Top Barn 12 Week Challenge: Week Two

This week I’ve decided to go for a more day-by-day approach when it comes to writing up our endeavours. It has been a VERY good week for these good boys!

Total Hours

Xato: 3 hours 6 minutes
Marty: 6 hours 30 minutes


Xato: 40 minutes
Marty: 30 minutes

We were battered by Storm Brenden at the start of the week and it was definitely weather that I would normally have done the bare minimum in. However, I’ve set myself a personal challenge to always work them on a Monday regardless of weather; that way, I feel like I have a headstart on their hours for the rest of the week. Though the winds were strong the rain didn’t hit us until the afternoon, so after I’d done morning chores I saddled up Xato and took him down to the round pen. Xato didn’t want me on his right side at all today, but after 20 minutes of work he seemed to settle and was able to walk with me level with his hip. I thought he was in a good enough place for me to get on him, but once we set off I realised that I had no connection to his feet at all.

I practised disengaging him and at one point he actually spooked and took off for a few strides across the pen; something that would previously have had me quivering like jelly and leaping off. But, since there was nowhere he could really go, I barely touched my reins and he came down to a stop by himself. I then asked him on again and we continued disengaging until I felt he was listening and in a good enough place to stop. I dismounted and did a further 15 minutes on the ground.

It was a reasonably tough session as Xato had a lot of worry in him, but I worked through it – by myself, as Ben had come out partway through to spectate, realised it was far too cold to spectate, and sensibly gone back inside – and afterwards, instead of feeling bad, I felt super good. 

I then took Marty up to the arena with Ben and Joey and we did half an hour of basic groundwork.


Xato finally settled enough for me to turn him at liberty. Previously he had been too intent on running.


Xato: 25 minutes
Marty: 25 minutes

On Tuesday we had rain all day, and I was trying to think of something we could work on in the stables. Around mid-afternoon the rain let up slightly, and we seized that window of opportunity to first do 25 minutes work in the arena with Xato and Joey, and then I did another 25 minutes with Marty afterwards. I hadn’t intended to take Marty out as well since it was starting to rain again by that point, but he fixed me with his “I want a job to do” look and I had to say yes. I was only going to do 10 minutes in the arena but he felt so good as we walked up the drive, and seemed so keen to be out, that we went for a stroll down the lane and back first. 

As before, I felt pretty good about things afterwards. It may have been less than half an hour of pretty basic work, but I had done something. 


Xato: 55 minutes
Marty: 2 hours 

Wednesday dawned sunny and bright although, as the boys were slightly damp from overnight rain, I decided to take a quick break for a cup of tea and some admin once I’d done morning chores. Of course, just as we were about to go out and get started, we were hit by an absolutely torrential hailstorm. I had wanted to ride so I was a bit miffed, but as it turned out I wouldn’t have got on Xato anyway as he was still in a funny mood and ran away three times while I was lunging him in the arena. The first time was a very deliberate stop, spin, and yank the rope out my hands, which isn’t something he’s done before. When he gets loose it’s usually because I’ve allowed the worry to build up in him and then momentum just takes him forwards and away.

He was really fixated on Joey being worked at the other end of the arena, and every time his circle brought him parallel he’d lean on the rope. His thought was so firmly fixed on Joey that if I tried to interrupt it he’d panic and run; it felt like his mind was already at that end of the arena, and when I asked for his attention he suddenly remembered I was there and got spooked. Anyway, once again I referred back to the Faun Anderson clinic at Top Barn last year, and when Xato’s circle brought him past Joey I’d ask him to disengage and turn his quarters towards the place he wanted to be. Every time he tried to bend round to stare at Joey I’d just bring him forward until eventually he could stand straight and be loved on. We lunged in both ends of the arena and then did some pole work. By the end of the hour-long session he was in a much more peaceful place.

