The current issue of Horsemanship Magazine features an article and a cover photo from Lucy Chester (you may know her from her Instagram, @haflingeratliberty). I was put in touch with her as a potential contributor via Jenni Winter, who came and gave me some confidence coaching last year prior to Xato’s arrival. Everything is linked, you see! Anyway, I really enjoyed Lucy’s article and I liked what I saw when I looked through her Instagram and horsemanship website. She teaches in my area so I decided to book a lesson and learn some new things that could help me with my mules.
As we would be focusing on “trick” training, I was in two minds over which mule to pick: Marty is more motivated by that kind of thing, but his general nervousness means he’s not as up for new experiences as Xato is; and Xato loves doing anything with people, but he’s not as responsive as Marty. I could see this kind of work having benefits for both of them.
In the end, I chose Marty. I was ultimately glad of this, because – although he decided to introduce Lucy to true mule nature by planting a couple of times on the way to the arena, and although he decided he couldn’t trot when asked because a stranger was nearby and might DO SOMETHING to him – he was still the easier candidate for the exercises we did. I can improve my skill with him and then work on them with Xato.
We began by lapping the arena in walk, working on using energy to increase and decrease Marty’s speed; this is something I already do, but what was interesting is that Lucy had me engaging my core muscles and leaning forward to try and encourage Marty to lower his head and stretch. Although I was aware that they mirror us in regards to our energy and footfall, it had never really occurred to me that the rest of my body could have the same effect. Another reason for me to work on developing some actual core strength!
After abandoning the bog that is our arena and moving onto the hay field, we tried a different technique for back-up – asking “upwards” to encourage the mule to lift itself. I was very, very bad at this so please don’t view the above photo as the correct way to do it! It was particularly tricky as I couldn’t visualise what I needed to do exactly, and Lucy was unable to show me because Marty was suspicious of her and the movement involved having a hand and the rope up near his ears. You can see from the photo that he’s not happy with my hand being there, but he did at least allow me to try.
Mule owners will understand that this wasn’t a reflection on Lucy at all; mules have a tendency to prefer one person, and will always try harder for “their” person than they will for anyone else. Marty likes to take this to the extreme sometimes.
This exercise will obviously be a tricky one for Marty because of his concern about things near his ears and poll, but that’s all the more reason for me to use it as it may well help him.
We worked on forequarter and hindquarter turns, and then we moved up a gear.
I’ve trotted Marty by sending him out on a circle and by running side-by-side with him – all on line – but Lucy suggested that I try asking him to trot towards me. This is a precursor for liberty work and would also help with his confidence. Lucy says she also likes to do this because it means you can see their expression and how they’re feeling about the task. This was a really fun exercise and was another one that required core strength – not to physically pull him, but to influence him. I had to remember to let the rope play out and was surprised by the change in his expression when he felt invited, rather than pulled.
Another exercise we tried was the very basics of teaching a Spanish walk. Marty thought the schooling whip was obviously there to beat him (where does he get these ideas from? He’s never been hit by anything or anyone in his entire life), so we dispensed with that and focused on just using energy and pointing. I can’t say that I was very successful at this, either, but it was definitely fun to try.
It was only an hour’s lesson, but I came away with some great ideas to work on. A lot of the exercises are great for strengthening the equine’s body, as Lucy is passionate about healthy movement and has a background in classical dressage; so they’ll be really good to introduce to Xato as well. In fact, I was thrilled when – later that evening – I managed to get him to trot towards me while he was loose in the field! Getting Xato to trot at any point is always a struggle, but getting him to come towards me at liberty was really exciting.
As for Marty, Lucy complimented his sensitivity and flexibility and pointed out that he would make an amazing dressage mule. This isn’t the first time I’ve been told this, but it makes me happy every time someone else sees the potential hidden beneath that furry, neurotic outer layer of his. I’ve just got to keep working on improving myself first, and then maybe we can unlock it together.