Xato and the Fall

Confidence is a funny thing. I haven’t ridden by myself since Xato bolted with me, back in March. This was a choice, initially, because it seems to me that whenever I do stuff without Ben around things go horribly wrong. It then, insidiously, became a thing I could not do. I didn’t even realise this was the case until last week, when I tried to get on and ride Xato in the arena and just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I hadn’t been able to do any weekday riding for a while as I had no one to ride with, and was desperate to get on board. “Just ride one lap around the arena,” I told myself, “just to say you’ve done it. That’s all.” But I couldn’t.

Riding in torrential rain on Saturday; no problem. Riding a circuit of the arena; uh-uh!

With this in mind, deciding to conflate my first solo ride since the bolt with mine and Xato’s first solo hack probably seems like a pretty weird thing to do. But the thing was, when I thought about riding out I felt confident – I like riding out. It’s exciting. It’s enjoyable. It’s my comfort zone in a way that arena riding isn’t. There’s no reasonable explanation for this and it doesn’t make an ounce of sense, but I knew that starting from a confident place meant that the first barrier was over with: if I feel confident, my mule will too. I am terrible at coming up with plans in the arena, but riding out gives me goals to mould and attain; and having goals means that Xato feels like he has a purpose, too, which is another confidence booster.

“Ah,” said my over-active imagination, “but what if he bolts? Eh? Eh??”

I confess, that nearly got me. But then I squared myself up and retorted: “What if he does? I have more tools now. We have put in the work. My response would be the same if we were on our own as it would be if we were in company. If I was really worried about him bolting and not being able to stop, then I shouldn’t be riding him out at all; there’s no difference.”

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5 Facts About Mules That You Might Not Know

1. Mules are intelligent, not stubborn.

Ah yes, the big one! Mules have unfairly earned the description of “stubborn” due to their high intelligence and strong sense of self-preservation. If a mule does not think that what you are asking them to do is safe, then they will not do it. This creates some interesting challenges for the mule owner, who has to get creative and learn how to work with the mule in order to attain the desired goals. Because of this, mules are something of a specialist subject and – although the rewards are great – they are not suited to everyone; just because someone has years of experience with horses does not necessarily mean they will get along with mules.

2. Mules smell different.

A mule’s scent is not like a horse’s or donkey’s; it is like a mule’s. This can be quite baffling to some horses who can’t quite figure out what this creature is, and I believe it plays a large part in why some horses are frightened of mules. Smell is so important to horses that a foal whose nostrils have been coated with something pungent may be so confused that they actually go to the wrong mare – so I can imagine how bewildering it must be to be confronted with something that looks horse-shape, but doesn’t smell like how they expect a horse to smell!

3. Ear and tail language in mules isn’t the same as it is in horses.

With horses, we’re all taught that a swishing tail means the horse is getting irritable, that ears back mean you’re probably going to get kicked, and if they reverse towards you then watch out! However, mules are slightly different. As with anything, this all depends on context – be aware of what the rest of the mule is doing before making any conclusions and, if you’re not sure, err on the side of caution – but things that might seem negative in a horse are not always so in a mule. For example, a mule may approach someone they like with their ears turned slightly backwards; this isn’t annoyance, but rather a form of “begging”. Mules are extremely affectionate animals and this often means they just want some love! A mobile tail usually means that the mule is thinking, and reversing towards you is generally their way of asking for butt scratchies … mules love butt scratchies. They are also not shy about using their tail to deliver a good smack against their handler when displeased; this can be a warning that means “I will kick you next time”, but it can also mean “You stopped doing that thing I liked, this is what I think of you”. The best way to tell  what your mule is thinking is to just spend time with them and learn how they express themselves.

4. Mules were once the choice mount for the nobility, the clergy, and even royalty.

Mules – particularly white mules – were often reserved for VIPs in medieval Europe. Queen Elizabeth I travelled to her coronation in a mule-drawn carriage, Cosimo de’ Medici rode a brown mule, Cardinal Wolsey rode a mule decorated with gold trappings, and the Pope himself used to ride a white mule (nowadays he has a slightly more modern kind of mule).  Three and a half thousand years ago, the Hittites considered a good mule to be three times more valuable than a chariot horse, and in ancient Ethiopia the mule was held as the most high status of all the animals. King David rode a mule, as at that time they were strictly reserved for royalty; and the Prophet Mohammad had a beloved white molly named Duldul.

5. Mules have a longer lifespan than horses.

Mules are slow to mature, both physically and mentally. However, they can easily live until their forties and a working mule in its thirties is not uncommon. Whereas we might be wary of buying a 20-year-old horse, a mule of the same age will – providing it is healthy and has been well-treated in its life – give you many more years of enjoyment under saddle or in harness. Due to this slow maturity and extensive lifespan I get pretty damn irritated when I see trainers and mule owners backing 2-year-olds, but that’s a rant for another day.

