Saddle Struggles and Progress

If progress must be defined by always moving forward, then my progress with the mule would not be progress at all.

Since my last posts, we’ve ridden many miles. Most have been pleasant, full of camaraderie and connection. There’ve been some unexpected bolts and bucks and I was happy for my tool kit: a one-rein stop, a smidge of confidence, and a healthy dose of humor.

Jolene, Daniel Gorman, and the scary saddle

Jolene, Daniel Gorman, and the scary saddle

Saddling Jolene, however, remained challenging.

“A mule is like a horse, only more so” is the adage. If it means mules are more flighty, more challenging, and requiring of more positive reinforcement, then I agree whole-heartedly.

Initially, saddling was a 90-minute affair which included getting her comfortable with standing, being comfortable with the pad and the saddle coming on and off, etc.

Slowly, it got whittled to a 30-minute deal.

Then, because of holes in our training, it blew back to 60 minutes of frustration as the mule renewed her wariness and recommenced bolting at the sight of the monstrous saddle and pad.

Daniel Gorman, my friend from Collector, Australia, had some excellent pointers as he watched my struggles:

  • Don’t be results-oriented by having saddling and riding as the only acceptable goals.

Gorman watched as I picked up the saddle and walked towards her. And he watched as Jolene repeatedly spun and took off.

“Instead of taking the saddle to her, carry it and walk away with her, with the saddle on your hip until she’s more relaxed,” he suggested.

I picked it up with her on a lead line and walked off, letting her graze during a pause.

Brilliant. Read more about Daniel Gorman

Jolene got more comfortable with the saddle because it became a side dish to the main meal (walking with me and grazing).

The other problem was that I’d misjudged (again) her sensitivity to containment. I thought that by settling her into a three-sided, stall-like space it would be easier to get her saddled while still allowing her to move. But in short order, Jolene became less and less comfortable with the arrangement.

  • Gorman again suggested changing the set-up. I took the saddle and the mule to a grassy spot. I let her eat next to the saddle. I didn’t let her eat when she wasn’t near the saddle.
Finally, a relaxing trail ride!

Finally, a relaxing trail ride!

Another day, I let her hang out near the saddle in the paddock. If she wanted to take off and run from it, I did not offer her relief until she wanted to stand by the saddle.

For 10 days, the pair of us did nothing but hang out, saddle up, and hang out some more.

Three weeks passed since our last ride. Yesterday, we saddled uneventfully and headed out solo for six miles, a sweaty, rigorous ride with pit stops for treats, grazing, and gazing. It was sweetened by that hiccupping progress we’d made on the ground. From my perspective, that ground work deepened her trust in me.

Progress, in our own terms, is progress nonetheless.

jo copy

One comment


  • Robin

    Great work, Maddy. Sometimes we have to take a step back; reevaluate and see things from the equine’s viewpoint in order to move forward. You and Jolene are learning to communicate better and appreciate each other. Yay!!!

    May 22, 2014

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