Falco was born in southern France near Avignon in the Alpes-de-haute-Provence. His mother was an Apaloosa, his father a French donkey. Here’s the story of how we met.
It took a year of searching before I saw an advert for him in a European Facebook group. He’d been taken on at 2 years old by Virginie Cheysser, a breeder based in Revest-du-Bion, near Carpentras in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, a half hour train journey from Avignon.
By the time I booked a Eurostar ticket to see Falco, I’d met several mules in the UK and talked with various owners. In an hour-long phone call Virginie told me she’d trained Falco to carry packs; he’d been carrying a picnic for her and a friend’s teenage son with specific learning needs, on summer walks in the hills near them. Falco was young and fit at 4 and a half years old. He’d had no socialisation to humans for the first two years of his life, and was timid around people. He needed someone patient to be ‘his person’.
On my first morning in Revest-du-Bion, Virginie drove us to the field to meet her herd. At 13.5 hands, Falco was dwarfed among them by a jack donkey of around 16 hands, a mule of around the same height, and two 15 hand mares both with new foals on the market. There was Falco, a slip of darkness shining in his late summer coat, with long legs and an avoidant glance. The first task was to learn Virginie’s way of catching him.
I knew nothing of how to catch an unwilling mule; I stood back as she approached. Falco promptly turned and trotted off, at which point Virginie shooed him further away with the lead rope, giving him the message that she would be the one to tell him when he moved and when he stayed. After a few attempts Falco stopped running and stood half-facing her. She raised an arm, clicked her fingers and said sharply “Tourne!”- “Turn round!”. Falco’s hind legs shifted and he swung his upper body round to face her. She approached smoothly and clipped a lead rope onto the neck collar he wore. At the field gate she put on his head collar ready for walking. He stood quietly, watching me.
Outside the gate Virginie tied Falco to the rail of a round pen; I’d asked to see his feet being picked out. Head raised, eyes and ears back to keep tabs on my position, he danced against the taut rope, swinging his quarters from side to side and tucking them in, like a dog tucking its tail between its legs.
I watched as Virginie got him to lift his front feet. She could hold a hoof, but not for long. It came time to try the hinds. Despite Falco’s obvious anxiety I moved forward and slid a hand down his rear hind leg towards the knee. Before I could reach the cannon he had batted me with the side of his leg. I jumped away clutching my arm, and stood waiting for the pain to subside. Within seconds I knew he hadn’t really kicked me – if he’d wanted to, I would have felt a hoof and the pain would have been much worse. This was only going to be a minor bruise.
Virginie snapped “Pas avec moi!” – “Not with me you don’t!”, then used a rope to get Falco to lift his front foot again. She was honest about not having worked with his feet over the summer. He’d lost confidence in that time, but was generally wary of people handling him, especially strangers. While Virginie fetched his pack saddle, I told myself that if Falco batted me away again during this visit, I wouldn’t buy him; but that if he tolerated another attempt, I could work with that.
On our second day, after a four hour walk up to the Crêtes de Lure with a picnic in Falco’s panniers and a rescue Boxer dog accompanying us off-lead, I tried sliding a hand down the same hind leg. This time Falco stood quietly in the sun, tired from the walk, and gently tilted his hind hoof off the ground. I didn’t lift it: I wanted to stop before anything went wrong, and I was scared of getting kicked. But it was enough. I could see that he knew what to do – he was just unsure of me.
Walking with Falco I felt a mutual ease in the movement through a landscape, and the wilder the land became, the better Falco seemed to be enjoying himself. I felt the intense level of sensitivity in this being next to me. It seemed ridiculous to be leading such a self-willed and thoughtful creature by a rope in my hand. Yet I also sensed his anxiety in the moments when he lost confidence, and I knew that state so well in my own body. I was confronted with a responsibility to help him through those moments by allowing him to feel my trust in his resilience. For me to rise to this task I would need to make a similar journey within myself. In the moments when Falco lost confidence, the rope connected energies that could change each other. Just as it was within me, I could tell the work I had begun with Falco was not to dominate, but to allow the seeing of possibility, and to accompany a being as it found its own way into the space that possibility opens.
Up on the Crêtes de Lure Virginie tied Falco to a tree and let him graze while she lay on her back in the sun. I walked 15 metres away up the ridge of rocky grass towards the edge of a crag. “Il te suit!” – “He’s following you!” Virginie called after me. I looked back and saw Falco had walked to end of his tether and was now pulling against it, watching me. I went back to untie him. We walked together to the crag’s edge and looked over the valley that lay hundreds of feet down, towards the Parc regional du Mercantour. To the southeast, nearly a hundred miles away, was the sea at Nice.
Two months later in grey November in the landlocked city of Oxford, I would take Falco’s lead rope from the hands of the driver who had transported him across a different sea. I offered Falco a carrot, a small token of consolation for uprooting him from paradise. He seemed to appreciate it. I brought him hay and sat on the ground nearby while he ate. How could I reassure him that this long field bordered by a river on one side and a road on the other, which he would share with a friend’s three rescue horses, would be a safe place for him? That I would look after him? I started singing a simple lullaby. The words I sang were about walking together.
Since then, Falco has blossomed into a strong 14-hand mule exceptionally good in traffic, gentle with children and happy to meet people out on our walks. The story of our journey together and how it has changed us both is for a longer piece to come…
Falco has experience of petting and being led by children during family sessions at Oxford City Farm, as well as two carol-singing nativity processions under his belt. He has made school visits, trips to East Oxford Farmers’ Market and supermarkets in Oxford to carry my shopping, and does the odd delivery. He’s sociable with just about every animal we’ve met, especially dogs – though they don’t always love him back – and is wonderfully curious. We’ve clocked up over 500 miles together with our training walks and the outward leg of ‘Walk for Earth’, and the return journey awaits.
Maybe we’ll meet you somewhere on the trail!