I was quite surprised when Marty let me catch him today, partly because I’ve adopted a sense of gloomy fatality about the whole thing, and partly because he didn’t notice me when I arrived. I’ve mentioned before that he used to be the first to see and greet me, and I’ve come to realise that he hasn’t just stopped paying attention – he is deliberately ignoring me.
All three had come over to stand by the gate by the time I reached the field, so I ducked in further up the fence line, came round behind them, said: “Come here, Marty!” and he only flipping did! Excuse my jubilation, but to have him choose to leave his fieldmates and approach me – with the halter clearly on view – is such a massive change from how its been for the last two months.
I had been umming and aahing about whether to risk our new catchability by taking him out for a walk. I could only manage a short one anyway, due to my back, and when I asked Ben he gave me the go ahead. After all, going out together was something mule and I both once enjoyed.
I have realised that I may have been treating Marty too much like a horse. This particularly applies to his recent tendency to stop dead and plant himself. My response to this used to be to keep the tension in the rope, give him a moment to release the pressure himself, and then if he still wouldn’t move I’d start upping my energy by swinging the tail of the rope until I’d eventually created the amount of energy it required to move him. But the reason mules plant themselves is because they are trying to assess their situation. Whereas a horse is more likely to turn and run if it thinks there might be danger, a mule will stop and think about whether it needs to run or stand its ground. So by not allowing him enough time to think, and by upping and upping my energy, all I was doing was creating stress and making myself scarier than whatever had initially bothered him (which is no way to create a safe relationship).
So today, I determined to stay away from that completely. When he planted himself – which he did twice before we were able to leave the property – I just maintained the tension on the rope and waited. Both times, he released it himself and walked forward calmly.
Unfortunately, he was in a terrible state of anxiety once we left the yard. I had him walking calmly for the first few strides, but then he just became more and more wound up; forging ahead, stopping, bumping into me. I corrected all this and once he was walking nicely I turned him and headed back, this time with lots of deliberate stops to make sure he was listening to me. He began powerwalking once our gateway came into view, so I kept walking before turning round and bringing him back.
I then spent a little while just standing with him in the ‘outer’ yard – the area furthest from his field – because he found that area scary, too, and I wanted to work on his anxiety in a safer environment. I made a point of getting his attention on me every time he started looking around for things to stare fearfully at. At first, I had to do this by saying his name and then following up with a foot stamp or a slapped thigh, but soon enough I was able to regain his attention just by calmly saying “Marty”. A couple of times he turned round to face the wrong direction, and I was able to move him back into position simply by asking him to follow the feel of the rope. he tail-whipped me both times, but I didn’t mind so much because he only tail-whips if he’s feeling grumpy or hard done by – he won’t do it when he’s scared! So I knew I was making progress.
I was a little worried about this highly anxious outing ruining any future decisions about being caught, so I hand-grazed him for about ten minutes in the hopes that this would end the session on a good note for him and make his most recent halter-related memory a good one.
We had some pretty good liberty work once he was loose in the field, too; he comes to call, walks with me, stops when I stop, goes when I go, and I even got him to do two turns on the forehand. Now the latter weren’t exactly polished, but I was so ridiculously pleased with them: not so long ago, I would not have been able to channel my energy in such a way as to only step his hindquarters away from me. Had I tried it this time last week, he would almost certainly have just left completely. We are making progress again!