My theories about catching the mule have evolved over time.
I used to believe that, if I set out to catch him, I had to catch him – no matter how long that took. Until recently the longest I ever spent trying to catch him was around forty minutes, and that was quite out of the ordinary (I miss those days of having a catchable mule!). My theory was that if I tried to catch him and then gave up, all I was doing was making it harder for myself the next time; he would know that he could outwit and out-wait me. Because of this, I wouldn’t even attempt to catch him if it was getting dark, or if I was otherwise pushed for time. This was not exactly practical.
Then, once things fell apart for us and catching became a serious issue, I decided that spending more than ten minutes trying to catch my mule was incredibly boring and frustrating and was probably time I could use for more exciting pursuits – like napping, or retrieving our grooming equipment from the yard dog. This was when I introduced the mule to the idea of earning privileges.
As I’ve said before: I would prefer him to be caught because he wants to be caught. Until that point, any trick I employ to catch him with is merely a band-aid; something to patch over the problem. But I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this for some time now and, practically, he still needs to be worked while I figure the problem out – which means I still need to be able to catch him. So I made it clear that the fence only gets moved (and he only gets fresh grass) if he’s been haltered. I want to stress that he does still have food! It’s just food that’s maybe not as tasty as fresh grass would be.
So then, if I tried to catch him and he walked away, I would just go and do something else for a while before trying again. I liked to give him that second chance because I didn’t want to ‘punish’ him, I wanted to give him the chance to get it right. It always worked, although it did mean that for the past week or so I’ve had to go through the try to catch/do something else/try again method every time, and that gets quite tedious. Also: still not practical. So on Friday, when I’d been out in the rain all morning and was soaked to the skin and the mule was playing hard to get, I just turned around and went home. I did glance back once, as I was leaving, and I saw that he’d come over to the fence to stare after me, his ears pricked. But I didn’t try to catch him again until yesterday.
Yesterday, for the first time in I don’t know how long, he walked straight up to me – ahead of the horses – his ears pricked (!!!) rather than set to grumpy o’clock – and let me halter him straight away. Today he was a little more reticent, but I was still able to catch him immediately.
Of course, this could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps losing out on his grass privilege on Friday really made him think. Perhaps the balancer we started feeding him a week ago is finally starting to take effect. Perhaps his session with Stacey the day before has made him a little happier. Perhaps the stars have moved back into alignment.
I think mules need to be shown that you, their human, are actually useful to them. He’s quite an independent fellow and until I can persuade him that I am totally fun to hang out with (hey, mulo, remember when we used to have fun together?), I need to provide examples of why he can’t do without me. I’ve had some people say that to achieve this they keep the mule in a pen and only provide food and water when they’re there, but that seems a little cruel to me. I want to persuade him that I’m advantageous to him, not force him into complying with me.
It will be interesting to see whether he remains catchable for the rest of the week, or whether he slides back into his “OMG NO” way of going. As he’s due to have his feet trimmed on Wednesday, I sincerely hope this new found catchability lasts at least that long.
The pressure/release method may not have acquired a mule, but it’s reeling in Cash.