I haven’t written a blog post in a while because I’ve been struck down by a bout of what’s-the-point-ism about pretty much everything, really. Although I’ve maintained weekly updates here for the last couple of years, the blog was still the easiest thing to put on the shelf for a bit.
Anyway, as I’m now heading towards a whole month without content I thought I’d better write about something. I haven’t mentioned Xato’s good deeds as a useful farm mule on here, yet! If you’ve been following the Facebook or Instagram accounts you’ll have seen pictures and some video already, so this might be a repeat. I’m writing it here for my own records, but there is also a longer video and perhaps some extra photos not shared on other platforms.
I wrote more than I planned so I guess I was overdue. I continued to misspell sycamore throughout.
The sycamore problem
Our farm is pretty much surrounded by sycamore. It’s very prevalent in this area. Horsey readers will understand the concern immediately, but if it’s not something you’re familiar with then I should explain that sycamore is highly toxic to equines. Like most poisonous plants the horses and mules are usually smart enough to leave it alone, but the problem comes when the windblown seeds land in the fields in autumn or when seedlings start sprouting in spring. They can be accidentally consumed while grazing and result in something called atypical myopathy, which is very often fatal.
Last year Ben brought himself a baby chainsaw and we went round and cut back all the young saplings and smaller trees that were growing up within our property line. This year we’re doing the same (they are very persistent) and we’re also tackling the ones that actually form part of our hedgerows. We put this task off because it’s an ugly one, since our hedgerows are very, very old and beautiful, and removing the sycamore sections leaves ugly holes. I’ve planted other hedgerow plants in the gaps and they will regrow, but it will look like a raw wound for a while.
We have a couple of bigger trees which we will need a tree surgeon (and more money) to chop down, plus several that the prevailing wind blows across our land but are on the neighbour’s side of the fence; including an absolutely humongous, venerable old tree that I would be very fond of if it wasn’t so deadly. That one will definitely need a tree surgeon plus some neighbourly diplomacy!
It does feel like something of a pointless task, because even with the smaller trees and hedgerow trees gone we still have the bigger ones that we can’t take down ourselves; and even in the perfect world of them all being taken out, there’s still so much sycamore in the area – and the seeds carry so far on the wind – that we will never eradicate the problem entirely. Our thinking is that as long as we take out the ones we can, and pull seedlings and check for seeds, we are still reducing the risk to a point lower than if we’d done nothing at all.
For the hedgerow sycamore, the branches were so dense that it was hard to see the trunk. We chopped back the outer branches to make it accessible to the chainsaw and lighten the load of what was coming down. We could have gathered all the cut branches ourselves in big armfuls, or piled it into the wheelbarrow, but why carry things when you can put them on a mule? I realised that Xato could carry more in one trip with his baskets than we could with a wheelbarrow, so it made sense to put him to work (working on Sundays also meant we could load his baskets with bin bags and take them up to the gate, ready for collection on Monday morning. Multitasking!).
We’ve done four sessions now and I’m very pleased with how well he’s handled it. He’s carried branches and other oddities in his baskets before, but since we had so much of it this time I piled each load high – tenting it above his back – and that meant his peripheral vision was impaired. Most importantly, he couldn’t see behind him, which is his worry spot even with full 350° vision.
On his first time with the full baskets (second session), he was fine until we passed Ben who then started walking behind us. Xato knows Ben and Ben wasn’t doing anything alarming, but just knowing that someone he couldn’t see was walking there was enough to upset Xato and he needed a small conversation about where his shoulder should be. This showed me that even with all the work we’ve put into helping him feel confident with people behind him, we still have a very long way to go. I can’t take him out in public with panniers if he’s going to panic every time there’s something or someone behind him.
Working below thresh-hold
During the third session I ended up letting him graze loose, the rope over his neck, while I picked up branches and put them in his baskets. We were in the field so if anything did happen he wouldn’t get into mischief over it, and it was much easier to work with both hands free. Xato is also a very good boy who doesn’t take a downed rope as an invitation to bugger off, and he was happy to graze in place beside us.
We spent nearly two hours gathering branches, taking them down to the bonfire, and coming back up the field to fetch more. During one of these trips, while he was grazing, some walkers came down the road behind him – concealed by the part of the hedge we hadn’t torn up. Xato shot forward three or four strides then stopped of his own accord and waited for me to go to him, where I took the rope briefly and smoothed his neck. The walkers had stopped by our gap in the hedge to chat to Ben and admire Xato, and as Xato’s worry had vanished as quickly as it had risen, I let him get back to grazing and carried on with my job.
I was very pleased with him for this because, as readers will know, we’ve had issues with Xato’s belief that bolting is the answer to all problems. As I didn’t have hold of him I was extra impressed that he went such a short distance before stopping and waiting like he did. We’ve obviously done a lot of work on this and he is markedly better, but I do wonder if the reason he didn’t go anywhere was because he wasn’t restrained. Grabbing hold of reins or leadrope and holding on to the thing that’s running away is a very automatic response, but I’ve been trying not to do this when leading him. I remember Joe Wolter’s words: help him get away from the thing that worries him. I want Xato to know that I’m not something who’ll trap him in what he perceives to be a dangerous situation. This attitude has helped on several occasions so far and this incident seemed to confirm this theory for me.
One thing we’re paying attention to is not filling his cup too much with this work. As I say, the third session lasted two hours, until he started planting himself on the way back up the field and began acting twitchy and stoical, not wanting to graze, while we were at the top collecting branches. There was still more to do but, on the second run where Xato felt uneasy about heading up the field again, both Ben and I agreed that it wasn’t worth the risk of pushing him over that thresh-hold especially since he’d done so well. Better to do short jobs several times than to try and do it all in one, and have a wreck and a mule who’s lost confidence in the task you’d asked him to do.
The fourth session was the most impractical one, as I needed to film some short footage in costume for a project I’d agreed to take part in. My plan required Xato to have a basket full of greenery, and as we had more hedge sycamores to take down, it made sense to combine an actual job with some fanciful dress-up (I really like multitasking). Xato wore a faux-fur cape across his saddle to make him look more like a fantasy-book mule, and it was a very windy day blustering at 35mph. This time we didn’t wait for him to start showing signs of being near the edge, we just did one load and quit there. It was a lot to ask of him and my outfit was not the most practical to work in.