Stories of an education in mules, horses and donkeys
I learnt how to pick a donkey’s feet in a yard in Upton, Liverpool in February 2019. I’d come to meet Adam Lee and his four-legged team-mate Martin, who’d carried his gear the length of Britain. Adam was refreshingly irreverent and down-to-earth about their relationship, and the honesty of the walking tales I’d read in his blog had already showed me the depth of change the relationship had worked in him. We wandered with Martin through suburbia around the yard, stopping with him to take in the views down the long roads.
Adam packed Martin’s panniers the next morning and drove the three of us out to Delamere Forest in Cheshire. We spent a day ambling at donkey-pace along the tracks, with a bit of off-piste thrown in so that Martin could show off his range. There was no resistance possible to those deep soft eyes and shaggy face, and the exquisite, uncanny blend of immovability and wisdom-beyond-rationality that seems to be the preserve of donkeys. They look at you from a time beyond human memory and say “There’s no hurry – there is never any hurry”.
Little and large
Later that month Keira Bentley, founder of the charity Mule Welfare UK, gave me my first ever introduction to mules. I stood at the fence to her field, awestruck at the contrast between 16.2hh Buddy and his 12hh companion Muffin. Buddy seemed the stuff of legend – something Odysseus might have seen bearing the King of a Phoenician island – or at the very least, his daughter’s washing cart. Yet he and Muffin rubbed along as if they were the same size.
Muffin allowed me to handle his front feet and make a botched attempt to pick them out, but he soon realised I wasn’t up to the job and began wandering away a few paces at a time, scanning the front yard for anything more interesting than me. The sensation of utter powerlessness in being ignored by a large animal you’re trying to handle is quite something to experience. This was a new kind of intelligence too, more restive than a donkey’s. A live curiosity, and an insouciance that never let you forget the coiled spring of horse within it.
Muffin walked calmly, and I tried to relax into the sense that if I didn’t really know what I was doing, at least he did. Keira was up ahead with Buddy, and watching them go I couldn’t begin to imagine what it might be like to have the confidence to handle a mule as powerful as he was. I resolved that 12hh was as tall as I would go, though Keira recommended 13-14hh as the ideal size for my long walk.
On the back of a mule
I was quaking slightly as I got up into the saddle, but I felt Honey’s broad, warm back beneath me, and Sarah walked to our side. Using my proprioception in this way felt like a long-held memory rising through the body. I watched a buzzard carry a dead rabbit over the canopy of a copse ahead of us. I wanted to follow, to find out where it would land.
Honey’s presence startled a horse being ridden up the track towards us. The horse soon recovered its calm and Honey wasn’t fussed. But I was still on her back, and afterwards I went over that moment, thinking of the horse rider. What does a human do when the equine beneath it jerks in fear, or bolts? I’d experienced clinging on to a horse in blind survival twice in the past. This kind of fear was still in my nervous system, and I would need to face up to it, and learn how to work with it. Sensing that I wasn’t completely at ease, Sarah told me that when equines begin to relax they release a longer exhale, so that if I tried the same thing consciously when I was tense – lengthening my exhale and letting my body rest into it – it would help us both. Honey would feel my body relaxing and hear the cue of my longer exhale.
This chimed with my own practice as a teacher of Tai Chi Qigong. The extension and softening of both inhale and exhale is a key component in generating the harmonious resonant frequency which our bodies naturally fall into when we’re in positive peaceful emotional states, and which had been described by my teachers as “Qigong mode”. Since reading about Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, I know that lengthening my exhale can be used consciously to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the parasympathetic (relaxant) branch of our autonomic nervous system. This branch counterbalances the fight or flight responses governed by the sympathetic branch. The vagus nerve helps relax our heart and breathing rates, and helps us digest while resting. When we breathe in, its function is suppressed. But the out-breath stimulates it. So lengthening the outbreath with intention can be a step towards releasing the grip of anxiety and fear. Which is partly why Tai Chi and Qigong (or any movement practice that lengthens the outbreath) feel so good. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to used since then, whenever I’m out walking with Falco – but also in other situations.
My next stop on the mule research route in 2019 was Wales. I’d discovered Sari Maydew and her brilliant blog ‘Mulography’ through Adam and Sarah. I rocked up at their front door at the beginning of April, wanting to learn as much as I could, and was welcomed more generously than I could ever have hoped, especially as they’d only just finished unpacking from a house move.
Sari and Ben both held a wealth of knowledge and experience (“unashamed geeks” would be their phrase). Ben had trained internationally with some of the best equine handlers in the world, and Sari seemed to know pretty much anything there was to know about mules. They managed to combine an understated firmness with self-deprecating humour.
