Top Barn 12 Week Challenge: Week Seven

Sorry for the delayed blog post this week; I haven’t been feeling particularly motivated to do … well, anything really. The weather and the mud and the mess of everything has been quite depressing. Week Seven was a mixed bag for us too, since it started and ended badly but had some lovely moments in between. Ah well; such is life, I guess!

Week Seven Hours Logged

Xato: 3 hours 15 minutes
Marty: 4 hours

Number Of Sessions In Week Seven

Xato: 4
Marty: 2


It was Ben’s birthday today and he wanted to ride Joey in the arena, so I opted to take Marty up as well. I usually work Xato at the same time as Ben works Joey, but I was already thinking that this might be a rollover week for Xato and, as I’d only be able to work one mule today, I decided to pick Marty.

I’ve been wanting a bareback pad for him for a while, since his coat gets a little rucked up under my thighs when I ride him bareback – not enough to cause any problems, but I feel bad, and I thought a pad would a) make things more comfortable for both of us and b) help start introductions to a saddle. A few months back when I visited my parents, I brought home a pad I’d bought for my old pony years ago; but unfortunately the girth wasn’t long enough so I couldn’t use it. Instead, I came up with the ‘great’ idea of using his surcingle and fleece nummnah as a makeshift pad. I was only going to sit on it for a little bit, I reasoned, and if it didn’t work then it didn’t work.

Now, my big mistake here was forgetting that despite all his progress and improvements, Marty is still Marty. This is still the mule who’s worn the same rope halter for 6 years because he used to freak out if I introduced a different one that wasn’t the same weight/texture/softness. I may have ridden him numerous times with no problems, and he may have worn a nummnah and surcingle numerous times with no problems, and he may have experienced weight plus nummnah/girth in the form of his pack saddle numerous times with no problems … but that didn’t mean he was going to be alright with me riding him while he was wearing a nummnah and girth.

What I should have done was treat him like he’d never been ridden before and do all the same stuff that I’d so painstakingly done before his first bareback ride. I should have walked beside him with my arm over the pad or rubbing on it; I should have spent time at the mounting block leaning over and petting/treating him on his opposite side; I should have bellied over first and then slid off again; I should have swung my leg over and then immediately got off on the opposite side … these are all the things that went through my mind as I sailed inelegantly through the air.

What actually happened was I lined him on at the block, jumped up and bellied over, swung my leg over, sat up, then shifted my position like I do every time I get on bareback. At this point Marty suddenly humped his back beneath me, didn’t like what he felt, and bucked three times. With each buck I was bounced further back until I popped off and landed directly behind him; I’m very thankful that he’s not a malicious boy and, despite my idiocy, likes me well enough not to hurt me. I was wearing a riding hat but that would not have been much protection from a hoof to the face.

So that was it! My first fall off Marty and, indeed, my first fall off a mule. Poor Marty shot off after I hit the ground, his rope flying up and landing over his back, which seemed to exacerbate things. He ran the long side of the arena before dropping to trot and then to walk in the corner, turning to face me with his ears pricked up tall, his eyes boggling, and his nostrils flaring. It was quite reminiscent of that time he was spooked by dogs and ran away from me in the Punchbowl, dragging me over as he did so and taking off down the hill before stopping to wait for me round the corner; that sudden realisation that he’s out on his own and maybe I could come back and make everything alright for him. Unlike the Punchbowl incident, I wasn’t greeted with a bray and him running back to me, but he did allow me to approach him and pick up his lead. 

After that we did the things I should have done first. I was just getting to the point where I was about to belly over when four of my chickens suddenly appeared by the arena gate, intent on journeying out into the great unknown beyond our drive, so Marty and I had to herd them back. It was very useful having Marty since the hens kept trying to double back, but with Marty on one side of the drive and me on the other, between us we were able to keep those naughty birds heading in the direction we wanted them to go.

I took his saddle pad off in order to get him through the narrow gate of the chicken pen with me, since I was concerned about the D rings on the surcingle possibly snagging on the gate, and I didn’t bother to put it back on again. Instead I took him back to the arena and did the same groundwork again, this time bareback. I then bellied over and got off, swung my leg over and immediately got off again on the other side, and eventually swung my leg over and sat up. Without the pad between us he was fine, and I decided to end the session there. 

The photo above is him having a post-roll nap at the end of the session! It’s hard work bucking people off!


