Imagine a white room with nothing in it, no magazines or cell phones for distraction, in fact not even a chair. The door is closed, locked from the outside. The room is small. Oh and you are in there with another person with whom you have some issues that you have been avoiding discussing. Now's your chance to clear the air. Be bold, reach out with the first words and begin a conversation that can clear the air and put your relationship with that person on a better trajectory, a trajectory that will allow you to build a solid relationship based on a good understanding of the other's ground.
This is the kind of opportunity that I have recently discovered a round pen provides you to have with an equine partner. A round pen, for those who don't know, is a round pen fully enclosed which allows you to work a horse at liberty. Ours is 60 foot in diameter and the fencing is 5 feet tall.
Looking back on the other side of this experience, which we have now done with three of our equines, I am ashamed to admit that I am way late to the game. WHERE HAVE I BEEN? The round pen is an incredible tool! I shall never go back to the days I didn't use one when first beginning work with an equine be it a seven year old Haflinger, a young and testing molly mule or an old and some what indifferent john mule who's already been around the block many times.
It doesn't matter who that equine partner is. With each individual a relationship between you and they needs to be established. The round pen prevents this relationship from becoming artificial and dictated by you through the use of restraints. The round pen provides the equine the choice of his responses between fight, flight or accept and join up with you. The pen merely keeps the challenge in a contained space.
As you drive and retreat the horse/mule is given his choices of response. This becomes a dance between you and he. The dance is a language. You must pay full attention to his response and he to yours to come to an understanding. You'd like to explain to him that you want to come out the leader. That you'd like him to follow you willingly. But you have to prove to him that this will be a good outcome for him. He shall perhaps test you to make sure.
In most cases if you can prove to him that you are capable he will be happy to have you lead and he to follow. This makes all tasks that come after in his training a lot easier because you have truly gained his respect and will to work with you.
Below are some notes I jotted down in my journal after working with Dusty in the round pen for the first time. Dusty is the mule I am about to spend the next 6 weeks with as we ride out the gate on September 1st on Bernie's and my mule ramble. I thought it best to start with the air cleared between Dusty and me, so into the round pen we went.
From my journal.
I face an old and indifferent mule. So many people have handled him during his life. They have made him work hard. Some have probably not been gentle, others have probably been fair to him. I can see that he likes his own kind better and would rather not hang out with me.
I will step in to this pen with a history too. For one, I'd rather be working, looking at and riding Pickle.* But that is not going to happen on this trip so I better get over it and start to focus on Dusty with a kind and grateful attitude. After all he and Ronald are the ones doing ME the favor.*
I can see by Dusty's cocked in ear that he's still at least a little interested, still tuning in to my movements in the pen. His interest is only really piqued though by my demanding him, with the wave of my flag, to move his feet.* If I stop waving the flag I know he will stop and hang his head out over the gate where the other two mules are watching him and grazing. Right now he'd be glad to show me his ass end and focus on getting back out to his companions.
I've got to be aggressive enough with my flag waving to make him move, keep him moving around the pen at my command. But not so aggressive that he won't trust me and want to come in and join up with me. When I see his ear flip in I offer to negotiate by stopping my waving and stepping back to give him space to turn and come into me if he wants to.
I watch for signs that he is interested in making a deal. The deal I want, is the one where we have decided that I will lead and he shall follow me. When he turns to face me and puts his hind all the way away from me, I understand that he's ready for me to approach him.
I go up to him, keeping him held by my eyes. I reach out slowly and pat him on the head, a slow slid of the hand down the broad part of his forehead. He relaxes his ears are up and he's looking right at me. He's now focused on me. I turn my back to him, soften my shoulders and invite him to follow me. I can see he's beginning to think about it but he's not quite convinced yet. I invite him several times more. But no, not yet, so I wave my flag and drive him back out to the rail. I ask him to step along with a bit more energy.
