Xato has been excellent lately. I mean he’s always excellent, but he’s been extra excellent. Much of his excellence is just that he’s been affectionate, loving, friendly and a joy to be around, but there are a couple of others pointers that I feel needed writing about:
1. He has a new job, as Chief Haynet Carrier
If you follow us on Facebook, then you will have seen some videos over the past few weeks that show how Xato waits for me when I let the herd through from their night field to their day field. Everyone else will gallop through the gateway as soon as I open it, tearing off across the field, but Xato – who is always careful to bring up the rear – will just stand and watch them go. Sometimes he’ll pin his ears and poke his nose at their retreating backsides, a typical grump mule expression; I don’t know what it is about their high-speed exit that vexes him so, but it’s rather funny to watch.
Once they’re gone he’ll amble on through, wait for me to close the gate behind him, and then enjoy some one-on-one time where he gets lots of scratchies. One morning he accidentally found himself at the gate first, and was swept up in the stampede; but as soon as the other three had passed him, he dropped back down to a walk, turned around, and came back to see me. There’s not much that will get in the way of his routine!
Until a few days ago we still had grass left, so what I was doing every morning was moving the fence a little in the day field, letting everyone through, giving Xato his scratchies, and then setting off to poo-pick the night field while Xato took himself down to join everyone else on the grass. We’ve now run out of field, so the new set up involves everyone going through to the day field, having a breakfast of chaff, and then I’ll give them some hay later on (they have access to straw 24/7). In the evening, they come back into the night field and get hay and straw hung up in nets to keep them going overnight.
On Sunday morning, I’d taken down nets and let the herd through – Marty and the horses had gone charging off, Xato was waiting for me as usual – and I had an epiphany. I looked at the pile of empty haynets on the ground, looked at Xato, and realised there was no reason why he couldn’t carry them down for me. He’s brought them in before and has carried full nets for me, too.
I put the first pair of nets over him, but took too long tying together the second pair and when I looked up Xato was trotting away across the field. I called him and he stopped, disengaged himself, and came back … whereupon I loaded the next pair, shouldered the remaining pair myself (they were mismatched sizes), and we walked down to the gate together to unload them.
The next day I decided I would tie the nets together before I let the herd through, and walked up the fenceline to fetch them in. I was surprised to find myself accompanied by Xato, who walked all the way up with me and waited patiently while I took down nets, tied them together, and threw them over his back. I’m pretty sure he had already figured out what his job was!
2. He didn’t Hulk Smash his pen, when he could have
Both mules have separate pens that they go into for feeding. This originally started as a Marty thing, because I needed a smaller area to halter him in but also needed him to walk into said area of his own free will – I knew if I only used the pen when I wanted to catch him, then he would learn what the deal was and refuse to go in. Feeding him in it every day gets him used to the idea of being in there and he’s not able to guess whether or not I’m going to put a halter on him.
The other benefit of mule pens is that it means I don’t have to hang around and police everyone when they’re eating! The mules have less feed so finish sooner, and would go marauding if they weren’t contained. Iris won’t steal Cash Pony’s feed, and Cash Pony would steal Iris’ feed, except that he is the World’s Slowest Eater so by the time he’s finished Iris has already eaten hers.
Anyway, yesterday I’d left the mules in their pens while I poo-picked the day field. I was just finishing up when something spooked the horses, who bolted. I looked down towards the mules and they were doing that horrible scrabbling thing that equines do when they want to run, but can’t; I knew they were on a hair trigger, and that Xato in particular would run straight through his fencing if he felt he had to.
I downed tools and called out, “Hoooooo, boys! Hey mules! Easy!” and Xato swung his big old head round, looked me dead in the eye, and just … stopped. He waited while I made my way down to him and never took his eyes or ears off me the entire time. I know it sounds daft and perhaps a tad anthropomorphic, but I swear it felt like there was a sudden connection between us and that he was staying put because I’d told him it was oki.
In the video, Marty and the horses had been fooling around for some time after their scare; Xato had been standing as close to me as he possibly could. When poor Marty finally decides to check in with me, Xato tells him to go away! They are very jealous boys.
3. I got on him for the first time in 4 months, and spooked him
I haven’t ridden Xato since October because I’ve lost my nerve big time. I’ll write about that separately at some point. Ben also hasn’t ridden him for almost three months, because our arena has been underwater, or daylight has been limited, and we have been soooo ridiculously busy (and still are). We have, however, had some good groundwork sessions with him.
So on Sunday Ben took him out the field to work with him. We’ve been focusing on getting him comfortable with someone behind him, leading him from his hip and asking him to halt straight rather than turn round to face us (I’ll write about this separately, too). It was a lovely sunny day and I just thought: I’m gonna get on him. So we tacked him up, repeated his exercises with tack on, and then brought him up alongside the mounting block. I put one foot in the stirrup, went to jump up … and fell through the mounting block as the top of it shattered beneath me.
Xato, bless his heart and true to his donkey nature, stood rock solid and it wasn’t until I’d stepped clear and extracted myself that he put a couple of quick steps between himself and the scare. It wasn’t a high block and I was wearing my army boots and gaiters, so I didn’t hurt myself; but what a thing to happen when getting on your mule for the first time in months! I would have fully expected him to be nervous about me getting on again after that, but it didn’t bother him at all. He’s a very good boy.