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Vlogs: week 1 and 2

Oh right, so I recently decided to start vlogging. The topic was raised in a business group I’m part of, and it was explained how Facebook prioritises video, how vlogging adds a personal element that people appreciate, and so on. I couldn’t really figure out how I might use this for the magazine, but it occurred to me that it might be a fun element to add to Mulography. And by fun I mean horribly cringe-worthy I hate talking to camera I don’t even like watching most face-to-camera stuff because the fact that someone is looking at me even though they aren’t makes me terribly uncomfortable … but yeh, other than that it’s fun. And if I didn’t like challenging myself and / or suffering, I wouldn’t have mules, would I?

Anyway, I forgot to post the first vlog on here so here is a two-for-one. Check out the vlog tag for more.

Posted in herdlife, marty mule, mulish escapades, riding, things that are scary, track system, trail rides, video, vlog, walking the mule, xato mule | Leave a comment

Team Half-Ass and the Second Agility Playday

A couple of weekends ago, our Friends From Down The Lane invited us over to have a go on their agility set-up. I roped Ben in as well so that I could bring both mules – agility is a fabulous thing to do with any equine no matter their discipline, and I was keen to do more of it with Xato now that we’re riding out. Although he’s a pretty unflappable guy, it doesn’t hurt to introduce new things in a controlled environment from time to time. I took Marty just because it was an excuse to take him out and do things with him.

Back in November, we had an agility play day with Sue Gardner who came along with a bunch of equipment and walked us through how to approach the various obstacles. We haven’t done any since as I am terribly unorganised / have been broke all year and haven’t bought any equipment of our own.

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Marty and the Milestone

Alright, get ready for a big photo spam because Marty just reached a milestone – a proper one this time, not a “oh wow my mule just managed to eat a carrot without comparing me to Hitler” kind of a milestone. An honest-to-goodness, real life, We Have Officially Levelled Up milestone.

Yesterday, Ben and I got to the yard late in the evening and found that our fencing was down and all the members of our herd were gently revolving around the long grass like slightly deflated helium balloons. We blame Iris, whose massive vet bill plus her other massive vet bill are presented as proof of her fence-smashing ways, but later – when he thought he wasn’t getting enough attention – Xato did pull one of the fence posts out of the ground, stretch it back against the tape, and then fire it at us like a ballista bolt. So it could have been either one of them, to be honest.

I’m sorry to have cut off most of Cash’s whinny, because frankly it is an incredibly weird one and sounds good against the HAAAAAWWWW of Marty and the OoooOOOOooo of Xato; but here is a very little neigh-bray from Xato. I guess his belly was too full to do a proper one.

Anyway, after we’d got everyone back where they were supposed to be and had given them their entirely undeserved dinner, Marty lay down and had a roll. I’d been itching for another chance to approach him, so when he remained where he was I ducked under the fencing and sidled up. The last time he let me do this, I just moved in, gave him a treat, and backed off again; this time, I tried my luck by kneeling down and starting to rub on him.

I’m thrilled to say he let me do so! In fact I found a really good scratchy spot right away, so he decided I was an acceptable human and let me stay where I was.

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Posted in about us, herdlife, marty mule, mule whispering, mulish escapades, photos, video, xato mule | 1 Comment

Xato and the Punchbowl Expedition

For the past two weekends in a row, Ben and I have been enjoying exploring the Punchbowl with our respective steeds. I prefer the Punchbowl over the common at weekends, because it is a lot quieter – few horse riders venture in because there are a lot of gates and very few places to canter, and most walkers start from the cafe and hang around that area. So we often have the place to ourselves. The Punchbowl is one of my favourite places on earth so I like pretending it’s our own personal secret!

The Punchbowl has inspired others. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of my beloved Sherlock Holmes series, wrote the Hound of the Baskervilles while staying on the other side of the valley; and in this photo, we’re heading down to Punchbowl Farm which was the setting for Monica Edwards‘ eponymous series.

And it’s easy to see why it’s such an inspiring place, when you have views like this!

Or like this…

…Or like this!

Xato has quickly learnt what his job is; to carry me serenely around scenic places, and wait patiently while I get that perfect vista photo. I know some people might be shaking their heads and tutting at me for doing this, particularly with an inexperienced mount. But the way I see it, I’m teaching him his job: this is my thing, it’s why I love riding out. I enjoy experiencing the countryside from a unique perspective and I enjoy sharing my view with others – it’s also great to look back on in years to come, and relive a good ride. I am very aware of him and my environment at all times and wouldn’t film or photograph if I felt that there might be an issue.

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Mule Tales, Revisited: Buckshot

Back in April last year, I interviewed Joan about her 15.3 mule Buckshot and it quickly became one of my favourite Tales. Go check it out if you haven’t already, or if you want to refresh your memory! Buckshot is a trail-blazer extraordinaire who will face anything – even a mountain lion.

