Little changes can be big changes

I asked Ben to do some work with the mule yesterday; partly because I was tired from work and didn’t feel up to mule’s standards, and partly because it always helps to have Ben see where we’re at and fix any problems that may have arisen.

The majority of the session centered around Marty’s extreme sensitivity to noise and energy. It was interesting for me to see that he finds these things much harder to deal with when they’re coming from Ben – for example, he could not tolerate having a rope flipped over his back, when I know that he ought to be fine with it. On the one hand it’s very sweet to feel that he’s chosen me as his particular human, and I can’t help but find it endearing when he keeps glancing my way or trying to hide behind me … but it would be very helpful to me if other people were allowed to Do Things with him. He has very set ideas about what is and isn’t allowed.

All in all it was quite a challenging session for the mule, and when I put him back in the field he thought he might be silly and try to run away when I undid the halter. A while ago, he went through a phase where he would pull backwards as soon as I untied the knot because he was afraid of the sensation of the rope sliding behind his ears; and then, because he’d pulled back so suddenly, the sensation would be worse and he’d confirm his own worst fears. We fixed this fairly easily in the end, just by having another halter on top which we put on and took off until he realised that his ears were still attached and nothing bad was going to happen. However, I have noticed that he has a tendency to revert to this old behaviour after difficult sessions.

Although this time he didn’t react quite so violently as in the past, he still ran backwards once the halter was released and then turned around and chunkered off across the field towards his buddies. Normally he stays to hang out with me, so this was a little disappointing, and I thought I’d better catch and release him again just so he didn’t get any set ideas about pulling away from the halter. He actually stood perfectly to let me put the halter on and off again (no reaction this time), so I figured that was a pretty good sign – he hadn’t been running away from me or the work, he’d just needed to move his feet … and maybe show me that I was a bad person for giving him to Bad Ben. He does like to make little demonstrations when he’s feeling a bit of teenage angst (which is often).

Today I had to skip our usual lunchtime session, and instead caught him after dark and brought him down to the yard just for a bit of grooming and feet handling. As I was putting the halter over his nose, he got a wild look in his eyes and his neck went rigid; I recognised this as his “I’m overwhelmed and about to spin and bugger off” mode, which is something else he used to do often but hasn’t for some time. It also didn’t help that Iris had loomed up behind him and was attempting to touch his bum. Helpful mare is helpful.

Usually, there is no return from this reaction. It is always a precursor to him panicing and breaking free. But today, for the first time ever, he stopped himself; I saw him teeter on the edge, and then he made a concious decision not to run, and instead stood quietly (Iris still loitering by his backside) while I continued haltering him.

It’s the little things like that which make me love working with him. Things that may seem tiny and insignificant to anyone else, but to me they show that he has made a really big change. I was really proud of him for overcoming an ingrained habit – his fear of what might happen – and putting his trust in me, instead.

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