They supervised as I groomed and picked out the hooves of their Comtois mule Xato, and accompanied me along back-roads and soggy footpaths as I led Marty, Sari’s mule – also Ambassador for the charity Mule Welfare UK. Marty was devastatingly charming: elegant, responsive and gentle with my novice behaviour. Looking at the photos now, I can see the tension in my arms and hands as I held the lead rope. It’s one I came to notice the moment I felt relaxed enough to let go of it – after about two months of walking with my own mule.
Xato was like something hewn from oak and yew, then lovingly daubed in pigment and chalk by a cave-painter. Back in the arena outside the house, he let himself be ridden and handled by me while Ben supervised with a quality of insight I hadn’t experienced before. While matter-of-fact, his approach allowed gentleness and sensitivity to be used as strengths rather than feared as weaknesses. That unspoken permission freed up the possibility that I could find my natural authority in those traits. Even if it would take me a lot longer to fully embody them – I’m still working on that – I understood that this was where a kind of leadership might be found.
Sari and Ben probably didn’t know the full value of the line they were throwing me. At night I couldn’t sleep much: there was a constellation of inner change I was holding, and somehow preparing for this walk was my way of working that out. I carried the idea of it in myself like a talisman, turning it over in the dark.
In April I followed a lead to a mule near Gatwick. His owner was a lovely woman in her fifties who knew that her health was affecting her ability to give him the best care. Her husband arrived and we walked over to the stables. She stood on the earth and cried out her mule’s name with an almost primal shriek. After a few moments I saw a pale, orangey chestnut blur through the hedge. I wrote this poem about the character who stormed into view. Before I left, the owner led me round her greenhouse and loaded me with vegetable seedlings she had going spare.
Back in Oxford I began grooming and walking with a kind friend’s elderly mare Leah, who lived at Sandy Lane Farm, their organic smallholding. She was a great horse to practice with. I could tack on and off, pick out her feet, and walk her around the farm and she calmly tolerated even my most cack-handed ministrations. I began asking her not to graze while we were walking, and to trot as I ran alongside her uphill. These were small steps in experiencing a kind of confidence with an equine that I needed to discover in myself. Being left alone with Leah and trusted to experiment was part of it; I had the space to find my feet.
Ash in the Lakes
In June I reached out to Tom Lloyd of Fell Pony Adventures, and he generously made time for me, suggesting I contact the Pattersons whose Fell Ponies he had used in the past. By this time I’d chased all sorts of other threads by phone, followed ads and posts online about mules, donkeys and Fells from people in Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, Ireland, and the south. I was ready for something to come together, and now it seemed to be happening.
On 10th June the Patterson’s Fell gelding Ash had his first ever walk without an equine companion, led by a stranger to him: me. Katherine walked with us for support. Our circuit took about three hours. That went well, so I followed up the next day on my own.
As I led Ash out of the field I knew this was as much of a threshold for him to cross as it was for me. The first 20 minutes were slow going. He wouldn’t move, except to get closer to available grazing on the roadside verge. I tried coaxing, encouraging, turning him slightly to one side, pulling on the lead rope (I didn’t know any better), going behind him and pushing against his bum. It made no difference. Ash stood like a mountain of glossy peat. On Potter Fell Road, there’s a track that crosses Routen Beck on its way up to Hollin Crag and Potter Fell. A young woman pulled her car into the layby there: she’d seen me struggling – was there anything she could do to help? I had to drop any pretence of smoothness, and asked if she could fetch me a stick to wave behind Ash. He was only mildly stirred by this ruse, and took perhaps two or three paces along the tarmac each time I waved it around at his back. Then he would stop, bray to his field mates behind us who were watching at the gate, and swerve towards the bank for another mouthful.
A large orange truck trundled towards us on the narrow road in the direction of the Pattersons’ farm. Ash lifted his head a few times to check it out, but his feet were planted. I realised that I wasn’t going to win through force – no stimulus troubled him more than the separation anxiety he was clearly feeling. So I began resting back into being as calm as I could. I was going to see this out.
A farmer drove up on his quad bike just as a herd of young bullocks streamed through the field next to us, surging right up to the stone boundary wall. One of them leapt it suddenly, stood stunned in the road in front of us, then about-turned and leapt back over the wall to rejoin the stampede. It was as if he’d jumped briefly into another universe through an unexpected portal and decided his own world was better. I wondered if he’d remember that moment, or would it be gone, merging into herd-mind as the bullocks thundered on like a river in spate.
