Marty’s had a little bit of a holiday for the past week, as unfortunately my back has been too sore to do much with him beyond his daily care (feed and scratchies are all that Martys need, anyway). He is being a very sweet mule at the moment, though. Just very friendly and curious and in my pocket. It’s nice!
The other day he had a big cut on his forehead, just below his forelock, and although he was happy for me to rub my hand over the area he got all affronted when I tried to examine it further, and wouldn’t put his head down low enough. I assumed he was embarrassed to have me fussing over him with his buddies looking on so, naturally, I adopted full-on baby talk.
“Awww, who’s mummy’s little soldier?” I cooed. “Have you got an ouchie boo-boo on your head? Mummy kiss it better.”
He pretended he hated it, but secretly he loved it. That mule loves attention. And it worked, because he stopped flailing his head around and lowered it so that I could inspect his attempted scalping and see that it was nothing to worry about after all. Of course, how he got it is another question, but I suspect that it has something to do with the blackthorn hedge and the decorative brambles that Cash was wearing, rather fetchingly, in his mane and tail. Boys are always up to no good.
After the saddle fiasco, I’ve decided to go right back to the beginning and work on getting him completely solid with having things flapped on, over, and around his back. Although I’ve done plenty of this before, I have been too nicey-nicey about it: Ben says I need to be more matter-of-fact in my approach. What we think has happened is that Marty has learned to tolerate ropes and blankets and saddles as long as they are carefully presented to him (with me anxiously asking, via body language, “Is this oki? Is this oki?”), but if anything is done clumsily – as will inevitably happen – then he can’t always handle it. So I’ve been casually flicking leadropes over his back whenever I handle him, and have begun to do the same with the nummnah.
Something I noticed during an arena session was that I could flick ropes or nummnahs over him while he was standing still, and then do the same with him walking around, and he would be fine; but then we’d take a break, and when I resumed the session he would flinch and we’d have to start over again. Ben suggested that I keep throwing the nummnah over Marty’s back, but not to stop until he’d made a physical change – in this case, I was to wait until he’d stopped swishing his tail. As soon as that happened, I stopped with the nummnah. When I started up again after a few minutes, he calmly accepted it – no flinching. It would seem that he is very, very good at soaking things up. With a horse, being able to walk them around while all this goes on would usually be a sign that they were oki with it, and I assumed the same was true of Marty. But as is always the case, that mule requires me to look, learn and try harder. This is not a bad thing!
I find desensitisation very difficult, because it’s a fine line between teaching the horse/mule to accept things or flooding them so that they turn inwards and shut down in order to deal with the trauma. You need to start in their comfort zone and then expand it – which I had failed to do. I’m very glad I have Ben to help me because I am not experienced enough to know the difference, although I am learning to read the signs of a shut-down animal. It’s quite scary how often a shut-down horse gets mistaken for a bombproof one! I suspect that what I’ve been reading as Marty ‘randomly’ reacting to stimuli is actually just him reaching his limit.
I got this mule a year ago with the intention of training him; I never realised that our roles would be reversed, and that it would be him who was training me.