Top Barn 12 Week Challenge: Week Five

The mules had quite a lot of sessions between them this week and I have managed to write a lot of blah blah about Xato, though we only just scraped by with our hours.

Week Five Hours Logged

Xato: 3 hour 30 mins
Marty: 3 hour 25 mins

Number Of Sessions In Week Five

Xato: 4
Marty: 6


Xato had what might now be his regular Monday morning walk around the bottom field, but I pulled out his woven baskets from storage and had him wear them while he did it. He hasn’t worn them since last spring but, as expected, he didn’t mind their reintroduction. 

I then did 40 mins in the round pen with Marty, where I put the wool pad, surcingle, and baskets on him instead. He’s never worn these before! After a little ‘show and tell’ I put them on him and he was golden. I definitely wouldn’t take him out with them on yet, and I kept them tied closed rather than open, but honestly I was just really impressed that he carried them at all. He’s come so far. They are built for a draft mule so are a little long for him, but they were a useful tool to teach him how to carry longer loads which I’m sure he’ll do one day. A little bit of lateral work was needed when turning tight corners! He had some difficulty believing that he could bend on a left circle, so I put myself at his left hip – where I could ask him to bend his neck a little – and asked him forward. He took two nice steps on a nice curve and I immediately quit and let him have a long soak time. That seemed to really help him.


I took Xato up to the arena with Ben and Joey and we noodled around in there for an hour. I’d seen a video of someone standing in place and then directing their horse out on a figure of eight around two cones, so I wanted to try that with Xato. He got it pretty quickly but it definitely needs some smoothing out. I then tried to walk a figure of eight with him while leading from his right, and that turned into a real struggle. The left cone meant he had to come around a circle with me in the middle, and he kept leaning on the rope so we kept circling until he could bend; then we tried for the right cone, which meant I was on the outside of the circle, and this one was really difficult for him. He would jam up then suddenly shoot forward and try to circle round in the opposite direction. Eventually Ben took him for 5 minutes and broke it down into teeny tiny steps, and then I was able to do it with him too.

I took Marty out for a walk round the bottom field. I spent a little time asking him to pass between me and the stream (which is in a fairly deep ditch) without bumping into me, and then I had him line up and stand beside it. Before leaving the field I lunged him on both reins on the hillside. Given that it takes Xato and I 20 minutes to complete a circuit of the field, I couldn’t believe that it only took Marty and I 25 minutes to not only walk a circuit, but to do that work by the stream AND lunge! It really shows how much slower Xato is and that I should probably spend more time asking him to walk at my speed, like Marty does.


Marty and I made a much overdue trip to the recycling centre today to drop off some of our (my…) glass bottles. Fortunately I could only fit five empty bottles of Malibu and three empty bottles of wine in his bags, which made me look much less of an alcoholic than disposing of the entire collection in one go.

Marty was A+ at the recycling centre, even when a very large lorry went thundering past (in their defence, when we’re by the bottle-bank they can’t see Marty and I from the road until they’re level with us). On our way back home we picked up a bunch of litter, since we now had empty bags and Stella Man – my arch nemesis – had been on the piss again. 

No work for Xato today.


45 minutes for Xato in the arena. I tried that figure of eight that stymied us on Tuesday – he did it brilliantly first time, so I didn’t ask him to do it again. Mules hate to be drilled! He also lined up nicely with the mounting block on his right, so I had Ben video the ridden portion of last week’s plus challenge. Then, having got on and off him twice, I got back on and we noodled about a bit. I was feeling pretty nervous for no good reason today so I didn’t ask much of him, and spent most of the session in ‘park’. This isn’t entirely bad for him and he’s learning to stand quietly until asked, rather than stand quietly until he thinks he needs to do something! 

Then I got off and did some more groundwork, including this week’s challenge which is to back them up through a gateway or into a stable. 

The arena needed poo-picking, so I took Marty and the wheelbarrow up together. I also dragged Ben up too so that he could film me getting on and off Marty (last week’s challenge) and backing Marty through a gate (this week’s challenge).

I then let Marty loose to do his own thing while I poo-picked. Honestly, I love that I can do that now – in the past it would have been a horrifying thing to do as I would never have been able to catch him! Instead, once I’d finished poo-picking I asked him to fall in beside me and we did a few loops around the arena and over the poles. Before putting his halter back on, I asked him to go out on a circle around me for the first time – and he did it! I was so pleased! 



