Friday, 12 September 2008

Millie Mule (with thanks from Liz!)

(Photo with thanks to Hazel Ray Photography)

Mules are not common in the UK and people here are unused to seeing them around, so I am often asked why I have one when I am seen together with Millie (Pants to her friends), my Quarter Horse x Mammoth molly mule.

It is a question I can’t easily answer. All the reasons that I had when I started out with her about 9 years ago when she was 11 just seem ridiculous now because back then I didn’t really have a clue what mules were about. I was a Gold Series endurance rider when I first got Pants, having spent many seasons enjoying competing on my pony Basil The Nag. I had heard that mules were tough, stayed sound and had endurance, so those were my initial reasons for selecting a mule when I went looking for another animal with which to do endurance riding. Little did I know that what I was taking on when I got Pants home. Firstly, she is a mule. And it does make a difference. And with mules comes probably one of the most fascinating, interesting and life-changing experience with equids one is ever likely to get.

 “Mules are stubborn” is probably the most common thing heard said when you ask people what they think about mules. Mule-folk know that although mules give the outward appearance of stubbornness, the truth is that mules have a very strong sense of self-preservation and therefore whenever they do something, they like to be certain that it will be safe and comfortable for them to do it, whatever it might be. They are so much more perceptive to the environment around them such that even small changes can cause much suspicion and worry for a mule. Therefore a mule needs a rider and handler whose judgement he can trust because if the trust is not there, then the mule will make all the decisions for himself because he will feel that in order to survive, this is what he must do. And when a mule makes a decision that is at odds with his handler or rider then the mule is likely to get what he wants! Mules have a big head and a short strong neck, which gives them the advantage in terms of leverage. Attempting to strong-arm or force a mule into doing something is completely pointless because he cannot be persuaded in this way like his cousin the horse sometimes can. The truth is that the rider or handler has simply not figured out a way to win the mule’s trust and cause the mule to want to comply with his or her requests.

 So how do you cause this turnaround in the attitude of your new mule who might view you with suspicion and mistrust until you can prove that you are worthy enough of their trust, attention and respect? Unlike his horse cousin, the mule does not give trust easily and it has to be earned, often painstakingly. I remember when Pants first arrived; she stared at me suspiciously and blew down her nose anxiously as if I was simply the worst thing she ever smelled. She also shrank away from my touch and would not be caught in the field. In 1999 I started studying the Parelli Savvy System which was initially developed for mules and so I thought that this might be the way forward with Pants. I stuck to the system and played with Pants every day and I was amazed at how effective it was in terms of winning her trust and causing her and my ideas to match up. Now she will run to me in the field and she loves to be scratched. In fact she sometimes gets so enthusiastic about scratching me back that I have to gently discourage her, as I don’t have a thick mule-hide of my own! Over time, she was soon doing virtually everything I asked her to do, with both lightness and precision. She is a great teacher for me and she can hone in on one of my weaknesses like an exocet missile, thus making sure that I know which areas to work on in myself in order to improve my mulemanship!  (Photo below with thanks to Hazel Ray Photography)

 Pants is a very perceptive mule with an exceptionally strong self-preservation instinct. Combined, this means that she can be quite spooky and reactive, depending on the situation. Not all mules are as spooky as she is, but they are still favoured as mounts for mountain riding in the US as this perceptiveness or spookiness can mean the difference between life and death. ( Photo below with thanks to Hazel Ray Photography)

Mules are also very athletic and Pants’s dam was a racing Quarter Horse which means that she and I have had some interesting “western moments” in our time together! However, I have noticed that the spookiness is slowly abating as our relationship grows and she feels more able to trust my judgement.  (following photo by EQ Video Productions, with Thanks)

At the moment, everything I do with Pants has its roots in the Parelli Savvy System (Way More Than Riding). This means that a proportion of our activities are focused on playing on the ground to enhance our relationship, build trust and communication and to have fun!

 We play together on a line and also at liberty, where she follows me and we run around the field together jumping jumps, negotiating obstacles, side-passing or doing sliding stops, slow spins and back-ups. She will also do the Spanish Walk, pesade, the bow and climb onto a pedestal. All these activities on the ground help when I get in the saddle as many manoeuvres have already been learned, plus she is more mentally, emotionally and physically ready to go and get the job done, whatever it might be.

Pants can be ridden in a bridle, in a halter, with a single string Cherokee bridle or even in a neck string. 

 She can side-pass, back up and will jump a single barrel with just a string around her neck. She is a talented jumper, something that comes from the donkey parent and she can jump very high jumps from a standstill. She is incredibly foot-sure and has very good body awareness which means that she can negotiate all sorts of tricky terrains and obstacles.

 So, coming back to the original question: why do I have a mule? I can only answer that it is because anything else just wouldn’t be right for me anymore. I am a confirmed muleaholic. She is teaching me horsemanship skills and attitudes with a precision and attention to detail that is second to none. You could not have a better teacher than a mule. Pants is a joy to be around and I am hoping that she will one day feel that I am as worthy of her attention and respect as she was of mine from the first day I laid eyes on her.

Photo by Hazel Ray Photography, with thanks.