Top Barn 12 Week Challenge: Week Eight

I hadn’t expected to do very well this week, since Ben – who has been working from home for the last 7 weeks of the challenge – has now started a new contract. This involves a 2 hour commute, which means he’s now restricted to working with Joey at the weekend; and as I’ve been working Xato at the same time, I thought I would struggle to get my hours in. 

Instead, it actually gave Xato and I the opportunity to do something different – work at liberty – and we learnt a lot of things about each other this week.

Week Eight Hours Logged

Xato: 3 hours 25 minutes
Marty: 5 hours 40 minutes

Number Of Sessions In Week Eight

Xato: 4
Marty: 5


No work for either mule. My ‘work both mules every Monday regardless’ resolution did not last long! The weather was awful and I was severely lacking in motivation.


1 hour 20 with Marty, taking bottles to the recycling centre then litter-picking on our way back, and 40 minutes in the arena with Xato.

Our recycling trips are usually pretty low drama, since it’s only a mile or so up the hill to the centre and then back down the same way. However, the herd of horses on the hill have still not settled down and they came thundering through from one field to the next as Marty and I made our way past. Marty couldn’t see them since we’d just passed a gateway and were back in among the high banks and thick tree tunnel, but we certainly heard them as they had to funnel through a boggy hollow below us – and 80 hooves galloping through soft ground makes a hell of a racket! Marty was a bit rattled but held it together, particularly once we’d have a conversation about him stopping when I stopped. 

We then had an issue while waiting to join the main road down to the recycling centre, as there was a tractor coming up the hill and I decided to wait at the junction for it to pass. Marty isn’t usually bothered by tractors but, as he’d had this earlier fright, I thought it would do no harm to stay where we were rather than meet it on the busy road. Unfortunately the tractor driver started indicating just as he drew level with the turning and tried to turn in towards us! This is a very narrow road that couldn’t take two cars, so although there was just about room for a bloody great tractor and a little mule, it would have required an incredibly solid equine not to react to this clanking great thing suddenly bearing down on them. I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward as there was a bus overtaking the tractor, so I was pretty annoyed. We had been standing there in plain sight and wearing hi-vis, so if he’d started indicating earlier then I could have got out of his way. I think he just wanted to shove us around.

The trip down the hill and the offloading off bottles at the recycling centre was fine, but as I was putting Marty’s packs back on he suddenly caught side of the herd of horses far, far away on the distant hillside. This completely did him in and as we rejoined the main road, heading uphill and putting his back to them, he started giving me long, rattling snorts – his “I’m losing my mind right now” warning – and bunching up for flight. We had a VERY firm conversation here because this was not the place for a meltdown, and when we got back onto the quiet lanes we revisited the concept of stopping when I stop. This calmed him down very quickly and we had a sedate walk home.

After Sunday’s disaster, I just wanted to make friends with Xato again so we worked at liberty. He dislikes being ‘driven’ but also likes to plod along at his own snail pace, so I experimented with seeing what was the smallest suggestion I could make that would mean “walk forward” or “move faster” to him. I wanted him to be able to take a pointing finger as a cue, so I would point to show him the direction and then, if he didn’t respond, I’d extend my other arm behind me and tap my gloved fingertips together to make the most subtle of annoyances. With this, we were able to walk nicely around the arena in both directions. 

I also asked him to line up on the mounting block, just because. I started by doing what I do with Marty – walking beside him then stepping up on the block and asking him to put himself in position – but Xato couldn’t do this without stepping his hindquarters away, so I went back to positioning him on the ground first then climbing up onto the block. Interestingly, he was able to do this on his right before he could do it on his left. I suppose I’ve been doing a lot more work on his right lately, but obviously I’m not ruling out potential soreness making him leery of mounting.


50 minutes in the arena with Xato and 1 hours 45 minutes hiking with Marty. Got to make the most of today’s excellent weather!

I did exactly the same things with Xato today as I did yesterday, although he had a little more silliness in him and wanted to have a run around first. All very low speed, jogging-a-circle-around-me type of running around!

Yesterday, I’d found that it was difficult to keep his shoulder level with mine when walking at liberty because he’d want to drift back, putting my tapping fingers ahead of his drive-line. I’d then have to drift back too, slowing my feet and therefore slowing his. This particularly happened on corners, since he was on the outside, and when walking over the poles. So I stripped a branch off a bush and used it to extend my arm, carrying it at neutral by my side when he was in position and then raising it straight out behind me when he needed a little moe forward. Sometimes I would need to touch his quarters with it, too (yes, just a touch, before anyone accuses me of mule abuse. In fact a featherlight touch is more effective than a smack since it feels a bit like a fly, and is quite annoying!). This really helped. 

