Long term followers of this blog will know that I walk Marty, a lot. We initially went out walking because he wasn’t backed, and I believe that all young or inexperienced equines should be taken out in hand to introduce them to the wider world (if I can’t lead him, why would I ever want to ride him?). Then we walked because it didn’t look like Marty would ever be backed, and I was looking for a way to enjoy my favourite thing – hacking – without actually being in the saddle.
More recently, we’ve walked because the 2017 International Pack Animal Meeting in Austria left me with a renewed sense of purpose and I relished the idea of being “allowed” to go hiking with my mule … if only I could afford a pack saddle to complete the picture. Our impending move has also made me very aware of how little time I have left to enjoy this area; I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever live in such a stunning, equine-friendly location again, and I want to take every opportunity I can to explore it. I am still discovering trails I haven’t been down yet.
Our friend Elaine, who is the genius behind the incredible Listening To The Horse movie (among many, many other accolades), put a post up on the LthH Facebook page last week where she quoted Philip Nye as saying that people should walk a thousand miles on foot with their horse.
I was so thrilled to read this! It was just a little further confirmation that we’re doing the right things. I really wish I’d kept a count of all the miles Marty and I have covered over the years, as I’m fairly certain we must be pushing a thousand miles by now if not already surpassed it.
Marty’s Thursday Hike
We haven’t been out for a while due to the move, the magazine deadline, my working hours, and the weather, but I managed to get Marty out on Thursday (I would also have gone out on Friday, but by the time I’d finished work I couldn’t feel my fingers and, as I have Reynauds, I figured the smart thing to do was cycle home and warm up).
We did a sort of serpentine loop that took us alongside the motorway for a spell, up the long road that used to be the motorway but is now a quiet byway, across the vantage point track which does say “no horses” but I feel like we technically don’t count, and then down a track that was new to us. Marty had been eyeing it up the last time we passed that way so I’d promised him we’d come back and explore it.
Marty was fine really, considering that he hasn’t left the field for three weeks. We had one of those awkward situations where we merged onto a track slightly ahead of two walkers who’d come down an adjoining path; I kept going initially, but Marty was convinced they were going to kill him and wanted to rush away from them so we pulled over to let them pass. Then Marty was convinced they were carrying tasty treats, and wanted to rush after them instead. We did a lot of focus work.
He was acting sensibly again by the time we crested the vantage point, but just as we were about to head off Marty spotted Something – either down in the valley below, or possibly in the bracken-covered hillside beneath us. Whatever it was it blew his mind and unfortunately his brain didn’t come back until we had gone all the way home; I took him into the arena and did some work with him before returning him to his field.
I was a bit disappointed, because the last time we’d been out had been amazing, but when I thought about it I realised he hadn’t actually done anything other than be a little nervous at times. Although we had to have a few reminders, I never felt like we were in trouble at any point.
The funny thing was, I took Xato out next – just down to the yard and then for a little groundwork in the arena – and every time I looked over towards the field, the horses were grazing but Marty was always standing by the fence, eyes and ears glued on us as though he wanted to come back out again.
Here’s a small compilation of clips from Thursday’s walk. We were only out for an hour! I’d thought the route would take much longer than that.
Take note of the clip around the 1:20 mark, where Marty inexplicably decides that the centre of a hollowed out tree stump is an ideal place to rest his dainty forefoot while he stops to have a look around. I was deliberately allowing him to wander a bit here as we’d only just settled down from his fright on the vantage point, and I wanted to see what he would do if I let him take the lead and asked him to stop.
I make a point of leading from both sides and from different angles when we’re out – the videos are usually taken from behind his shoulder, as that gives more interesting footage I think, but I’m just as likely to lead from in front, level with where his saddle would be, with a hand on his butt, or from behind by his tail.
So what are the benefits of walking with your mule?
- It gives them confidence. Mules, like other equines, gain a lot of comfort from having their human on the ground with them. It’s why I have no qualms about getting off when riding if we encounter something that troubles Xato … mules like to see you go first, just to reassure themselves that they won’t get eaten! Confidence gained while out on a walk will often transfer to other areas of your mule’s life and to your relationship with them.
- It’s a great way to prepare them for ridden work. You can introduce your young or inexperienced mule to the kind of things they’ll see out on in the real world – by the time you start riding them, they will know all about cyclists and traffic and gates, and things will go much smoother for both of you.
- Setting a good pace provides meaning and focus. When I walk with Marty, we don’t dawdle. I am a naturally fast walker and Marty can keep pace with me easily; we might have the occasional rest break where I will allow him to snack (I’ve taught him an “eat” signal to help him differentiate between when he is and isn’t allowed to eat), but I don’t allow him to amble along plucking at the grass or the hedgerows. Some of you may think I’m a big ol’ meanie for this, but if he’s grabbing at foliage and constantly thinking about what to eat next, it means he’s not paying attention to me. Trainers often talk about the idea of giving purpose to your ride – imagining that you have to hustle down to the postbox because there’s a £5 note waiting for you that might blow away, that kind of thing. I like to play a game where I imagine that Marty and I are trail inspectors. We can’t slouch along, we have a job to do – got to make sure this trail is clear and get home again in a timely fashion!
- Mindfulness techniques put us in a mental space that all equines find comfortable. I find that walking with Marty puts me more “in the present” than any other task. I’m aware of our environment at all times – I have to be – and this means I’m thinking about what I can hear, smell, and see rather than thinking about my workload or my bank balance or that weird dream I had last night (what does it mean??). I’m thinking about what I can feel – is Marty putting a little weight on the line? Is it safe to ask him to cross this obstacle? Is Marty dropping his shoulder on me? If I expect him to pay attention to me, I have to pay attention to him!
- It’s physically good for them. Crossing different terrain is great for engaging the brain, but it’s also good for their body. Going up and down hills builds core strength and engages muscles, and if they’re unshod then it will help toughen those feet.