Ben got wellies for his birthday, so he could finally walk down the droveway with me! I really wanted to ride Xato down there since it’s a long, narrow trail, where we could go further than we’d gone the other day under saddle and there was minimal chance of anything Happening. We set out behind Joey’s reassuring arse, as Ben was leading him on foot.

Unfortunately, as we got halfway we discovered that one of the fields alongside the track now contained three feisty cobs. Xato has never had a problem with horses in fields doing daft things – you may remember us riding or walking him past the field of youngstock in the Punchbowl – but his exodus up the hill last year really shook my confidence in several ways, even though I hadn’t been riding or even handling him at the time. In this instance, the idea of riding past the frolicing ponies scared me because it was a field of horses on the hill who had spooked Xato and turned him round during his escape. I’d been grateful for it at the time as it prevented him from going further and ending up on the busy road, but it had since formed into an irrational “fields of horses scare him – he will want to bolt if he sees one” fear. 

Ben talked me down as I was all for giving up and turning round, despite how desperately I wanted to ride to the end of the droveway and back, and told me to trust my mule. As Ben predicted, Xato didn’t care at all about the excited ponies and apart from one moment – where I let him go closer to look at them and he tried to climb the near vertical bank between – he was relatively uninterested. 

We rode all the way to the end of the droveway, through the cow yard, and down to the end of the lane before turning back again.


Worked Xato in the arena. He was a dreamboat – everything I asked he did. Leading from his right was fine, swapping over behind him was fine (you may remember we started with that at the beginning of the challenge, then abandoned it because he couldn’t tolerate me on his right let alone at his hip or changing sides), the figure of eight through the cones was fine … I also asked Ben to take Xato’s halter and put it in a random part of the arena, and Xato walked with me on his right to go pick it up. No running off.

We did this week’s plus challenge, which is to back a semicircle (video next week as Marty hasn’t done it yet), and Xato lay down when I let him off to roll and let me sit next to him!

One hour total.


No work for either mule.


No work for either mule.


Took Marty on a 2hr55 hike with Ben and my friend Steph, who was visiting from London for the weekend. He was foot perfect!  I also belatedly realised that this was the first time since throwing me off that he’d worn a saddle pad plus something ‘other’. He wasn’t bothered about it at all.

Xato also went for a 30 minute walk up the hill and back with Joey, plus 10 minutes handgrazing. Another big stepping stone for us: the large here of horses were back on the hillside, but on the other side of the road. I was a little worried as it was this hill that Xato ran up before being spooked by horses, but he was absolutely fine despite them all cavorting around (they’d been more excitable when we’d passed by with Marty earlier. I think they’ve only recently been turned out there). 


Today went badly. We took my friend sightseeing during the day, and then took Xato and Joey up to the arena when we got back that evening. I was incredibly tired but it seemed a shame to use a rollover or holiday week when I only had 20 minutes left to make up his hours, so we pottered around doing easy tasks.

Everything was fine, and after 20 minutes I stopped and decided to just hang out until Ben was done. Then I thought, “Actually, let’s stop next to the mounting block so I can sit down” and led Xato the five metres across the arena. When we stopped here, however, he drifted and stepped his hindquarters away.

I was on his right side, and as we’ve been working on this SO much I knew I couldn’t just shrug and sit down anyway; I had to be consistent. I thought it would just be a matter of setting him up again, but no … he kept drifting every time I asked him to stop. This went on and on, with him now not wanting to walk on my left either, and I’m sorry to say I felt very frustrated with him because we’ve worked and worked and worked on this issue, and his sessions all this week and last had felt so positive – like we were finally making changes – and then we’re right back at square one.

Anyway, long story short, we did get it eventually but I didn’t feel good and he didn’t feel good – not as sweet and easy as he had felt moments before – and really getting the answer you want means nothing if the mule doesn’t feel good about it. So that made me feel a whole lot worse and it was a horrible end to an otherwise enjoyable week.

After the herd had had dinner I spent 10 minutes or so asking him to back through stable doorways, since he enjoys that game. It was a risky move because if it hadn’t gone well that would have compounded both our bad feelings, but I knew that if it did go well then it might salvage how he feels about working with me and I wouldn’t have felt quite so awful. He did it fine and seemed happy to engage with me, and Marty had a go as well.

Oh well. Tomorrow is another day.

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