Ash was unmoved by any of this drama. As the farmer got back on his quad I called out to him. He walked over and introduced himself as Martin… I asked if he’d wave his walking stick behind Ash, and we both clucked and said ‘Walk on’ in our most convincing tone. It worked. Twice Martin dropped back to return home, and each time Ash stopped moving. Within a minute, Martin would appear again and wave his stick, and Ash would restart. Eventually he had to leave for good. I picked a long, slender stick as close to an imitation of Martin’s as I could find on the verge, and waved it towards Ash’s back end. He capitulated, possibly bored of standing around by this point. Then it was as if he’d decided to give this walking thing a go, and I only needed to resort to stick-waving a further two times on our hour-long circuit.
The next morning I tried again, and found myself needing to recruit, at three separate moments: three passing ramblers; the driver of a white transit, then a postman in his Royal Mail minivan, just to get Ash to walk on. But once they were gone, so was his ability to move forward.
I had to find a new approach. So I decided to try something Ben Moxon had described to me in Wales. I stood with my back to Ash, looking down the road in the direction I wanted us to take. I held the lead rope tight enough to let him know I was there. He tried taking it in his mouth, biting it, yanking it up and down with his head. I stayed in position, saying quietly “This is going to be really boring Ash. If you want to be bored that’s fine, but I want to go on this walk.” It probably soothed me more than it did him. I stood for 15 minutes in the road keeping the same pressure on the lead rope – just taut enough to lift his chin. If he moved in any direction other than forward, I held on to the lead rope so he had no room to manoeuvre. The road was empty. Birdsong had restarted around us. Suddenly I felt Ash take a few steps towards me and I let the rope go slack, stepping forward myself. Then he stopped again, and I responded by taking up the slack. After the third repetition of this, something seemed to come undone like a knot releasing: we were walking together.
I abandoned the stick. We turned onto a bridleway and across fields, past farms and houses. Halfway along a sheep field with a steep bank along its border, I noticed a pair of wrens dart through wire fencing into the hedge ahead of us. As we passed that spot in the hedge, one flew out behind Ash. I saw it in my peripheral vision. He bucked, startled, and I couldn’t help admiring the integral fluidity of his spine as it arched upwards and sent his rear feet neatly in the air. I stood still with him for a moment, calming both of us, and we walked on. A passerine the weight of a two pence coin had more power to unseat this heavy beast than a multi-tonne orange lorry and a freak bullock leaping onto the road.
Never mind; we were on the home straight.
Horse-loving donkey meets donkey-wary horse
Later the same month Adam, Martin, Ash and I set out together for a three-day camping trip around Longsleddale, Sadgill and Sleddale Fell.
I had moved into territory that triggered anxiety and fear in me, and felt as if my mental bandwidth was 90% consumed by the chemicals those emotions sent pumping around my body, leaving only 10% free to manage social relations, map-reading, and handling the Fell Pony I had only just succeeded in persuading that a walk with me was a safe proposition. I’d imagined myself able to make this ratio 70% focus and 30% fog, but I had to accept the reality. Adam brought his usual solidity to proceedings and I was grateful for his presence.
Martin brought a similar kind of magic, although Ash’s reaction was to chase him and try to bite him. This was sad given that Martin was a great lover of horses, and according to Adam believed himself an honorary member of their tribe, if not an actual horse. A night passed at the Pattersons’ with Martin in a little orchard next to the main field, Ash and his field mates the other side of a fence. It wasn’t electrified, but had it been, hostility as much as battery power might’ve charged it.
In the morning Adam prepared Martin, while Katherine helped me saddle up Ash and attach his panniers, hand-made by expert seamstress Lin Gregory. The previous day Tom Lloyd and Clare Dyson had spent time talking with me about Fell Ponies and literally showing me the ropes (and knots) around how to tether, and attach saddle bags; Clare kindly let me borrow hers. I loaded Ash in the field with Katherine, not convinced I was remembering things right, but Ash stood patiently while I tried.
Martin seemed delighted to be following a horse for a change, so Adam took up the rear. About 15 mins into the route, the tie I’d used to attach a tethering pin to Ash’s packs sprung loose and the iron pin slid to the ground. It set him off like a bronc out of the chute, spinning and bucking furiously until the packs were off, when he stood snorting. In my ignorance I had held onto the lead rope until it was ripped from my hand, and with it a sizeable patch of skin between my thumb and forefinger. It was my first rope burn. At least only one animal was involved…Martin stood surveying the wreck with those deep eyes as it unfolded.
I walked up to Ash and stood talking to him for a moment. On Adam’s suggestion we sat for a while to let things settle before repacking; Ash took the re-loading fine and seemed content to carry on. I was reaching internally for new strength in myself. Had I been wrong to try this with so little experience? Was I hurting Ash? Would he be willing to let me handle him after this? What if this happened again? Was I annoying Adam? Was he regretting having come? The questions spun but the path was ahead, and walking it calmed my mind.