Top Barn 12 Week Challenge: Week One

The 2020 Top Barn 12 Week Challenge started on Monday. It’s a fab community set-up by our ‘local’ clinic venue, Top Barn Horsemanship Centre in Gloucestershire, and is a brilliant way to keep yourself motivated during these damp and dismal winter months. I’ve signed up to do the Bronze level with both Marty and Xato, which means I’ve committed to doing at least three hours per mule per week for the next three months. 

Although I’m working with both mules, I think this challenge will really be about Xato and me. Logging hours with Marty is relatively easy – we can do three hours in one hike, if we can find time to fit a hike in! – but I’ve been pretty poor when it comes to working consistently with Xato. For the past year he’s mostly been Ben’s mule, and as I have to complete the work myself for my hours to count, during this challenge I won’t be able to hand Xato over to him and will have to work through problems myself. I think this will be very good for both of us.

We peaked early this week, as I had a hospital appointment on Monday afternoon and we were supposed to be away on Friday visiting family for the next four days, so we had to get all our hours in as soon as possible. Unfortunately Joey came down with a suspected subsolar bruise / abscess mid-week and we had to call off our holiday. Oh well! Any other hours we do can be banked and saved for a rollover week later, should we need one.

I got into the habit of making notes about the things I learnt or found interesting during our sessions, and I thought I’d share them here in case they’re helpful to anyone else. I don’t know if I’ll do an update every week; it might be boring for readers of my blog if this is all I talk about for three months. We’ll see. For now, here are my observations on Marty and Xato during week one…

Week One Hours Logged

Xato: 3 hours 15 minutes
Marty: 3 hours

Number Of Sessions In Week One

Xato: 5
Marty: 6


Ben had slightly raised our poles by propping up one end of them – i.e. the first pole was raised on the left, the second pole raised on the right, the third on the left, and so on. Xato had been crossing flat poles no problem, but when I took him over these he bumped almost all of them with his big lumbering hooves.

     “How can I get him to lift his feet?” I asked Ben. “He doesn’t care about bumping his feet, it doesn’t mean anything to him. How can I persuade him to think otherwise?”
     “Lift your feet,” said Ben. I looked at him in some confusion.
     “I was. I didn’t bump any of the poles with my feet.”
     “Really exaggerate your steps, though. Make sure you’re walking in time with him and lift your legs high when you step over the poles.”

I wasn’t convinced, but I did as he suggested and wouldn’t you know it – Xato didn’t touch a single pole. I did it a few times to make sure and he cleared the poles each and every time. Ben says this is just because our horse (or mule) is a mirror of ourselves; I think it’s probably sorcery.

What is a reward to Xato?
Normally, when working through something tricky, I would reward a good try by standing quietly nearby and giving them a few minutes to process without anything being asked of them. Mules especially seem to need a good long time to think and let down. However, it occurred to me that perhaps a rest was less of a reward for Xato and more of a chore; with Xato, he finds standing still difficult when in a work environment because he’s always waiting for the next thing. If nothing is asked of him, he’ll eventually offer something himself. He’s not relaxing.

Obviously, learning to stand quietly and rest is a skill he needs to know. When I ride him I’ve been incorporating long periods of standing still just to get him used to the idea that he can do it without fidgeting, and I do that in hand as well (usually when watching Ben do something with Joey). But if standing still is something he finds a little challenging, then is it a reward? At the moment, it doesn’t offer him peace.

Xato’s favourite way to be led is to have the handler out in front and he’ll follow directly behind. He’s good at this and keeps the rope nice and slack between us. This is something he knows how to do and feels secure about. Therefore, I thought I would trial using that as my way of saying “that was a good try, let’s do something super easy that you don’t need to think too hard about”. Instead of standing still, we will now walk around the arena with me in the lead and Xato ambling peacefully behind, free to devote his brainpower to thinking about how he solved the latest problem.

I also discovered that sitting or squatting down helps him figure out that we’re on a break, and he doesn’t need to do anything.

Changing eyes
We’ve been working on an exercise where I put the rope on his opposite side, over his bum, and lead from behind – kind of like one-rein long-reining. While walking behind him on one side – say his left – I will step sideways so that he can see me out of his right eye, then step back so I’m in his left, and so on; the idea being that he gets used to seeing me appear and disappear out of alternative eyes. Things behind him have been a source of concern for Xato since we first got him, and although he’s better than he was, it’s still a worry for him. Almost every time he’s bolted has been because of something behind him, so we really need to help him feel better about this area. His right side is also his ‘weaker’ side and he finds it much harder to have me behind him AND on his right. I’m hoping this challenge will see some improvement in this by the end of 12 weeks.

Changing eyes – stopping
In our first session he really struggled having me on his right at all, to the extent that I decided to forget about changing position behind him and just focus on leading on his right, level with his hindquarters. Once he was walking easily I would ask him to whoa with a vocal cue. If he tried to turn to face me, which he often did, I would keep my position relative to his hindquarters and just step round with him until he stopped.

After a few goes at this I began to realise something: the place he chose to stop was always facing Joey. Wherever Joey and Ben were in the arena, Xato would only come to a stop when he was facing them. I asked Ben for advice because I wasn’t sure if the fact he was stopping at all was good enough, or whether I should keep him circling until he had stopped facing the direction he’d been in when I’d initially asked him to stop.

