Xato and the Reason I Got Scared

If you’re a regular to the blog, you’re probably aware that I have a plethora of Not My Proudest Moments; an awareness aided by my oddly masochistic compulsion to share these failings with whatever poor soul happens to stumble across this little corner of the internet. As I’ve said before, part of this is because – in the Early Marty Era – I felt like the only person with a mule who’d ever struggled, as no one was writing about that side of it. It sucked and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.

The other part is just that I’m a bit of a weirdo whose overshare button is stuck in the “on” position.

Anyway, regulars will also know that I lost my confidence last autumn and, until very recently, I could barely ride a single circuit of the arena without wanting to jump off. I never wrote about what triggered this, beyond saying that Xato bolted with me. There were a few reasons why:

  • I was ashamed. Immediately after he bolted I allowed my ego to get the better of me and let my mule down very badly.
  • I was embarrassed. This isn’t, after all, the first time I’ve lost my confidence. Over the past year I have had to glumly respond to people’s bemused responses of “What, again?” and it doesn’t make you feel good about yourself, that’s for sure!
  • There was no happy ending. What was the point, I thought, of writing about a big scare or a failure when there was no positive outcome? Do we really need more doom and gloom?

I am now riding again, so the happy ending part is taken care of (for the purpose of writing a blog post, at least). I’m no longer embarrassed about being afraid and would fiercely rebuff anyone who tried to make me feel that way. And, although I wish I had acted differently, I’ve accepted that this is all part of learning to be a better mulewoman. We all make mistakes and the only shame is not learning from them.

Plus, it’s actually a pretty funny story. When you forget about the 11 months of genuine fear that followed it, anyway. Other than that it’s hilarious!

To put the Big Scare in context, I’ll need to remind you of this initial cock-up back in early 2017 (I’m cringing to bring it up again, but honestly, if I’m going to be honest in all this then honest is what I’ll be) and briefly mention a Smaller Scare that happened a few weeks prior to the event.


Schooling in early spring.

The Small Scare

The Smaller Scare also involved the common. Ben and I were riding down one of the little trails that leads onto it, Xato and I in the lead. The trail is shielded by trees and you can’t see the common until you get to the end of it. About half-way down, we heard barking ahead of us; Xato stopped, ears standing to attention, but I wasn’t concerned as he grew up around dogs and has never minded them. I allowed him to stand and think, my reins loose and my hand rubbing gently on his neck, then asked him on again. He was alert and stopped another couple of times before we got to the end of the trail, but I assumed he was just trying to figure out what the deal was; after all, the dogs were making a lot of noise and he wasn’t able to see them. It never felt like he wanted to turn around or go anywhere fast, and whenever I asked him to walk on he responded to the slightest squeeze of my legs.

Eventually we got to the end of the trail which joins a sort of off-centre crossroads. On the other side from us was a lady with a small brown dog and, facing her across the path, was a man with a husky. It was the husky who was doing the barking; it was clearly a nervous dog, and both owners were doing a good job of helping him feel braver about things. I halted Xato so that he could look at them properly.

“Just some dogs,” I said, cheerfully. Well, Xato stood there and looked at them for a full 20 seconds and then he suddenly whipped round and took off back down the trail.

Afterwards, I realised he could only have gone a few strides as I was able to bend him to a stop once we’d passed Iris (Ben’s mare) and he was safely tucked behind her. At the time it felt like we’d gone miles and I was quite shaken, as the other end of the trail was a blind exit out onto the road. What if he’d tried to run all the way home and taken me across the road and there’d been a car coming and…?? I am very good at imagining the worst possible outcome. I got off and led him back; the dog owners were very apologetic (it wasn’t their fault) and, now I was on the ground, Xato didn’t pay them much attention at all. He waked past with no further issue, so I got back on a few minutes later and we continued the ride. On the way home, we passed the woman and the brown dog again on a narrow trail and Xato ambled by without concern.

A couple of weeks later I was out riding on the common with a friend and we met the same husky in the same place, this time with a different handler. My friend knew the handler so stopped to chat; Xato and I parked up politely nearby and waited. While they talked, the dog was dragging its owner closer and closer to Xato and I. As it came within sniffing distance of his hind legs, I asked the owner if she could please not let the dog come too close as it had spooked Xato a few weeks ago and, being a mule, he was a very accurate kicker. She obliged, Xato didn’t react, the conversation ended and we rode on.

I felt much better, as I realised he hadn’t developed some weird fear of dogs; it had just been the situation that had bothered him.


Hacking out with Ben this summer.

The Big Scare

A few weeks later, Ben and I set out one bright morning for another ride on the common. I’m not saying the common is cursed, but it could be.

I was feeling good. Really good – I’d lost the fear that had been gnawing at me since the Small Scare, and felt like I could handle anything that happened. Xato was feeling good. He walked down through the village with some actual impulsion in his stride, as opposed to his usual “mañana, mañana” attitude to life.

Once we got out on the common, we realised how sheltered we’d been in the village as the wind was really strong. We set off down the wide firebreak regardless, Iris in the lead. Xato was beginning to feel different: he had slowed down, although he made no attempt to stop or turn round, and kept half-glancing over his shoulder. My first instinct was that something was touching his hindquarters in a way that bothered him – his back felt ever-so-slightly rounded beneath me. He wasn’t wearing his breeching, my coat wasn’t over the saddle, and we were out in the open so no branches were brushing against him. There were no hikers or dog-walkers in sight. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

I asked for halt, and was perturbed by the absolute stillness that came over him. I realise this seems odd as I should have been thrilled to have him stop so nicely and then stand so still, but it felt too still – not rigid or tense, just still. In hindsight, I now realise that stillness was the donkey in him: the freeze before deciding whether to run or not. I was still thinking in horse.

