Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule #7- The Mule is Not a Dog.

I think my biggest mistake in working with my horses is that I take things too personally. I make lots of mistakes, and I’m forever learning better ways to work with my equines, but the biggie for me is that I get my feelings hurt when they don’t behave. I take it as a personal criticism when they don’t do what I ask, or when things don’t go as planned. I let it become a metaphor for the whole relationship, instead of what it actually is, one moment in a vast sea of moments.

Remember all the horse books we read as a kid? Most of them involve a fractious, even dangerous, horse that no one can ride, except the beginner who forms a magical bond with him. Suddenly, skill and experience mean nothing to the horse in light of this enchanted relationship with the kid. That pretty much never happens in real life.

What actually happens is what some people call “Black Stallion Syndrome.” People, mostly women if we’re being honest, go buy horses they can’t ride, fall in love with them, dump buckets of money into training and tack, and still can’t ride them. Instead of flying down the beach bareback and bridleless, like in “The Black Stallion” movie, we end up flying across the arena when the horse starts bucking.

I am guilty of falling in love with a horse I couldn’t ride, but I was clever enough to give her away to someone who could. What I’m most guilty of is over-analyzing horse behavior and taking it as a personal affront to the quality of our relationship. If I walk toward my mule and she walks away, it hurts my feelings. She used to be really hard to catch. She isn’t anymore, but that’s because she knows I have dinner. She doesn’t love me like I love her.

My thoroughbred does love me. He prefers me to any other human alive on the planet today and he makes it very clear. I am his security blanket in life. I feed him, trim his feet, groom him, ride him, tend to his many injuries, and generally ensure that his life is marvelous at all times. Because he was my first horse, I thought that was how it would be with all future horses, but it isn’t. My thoroughbred is special, and we do have something special. He is a very people oriented horse. He will leave his friends to come to me. He panics if I leave him alone in a new environment, even if there are other horses around. He is emotionally needy.

Baron, my thoroughbred

My mule is not. She is entirely self-contained in her emotions. She is non-reactive and stoic. She subtly tells me how she’s feeling; she does not whinny and carry on like my thoroughbred. She enjoys being fed, she does her job willingly and well, and then she goes back to her herd and wants to be left alone.

When I got her, she did not like being in a stall and she especially did not like being in a stall with me. She was absolutely perfect on the ground, perfect to tack up, perfect to ride, but not interested in having anything other than a working relationship with me. She did not love me and she did not need me to love her.

I’ve had her about 10 months and in that time she’s softened up some. She comes to me, allows me to catch her, and is comfortable being close to me in her stall. She likes me to pass her handfuls of hay so that she can stand facing the window and not have to move to reach her hay. She’s discovered that I am good for some things. (“Pass me more hay, Human.”) We are cordial and happy co-workers. I would like something more than that, but I may never get it and that’s okay.

When she demonstrates that she doesn’t trust me yet (see this post), I remind myself that she’s a hard nut to crack and she’s a totally different personality type than my sensitive and emotional thoroughbred.

I also remind myself that she’s not a dog. I have a chihuahua named Bitsy that is my tiny best friend. Bitsy, like my thoroughbred, loves me best and prefers to be touching me at all times. She stops eating when I go out of town (so I rarely do), she howls at the door when she hears my truck in the driveway, and she is jealous and protective of me. She sleeps in my bed and is happiest when I’m holding her. I adore her to the point that my children accuse me of loving her best.

My daughter and me with our chihuahuas

Miss Mule is not a chihuahua. She doesn’t live in my house and sleep in my bed. She has an entire life with her herd that I know very little about and that I can never be a part of. That belongs to her. She gets whatever emotional needs she has met through the herd, as most horses do. In the past, I have put a lot of unnecessary and unfair pressure on horses to meet my emotional needs by expecting them to react to me like a dog would, with unbridled enthusiasm and blind trust. Maybe I read too many horse books as a kid, but I have expected some sort of magical bond that often didn’t materialize and left me feeling frustrated and like I must be doing something wrong.

I’ve learned to settle for a good working relationship. I can ride the mule and appreciate her skill and bravery on the trail, and then go home and hug the chihuahua. While I work to build trust and respect, I also leave well enough alone. My mule likes me all right and that will have to do. Maybe the relationship will blossom as the years we spend together pile up, but maybe all we will ever be is co-workers. Either way, I get a good mule to ride and enjoy, and she gets her hay handed to her while she looks out the window. It’s a win-win.

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