Ben reminded me of the Faun Anderson clinic at Top Barn that we went to last year, and her ‘drother’ comment – “He’d drother be over there”. I needed him to let go of the direction he was obsessively thinking in and think more about the direction I was asking for. He didn’t have to stop in the direction I’d asked, but he couldn’t stop facing Joey either. We’d just keep stepping round. If Joey was north and Xato stopped while facing east, that was fine. He was soon able to stop and face the direction we had been travelling in, regardless of where Joey was.

I did a little riding with Xato in the round pen, working on trying to steer with my seat and legs alone. This is my challenge rather than his – he does it nicely with Ben on board, but I have zero strength and can’t seem to do it the way Ben does! It shouldn’t have to rely on strength, but I have yet to achieve it without.

We also accidentally discovered, during my second ride session, that we need to work on Xato with open gates again. I had such a lovely ride in the pen; there were high winds and the rain was starting to come in, but Xato felt gentle and steady and secure – and then Ben opened the gate so I could ride up to the yard and I immediately lost all softness in my reins. He very nearly took me through the gateway (‘bolting at walk’) but I managed to disengage him. It really took me by surprise because I’ve been riding him quite a bit the past week or so, and he’s shown no interest in the gate in either the arena or round pen – he’ll happily walk past it, doesn’t feel the need to pull towards it, etc. But as soon as it was open his mind went through it and his thought was like a lead weight in my hands.

To counter this gate obsession, I worked on disengaging until his thought changed and then offered him a new direction (something that Harry Whitney / Ross Jacobs taught us). The first few times we did this he was incredibly heavy to turn, and when each new direction was offered he’d just pull back to the gate again. Eventually, though, it took less and less effort to disengage him, and he was soon back to being as light in the hand as he had been before. His turns were smooth, I could ride an infinity loop parallel to the open gateway, and I was able to ask him to halt softly and wait in front of the open gateway. Ben opened the top gate while we waited, and Xato moved smoothly forwards only when asked. I’ve no doubt that we’ll need to work on this a lot, but it was still super nice to feel that change.



We’ve picked up where we left off here. Although we successfully introduced the pack saddle, double cinches and collar to him last summer and have covered over 100 miles with it on so far, the breeching was always going to be our next challenge. He does NOT approve of it but, being a typical mule shape, he will need it – especially once we start carrying heavier loads.

We’ve been using a ring rope over his quarters and this week we revisited that. I would start by laying the loop over his back, doing a few circuits; opening the loop so it encircles his croup, doing a few circuits; opening the loop further so it sits above his tail, and doing a few circuits until his movement causes it to slide slowly down over his dock. If he wants to stop I will let him, then gently ask him on again and do some more circuits with the loops over his butt in the rough position that a breeching would be.

He still has obvious concern about this, but he rarely goes over thresh-hold now – previously, he would want to tuck his butt under and run as soon as he felt the rope on his tail. Now he can think through the problem and listen without the need to leave.

Pretty standard; not much to report on here. We only went a mile up the hill and back before our packs were full – I hadn’t been out in a while – and I was very pleased with him, since he was feeling unusually ‘barn sour’ to begin with and it was a very blustery day. The wind made a horrendous sound as we came back down through the tree tunnel. He also had to squeeze between a pick-up truck, parked in the middle of our single-width lane, and a steep and slippery bank – which he did beautifully by climbing the bank without a single hesitation, slip, or bump.

I discovered on the second day of the challenge that hand-grazing counts towards your hours, because you’re spending undemanding time with them. Honestly it feels like a bit of a cheat to me but it was certainly useful, since Marty is still on dry lot due to his mud fever and I can’t even turn him out in the garden anymore as the weather too wet now. I made myself feel less like I was cheating by reminding myself that a) hand-grazing is something I need to do with him at the moment and b) we’re still technically training. He’s not allowed to pull on me when we hand-graze, just the same as when I’m leading him, and he’s been taught an ‘eat’ cue so it’s clear to him when it’s alright to graze and when it isn’t. 

Leading from behind
I decided to try Xato’s leading from behind exercise with Marty, thinking that he’d be a dab hand at it since we do it so often while out on walks. Nope! Context is everything with mules. He didn’t understand it in the arena and thought I wanted him to move out on a circle, so kept rushing ahead and bending inwards. At one point he even jumped in the air and kicked out at me – I was level with his quarters so he could have got me if he’d wanted to, but it was mostly just him airing his opinion. The only time he did it easily was when I asked him forward while we were facing the pole grid, and because he knew that the pole grid is there to be walked over in a straight line, he crossed it easily with me just behind his hip.

We enlisted Ben’s help and Marty quickly settled to the task with no real change in technique – I’m not sure why we did better, perhaps Ben’s presence meant Marty paid more attention to what he was being asked to do.


Week One Plus Challenge

As I opted to do the Bronze Plus, it means every week the Top Barn team share a fun exercise to try and we need to challenge ourselves to do it. This week was haltering from the offside. As I’ve written a lot here already, click through to the YouTube page if you want to read the details about this one.

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