I hope you don't mind me taking over the Muleteers blog for a little while to talk to you about Dragon. I think she deserves a little explanation all of her very own for this is one complex lady! First of all let me deal with the name.... Dragon's name to most of the world is Callie. Callie is the name we use in company and for anything official, I think if people heard me call her Dragon without understanding that this is a term of endearment they might think wrong of her (and me!). But Dragon is the name we use ourselves, it suits this unique individual who is capable of being a fire breathing, snorting beast as much as she is of blowing kisses to the minis and displaying 'emotional ears' when enjoying hugs and scratches.
Dragon joined us about 18 months ago from a home where she had begun her journey towards being a riding mule, she was only four so very much still a baby. She was part way there but for me to be able to do what I wanted with her safely she needed some refinement. We needed to find a way of being together and understanding each others messages!
When Dragon first arrived she was quite reserved, she didn't make noise, she'd tolerate us and would obviously rather be with the minis than with us humans. She was certainly not convinced of the benefits of owning us, if it was up to her she would have been quite happy to never see us apart from when the food ran out. I think we were a bit of an irritation!
Those first few weeks I took time to walk with her, spend time with her and just be around without any pressure to ride. It kinda worked a bit although she was still tolerating. The first ride was not quite what you would call refined, it was a bit like hang on, sit deep, point in the general direction and try not to annoy her too much. Hmmmm, I wondered how this was going to work?
I have ridden plenty of green and 'difficult' horses but with time I really learnt that riding mules, even young, green ones you need a different attitude. You need to 'strike a deal' with them. It's no use telling them what to do because it's what you want to do, rather it's all about persuading them that what you're going to do together is in both of your best interests. I had to rapidly change how I asked and how I introduced new things and new places. I spent A LOT of time on the ground (and still do!), we tackled new places and obstacles (trains, bikes, dogs, rivers, tiny bridges and farmyards) with us both taking the perceived risk together, Dragon was quite happy for me to run the risk of being eaten by the mule killer alongside her, the responsibility was not all on her to make decisions and keep us safe. So we pottered around with many a cute remark from the locals about me walking and her being a mule..... amazing how thick your skin can get quickly ;-)
I guess what I'm saying is working this mule has taught me a lot about partnerships, the risk and the ride should be shared. When we ride or work together there should be pleasure for both parties, it should not be a chore. Work in most mule's eyes, as long as its fair, is pleasurable. Dragon has taught me that work can be a real bonus to an animal, I've seen some equines enjoy their work but never met one whose whole attitude to life is changed by it. Dragon is never happier than when she's done something, her happy mood continues for days!
With time Dragon has settled in to life with us, I shouldn't be surprised at how long it has taken, The Mini taught me that mule time is 'as long as it takes', he needed about 18 months and so did Dragon. She has shown us some other mulish traits which I have learnt to love and appreciate!
We now have a mule who squawks and neighbrays in her unique mulish way at us every morning and whenever she sees someone in the garden, I was so ridiculously happy to hear her voice when it first appeared, it took her about 9 months to start and now we can't stop her.... the noises she makes are hilarious! I really think that mules make noise when they're happy and secure where they are.
Dragon is probably the most complicated animal on the body language front that I have ever had the pleasure to work with. She is very 'honest' in her reactions to what you ask with your body language, if you ask her to back off she will, if you ask her to move forward she will..... if you get it wrong and block her forward movement she'll show you that you're being rubbish!
Dragon is not quite so sensitive to other equines' body language though.... she can be a real cause of confusion for horses. She just doesn't react in the way that horses think she should! One of Dragon's riding buddies is a lovely, alpha mare who likes to put others in their place, but try as she might she finds Dragon exasperating! She threatens the mule, the mule looks at her with a 'whatever' look on her face. No matter how hard she seems to try the mule just stands there like 'nah can't understand a word you're saying....' It's not that she doesn't understand it just seems to be that she is far too sure of herself to be bothered.
Speaking of confidence this is another trait that Dragon has in abundance. She is totally happy about her own ability to make sense of the world and keep herself safe. She will try to face down the local dog population (I dread ever meeting the local hunt when out for a ride.... I think she would see them as a challenge!), any tractor or lorry, livestock including huge cattle are fair game and obstacles are for walking all over even if they shouldn't be. While this is a great trait it can also have its moments, having a grown mule chasing a dog down the road can be hairy as can having a mule desperate to poke it's nose in to the engine of a tractor as it rumbles by very close!
There are some days when Dragon is having a mule moment day. It doesn't seem to go with her hormones, it just seems to be one of those days when it's simply not worth the hassle to try to 'play'. Dragon can be angel or devil, these days the angel surfaces much more often than the devil but woe betide the day when you don't listen to the warning signs. I generally start my rides on the ground to test what mood the mule is in, best to do this before getting on board and it gives me the information I need to assess where to go, what questions to ask and how to answer the questions I will be inevitably asked! Do we canter a lot or do we walk, do we go somewhere busy or go for the quiet option? I've also learnt that unless you're in the right frame of mind not to try! The few times when I've been silly enough to try to play with Dragon in the wrong frame of mind or not on top physical form and I've regretted it, although I have to say she nearly always leaves me with a smile on my face (and sometimes mud on my butt!)
Earning affection and returning it has been a real challenge with this lady. She can be aloof in the extreme and until fairly recently would rather walk away than 'suffer' much in the way of cuddles and scratches. I believe in doing as much as possible with the gang on their own terms so tend not to tie them up to fuss, pet and train. This means that unless they want fuss they are free to leave when they want, invariably this is exactly what Dragon would do. She would turn her back and deliberately whip you with her tail, she is an extremely good aim with her whip tail and very adept at swiping you on the way past, there's a reason her nickname on occasions is Miss Whiplash ;-)
But recently this mule has started going soft, there are more occasions than not that she presents herself for attention, 'asks' gently for an ear rub or backs up slowly towards you to present her butt for a scratch! These occasions really make me smile and feel grateful. To be freely given affection from a mule like Dragon means such a lot. I like to think that it means our 'deal' is complete and that she is as happy with her lot in life as I am with mine.
Life with Dragon
There is never a dull moment with this Dragon around; she's opinionated to the extreme, challenging, bossy, hides her sensitivity behind bluster and is always willing to give things a go, she can be grumpy if she gets out of bed the wrong side, she does not suffer fools gladly, she will work when asked nicely and work hard, she gives her friendship rarely but is loyal to those who deserve it...... strange old thing, somehow she reminds me a lot of myself.... maybe there's truth in choosing animals to share your life with who are a little like yourself!
I have a feeling that this beautiful mule is going to teach me a lot over the years to come, spending time with such honest animals teaches you much about the world around you and about yourself.
Think it must be time for my next lesson in humility, I'm off to play chamber maid to the mule!