With Xato back on the yard, I swapped mules and took Marty out for a hike. We only did a short 4 mile circuit as I haven’t got any credit on my phone, and although I’ve never yet had to call for help, there’s always a first time. Marty was a bit ‘sticky’ to begin with, then he got very forward, then he got sticky again, and finally he settled to a perfect mix of forward-going but not feeling like he had to hurry. He was with me absolutely and it was lovely. 

When we got back, instead of untacking him in his usual spot outside the house I took him into the garden and took down some of the electric fencing there. I needed to block off the bank by the arena in the top field, and why carry things yourself when you have a mule handy?

At first, I tried to lay the fence posts so they rode horizontal, held in place by the hooks on either side of the arches. However, they were too long / Marty’s back too short and it meant that if he raised his head he would bump one end with his neck and poke himself in the bum with the other. Not ideal! A while ago, I ran an article in Horsemanship Magazine where Stuart of Highland Packhorse carried some wooden posts up to a remote bothy in the Scottish Highlands. I remembered that he’d ‘tented’ his posts, tying them together at the top to make an inverse V, and I did the same with mine before placing them over the saddle so they hung down on either side. Marty gave them a look but wasn’t overly concerned; they were just funny looking legs, I guess.

He had a brief worry when he didn’t listen to my instructions and passed too close to a building on our way out, bumping one side of his load, but he got over it almost instantly and honestly it was a good learning moment for him. After that he was really intent on what I asked him to do! He carried the posts the whole 300 yards up our drive and I took them off before trying to squeeze him through the tiny access gate by the arena. He then grazed while I put the fence up, his rope resting over my arm.

It was a ridiculously small job in the scheme of things, but I was very proud of him. He’s come a long way. He also hadn’t hesitated when we broke from routine, happily doing a job instead of being put away as expected. A very good boy. I felt very happy that day!

Carrying his fence posts. Ignore the wildly inaccurate date stamp!


Xato: 0
Marty: 5 minutes

High winds and very heavy rain again today, and since Marty’s almost completed his second week and Xato is nearly there, I figured they could have the day off. This week’s plus challenge – picking out all four feet from the same side – was released on Wednesday evening, and it’s not something I’ve asked either of my mules to do this before. On Thursday evening, when we had a brief rain-free window, I spent 5 minutes practising with Marty. He picked it up really quickly. I also spent a couple of minutes with Xato (which I didn’t bother counting), but he kept snatching his foot out of my hand as soon as it was off the floor and my arm is too short to reach that far underneath him! It’s only recently that I’ve been able to pick his feet up consistently at all (it turns out that he prefers to have his feet handled when he’s 100% at liberty), and so I decided to come back for what I assumed would be a much longer session the next day.


Xato: 6 minutes
Marty: 10 minutes

I was very surprised today when I set up my video camera to record what I assumed would be an hilarious video of me trying to pick up Xato’s feet – I envisioned this sped up footage of him walking in and out of shot and me struggling to lift his foot, all to the sound of the Benny Hill soundtrack – but instead he just went “Yeh, alright” and let me do it straight away.

Marty, on the other hand, was less compliant and had to be coaxed. We were working in a gap between heavy hail showers and he never has been keen on being touched when wet, so I think he was a bit on edge. I also did a bit of work leading him from a neck rope which didn’t make it into the challenge video.

I don’t think I’ll make a habit of doing it this way as it was really awkward, particularly with Xato who has a very wide base. The back feet were much easier to do, though.


Xato: 1 hour
Marty: 30 mins

We had good weather today so I finally got to ride (I could rug Xato to keep him dry enough to wear a saddle, I suppose, but he’s a fat man and doesn’t need any extra help). It was a very low energy session where we practised three things:

  1. Getting on and off from his right side
  2. Standing quietly without him fidgeting, both under saddle and on the ground
  3. Guided passenger

Being a ‘guided passenger’ just means that I sit on his back, holding the buckle end of the reins, and let him carry me around the arena. He’s allowed to go wherever he wants but whenever he went over to Joey, or towards the gate (his second choice after Joey), or the mounting block (his third choice), I’d put a little energy in. Sometimes it was enough to make him trot, usually it wasn’t. My aim wasn’t to go fast, it was just to make these areas a little busy for him.

