In September, Natalie and her mule, Mellie, will be embarking on a 200 mile trek to raise funds for the Lancashire Mill Museums. They are a great partnership and I look forward to seeing their progress!
All images are copyright © Natalie Rose.
1. Please introduce us to your mule!
Mellie is definitely a mare/molly but it’s up for debate whether she’s a hinny or mule and what the horse element of her is. She has spotty skin and mostly white hairs apart from a big black blob on her neck. I’m not sure about mule genetics so whether this spotting comes from a skewbald donkey or means a spotty pony parent I don’t know! She’s about 11hh and has had a varied life, going through a few homes and going to various shows as a lead rein animal but I would think she’s here for good now, unless I hit such hard times I can’t care for her properly. She and my daughter have a lot in common – they are both bossy divas – and they took to each other straightaway. Although Anne’s only 4 she says she’s determined to show and jump only Mellie and won’t consider the ponies! I also find Mellie’s antics very amusing and we seem to be buddies so even when she’s outgrown, she’ll stay and have adventures with me instead. I do filmwork with animals and various events, living history etc. and she will no doubt play a role there.
2. How did you meet her?
We met online. My first love are oxen (trained cattle) but unfortunately Britain has completely forgotten the vast role they played in our history and lavishes all its attention on equids instead. Oxen/cattle no longer have a right to roam due to post foot&mouth restrictions which show no sign of lifting. Rattling around your own farm gets dull, and I’ve always intended to do long distance travel with my animals so I had to return to equids after all. I knew from experience that I get on with donkeys very well, they have a very similar mentality to cattle, so I was always interested in how I would get on with mules. I followed Mellie’s progress via a forum and when the advert came up, I sat on my hands for a good 6mo, unsure of whether to take the plunge. Eventually though I realised that nobody was biting so maybe I should do something and Mellie seemed a good starter mule as she has done everything before.
My initial impressions weren’t great. It seemed mules were extremely fearful. Although she ‘behaved’ for handling, it was pretty clear we had no bond and she was difficult to catch and not comfortable walking out in hand, being nappy and a bit crazy. I really like all my animals to be on board with what I want to do – I like to go into their field and have them crowding round, keen to go and spend time with me. I also like to be able to leave them for weeks or months and be confident that will still immediately be ready to go, that we’re not relying on routine to stay on the straight and narrow. This is easy with my cattle, and I saw no reason it couldn’t be possible with mules as they are very intelligent too. So very gradually I learnt about mule psychology and priorities and turned to clicker training. One year on, Mellie is a changed animal. I think probably most mules need a period to bond with their owners before they will perform well, but Mellie is now up there with the cows, able to be caught reliably and easily any time and is relaxed and keen to go walkies. I now feel very confident that we could do filmsets and shows and Mellie will find it an enjoyable rather than stressful experience. She is certainly the most intelligent animal I’ve ever trained and treating her as I treat the cows – as more of an equal, taking her thoughts into account when deciding what we should do – has paid dividends.
3. Tell us about this adventure you’re going on:
Our first adventure is just a little icebreaker. 200miles might not seem it to some but I have every intention of trekking the length of Britain and making it over to to continent someday. I have to pace myself around motherhood, making money and running a farm, but I’ll get there eventually and one of the great things about mules is that they live for yonks; I could quite easily still have Mellie when I’m 60 so I don’t have to rush! But yeah, this one is 200miles down the Pennine Bridleway together, Mellie carrying the luggage. It won’t be easy for me though, the idea is to raise awareness and funds for the Lancashire Mill Museums which are threatened due to cuts. The industrial revolution’s always fascinated me and I grew up in Burnley so I’m keen to help. Thus, I’m doing the whole thing in millworker’s costume, including clogs and corset! Training has begun – I’ve been walking Mellie out in hand and building up the distances. She’s been sailing through to be honest and never wants to turn round and go home. She genuinely seems to love the change of scene so maybe I have more in common with mules than I at first thought and they are the ideal adventure partners, especially for frustrated ox people lol!
4. That sounds fantastic – you have my utmost respect for walking all that way in clogs and corset! Have you encountered any difficulties in the training process, or needed to alter original plans?
I would say that before I figured out the mule psychology it all felt uphill and I was dreading having to do this thing, that every step of the way would be difficult with Mellie and maybe I should just take one of the stupider but more compliant ponies instead! But since I finally got on the same page as Mellie we started tumbling down the other side of that hill and now it feels like plain sailing! I feel really confident we can make it!
I apologise if this sounds vague but I could probably write a thesis about what I’ve learnt on mules in the last year or so but I would say it’s all down to two basic things, one of which I really took on board after reading your blog with the women who achieve a lot with their mules in America, which is – stuff takes time with mules and the quicker you accept that the better. You’ll be extremely lucky if you buy a mule and start hacking it out and competing it within weeks. They need time to bond and they need time to assess danger, that’s a high priority for them. ANY form of pushing or rushing will result in a fight. Horses can usually be bluffed into just pushing past whatever’s bothering them, but that won’t fly with a mule! You need to acknowledge and respect their need to assess things. The second thing is clicker training, which I resisted for years but have finally wholeheartedly taken to! I don’t mind the concept of bribery at all – they do stuff for me, I do stuff for them. Few humans work without some kind of incentive, so why should animals? Positive reinforcement works with the animals’ biology and you find that along the way you naturally build up brownie points for yourself in their eyes, because you’re allowing them to choose to do things and dispensing stuff they want – that’s being a good friend to a mule (or any animal). I recommend anyone struggling with an animal finds a competent click trainer, because it’s very easy to get wrong if you don’t fully understand the concept which at best will slow you down and at worst train the wrong thing entirely.
Natalie and her trained ox, Ted. Obviously I had to request a picture!
5. No better teacher than a mule! Getting a little ahead of things here, but you mentioned a desire to do longer treks and to even go abroad in the future – would this be with Mellie, too? What are your hopes and dreams in this respect?
Yes I see Mellie as being involved. She is too small for me to ride but we could perhaps take a little cart and hook up some more pack mules to the back, or perhaps just a string of small pack mules. When I first got mules I didn’t think I’d continue with them, but like I say I’ve changed my mind and would actively seek mule partners! I’m a huge foodie, so our mission to Europe would mostly be to explore some wonderful French food, although the landscapes of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe are a big draw too! I should really fit in some more children though, so each mule might have a child sat on it – we’ll see! haha
6. I am loving this – a string of little pack mules going from one delicacy to the next is such a great image. For those who would like to sponsor you on your first grand adventure, how can they donate and where can they find further details of your walk? I’m sure people would love to follow your progress!
If you would like your mule to be featured here, or if you have a mule story that you would like to tell, then please contact me either via this blog, message me on my Mulography Facebook page, or email me at: herecirm (at) gmail.com. I would particularly like to hear from UK mule owners (purely because Mulography is about owning a mule in the UK), but am more than happy to take worldwide submissions!