A month or so ago, the mule and I were out for a walk on the common when we encountered a loose horse. She was a very big mare and she came running straight for us, but I caught her and after an initial moment of panic from the mule, he settled down and handled the situation magnificently. I was glad I did catch her, even though I got kicked in the process (she was aiming for the mule), because as I later discovered she’d thrown her rider six miles away and then run all the way home! She’d already crossed one road to get there, and mule and I were able to intercept her before she crossed another.
The next time the mule and I went out onto the common, we were with Ben and Iris. Despite their presence, mule was really frightened by a pack of loose dogs who came bounding towards us through the bracken (this is also where I think his sudden dog anxiety has come from). He actually tried to get away from me, which is something he’s never done before – except when I caught that horse. Our catching problems started shortly afterwards.
I don’t think the incident with the loose horse was the sole reason for why the mule wouldn’t be caught, but I think it certainly contributed: if you thought you were going to be taken out to a place that scared you and left you feeling vulnerable, would you want to go there if you had the choice?
My other theories as to why I had so much trouble catching him are:
- He was afraid of the halter coming off. It seems obvious now, but I almost missed it. Because it was the catching that I was having a problem with, I just assumed that he was afraid of the halter going on. And it baffled me, because I knew that I had never, ever caught him or knocked him or touched his ears while haltering, and try as I might I could not recall anything – however small – that could have frightened or bothered him. And then it suddenly occurred to me that when I take the halter off, I undo the knot and then let the crownpiece slide free because I am fairly short and it’s not easy for me to lift it off him without standing really close (which wasn’t a position I was willing to put myself in, because he would sometimes run out backwards or spin away). Now I ask him to lower his head slightly, undo the halter carefully and then lift it free; he’s still anxious about it, but he’s getting so much better.
- He didn’t see the point in being caught. Mules like work. They like to have a job to do, and they like to be challenged by it. Due to the short days, during which I was spending all daylight hours at various jobs, I was having to work the mule during my one hour lunch break. This meant that if we were schooling I didn’t want to introduce him to anything new and potentially challenging, as I knew I wouldn’t have the time to work through it with him if he couldn’t handle it, and if I took him out for a walk we could only go short distances – which for us meant the same two or three routes. He was bored. Why should he leave his mates and his field if we’re only going to do the same old, same old? The solution here was to make more time for the mule (which I was able to), and to have longer sessions where we do new things – like taking him to a different place every time we walk.
By themselves, I don’t think these things would have been enough to make him decide that being caught was a bad option. It was the combination of all three that led him to make his choice.
So with those solved or on the way to being solved, the last thing was to face our fear of the common. I won’t lie: I was pretty nervous of it by now, too. Since he’s started being caught again, I’ve only ever walked the mule round the Punchbowl. This was intentional as it is our comfort zone, but I also made sure to keep pushing him further by taking him to new places and new experiences (the motorway, for example). I wanted him to regain his confidence by realising that he can handle things and that he can trust me not to lead him into danger.
Long story short: the mule was excellent. He visibly relaxed once we’d passed the track where we encountered the horse, confirming my suspicion that he’d been holding on to that fear for some time, and although he remained alert he was a very pleasant walking companion. We’d just reached the half-way point when I tripped over a branch with my right foot and launched it towards the mule with my left. The mule is used to me falling over things by now, and is no longer bothered by it; but this time he reacted by leaping into the air. I had a split second to think “oh crap” and brace myself for a tantrum, but then I realised that he wasn’t misbehaving at all – he actually jumped the branch in mid-air as it spun away under his belly. And then he landed, gave me a sidelong look as though to say “Do watch where you’re going”, and carried on unphased. My mule is badass. I am basically his comedy sidekick.