We revisited the mounting block as well, and although I was still unable to get him to line up while I climbed the block, I could lead him into position by cupping my hand under his chin. I used his tendency to step sideways as an excuse to work on hindquarters in, again using my stick to touch his hindquarters and ask him to step over. He was a good boy and tried hard.

Marty’s walk involved us going out the back and then down a long road which brought us out at the bottom of the hill in my village. It’s a relatively short circuit, but has the benefit of being rarely used by us since he usually finds the village road a little bothersome. I can understand why; it’s a residential area, with rows of houses and parked cars with their reflective windows, people in gardens, and dogs barking in front rooms, plus a steady stream of traffic going back and forth since we’re on the main route into Camarthen. There’s a lot to look at and a lot of sensory noise for a little mule! Today, however, he strode up that hill as confidently as he’d walked down the quiet lanes. I was very pleased with him. 


1 hour with Xato, and 35 minutes with Marty, both in the arena. I had thought to work on Marty’s breeching again, but it involved having to fit a collar to his surcingle and honestly – I’m lazy, and I didn’t have a lot of time. So I just caught up on the last three week’s plus challenges with him and got them filmed.

I did the same tasks with Xato as I’ve been doing for the last two days. I’ve had a routine with him this week where we enter the arena, I take his halter off, he goes and has a roll while I put his halter somewhere in the arena, and then I stand and wait until he comes over to me – essentially signalling that he’s ready to work now. For the past two days, he’s come over as soon as he’s finished his roll; today, the mounting block was between us and he stopped at it (at an angle, he didn’t line up on it), touched it with his nose, and then stood there looking at me for a few minutes before continuing his course over to where I was. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Was he reluctant to work with me today? Did he think standing at the block was maybe what I wanted him to do?

Anyway, we started with walking a circuit at liberty with me on his right side and then on his left. Today, he responded to me pointing the direction and to the lift in my energy, and didn’t need the stick. I asked him to trot over the raised poles, which he did, and then I got a bit crazy and thought I’d try asking for an energetic trot down one short side and one long side. Not only did he do it beautifully – I was honestly expecting him to run away at least once before we cracked it – but he stopped dead when I did, from trot to halt. I’ve done this with him on line but not at liberty. I was very impressed and he did this on both sides!

The mounting block remains an issue, though he did line up on it beautifully first go but then stepped his hindquarters around when I walked back to stand on it. However, I could still cup my hand under his chin to guide him and step his hindquarters over in the correct direction, and it took much less time than previously. Once he’s lined up, I can stand on the block and lean over him, rub him all over, etc., for some time and he’ll stand quietly (but engaged – he’s not freezing up); so I’m honestly not sure whether his objection to lining up on the block is because he doesn’t want to be ridden, or whether it’s JUST the business of lining up on it while I’m standing there that he doesn’t like.


No work for either mule. I was busy digging out drains and soakaways instead!


55 minutes with Xato, doing nothing of much importance in the arena plus hand-grazing afterwards. However, I did discover what the problem has been with the mounting block this week: today, instead of trying it at liberty (since Ben and Joey were using the arena), I tried to line him up on line to see if that made a difference. Instead of stepping his hindquarters away, he stepped them towards me. When I moved him on and asked him to turn round and line up on his right, he did that fine.

Acting on a hunch, I picked up the mounting block and put it in the middle of the arena, away from the big tractor tyre it usually sits up against. Now I had room to position Xato so that the mounting block was on his left and he was facing towards the arena gate, the opposite direction from before. Sure enough, he lined up easily and stood quietly. The issue had been caused because he didn’t feel comfortable standing with his back to the gate – lining up on his left put him in this situation, whereas lining up on his right meant that he was facing the gate. Why he’s worried about standing his back on the gate is another question entirely, but I thought it was funny that I’d come up with all these theories and, in the end, the explanation was a really simple one.

Marty also had 20 minutes in the arena for some rolling time since they were confined to the yard last night, and then some hand-grazing. He got a bit overexcited coming down the slope to the arena and had a massive bucking fit, followed by him being ridiculous about having his halter off (an old issue of his), so we spent a little time going over old ground until he felt better about things. I’m not really sure any of it counts towards his hours, but as he’s completed his hours for the week anyway, and already has enough hours banked from other weeks in case we need a rollover, I don’t think it hurts to add them on.


I had wanted to take Xato out today, since I knew Ben was planning to walk Joey out and I think having a weekly break from arena work is good for Xato, but it was midday by the time we got started and by that point I’d had time to think about it too much. I couldn’t bring myself to ride or lead Xato so I took Marty out instead; it was his birthday today, after all. We just did a circuit round the block and I didn’t bother to put his pack on. If the world’s most hardworking pack mule* can’t have a day off from carrying stuff on his birthday, then when can he?

* This is assuming that we live in a world in which no other pack animals exist

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