He spent a lot of time meandering around the bottom half of the arena, travelling between his three comfort zones, and then eventually he tried a different decision and went straight. As soon as he crossed over the halfway point into the ‘upper half’ of the arena, I offered him a stop and then let him rest. He figured this out pretty quickly.

Marty had already completed his hours for the week so I didn’t have to do anything with him, but that seemed like it wasn’t really in keeping with the theme of regular, consistent work! I planned to ride him, too, but the bareback pad I’d bought many years ago for my previous pony and recently brought back from my parents’ place was too small for him. Then I tried a makeshift bareback pad with a nummnah and surcingle, but it didn’t look very comfortable for sitting on. 

It then occurred to me that I could clip Xato’s rope reins onto the surcingle if I wanted to, so I fetched them out and put a loop over Marty’s butt, above his tail head, and held the ends in my hand. I was going to take him up to the arena to work, but he was there and I thought I’d touch him with the rope just to see.

He took to it really well and we did several circuits of the yard like that; nothing on his head, me walking level with his girth, both ends of the rope held in my hand in the middle of his back. I allowed the rope to slide slowly over his tail and round his haunches as we walked. We did this on both sides before moving on to putting it over his tail straight away, and then I put pressure on the rope as we walked – mimicking the pull of breeching on a downhill, I hoped. He did well with this, too.

Then I got a little crazy and clipped one end of the rope to the surcingle, threading it round to the other side. He accepted this so I clipped on the other end, too. Then I walked round the yard and he came with me, stopping immediately on voice cue when asked. I was so pleased with him! His first baby breeching! This has been SUCH a big hill to get over, and although we still have a lot of work ahead of us I feel like it’s more achievable now. 

Letting Xato pick the direction. He was quite keen on walking over the poles


His first ‘breeching’!


Xato: 0
Marty: 3 hours

Well, we accidentally doubled Marty’s allotted hours today. Our original plan was to go over the hill and check out a right of way that showed on our OS Map, but it turned out that the path was (illegally) blocked by a stack of haylage bales. So we carried on down the road and did a big circuit that took us down some lanes we haven’t been on before.

Unfortunately, although we started well with Marty in a very amiable frame of mind, about 2 miles in we met a car on a narrow stretch of road and when I asked Marty to step up onto the verge he had a complete meltdown. There are no passing places on this stretch of road and the verge is about a foot wide with a shallow gutter at the edge. I’ve had problems asking him to step near this gutter before, and today there was a thick frost so he absolutely refused. By the time we eventually passed the car he had a real bee in his bonnet and had eyes on stalks for the next 3.5 miles.

At one point we met some horse riders – only the second set of riders we have EVER met here! – and we allowed them to pass. The lady in the lead wanted to stop and chat but her companion urged her to keep going because the second horse was “afraid of donkeys” (I have to say, I have rarely seen a horse care less about anything) and off they went up the hill at a spanking trot to get away from us. This provided a great opportunity for Marty to practice listening, since all he wanted to do was powerwalk after them.

All in all not my favourite walk I’ve ever done, and I’m grateful that Ben was with us. He chilled out for the last mile and a bit of our 7.5 mile hike, so at least we ended peacefully. It brought me back down to earth with a bump since Marty’s been so phenomenal this week, and then he had to fall apart at the end doing the one thing he’s best it! Ah well. Tomorrow’s another day.

The big fat zero next to Xato’s name looks sad, but it wasn’t that I did nothing with him – just nothing that counted towards his hours. I snuggled him and filed his toes instead.

Moving aside a fallen tree from another track we tried, which was also blocked (naturally, this time).


Marty gets The Man to sort him out (Ben does normally wear hi vis)!

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