I step back and invite him in again. When he turns to me this time, he's ready and begins to follow me tentatively. It's good enough for a start. We are on our way to an understanding. This Dusty Julia dance will get smoothed out over the next several weeks. I can already see Dusty and I waltzing down the back roads of Western North Carolina together. Oh, what dance partners we shall become, Ginger and Fred of the Brushy Mountains.
Asking an equine to join up is a dance made up of what you do and what the equine does as a response. Every movement is an ask or a response. You must be very tuned in to what they are doing and what you are doing. Timing is everything. It takes a real attentive focus to not miss what his body language is revealing.
Before you enter the pen it's best to understand where things stand between you and your mule/horse. It's a good time to be perfectly honest with yourself and know if your tendencies lean towards the wimp who does not have the horse's/mule's respect, or the bully who is too quick and impatient to give his mount a fare chance to understand things and respond to them.
Most of us don't enter this pen perfectly balanced between these two extremes. We are slid just a little closer to one than the other. It's cool to try to find that perfect balance; go into the round pen knowing which end you are a little too close to and start to adjust your own scale to just right. The horse/mule's responses help you to set the calibration. The moment the horse/mule starts to follow you, you are on your way with that horse/mule to a good working relationship.
* Pickle is my golden palomino Haflinger.
*Ronald Hudson graciously lent Dusty to me for this trip.
* My flag is simply a stick with an old shopping bag attached to the end which rustles when I shake it which gets Dusty moving.
Bernie and I went up to the high orchard for a beer the other night. The light was beautiful, the animals peaceful, the beer cool and our health in fine fettle. What more could we possibly want?
What am I going to wear on my feet for this upcoming ramble? I've given it a lot of thought already, especially since we've been having a very wet summer. I like my feet to be dry but I also like comfortable boots that breath and that I know I can rely on not to rub when I have a long way to walk. I think for myself, I shall take a pair of my favorite brand of leather work boots and just give them several good coatings of silicon spray.
The mules will wear boots too. Bernie who has done so much long distance travel with equines, says that this is " the best way to go". The mules need the boots so that they don't get too foot sore from the gravel roads and to protect their feet from broken glass on the side of the roads.
The choices for equine owners when setting out on such a trip as ours are to have their mounts go barefoot, wear steel, nailed on shoes, or to wear a pair of removable hoofboots.
To read Bernie's reasons for choosing hoofboots for his trips across America click here to read Bernie's post.
Every dog I have owned has been an exceptional dog, “the best dog in the world”. I'm starting to think that any dog one gets to know really well has this potential. They are humorously carefree and endlessly full of devotion. It's so easy to make one a best friend. Sure they all have their own quirks but so do we.
This is how I find myself facing leaving “the best dog in the world” behind when I go off on our mule ramble on September 1st. Snookie can't come along. It's too far, too on the road to bring him along. He's turning 10 this October. I haven't ever left him for this long since I got him as a 3 month old puppy. I don't know if he will be as challenged by this as I shall be. I imagine that he will be. He likes to be with me no matter what I am doing or where I am going. He hates to be left especially when the bigger animals are going.
So my yellow shadow will be lost when I exit the gate and take a left on September 1st. He will miss sleeping by my side, trotting along behind the mules, accompanying me on errands and missions, begging for my dinner and partaking in just about any activity we are up to.
Lucky for him though he has two homes and two owners. He will be staying with Tom his other owner, my friend and ex husband. Snookie will stay with Tom for the 6 weeks we are gone. I imagine he and Tom will have their own adventures.
For me, with Snookie getting older and a dog's life being so short, it was hard to make the decision to go at all. But I realized that Snookie is not the only one the years are ticking by on. I am over 50 now.
I believe that we must never regret not fitting things into this ever narrowing window of time, health and energy. This dream must be seized. And the creep to stay close to home for whatever reason, pushed back.
I know my yellow shadow will be waiting for me when I return. I will be over joyed to have him again at my side. The following photos are a tribute to “the best dog in the world”, my yellow shadow.
