I don’t have a Mule Tale ready for you this week, and as Marty as done very little of anything apart from look cute and get scratchies, I figured I’d use this space to bust a few myths.
Mule myth #1: Mules are stubborn
Ah yes, this is the one we hear the whole time. When someone learns that I have a mule, I can guarantee that they will mention this at some point. And why wouldn’t they? Everyone knows mules are stubborn! Right?
Actually, no. Mules are incredibly smart and have a high sense of self-preservation. If they don’t think something’s safe, they’re not going to risk it. This actually works out very well for us humans, because it usually means that a mule is going to take care of you, too.
One of my favourite quotes on this subject is a meme that’s often seen circulating on Facebook; it’s the one with a picture of a mule and the text: “Stubborn? You mean smarter than your training methods?”. People who badmouth mules or donkeys have often been outsmarted by them. Mules learn things very quickly, but this isn’t always an advantage as it sometimes means that they learn the things we don’t want them to. They will then be very offended when we try to tell them differently and it takes a long time to change a mule’s mind. This is why earning their trust is so important as it makes the process much easier.
Mule says no.
An example of this ‘stubborn’ attitude that I’ve encountered with Marty would be the time I tried to make him jump some logs on the edge of the common. The previous week I’d been walking him in the Punchbowl when we discovered that our path was completely blocked by a fallen tree. It was at an awkward angle and was about three feet above the ground, but I thought I could maybe get him to clamber up the steep bank and get pass the obstacle that way. Instead, Marty surprised me by carefully weighing his options and neatly popping over the log from a standstill. I thought this was brilliant and was desperate to recreate it, this time with Ben on hand to take pictures!
So the next weekend all three of us trooped down to the common where I’d already scouted out some fallen trees that would make excellent jumps. But Marty refused to go over them. When I wouldn’t let him walk to the lower end or avoid the obstacle altogether, he just stood there and looked at me balefully.
It was then that I understood: he’d jumped that tree in the Punchbowl because there was literally no other way to get past it. But out on the common? He could clearly see several easier options – step over the lower bits, or just walk around it! Why waste energy now when you might need it later?
This made a very big impression on me because it made me think about how easily Marty’s intelligence could have been mistaken for stubbornness, laziness or stupidity. How often have you heard people say things like that about their horses? Yet it was me who was being stupid, not Marty. I’ve tried to keep that in mind not only when working with Marty, but whenever I handle horses, too.
I’m laughing here because this was the exact instant that I realised I am an enormous idiot (and judging by Marty’s expression, he’s just had the same epiphany).