The glass is half-empty, and so is my halter

So, I’ve had an interesting few days with Marty since Monica’s visit. On Friday, the day after, I went out to the field with rope in hand and the intention of getting to a place where he would allow me to put it round his neck. I left the halter behind.

The horses were watching me as I arrived, and although I took time to focus on being ’round’ and calm, I approached them once they began to relax and look around rather than wait for them to start grazing again. This was their first human visit of the day, a visit that is usually accompanied by hay or a fence move, so they were excited to see me and I figured I’d be there a long time if I waited for them to get bored.

I ducked under the fence a few metres from where they were gathered and, with my gaze averted, just stood quietly and concentrated again on being round and approachable. I was only doing this as a prelude to approaching Marty, trying to show him that I was safe and friendly, but to my surprise he came straight over to me! I put out my hand, he nose-bumped it, and I moved away.

After that I was able to walk up to him and stroke his face and shoulders. He seemed very sweet and content so I tried stroking him with the hand that held the rope, and he immediately put his ears back and pulled away. He then wouldn’t let me approach him and started antagonising the horses instead. Neither of the horses could be bothered with him: Iris was very clever and would allow him to position her between me and him, even letting him move her forward a few strides, but then she’d stop abruptly and Marty would suddenly find himself walking alongside me instead. Cash favoured the two-hind-feet approach, which Marty accepted until what I can only describe as a flash of fury came over him: his lips suddenly peeled back from his teeth, his nostrils wrinkled, his ears lay flat against his skull and with mouth gaping he lunged at Cash and grabbed the poor pony by the hock. It was not a side of him that I was happy to see.

I could feel myself getting quite cross at this point. His behaviour was frustrating and I didn’t much like his attitude; Monica had said that the ears back was just a warning to be careful, but he is pulling faces at me a lot lately – specifically, when he disagrees with something I ask him to do or when he doesn’t get his own way. On the one hand I want to listen to him when he’s unhappy and make this a partnership, not a dictatorship, but on the other hand I don’t want a mule who thinks it’s oki to try to threaten or bully me. He is not a wild, unhandled creature who’s never worn a halter before; this is stuff he knows. He has never experienced trauma or cruelty. I have done my best to be gentle and understanding but I’m beginning to think I may have just been making excuses for him, and that it is time to firm up. In fact, by being nicey nicey, I have almost certainly contributed – if not been the cause – of this recent brattiness. It must be frustrating for him, too.

I ended up changing my goal for the session, by discarding the rope entirely and working on getting him back to that point where I could approach him and stroke his shoulders. My aim after that was to get him to walk with me at liberty, and once he’d done that, I called it a day. I’m not entirely convinced that I did the right thing. If I’d had the time to pursue the original goal, would I have made him stroppier and unhappier at being ‘forced’ to accept the rope? Or would I have changed his view of me and shown him that I was actually someone to be listened to? I want to aim for the latter, but to do it in a way that doesn’t require me to force him into submission. I like that he has his own mind and his own opinions, and I’m happy for him to voice them – after all, there are many things that he knows more about than I do. But I don’t want him to refuse to do something just because he can, or because he sees no value in working with me.

The next day I didn’t bring the rope or the halter, and worked instead on moving him around at liberty. He was very good and willing and I was even able to draw him away from the herd to come and stand with me.

On Sunday we had atrocious weather pretty much all day, with heavy rain and 50mph winds, and by the time it began to brighten up I was a couple of miles away, had other jobs to do, and was feeling a bit sorry for myself so I didn’t go and play with him. I figured there was no point in expecting him to work with me while I was moping around with such a defeatist attitude.

On Monday everyone was due to get their hooves trimmed. Monica had said when it came to putting a halter on, I should aim to only put one on when Marty reached a point where he didn’t actually need it – and until then, to continue working at liberty and with the rope. This is what Stacey had said, too.  I could see the value in this and really wanted to give it the chance to work, but at the same time Marty’s feet grow very quickly and, as the hooves still have a slight twist to them, I just wasn’t happy about him missing his monthly trim. I also didn’t think that our trimmer, as wonderful as she is, would be thrilled about being asked to try and trim him loose in the field! So he had to be caught.

I’m a little surprised to announce that I did actually catch him, and pretty quickly, too. Of course, this could have been for any number of reasons: I’d already taken Iris away, and there were children playing in the woods at the bottom of their paddock which the mule was fixated on. Although he backed up a few times, he didn’t try to run away; but that could have been because he didn’t want to take his eyes off the wild children, not because he was listening to me in any way. Ha! Yes, I am becoming quite pessimistic about any achievement I have with him. It is not the best mindset to have, I concede.

He was a little stroppy about having his feet trimmed. Not bad, just not as good as he has been. There was quite a sense of over-confidence from him, which is ironic given how when Stacey met him she said he was completely lacking in it! But perhaps this is still under-confidence disguised as cockiness? The bully boy hiding his own insecurities? However, two things that are worth noting: he lowered his head for me to rub his poll and allowed me to run my hand up and down his previously untouchable ears, and when he managed to get the noseband of his halter caught in his mouth (I hadn’t done it up tight enough and it had slipped), he showed me what the problem was and waited patiently while I extracted him.

I’m now back to just working with him loose in the field and following Monica’s techniques. The halter remains on its peg. Hopefully, now that the evenings are getting lighter, Ben will have time to help me out as I often feel like I’m stumbling along blind. I don’t always know if what I’m doing has any merit to it, or if what I’ve just discarded would have worked had I only persisted. I think it definitely helps to have an observer who can tell you where you could have firmed up or when you should have rewarded. I feel like both mule and I are making this a lot more difficult than it ought to be and I don’t know how to simplify it while still being effective!

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