I asked him on again with a small squeeze of my legs – he complied, smoothly – and I called out to Ben to say that something wasn’t right with Xato and I wasn’t sure what. I rode in front for a little way, but Ben couldn’t see anything obvious either; we shrugged and decided this was one of the things where we’d just keep going and see how he felt. Xato and I began to drop back as Iris’ quicker stride took her out ahead of us.

The next thing I knew we were running. He took me straight off the path, across the heather, and into a large cluster of gorse bushes and sapling trees before I was finally able to pull him up – or, more accurately, before he finally decided to stop.

At this point I had no idea what had happened so I jumped off immediately. There had been no visible cause that I had seen and so, combined with his odd behaviour of a few minutes earlier, I was worried there was some internal problem that had caused this reaction; if it was pain, I didn’t want to be on him. I was also feeling pretty frightened.

No sooner had my feet touched the ground when I heard a familiar voice. It turned out that one of the people I work for was out riding, and had come down an adjoining track behind us. The high gorse bushes meant she had been hidden from view, and the strong winds had presumably blocked her horse’s scent and the sound of his approach – although presumably Xato had known that someone was out there. The sudden appearance of a horse much taller than him had obviously been too much for his already full cup and so he’d – very kindly – whisked me away to the relative safety of the trees.

My fear immediately became entangled with acute embarrassment. My employer had never seen me out with any of my equines before or even met Xato, and it was horribly, painfully typical that her very first view of my mule and I was us making an uncontrolled exit followed by me leaping off! Working among traditional horse people as I do, I am known for doing things a little ‘differently’ with my own animals and this was hardly the competent horsewoman vibe I wanted to give off. It certainly didn’t make a good advert for the type of horsemanship I practise. I temporarily considered staying in the bushes; perhaps we could hide there and pretend we hadn’t seen her.

Of course, hiding is apparently not what grown women do and so my mule and I sheepishly pushed aside the branches and wandered over to where Ben, Iris, and my employer were waiting. She was quite bemused and wanted to know why I was on the floor. The idea of it sometimes being safer to get off and work your horse from the ground is, I know, an alien one for many people. I can understand this because there are many horses I handle who would absolutely not be safer from the ground; if a horse pushing, pulling, or running you over is the norm when you lead them, why would you want to get off?  I went red and mumbled something indistinct.

“Well, he seems fine now,” said my employer, after Ben came to my rescue and tried to explain why I’d got off. She was right – he did. Outwardly. Under different circumstances I would have led Xato a little way to test his responses on the ground before thinking about getting back on him, but I was embarrassed and wanted to show that I was capable of riding my own mule. I allowed my ego to creep in.

I took him over to a suitable mounting place and he did not want to line up on it – this was very unusual for him, and should have been my cue to realise that he was not yet ready to carry me again. But, I didn’t know how to explain that to my employer, and so I persisted. He didn’t want to stand still for me to mount, which is also really unlike him, yet I still deliberately ignored this and hopped on; idiotically hoping that we could just push through whatever the issue was.

My employer led off, Ben followed, and Xato and I brought up the rear. We’d only gone a few strides before I jumped off again; he had felt utterly disconnected beneath me, like a marionette being controlled by an inept puppeteer. His mind was not with me at all. I babbled something about the saddle not being right and, fortunately, my employer decided to carry on with her ride alone rather than wait for me to stop pratting about.

Ben dismounted too, did a little groundwork with Xato right there on the path, and then I led Xato on a circuit of the common before remounting once we got back to the village and riding home.


Admiring the view with me at the start of September.

The Aftermath

And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s all been documented on here and on the Facebook page so I won’t go over it again in detail. I didn’t get back on Xato for a few months after that, and when I did it was lead-rein stuff in the arena. Ben has been working with him ever since, carefully going back over the basics and filling in the gaps in his education. Xato hasn’t bolted, tried to bolt, or done anything scary in all that time and I desperately wanted to put aside my fears and trust in him, but it wasn’t until after the Maultiertreffen that I was able to.

Was that the story you were expecting? Given how long it kept me from riding, you probably thought I was going to write about a near-death experience, a five mile gallop of terror, a fall at the very least? Nope; all that happened was my mule ran a few strides and hid behind some trees. It was my embarrassment, my previous experiences with him, and my overthinking that did the rest.

I was angry with myself for not having the guts to say to my employer “He’s not ready for me to get back on, I’m going to lead him for a bit first”, and I was angry with myself for betraying his trust in me by ignoring his obvious unease. I was angry at myself for not having learnt mule well enough to realise how worried he was before he bolted, and I was angry at myself for trying to do everything right with equines and still failing.

So you see, a loss of confidence doesn’t have to come from a near-death experience. It doesn’t need to be the result of broken bones or bloody wounds. It can be an amalgamation of things that creep up on you until, one day, something happens and your final barrier falls down. If this sounds familiar, please please please don’t keep beating yourself up. You’re human. I bet your horse, mule, or donkey means the world to you. We all make mistakes – it’s part of learning. And no, this doesn’t mean that you should just ‘get over it’ and hop back on either. Find someone to teach your equine, and find someone to teach you. If you need to, borrow a friend’s bombproof schoolmaster or go on a trekking holiday and remind yourself how it ought to feel. Remember that you would never force your equine into a fearful situation and you shouldn’t force yourself into one, either. These things take time.You’ll get there.


Xato and I out riding last weekend.

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