Xato and the Oh No, part two

Gosh, this has taken a long time to write. Mostly because I was recently given the amazing opportunity to run Horsemanship magazine (oh yeh, just a li’l thing I forgot to mention … more on that later), and I’ve been spending every spare minute getting the April issue ready to go. Every spare minute that isn’t spent on wedding planning, anyway. Or putting together the next issue of The Mule Journal. Or doing my freelance groom work. Or caring for my own equines. Or … you get the picture!

The other reason is because, after typing out the first half of this, I was suddenly struck by the realisation that this entire blog has been me waffling on about theory without ever actually accomplishing anything. I had hoped that, with Xato, I would soon be doing “normal” things like hopping on for a lunchtime hack, rather than finding myself facing another big problem that I had to unravel. It made me feel like a bit of a screw-up, so I moped around feeling sorry for myself for a while. I even questioned what the point of this whole horsemanship thing was, which is an awesome thing to contemplate when you’re running a magazine about horsemanship. It occurred to me that if I didn’t care how my mule felt, then I could just stick him in something like a Waterford, strap his mouth shut when he objected, and go on my merry way. Problem solved!

Except, obviously, it wouldn’t be.

Since the bolt, a few people have suggested that I put Xato in a bit for safety’s sake. I truly appreciate their advice, and I’m not swearing off bits; but I do have reasons for not immediately going to one, and I thought I’d explain those reasons here.

Working with energy at liberty.


Thoughts What I Have Thunk

Firstly, a bit is not a guarantee of safety just because it is a bit. I could go through snaffles, gags, and leverage bits until I found one that gave me immediate control, but in this case they would all be forcing obedience rather than creating a willing response.

The problem that I need to address is that Xato does not feel good about the task that I am asking him to do. As Anna Bonnage says, “How a horse feels makes all the difference” – until he feels good about it, then any bit or gadget I use is just going to mask the problem rather than solve it. It may be that I will need a physical tool to create a change mentally, which is an interesting concept, but I’m not keen to go straight to using one when there are other options to explore first.

Kathleen Lindley Beckham wrote a good article along those lines recently. I’d recommend reading it. I might be able to stick a plaster over my problem and even go along as normal for a while, but the problem would still be there beneath the surface. I would feel fine, my mule wouldn’t; and that way leads to wrecks.

So what I really need to do is figure out why he doesn’t feel good about the job, and how to change that for him. Solve the little problems in order to fix the big problem.

My first thought would be a physical issue: for him to go along so well for so long, getting better every session, only to then dramatically fall off the wagon seems suspicious to me. By this point he has had one osteopathic treatment, two chiropractic treatments, his teeth tidied, his saddle checked and fitted, and his feet trimmed three times. I haven’t changed his feed, his companions or his living arrangements. There should be no physical reason for his reluctance to bend, but of course it may be worth getting a second opinion.

Poor Xato – even hay time requires him to work! He didn’t like Ben striding in to pet him, and although he didn’t run off he did spent a lot of time walking around and around in the hopes that Ben would give up. Notice how the rest of the herd don’t think the occasion is even worth raising their heads for. This photo was taken shortly before Xato gave in and decided that letting people approach him with energy wasn’t so bad after all; you can see how he is at least acknowledging Ben here.

The other option, and the one I am leaning towards, is an emotional one. Xato was able to bend, disengage and give to the reins from the ground, but as soon as a rider got on he found it difficult. As I mentioned in part one, although his steering was improving under saddle, it was way slower than his improvement in hand – so with that in mind, his sudden refusal to acknowledge the rein at all while under saddle isn’t so strange. We missed signs that he wasn’t 100% alright with it and that we were really only getting by on his good nature. As soon as he decided he didn’t want to do something, there went any semblance of control I thought I had!

I think that as we began to ask more from him, he began to get worried until eventually he just said “no”. That “no” seemed like a good idea at the time, but he then found that he actually didn’t know what to do now he’d made his decision, and the “no” turned to fear. Bolting when his thought is blocked, or when energy is put in, does not make him feel good either; but at the moment it makes him feel good enough, and he thinks that’s what he needs to do. To him, running off seems like the best option. We need to persuade him to change that idea and realise that it’s way more peaceful to work with us instead.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on it.

Thoughts What Other People Have Thunk

Since then I’ve had some good input from several sources. My friend Samantha came over to help me on the Saturday after the bolt, as Ben was at a Jeff Sanders clinic and I really didn’t want to leave Xato for a whole week. Xato did a good job of showing Sam exactly how strong a mule can be, and how good they are at saying nope. I’m not entirely sure he endeared his species to her, although she did say he was very interesting to work with!

