She was beautiful. The most beautiful grey I’ve ever seen; dapples for miles and the color of steel sprinkled throughout her coat. I never knew a mule could look like that. Her owner was a guy from Cody; he wanted her to hunt and pack in the back country. Bell was about 15.2; the perfect size. He dropped her off and asked if I could get her broke in two weeks. Ummm...ok.
He said he’d already had her saddle broke, so getting on was all that was left. I still had no idea how to say ‘I can’t do that in that amount of time’. I was just taking whatever work I could get and made sure I worked hard to make it happen.
But, this time was different.
When he dropped her off, he left her halter on. I didn’t think anything of it. I was running through the schedule and making sure he understood my plan. Tim and I fed a little later that night so I could check on the new horses and mules that came in that month. Bell seemed to settle in just fine.
The next morning I came out to start working horses and mules and I always gravitated towards the new ones that I felt were the biggest challenge. Bell was first on the list. Could I get this mule started in two weeks?
Her paddock was a 12’x12’ shed with a run coming off of it that was about 20 feet long. There was plenty of space for Bell to move around, and I’d be working her 6 days a week. I went in and started walking up to her and she immediately darted to the far corner. Hmmm... I tried again; same result. I couldn’t get within 10 feet of her. My first thought, ‘so this is how we are going to start off’.
I noticed she had a little nubby lead rope tied hard to her halter. After about 20 minutes, yes 20, I was finally able to get close enough to her to grab the nubby. Wow, was this guy for real?
Session one in the round pen was much of the same. Thank god for round pens... I worked on moving her feet and was just trying to get her to trust me enough to just look at me.
The next few sessions, I didn’t even bother trying to catch her first. I just herded her into the round pen through a chute. By the end if the first week, I only had her looking at me and I was able to walk up to her a little more than half way before she would turn and take off. She was terrified. This is not normal behavior for a confident and well treated animal. It was going to take a lot to gain her trust.
The next two weeks, I worked on just that - trust. I’d move her feet methodically; inside turns, outside turns, turn and face, come to you cue. No response - push her forward and start again. Most of it was her standing and staring at me, me at her and me walking towards and away from her a million times until she trusted I wouldn’t hurt her. I would get frustrated because I thought I was being patient, but it was too fast for Bell. Day 2, 3, 4.... 10 - same thing, push her, back off, push harder, back off, go slower, back off... which was the right answer? I finally got her to trust me enough to put a lead rope on her, a real one. Then, the slightest movement and she’d take off, dragging me across the round pen. I went sand surfing a lot with Bell. One thing I quickly learned about mules, if they take off and you let go, they will keep trying to get away; you can never let go of a mule.
By the end of two weeks, I could catch her and lead her into and out if the round pen with no issues. It was time for the owner to see her progress.
He came to the farm and I went into Bell’s pen. I’d been putting her lead rope on very easily the last two or three days. The day her owner came, she took off. I was confused but just thought it was a minor set back, which can happen. I finally caught her, put her lead rope on and took her to the round pen. I was so happy with her progress thus far. I was sure to tell her owner how important gaining her trust was in order for her to be safely ridden. I worked her and she did great; calm and confident. I asked if he wanted to try what I had been doing. He went into the round pen... and I was shocked and saddened by what I saw. The instant he walked towards Bell and she heard his voice she bolted to the other side of the round pen and began trotting back and forth, trying to get away. Again, I immediately felt sadness. I asked him how he was able to get her saddled and bridled so easily... he said “oh she’s a pain in the ass. I just rope her and tie her up and throw her on the ground. I let her up after she is saddled”.
At that very moment, my mind was made up. I asked him if he really wanted her. He said he’d let her go for the right price. I asked how much, ran in the house and got a check. I bought her on the spot for $400. She never left my farm again. I couldn’t in good conscience let her go back to that. I finally realized she was bullied and treated so inhumainly that she had absolutely no trust in humans.
Now, I had all the time in the world to teach Bell to trust. All the time to teach her.... From the Ground Up.
John Lyons Certified
Horseback Riding Lessons
Jessica Forliano is a John Lyons Certified Trainer specializing in Problem horses / behavioral issues and starting young horses and ponies under saddle. Her passion shows through the accomplishments of each of horse or pony she works with as they reach their potential in the show ring.