I turned 32 on Monday (not 33. I spent the entire day thinking I’d turned 33 until Ben mentioned my actual age that evening; I thought he’d forgotten how old I was). Today I was ID’ed while buying a 15p alcoholic chocolate bar that I’d found in the clearance section of Sainsburys (my favourite part of the shop). I haven’t been ID’ed in years so that was a joyous occasion, particularly when the cashier expressed surprise over my age; I’m glad I hadn’t bought any My Little Pony toys for once else she might have doubted me further.
All in all, it was a good end to a birthday week that began last Saturday with a mules-only stroll on the common – a location which Xato hadn’t returned to since he bolted with me last autumn (at some point, I will actually get around to telling you that tale). Ben had ridden him up and down the lane several times but, on the one occasion we decided to go further, Xato was in an unusually silly mood and we decided not to overload him by introducing the common on top of everything else. At that point, our main concern was to convince him to stop being a prat and get him home again without any flying lessons and with him feeling alright about his experience.
Although I have been successfully riding Xato myself since returning from the Maultiertreffen, it seemed sensible to give Ben this ride and so I took Marty along on foot.
Marty did not want to be caught. His catching problems have resurfaced and I honestly don’t know why; the usual triggers have been absent, we haven’t changed anything as far as his food or environment is concerned, I haven’t been asking him to work harder or work less, he hasn’t had any recent medications. It’s a bit of a mystery at the moment. Once I have him he’s perfect, so I don’t think it’s pain related as the silliness goes away as soon as the halter’s on. Ben’s pragmatic response was to suggest that we just view Marty as a wild animal, and accept that sometimes we get to see a domesticated side. If you look at Marty in terms of “that’s really good – for a wild animal”, working with him feels a lot more optimistic.
Anyway, despite his reluctance, once we were out he really enjoyed himself. I explicitly told him that he was going to be Xato’s chaperone and had a Very Important Job to do, and this responsibility seemed to appeal to him.
Xato was very, very good. They both were; Xato ambled along like it was only yesterday when he was last on the common, and Marty performed his bodyguard role admirably.
On Sunday, Ben and I swapped mules and took them up to the Punchbowl. We packed Xato’s saddlebags with a very luxurious picnic lunch we’d bought from the posh farm shop and headed up to a place called the Temple of the Four Winds. This intriguingly named folly is now nothing more than a hexagonal stone platform with a stunning view across the Weald and on towards the North Downs, but it was once an elaborate lodge where Viscount Pirrie – a turn of the century Irish shipbuilder – would host dinner parties for his hunting friends.
After lunch, we took an exceedingly steep path (it soon became apparent why it was overgrown – I don’t suppose many people used it) up to Gibbet Hill, the second highest hill in Surrey. As you’ve probably deduced from the name, it was once the site of a gibbet from which the area’s many highwaymen would be hung. Because I am a very morbid person I delighted in the juxtaposition of the hill’s grim past compared to its modern day use, which saw many happy families enjoying its views and picnicking in the sunshine.
I liked this ride a lot because we went down several paths I’d never been on before, many of which required a mule’s off-roading abilities. We covered six miles – the furthest I’ve ridden on my own mule for nearly a year!
I was also very pleased with Marty, as when we popped out of the gorse at the top of Gibbet Hill a small dog belonging to one of the picnickers lost its tiny mind and rushed him. As you may remember, we’ve had a lot of problems in the past with Marty being afraid of dogs; this time, however, he did a little spook and then stood there calmly, watching with mild “Can I stomp this?” interest while the dog’s owners tried unsuccessfully to get it under control. I realise that we surprised them by suddenly appearing out of the undergrowth and the dog’s initial reaction was, I think, understandable – but it constantly amazes me how many people let their dogs off-lead when they have no recall installed. It’s why I like to loudly announce that I am riding/leading a mule and, being a mule, he is very good at kicking. People make more of an effort then.
It was an enjoyable way to not turn 33. Many thanks to Ben for taking great photos and for walking the entire six miles … I do keep telling him that he needs to replace his agoraphobic mare with a good trail mule. He can’t have mine.