A note to Snookie from me reads:
“Dear Snookie, Though I leave on an adventure of unknown destination, I promise to not be gone as long as Odysseus was. So please wait for me in good health and contentment. I shall return to you soon. All my love. You are truly the best dog in the world.
When I was a kid I dreamed of being a cowboy and sleeping out for endless nights under the stars with my pony beside me. I'd pretend I was taking off on him. I'd pack him up with a bedroll and fishing pole. I still harbor that dream. On September 1st a version of that dream will come true as I saddle my mount, throw on the saddle bags and head out our front gate on Zacks Fork Rd in Lenoir, NC and take a left.
Bernie and I have roughly planned a trip. It goes like this: Leave out the front gate on September 1st. Take a left and ride on. Try to avoid fast moving cars. Head for the hills. Find places as we travel that we can camp for the night with 3 mules. Return by mid October to honor some commitments. Not much more will be thought out ahead of time other than keep the packs light, the mules caught and well cared for and our attitudes positive.
As a child in Vermont I would ride for hours down dirt roads, through rivers and across a lot of country with my father. He'd carry wire cutters and pliers on his saddle so he could get us through barbwire fencing. Sometimes we'd jump the fencing with our coats laid across it. I had forgotten how fun this was. How this just getting on and going exploring on a horse can be. It seems we get so caught up in training horses to do things like jump or bend or spin or cut, that we lose sight of the true magic of just getting on a horse and wandering through a landscape on a loose rein. In my opinion that's the very best way to spend time with a horse. The real essence of our relationship with equines.
My dream was to do this trip with my friend Pickle. Pickle is my kick-ass, 8 year old Haflinger pony (although he's 14.3 hands so technically a horse) who was found in 2017, thin, frightened and just halter broke at the Tarheel Kill-pen by some kind people by the last name of Horton. It still is my dream for some day to camp under the stars for many nights with Pickle, but sadly Pickle is not going to make this trip. He's got a suspensory sprain that just has not healed enough yet.
I brought him down for a consult with Dr. Bill Hay at the Tryon Equine Hospital (a very impressive facility). Dr Hay thinks Pickle will make a full recovery but he needs a few months of rehab which have started with a month of stall rest and walking. Then he will start trotting and eventually return to full work and pasture time. But Pickle's recovery will not sadly coincide with our trip. So he will continue to convalesce with our very capable friends at Leatherwood Stables as we head out the gate on September 1st.
Lucky for me. I still have a mount to ride. Bernie's friend Ronald Hudson is generously lending me Dusty. Dusty is a 20+ year old veteran of the mule Army training core. In fact he's still working training Army recruits about mules with Ronald's supervision. I am waiting for Dusty to finish a job so that we can pick him up from Ronald to start getting him ready for our trip. Or maybe for him to start getting me ready for the trip. I need time in the saddle to toughen up and he needs time with me in the saddle to soften up, get used to the commands of the leg and hand aids. We both need to start logging the miles together, which will happen soon.
Dusty is old. No one quite knows how old but surely over 20. He's the look out mule in the herd always watching for possible trouble. The one with the watch who knows when the food is late or the gate has not been opened on time. He's off white, some call it champagne, with yellow eyes. He likes to wear a coat of mud and even works it into his eyeball sockets. He is never clean and I don't think it's even possible to ever get him clean. He has a pink nose and always looks to be wearing a bemused smile.
Bernie, veteran of long distance travel and mule adventures will be riding his green, sleek, six year old mule Brick and using super star veteran Polly who has walked across America and Newfoundland as our pack mule. That's our team.
We just found out that the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention is that weekend of the start of our trip so I think the first destination will be the field below Laura Foster's Grave (folk legend Tom Dula's murdered girlfriend), home of the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention. We went a few years ago by mule and had a blast. So this would be a wonderful first destination for our “ ride out the front gate” ramble. There shall be some long ears listening to fiddling soon.