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Human socializing a terrified mule

I am fairly new to horses but I work to feed and sometimes tack the horses and am pretty comfortable around them. We have a huge mule whose mom is a Clydesdale but who is terrified of everyone. He is free to a good home and I would absolutely love to train him and socialize him (with humans) but I don’t know where to start. Not even the ferrier could touch him. If anyone could give me advice on how to get him not to be terrified of me? I give him a treat every time I see him but he backs up afterwards and doesn’t let me go to his side. Thank you!

This is really something to be cautious with as person with what sounds like relatively little experience. I would advise getting this guy to a good groundwork trainer who can get him started with at least basic handling. You don’t mention who “we” is, so that depends on whether you have such authority. How old is the mule? He should also be gelded if old enough and not done already. Yes, they are functionally sterile but the hormones and behaviors are still there.


I will be very direct here and I do not mean anything offensive by it, but if you need to ask what to do with an animal of this type then he is not the one for you.

A person new to horses will not have the skills necessary to make a mule of this kind a good, SAFE citizen. Of course it can be done, but it requires someone who is very familiar with mules and/or horses and who already has training experience.

Mules are incredibly smart and they study you as you are studying them. Make a wrong move and you could put the training completely backwards, you could be injured, or the mule could be injured.

After my lecture I will answer your question, which was “how to get him not to be terrified of me.” In animals of this type we spend a lot of time simply doing chores around them, letting them be comfortable with us not demanding anything of them. When they are comfortable with us we then add in the interaction and instruction, bit by bit and piece by piece, tailoring our program to what the animal responds to. It’s our job to make this animal a good citizen so that our farrier and veterinarian feel safe and confident working on them.


If you don’t find someone where you are to help you, contact the BLM and ask who they have in your area that takes care of and starts feral horses.
They generally have contacts most any place, as they send horses to holding facilities and people adopt those horses, today they pay you $1000 to take one and they know who can help train them.

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Socializing a terrified mule is a huge undertaking, but anything you can do to lower his anxiety would help. I’ve worked with a few of them and they were all long term projects.

The good news is that if you can put enough time and handling into them they’ll come around, but we’re often talking years (sometimes decades) rather than months, and they may never socialize the same way a traumatized horse will.

That said, it can be a very rewarding project, and if you’re open to clicker training can be a safe and super fun project too, because so much of it can be done from the other side of the fence the same way they do in zoos. IOW, they teach the animals to come to them and allow themselves to be handled, rather than using approach and retreat, or round penning, or something like that.

One of our success stories is a small mule who came from an auction, then to a rescue, then to a series of clicker trainers (myself included) and eventually to someone who adopted her.

How old is this mule?


THIS!!! Also I would add if you are doing chores around him, as in anywhere where he can make physical contact with you at allll, please, for the love of God, allah, budha, your own head, body and safety, at the very least, wear a HELMET!!! He gets scared and one kick or wrong move is all it takes. Take it from the ones who have learned or know of people learning the hard way, wear it!!!

Now that my two cents and lecture mothering is done lol, be safe and thank you for caring about this guy!!!


I second the helmet, and a chest protector if you have or can borrow one. This mule is scared, and there’s a good reason that mules have a rep for kicking, as they will defend themselves (enough to escape) when they feel threatened. It can happen out of the blue, and they can be very quick and have a wide range with both fronts and hinds. They’ll also run right over you to escape, so wear a helmet and at least start with “protected contact”. IOW, get to know him and his probable reactions over the fence, before getting in his space.

If you’re looking for ideas there are lots of videos of trainers teaching zoo animals all kinds of behaviors through barriers. Clicker trainers have taught horses and mules to cooperate with hoof trimming and injections without ever going in with them, and once the mule will cooperate for shots then the vet can sedate for any further procedures until you can get him calm enough to be able to cooperate for them without sedation.

The reason for the helmet? I had one mule tied to the fence and she got scared, pulled back, pulled the fence post over and it knocked me in the head. Another time, another mule jumped over the gate to escape and bumped into me and slammed my head against the wall. And then I was trail riding my mule one time and he kept stopping and kicking at his belly, so like a dummy I got off to see if there was something under there. He kicked just as I bent over to look and his hind hoof got the visor of my helmet. Just a little closer and I would have gotten kicked in the head. I could go on (and on) but will just mention that I now put my helmet on when I leave the house and wear it for both ground work and riding.


I am no expert but I have had several mules. I have decades of experience raising and training my own horses and when it came to raising/ training my mules it was a whole new ballgame. They have to “think” about and process what you are doing with them every step of the way.

Patience is the key. They are extremely intelligent, have a self preservation mode like nothing else. Since you are not even experienced with horses I suggest you find a reputable, experienced mule person to take this youngster on.

That would give him the best chance at a useful, happy life. They remember everything no matter if it is a good thing or a bad thing. You need to be able to know when to go forward or back off in everything you do with him.


The reason I’d encourage you to take on this mule if you can, is because mules with these kinds of issues are a dime a dozen and this may be his best chance to have a decent life.

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Who owns this mule?

Growing up in the mountains, farming with horses and mules, we had 9 mules to 1 horse.

I have to say, mules, like horses, come with all kinds of temperament.
Many sweet and accommodating, some more aloof, a few rank by nature or if someone didn’t train them right or they had some bad experiences.
You have to be careful with the rank and watchy ones, just as you would with such horses.

I would have someone with experience evaluate this one individual for you and tell you how to proceed, before you try something on your own that may not be safe.

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Hey thank you for all the advice! I cannot take him anywhere because we don’t have enough money to get someone to train him, however how we got him is he was a working mule but was put out to pasture for unknown reasons to us. After a while the previous owners couldn’t keep him so they were going to euthanize him but instead good friends of mine (the owners of the ranch I board my horse at) took him in and feed him. We have little to no information on who he was before he came here because when they saved him the previous owner just dropped him off and left, so no clue on his age or if he was abused or anything. I am being very very careful around him wearing a helmet and only using kind words and no sudden movement or things he could perceive as scary or threatening. It’s been a few months(?) since I’ve started working with him and I’m able to get a rope around his neck and lead him around so I will keep going carefully with him but making progress. Thank you for all the suggestions!


We’ve had several like that. They know their jobs, but are just very wary of anyone or anything they’re not sure of.

The key is to get them into a routine, right from the way you hold the halter, how you walk up to them, how you put the halter on, how you lead them, tie them, saddle, harness, etc…

The best mule we ever had was picky about the way he was approached right up until the day he died (mid-30’s), but once the halter was on he knew his job and did it without a fuss. In fact, I’m pretty sure he was in his mid 20’s in this video and had been working pretty steadily since we bought him as a 4 year old: https://youtu.be/Jxh8FT7iGLQ

The tail swishing is because he’s nervous. He wants the treats, he knows what I want, but he’s also worried that I might do something scary (like move a little too fast or get a little too close a little too soon). :slight_smile:

It would have been helpful if you had said this in your OP. :yes:

Mules bond with their “person”. So it is going to take time and patience but he should (hopefully) come to see you in this role. It doesn’t sound like he needs training since he was used for a job in the past. If you are watchful and perceptive when handling him you will learn how he thinks.

Good luck.