I was really grateful for Sam’s help and she repeated what several people have said to me before – that my low energy way of being is great when dealing with really nervous animals, but it’s not actually that helpful when we need to help the nervous animal overcome their worry. My mules don’t enjoy high energy because I am not a high energy person and so they simply aren’t used to it. I swear I have been trying to work on this, but I’m not very good at it!

On the Sunday, I went to spectate at the Jeff Sanders clinic that Ben was riding on. To be honest, Xato picked a pretty good week to fall apart as I had almost immediate access to plenty of help. I overcame my natural shyness and was able to sidle up to Jeff in a totally non creepy way and ask him what his thoughts were on the situation.

I don’t know why, but I feel as though they’re plotting something…

Jeff’s advice was to go back to groundwork and practice the one-rein stop – and really get him to bend when we do it (the word he used was “fold”, which I think is a good descriptive. Xato can’t just yaw round like a big old tanker when I pick up that rein, he needs to immediately give and take those hindquarters out and around). Jeff said I need to bring that stop in if I even suspect that Xato is thinking of leaving; waiting until he does leave is way too late with a mule!

He also said that Xato is just as likely to run through a bit as he is a hackamore; a bit isn’t going to become a safety guarantee until he actually knows what the reins mean. So, basically, what we have been doing, except … we need to do it better. Jeff did add that mules may need us to be a little firmer than we would have to be with a horse.

Other pearls of wisdom were:

  • don’t stop bending them just because they’ve stopped their feet; you wait for them to relax, and reward for that
  • always be aware of your mount and know when the energy starts to turn negative. Don’t push them over the edge
  • DON’T BE AFRAID TO BAIL! Oh yeh, I learned that one!

On the same weekend, I received a wonderful email from a lady who I rode with nearly two years ago on a Harry Whitney clinic in Arizona, USA. She was one of two mule owners there so I watched and learnt all I could – although her mule was a lot better behaved than Marty! I keep meaning to write that clinic up, actually, because Xato really reminds me of the horse I worked with.

Anyway. Robyn passed on some great Harry advice regarding mules: he says that mules can effectively shorten their neck by pulling it into their shoulders, which is how they manage that rather impressive brace. Once they do that it is virtually impossible to turn them, so Harry had Robyn work on softening her mules neck by getting her to bend – not just bending left and right, but bending with an actual softness in the turn. The softness is what I was missing with Xato.

Soft wouldn’t exactly be my first word to describe this…

Another Harry method involves saddling the equine, and then standing next to them where the stirrup hangs. You can then put your arm across the saddle (or maybe not, in my case – perhaps I should invest in platform wellies) in order to take the reins, and ask the equine to walk on by lifting your energy. If you need more energy you can pat the saddle or bump the stirrup.

Lifting and lowering energy is how we work with our equines anyway, and it is something that Xato seems to have trouble with. He was improving, but since the bolt he’s gone back to deciding that it’s easier to cut and run rather than try and move faster on command. I wouldn’t currently be able to do the exercise mentioned above (so a big reason not to get back on yet, huh!), but it’s something I am working towards. We have been doing lots of work on energy lately, but I’ll save that write-up for later!

Things to Try

Other than the general groundwork that we’ve been doing to work through this problem with energy and his newly discovered love of buggering off every time things get too difficult, there are a couple of other things that are worth exploring in addition to that.

The mules thought there might be food (there wasn’t: Ben was just having a big grooming session with his horses and the mules had to butt in. Note how Marty is still standing back beside me, just in case Scary Ben tries to do something terrible!).

While at the Jeff clinic I observed a rider utilising Equine Breathing, which may be something interesting to explore; in the rider’s case, her horse would get nervous and breathe too quick and too shallow, which meant that the oxygen couldn’t get to his muscles properly. This caused a build up of lactic acid which made him stiff. This struck me as useful information because Ben and I have noted Xato’s breathing before; he does have a tendancy to breathe quite quickly, and the vet said he has tiny nostrils for his size. I wonder if his concern about what I’m asking him to do is actually manifesting as a physical limitation?

Another thing I intend to do is put the mules back on a magnesium supplement. We used to give it to Marty as, coming from Devon, he was deficient in it and a magnesium deficiency results in spooky, twitchy behaviour. I only stopped because we ran out and never got round to ordering more! Xato had become incredibly twitchy lately which is a total personality change from when he arrived, so I’m wondering if this might help balance things out a bit. I also read a post from someone on one of my mule groups where she described similar behaviour to Xato’s. She claimed that nervous behaviour results in magnesium deficiency and vice versa, and that as well as the twitchiness it also makes them extremely sensitive to touch – so much so that it can almost be painful to them. That sounds more Marty than Xato, but I thought it was interesting!

And this is why it takes me so long to get chores done. Butts won’t scratch themselves…


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