trailer likely knows just how to do it, and also knows that it is the first step of something that is unpleasant. No need to get a trainer for the job, or a 2×4. A clean, cool trailer, with plenty of fresh hay and forage will help with loading (positive reinforcement). A quiet trailer will make the trip more pleasant (no positive punishment from the noise). Convince your mule that the trip will be enjoyable, and be sure you both have a good time at the destination. Be more patient if you must. You can do it.

“Latent learning” can happen between training sessions. If you teach something in a short session, you may find that your mule starts the next session more responsive than she ended the last one. You will get to your goal faster with several short sessions, spaced hours or days apart. At the same time, consider “mental fatigue” – your mule’s attention span may be much shorter than yours, and she may bore much more quickly. So keep your eye on the clock, and don’t stretch sessions past a point of success.

There are plenty of myths about mule learning. Some claim, for instance, that young mules “imprint”. Not so. Biologists are agreed that imprinting can occur in birds but does NOT occur in mammals of any sort. Of course, young mules are impressionable. At birth, they are full of oxytocin, and can fall in love with any other animal present. This is usually mom, who also happens to be full of oxytocin, and falls in love with junior. But if you can be present at birth and the first few days of junior’s life, and give junior a positive experience with you, you’ll do lasting good. Bullying junior will backfire, despite what some claim.

Learning can be fun. I find that teaching my mule provides an opportunity for me to have fun with her, and a chance to learn more about her and myself. Some of her tricks – such as come alongside when I’m ready to mount – are pretty handy to me. She scores plenty of sliced carrots and other treats as she learns, and I think enjoys showing her mastery of various tricky things. We both come out ahead.