While we were in America, I bought Marty a brand new, hot pink halter. I had hoped to find another rainbow to replace his current one, which has faded, but as this was not forthcoming I thought that hot pink was the next best thing on the ridiculousness scale (I believe in having fun with my mule. So long as the item is practical, who cares if it’s a crazy colour? Plus, it’s such a bright pink that I thought it worked rather well as hi-vis!).
The first time I put it on him (he was, by the way, perfect to catch. I’d been worried he’d take the opportunity to go feral after 3 weeks of not being handled), he obviously registered that it was different and did that thing where he tries to look down his nose at it while I slip it over his muzzle. I put this down to it being new and not smelling like him.
The second time I put it on him, he was in his stable – I’d bought him in with his rainbow halter, as I’d needed a detachable leadrope – and he seemed to be more comfortable with it. I figured that once it had hung around the yard and been put on and off a few times it would soon have an acceptable smell.
This afternoon I stopped by between jobs with the intention of maybe taking him out for a walk. When I arrived, he was at the opposite end of the track to the horses and was grazing with his back to them: a bad sign. Marty has a lot of little subtle signals which tell me how he’s feeling about being caught, and distancing himself from the horses is usually the very last in the sequence – it means hell no, I do not want my halter on today. I have no idea why he does this.
As it was, I had a couple of hours and I figured I could skip my lunch if need be, so I picked up his lovely new halter and went in. He was no problem at all to catch. I’ve got into the habit of doing his halter up a little behind his poll and then moving it up and tightening it once it’s on, as his poll and ears still remain a problem area when he’s in an anxious mood. It means that if he decides to throw himself around when that area is touched, at least I have hold of him and he doesn’t learn that jumping up and down means the halter comes off. This reaction is something that very rarely happens these days, but I still halter him this way (after my week spent learning with Harry Whitney, I have a suspicion that Marty’s ear-shy behaviour may be him objecting to having his thought interrupted – he certainly gets more bothered about things near his ears when he’s already anxious about something else. This will be very interesting to work on).
Unfortunately, it turned out that today was a “If you touch my ears I’m probably going to die” day. This was somewhat perplexing as he’s been super good with his ears since I came back – a couple of days ago I was even able to run my hand the entire length of his right ear!
He was very bothered about having the crownpiece moved, so I wiggled the halter around like I usually do to remind him that it is allowed to move and it hasn’t killed him yet. This time, for whatever reason, he responded by going skywards. As the halter was still loose, the noseband slipped off and I ended up with the halter around his neck like a particularly fetching lasso. There was no way I could hold onto him like that so off he went.
As he took off, he suddenly curled himself round and jibbed at the leadrope that was trailing along behind him. Something told me that he would come back to me for help, so I stayed where I was and sure enough he came back rather than going round the track to where the horses were – although he did have to do a couple of ever-decreasing canter circles around me before he stopped. He stood, a little anxiously, while I picked up the rope, stroked his neck, told him he wasn’t in trouble, and undid the halter. I petted him a bit more then walked away – Marty following – before stopping to halter him again.
There was no problem putting the halter on at all – given his history I was extremely pleased to see this! – and although he was still a little twitchy about having the crownpiece moved, I was able to put it in place without any fireworks. In hindsight I should maybe have taken it off and then on again before trying to bring the knot up, but that’s not what I did … and we had a repeat explosion, complete with noseband slipping off, and this time Marty ran all the way round the track to the horses.
This took a little while as now the horses were spooking at the leadrope (well: Cash was spooking, Iris was accidentally on purpose stepping on it). I waited them out, tried to separate horses from mule when I could, and contemplated how much of an idiot I looked right then. At one point Marty did break away from the horses and came up to me with a beseeching look, but he changed his mind at the last minute and took off again.
Eventually, the horses had enough of running around and put themselves behind me. Marty went up to the far corner of the field and stood there, looking rather sorry for himself. I approached him, explained what I had to do, and he stood quietly while I undid the halter and rubbed on him. It felt like a long time to me, but when I checked my watch later the whole thing had taken less than five minutes.
It had occurred to me, as I watched him run for the second time, that I should have tried putting the halter on without the rope attached. So I went down to the yard to retrieve the faithful rainbow halter and returned, where I was able to put it on Marty straight away. I put it on and off four times in a row and he didn’t react to it at all, even when I moved the crownpiece behind his ears or tightened the knot. There was absolutely no trace of the airborne mule of a few minutes ago. I was somewhat flummoxed until I realised the blindingly obvious problem: the new halter was made from a slightly stiffer rope than the old halter.
That’s it. That’s all it was. My poor mule was sweating and puffing all because his halter had felt a tiny bit different to what he was used to.
I’m telling this story to show you what it’s like to work with this particular mule, and how I’ve had to learn to see the obvious – obvious from Marty’s point of view, that is. But I’m also hoping you can look past what I imagine is your initial reaction; probably something along the lines of “that sounds incredibly exasperating”, “why don’t you just get a horse”, or “this girl’s an idiot”. It is hard work, but I can’t help but be intrigued by the way his mind works. I say that all the time, I know. I also hope that my tendency to chronicle our misadventures doesn’t put you off mules in general – it’s just that they’re often funnier stories than when things go according to plan.
I do still sometimes take a time out and call him a bad name, though. I think that’s allowed.
Also, after looking at the colour of his once bright leadrope after it had been dragged through the mud a few times, he could just have been expressing his opinion that, yes, he is a New Man and is aware that colour does not dictate gender; but he still wouldn’t be seen dead wearing that in public thank you very much.