Since then, Joan and Buckshot have continued doing fantastic things and have even been joined by another mule, Tennessee. Lately, Joan says that she has been using her mules for the very reason we all ride mules – to keep us safe in challenging environments. She made a recent post to the Mule Girls group about how the last three weeks have been spent with friends, exploring newly re-opened trails in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Alpine Lakes Wilderness – an area that is only 40 miles east of downtown Seattle. She very kindly allowed me to reproduce her images and captions here! I hope you enjoy going on this virtual tour as much as I did. Over to Joan:

“During our three day trips to the area we made over 80 water crossings. Less than half of the crossings had bridges. There are steep mountain sides lining this valley so we had many beautiful mountain creeks dropping to the valley floor. You always heard water falling over rocks during the entire length of each ride.”

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Xato and the Joe Wolter Clinic, part two

Xato and the Joe Wolter clinic

Part Two: Leading, Leaving and Loops

So now I’ve told you all about our (mostly self-inflicted) lorry troubles, I guess I’d better crack on with writing about the clinic itself – which was totally worth any stress we had getting there and back! I’m so glad I committed and took Xato, because it was a real privilege to ride with someone like Joe and the clinic opened up a whole new kaleidoscope of ideas for me.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that this will not be a technical, in-depth review written by someone who has a clue; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that (perhaps our interview with Joe in the August issue of Horsemanship Magazine? Just, er, just dropping that in there … carry on…). As always, Mulography is just a place where I record my (mis)adventures and my thoughts on why things did or didn’t work. It isn’t meant as a training manual.

We look a little tense, huh? Thanks to Xanthe for this post’s photos, as Ben failed in his task as Team Half-Ass staff photographer and just took interesting notes instead. Tsk.

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Posted in clinics, half-ass mulemanship, mulish escapades, photos, the way mule thinks, things that are scary, xato mule | 2 Comments

Xato and the Adventurers

Facebook friends will have seen that Xato and I have been doing a lot of riding out lately, in the company of our fabulous friends Samantha and Fi and their Spanish mares, Edita and Chiquita. These ladies are pretty much unstoppable, and recently even rode through Hyde Park in central London – bitless! We really couldn’t ask for better escorts as we rebuild our confidence.

Iris is out of action at the moment after she went through a(nother) fence, so it’s been particularly good to still have someone to ride with.

Our first ride was last week, on Tuesday 13th at 6:30am! Sam and Fi tend to ride early to fit in the horses around work, and that suits me pretty well as the common is much quieter at that time. It’s almost as though people like staying in bed…

I had ridden Xato out into the Punchbowl on Sunday night in preparation, with Ben leading Cash Pony in hand. We did a fairly small loop but I loved being out, even though Xato took exception to a marker post/field of sheep at one point and did a little butt-tuck and scurry. He didn’t go far at all and pulled himself up within a couple of strides.

Xato and Cash bonding over a puddle, which both refused to walk through.

We have a lot of hollow ways round here. Hi vis is a must!

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Q&A with Team Half-Ass: part two

The second half of the questions sent in via Facebook! You can read the first half here.


6. How does caring for a mule differ to horses and donkeys?

I’ll have to answer this as a mules vs. horses question, because unfortunately I don’t have any firsthand experience caring for donkeys. I would definitely like to have my own total ass to go with my half-asses one day, though!

Generally, mule care doesn’t differ that much from horses. There are a few things to be aware of, however:

  • Feed/pasture: I treat my mules as though they’re laminitic, as sugar affects them more than horses. Prevention is better than cure!
  • Pain: on the one hand, mules are quite stoic and therefore not as likely to show pain from illness and injury; on the other hand, woe betide you if you try riding them with ill-fitting tack or ever accidentally pluck out a single belly hair while trimming their hooves … oh wait, maybe that’s just Marty.
  • Feet: mule feet differ between mules (for example, Marty’s hooves are very small and upright, whereas Xato’s are a little more horse-like) but they should all be trimmed as mule feet. I would absolutely recommend finding a farrier with donkey experience, or you can check this list for farriers/EPs with mule know-how.
  • Tack: some mules are blessed with whithers, but most are not. They are also wedge-shaped, i.e. narrower at the front, so it can be quite tricky fitting a saddle to them. There are mule-specific saddles available but it’s very hard to get hold of them in the UK! So shop around and find what style suits your mule best. Many people ride mules with a breastplate and britching/crupper even with correctly fitted saddles.
  • Fencing: mules are excellent escape artists; I’ve heard several stories of mules who would jump/climb out of their paddock, go off on a wander, and then climb/jump back in before their owner returned. This would go on for months before they were discovered. Electric fence seems to be the most highly-rated, and miraculously both of mine stay behind a single strand of chest-height tape (…as far as I know). Marty will jump out if left alone with Xato, however.
  • Temperament: mules are very smart, so they get bored easily; they need lots of stimulation by providing work, playmates, and field enrichment.

Basically, caring for a mule is a lot like training a mule: we must care for / train a mule the way a horse ought to be cared for / trained.

Footage from that one time when the field was cursed.  Marty’s attempts to bring Cash Pony to “safety” were pretty fascinating – not caught on video, unfortunately, but described in the linked post.

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Posted in about us, enrichment, feet, herdlife, marty mule, photos, saddling, the way mule thinks, things that are scary, track system, video, xato mule | Leave a comment