Horses · Lessons from a Mule · Olaf the Gentle Giant

Night Walk with Olaf

My draft horse, Olaf, has become extremely attached to my half blind mule, Ellie. More accurately, she is attached to him, and he is more than happy to comply. Ellie still has one perfectly good eye but, since going blind in the other, she’s let Olaf become her security blanket in life.

They are sweet together in a way horses usually aren’t, unless something is wrong with one of them. Most horses want their hay pile all to themselves and they certainly won’t share a bucket of grain. Ellie and Olaf always eat from the same hay pile and whichever one of them finishes their bucket first, the early finisher goes to the other bucket to share. Instead of pinning ears and threatening to kick, they take turns grabbing a bite.

I’ve never seen that level of dedication to each other in horses I’ve owned. Horses definitely have friends and sometimes even enemies; horses can have personality conflicts just like people. Most of the time they cohabitate peacefully, but when it comes time to eat, it’s every man for himself. And my horses are FAT, well fed and spoiled. There is no shortage of food. They are just greedy little piglets.

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Watching Ellie and Olaf become so dedicated to each other has been heartwarming for sure. My poor mule worked HARD without much appreciation for years and years before I got her. When she came to me she was colder and more aloof than any equine I’ve ever been around. She was even a loner in the herd. Then Olaf came along and she fell in love.

I try to include Ellie when I ride Olaf. She walks along behind us all on her own. I don’t pony her (no lead rope attached to her); she follows because she wants to be with Olaf. Sometimes I take them for walks down the road too, on days when I need to exercise. I’m killing 3 birds. All 3 of us are getting a workout.

Their extreme devotion to each other does have a dark side, though. It’s sometimes difficult for me to ride Olaf without Ellie. If I want to ride Olaf down the road and leave her in the pasture, it can be a struggle. He gets a certain distance away from her and wants to turn around. His stress level is so much higher when he’s ridden alone. When she’s there, he’s so much calmer.

The general thinking among horse people is that Olaf is what they call “buddy sour” and needs to be cured. A lot of people would separate them, put them in different pastures, and try to forcefully break their bond. I don’t want to do that, mostly because Ellie has finally found someone she doesn’t just tolerate, but loves, and I won’t take that away from her. You may say mules aren’t capable of love . I say you must never have been around mules. They are so intelligent it’s scary, and they are most definitely capable of a wide range of emotions.

My way of dealing with it is to trailer Olaf off property and ride with my friends sometimes (during which he is totally fine and very well behaved), to keep riding him alone and let him get more comfortable with leaving Ellie temporarily, and by building his trust in me.

He’s been reluctant to go in the woods alone without her. Last night I decided to take him on a night walk through the woods, down the usual path that we ride. The moon was bright and the trees were bare, so the light made it all the way down to the forest floor. It was bright enough to see without a headlamp.

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I expected Olaf to be reluctant to go into the woods in the dark, but he came with me like a big dog. I was walking next to him, not riding, and that makes all the difference. It’s funny how horses will follow you on foot just about anywhere, but when you’re on their back they can be such chickens. They must feel more alone and vulnerable while being ridden. When we walk with them, it’s much better moral support.

The walk was a good opportunity to do some ground work, to teach Olaf to stay far enough away from me that if he spooks, I won’t get stepped on or knocked down. When he’s nervous, he likes to be close to me, almost on top of me. He has to learn to stay in his own space. He won’t fit in my lap, but he seems to think he will!

Part of our walk followed the fence line of the pasture, so Ellie met us there and walked beside us. The walk leads out to a big field with nice grass, even in January, and we stopped in the field and grazed for a few minutes. Ellie stood quietly at the fence line watching us.

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We are the 3 amigos- me, the half blind mule, and the big, goofy draft horse. We’re a motley crew for sure. We won’t be on any magazine covers or picking up any sponsors any time soon. But somehow, the three of us found each other- a mule who needed someone to love, a draft horse who was happy to volunteer, and me to pay the feed bill. The last thing I want to do is break the bond they have. It’s better and more fun to try and include Ellie as much as possible.

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