I was a bit uninspired today, and just pootled around the arena – leading Xato from his right – while Ben worked Joey. Then Ben set us a challenge of trying to do the figure of eight through the cones at liberty, which Xato did really nicely. 

I then tried to do the figure of eight pattern in the opposite direction, i.e. with me on Xato’s right instead of on his left. When he should have come round in a circle around me, he instead got a fixed expression on his face and resolutely kept going straight. I tried to stick with him and draw him back, walking almost three quarters of the way around the arena directly behind him, but when I tried to ask him to stop he decided that running off was the better option.

What followed was a very long but, I think, a necessary session. The rules were thus: if he turned around and put me back on his left, then he had to keep moving. I wouldn’t chase him, but if he tried to drop down to walk then he’d be asked to speed up again. If he put me on his right, he could drop down to walk or stop completely. If he stopped, I would move in to stand by his right shoulder, give him some scratchies, and generally show him how peaceful it could be there. I would then ask him to walk with me at his head – on his right side – across the arena to where his halter lay.

He figured out the left side = work, right side = stop very quickly. It took him much longer to figure out that stopping and allowing me to stand on his right was a good deal, and after a while I began to realise that he’d formed a pattern: he would trot a few laps, stop in the bottom left corner by the mounting block, allow me in, and then run away again before we reached his halter. Sometimes I would get most of the way round the arena with him before he ran (I tried asking for frequent, gentle stops, so as to keep him tuned in to me and avoid his tendency to allow his momentum to carry him forward and away) and sometimes he’d run as soon as we set off.

Ben asked if I wanted him to bring the halter to me at one point, where Xato had stopped in that favoured corner, but I decided that I needed to see it through to my original plan. I’m not usually a fan of of making a rigid plan and then sticking to it when it comes to working with the mules, as you always need to tailor your sessions to suit the animal you have in front of you that day; but ‘catching’ Xato wasn’t the problem here, walking with him on his right was. All he needed to do was walk with me to fetch his halter, something that was well within his abilities. It was a fine balance, since I didn’t want him to become anxious or frustrated, but I also felt that if I quit before getting that walk then we would remain at this right-side impasse that’s been plaguing us for so long. He needed to work out the puzzle for himself. 

So, when he tried to fall into that old pattern and stop in his corner, I’d move him on. It took a while before he’d stop anywhere else; it was all very low energy, I wasn’t driving or chasing him, and all the running came from him. Eventually he thought maybe he could stop somewhere different, and we did the same stop, stroke, chill, walk as before. On the third or fourth time of doing this I asked him to walk with me to his halter, which was now only a few strides away, and I felt like a big weight lifted off him. He got it. He just walked beside me without giving off a sense of wanting to rush forward or hang back, and so we reached the halter, put it on, and quit. 

I don’t know if that will change anything. I’m hopeful that it does. We may have to do this again a few times, but to be honest, the running round is also pretty good for him since he is a fat man! So it’s a win-win from my point of view right now.

No work for Marty today.


We had a friend visiting this weekend, but I fit in 10 minutes with Marty where I tried to convince him that he could walk backwards into his stable. Although we had already done the backing up challenge, I’d seen that most people were doing it by remaining static some distance from the stable and asking their horses to back all the way there by shaking the rope.

I’ve never asked for back-up like that before, but it seemed to me that learning ‘shake rope = back into stable’ was something the mules could pick up very easily. However, my first barrier was getting Marty to step over the threshold at all! I’d deliberately picked his stable as it’s the only one with a ‘lip’ rather than a step up, and I’ve definitely backed him over poles and other obstacles before, but he was absolutely certain that he could not lift his hind legs over this.

After getting stuck numerous times I eventually lined him, up took the pressure off, and waited. After a moment he very tentatively raised a hind leg so I put my finger on the halter beneath his chin and asked him to rock his weight back. He stepped one foot then both foot over the threshold. We did this another two times until I could back him up to the doorway and have him step straight over the threshold without needing to wait first. I figure there’s no point introducing the ‘rope shake = back-up’ until he’s actually comfortable stepping over.

No work for Xato.


Normally, if we have guests, it’s pretty standard to load up Marty and head on on a hike; but Storm Ciara made being outside pretty unpleasant, so instead we only went for a 20 minute walk up the hill and back during a brief lull in the rain.

No work for Xato.

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