Xato and the Riding Arrangement

Ben has been riding Xato a lot for me lately, working on that ever elusive stop / go / turn that is apparently not part of a draught mule’s repertoire. Or at least, that’s what Xato believes to be true.

As you probably know, I lost my confidence last year and my saddle time since then has been brief, tearful, and not very fun. I had a few months where I didn’t ride at all, which wasn’t entirely intentional; we are so impossibly busy at the moment, and that combined with caring for four equines in winter meant that there was precious little time left for riding. However, I won’t deny that my fear of getting back on board certainly provided excuses for the rare occasions when I could have ridden.

As always, it all starts with groundwork.


Checking the steering from the ground.

When the clocks changed, we were able to fit some time into our evenings and I started having short lead-rein rides in the arena. The most annoying thing about this fear is that, on the ground, I can clearly see what I need to do and how to do it; but as soon as I get on board, all I can see is everything going horribly wrong. I’m convinced that the slightest movement is Xato about to bolt. I am very aware of this issue so please, no comments about “just think positive” – I’m not deliberately coming up with these bad scenarios as though that’s my warped idea of a good time!

The week before last I was feeling really confident and actually rode a whole length of the arena by myself (i.e. off the lead-rein – Ben was still on the ground nearby). I know, right? A whole length! I’ve only been riding twenty-five years…

I had ordered a gorgeous cotton ‘bosal’ from Earp Brand Western and my excitement at getting to try it out almost outweighed my fears. See, a bit of retail therapy is a good thing! Unfortunately, just as I’d ridden my length, our yard owner arrived to harrow the field by the arena. Xato doesn’t mind tractors but I got worried and jumped off. Ben led Xato around the arena, following the direction of the tractor as it rattled up and down beside the fence, and showed me that Xato didn’t mind it at all. I got back on, which I was pleased about, but couldn’t pluck up the courage to come off the lead-rein again while the tractor was there. However, it left me feeling annoyed because I had wanted to ride more by myself, and I took that as a sign that I was getting braver.

We’ve been applying the Equine Breathing principles with him. He breathes shallow and fast when he’s worried, and it would be easy to overlook because the rest of him appears quite calm – until you notice those tiny nostrils working overtime!


Just making sure that seeing something out of both eyes really isn’t a problem for him.

The next chance we had to ride was late in the day, and I suggested that Ben work Iris at the same time because I didn’t want him to miss out due to babysitting me. I was a little nervous but also excited to replicate and extend the Riding Like A Big Girl success of the last session.

I had an attack of the nerves once in the saddle and physically couldn’t bring myself to ask Xato to walk on, so Ben suggested asking him to turn right instead. I could do that. We noodled around a bit, and then Ben rode off and Xato and I followed. We did a few loops and a few turns, and I turned Xato away and did our own circles. It was going well and then I asked again for Xato to go in a different direction to Iris and he resisted. Feeling braver, I asked a little firmer and he set his neck, pulled back after Iris, and started walking quickly. I tried to get him to stop and received the same ironclad “no”. He eventually stopped when he reached Ben and Iris and I immediately jumped off and burst into tears, babbling about how I couldn’t stop him. So yeh: my mule walking a little faster than his usual slow-motion plod is enough to turn me into a panic-riddled mess. Whoo!

“You don’t get to be in this photo, this photo is all about ME.”


I have a lot of photos of Ben and Xato just standing around, but they are actually doing something; mules require more ‘soak’ time than horses do, so we like to give him long breaks to think and process things.


“He’s very bouncy, isn’t he?” asks Ben as he bounds past. Xato finds transitions quite troubling and he also doesn’t like being asked to move faster within a gait, so that’s something else Ben is working on with him.

After this Ben decided to put in some proper work with Xato. He’s been riding him in the arena every single day for the past week, just trying to help Xato understand what the reins actually mean and trying to help him feel more confident about the world. Xato is not a naughty mule or a lazy one, he’s just a baby as far as his education goes; and he gets really, really anxious when his thought is interrupted. When he’s calm and his thought is the same as ours, he knows how to disengage and how to stop and bend; but if he thinks the answer is over there and we say no, it’s over here, it really bothers him and he will inevitably block everything out and just run to where he thinks he needs to be. He tries so hard and it’s as though he genuinely can’t believe that what we’re asking of him is as simple as it is. We say “what’s 2 + 2?” and he says “well what are the variables? What is the current phase of the moon and what is the exact latitude of this sum and is this a trick question?”

I know the obvious answer here is to get to a place where our thoughts are the same, but I absolutely still need him to respond – and most importantly stop – even when we have opposing views. I want him to express his opinions and if he feels he needs to move then that’s great, but I can’t feel safe until I know that I have an emergency brake if I need it. He needs to respond in every situation, not just when he feels like it.

I am a total convert to Western riding but man, those stirrups are a pain in the arse to change! Unfortunately Ben is a foot taller than me so we really can’t get away with sharing the same lengths.

Anyway, today was a good day because I a) got back on Xato after Ben had ridden him and b) rode him by myself. I did a whole lap of the arena this time. Ha! We still have work to do but he definitely felt better. For example, I can now cue him to stop by just exhaling and letting all the energy out of my body. He hadn’t really figured that one out before. He felt more willing to listen and less like his answer was going to be “OMG I DON’T KNOW LET’S JUST KEEP WALKING IN A STRAIGHT LINE UNTIL WE ACHIEVE SOMETHING”.

He’s such a good boy and all he wants is for things to be comfortable and safe. That’s pretty much all I want, too.

Asking him to move on is always the worst part for me; I have no idea why, as it’s not like he’s ever run off with me after mounting.


Hey look, we have steering…


Nice ass.


He’s not that interested in whither scratches, but base-of-the-throat scratchies? Hell yes. And of course he is! Mules require whatever is the most awkward thing in any given situation.


He looks long-suffering here but he’s actually enjoying a good inner ear scratch.


Bridle off, down to the gate to fetch his halter. He’s a good boy.


He’s such a good boy that he gets to have snack time outside the field. There are two wide open gates leading into the five acre hay field and the six acre cow field, but I had no worries about him wandering off because I knew that even if he did, all I would have to do is walk over and fetch him again.


And just for a bonus picture – here’s a grumpy field potato.

3 thoughts on “Xato and the Riding Arrangement

  1. Auriol says:

    Well done honey, keep wearing the ‘big girl pants’ and you are not alone with these slightly irrational fears…….and you have Ben, which most of us don’t!!! xx

  2. Emma Arblaster says:

    We have a 2 year old mule that has not had any education yet except for on a lead rope. We ride and drive our horses without bits, is that not possible with mules? I read about breathing being more difficult with a bit.

    1. Mulographer Sari says:

      Hi Emma,

      I’m so sorry for the late response to your query! I have only just seen it.

      Bitless is entirely possible with mules, just as it is with all equines. Mules hold onto ideas more strongly than a horse might, so if you have a mule who has learnt to pull through a bitless bridle (as ours has) then it can take a lot of reschooling to teach them not to. They are able to set their necks and it can be very hard to turn one if you don’t have that bend installed really well. If your youngster knows how to follow a feel and is light and responsive, and you never allow him to pull, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to go bitless with him and stay that way. 🙂

      In regards to breathing; I don’t think it necessarily makes any difference if you are riding with soft hands. I ride in a slim bit that was chosen specifically to fit his mouth shape, so it takes up less room than a fat snaffle might.


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