Last week I picked up a Donkey mask (of the Shrek variety) from eBay, for no reason other than because I thought it would be funny. It certainly made me laugh, anyway, but then it doesn’t take much – simple minds and all that.
I was actually really surprised with the herd’s reaction to it. Both the mules immediately wanted to check me out, and although Marty didn’t want me too close to begin with, and Xato chose to lean away from me as though to say, “I’m not with her, honest. I don’t even know her”, neither of them were particularly bothered.
Poor Cash pony was bothered, and had to teleport a few times; nobody paid him much heed. Iris felt that grass was more interesting than some fool in a mask.
While things have gone a little bit wayward with Xato, Marty has been rather extraordinary. I don’t know whether this is because he is now seven-years-old and therefore maturing (finally), or because he saw his chance to get one over Xato and seized it … like the annoying little brother that he is (to my own little brother: love you!). Either way, it’s been pretty nice. I am of the opinion that two is the optimum amount of mules to have: when things inevitably go astray with one of them, you’ve still got another to buoy you up.
The first of Marty’s Big Moments involved allowing me to approach him while he was lying down. I have never been able to do this before. Since his return from Anna’s, he has been letting me to get closer but it wasn’t until this moment that I was actually allowed to reach him. I chose not to touch him as I felt that was pushing things too far, so I merely gave him a treat and told him what a good boy he was. He was very sassy after that so I think he felt pretty good about himself.
Of course, Cash-pony had to ruin the moment somewhat by sliming me while I was down there, but oh well. I knew the risks.
What a fantastic pair Matty and Richard the mule are! Hardworking and innovative, they are the perfect partnership and together they run Café Mulé: a trail-side coffee service and online retailer based in Idaho, USA.
One of the recurring themes I’ve noticed when I listen to mule stories is how many people either found their mule to be a major challenge in the beginning, or just flat-out disliked them – but there was always something that made them try again. And, every time, the result was the kind of relationship many horse owners could only dream of. These long-ears demand that their humans step up to the challenge; they shape you into being the kind of person they need. I have met some very cool people thanks to mules.
I’m really excited to be able to bring you the story of this particular partnership, and I appreciate Matty taking time out from his hectic schedule to write for us. You can find more information about Café Mulé on their Facebook page and on their website.
Richard is a 15 hand, dark brown john mule. Though his exact age isn’t known, Richard is roughly 18-20 years old. He is a career pack mule and has worked extensively in the lower hills and sagebrush expanses of southern Idaho, USA, packing camp supplies for the Basque sheep herders that still graze their herds on vast open areas of our public and private lands. Richard has existed barefoot his entire life and has also developed a wide grazing diet — he samples and eats the most woody and fibrous of plants, even when there is great looking grass nearby!
Gosh, this has taken a long time to write. Mostly because I was recently given the amazing opportunity to run Horsemanship magazine (oh yeh, just a li’l thing I forgot to mention … more on that later), and I’ve been spending every spare minute getting the April issue ready to go. Every spare minute that isn’t spent on wedding planning, anyway. Or putting together the next issue of The Mule Journal. Or doing my freelance groom work. Or caring for my own equines. Or … you get the picture!
The other reason is because, after typing out the first half of this, I was suddenly struck by the realisation that this entire blog has been me waffling on about theory without ever actually accomplishing anything. I had hoped that, with Xato, I would soon be doing “normal” things like hopping on for a lunchtime hack, rather than finding myself facing another big problem that I had to unravel. It made me feel like a bit of a screw-up, so I moped around feeling sorry for myself for a while. I even questioned what the point of this whole horsemanship thing was, which is an awesome thing to contemplate when you’re running a magazine about horsemanship. It occurred to me that if I didn’t care how my mule felt, then I could just stick him in something like a Waterford, strap his mouth shut when he objected, and go on my merry way. Problem solved!
Except, obviously, it wouldn’t be.
Since the bolt, a few people have suggested that I put Xato in a bit for safety’s sake. I truly appreciate their advice, and I’m not swearing off bits; but I do have reasons for not immediately going to one, and I thought I’d explain those reasons here.
This Mule Tale is a little different – as you know, I normally do a question and answer format, but Linda wrote such a beautifully told story that I had to include it in it’s original layout. What a wonderful mule Rudy is!
I’d like to introduce you to Rudy. He’s a very special guy, and I am very proud of him.
It all started about 26 years ago, at a local horse sale in Innisfail, Alberta. I was standing beside one of my riding/packing friends. He had been a mule owner for years, and I always kind of liked his long eared friends. I had been on pack trips with him, and was amused and interested in the unique characters of his saddle and pack mules. A two-year-old mule came into the sales ring, and my heart started beating faster. I took the leap and started bidding on him, only to realize that Keith was also bidding on him. I thought – well, if Keith would buy him – he’s a good one. When Keith realized that I was serious, he let
me have him. I had to call my husband and tell him what I had done – bring the trailer!
My then husband was a horse trainer, but had trouble working with Rudy. Keith told me about a fellow from northern Alberta who was a good mule man. I called him and he was more than willing to help. I loaded up the truck and camper, and hauled Rudy up north to spend a few days with this gentleman. He taught me how to think, how mules think, and gave me the tools to work with Rudy. I have been forever thankful for his expertise and teaching skills.
Xato’s steering and brakes have been an ongoing project since he arrived. As I spoke about here, it has been my intention to take him bitless: partly because, due to the confirmation of his mouth, I felt he would be more comfortable that way; and partly because I agree wholeheartedly with Ross Jacobs when he says, “A bit is nothing more than something to attach the reins to. It is the reins that convey the message from the rider to the horse and if the reins are attached to a bit or a noseband the message remains the same. For this reason I do consider that if a horse responds to a bit but does not respond just as well without a bit, there is a problem in the way the horse understands the message coming down the rein.”
For whatever reason, Xato does not understand the message coming down the rein so it is my job to make it easy for him. We began, over four months, by starting on the ground and installing a disengage, and then progressed to asking him to flex and give to either rein – both in hand and under saddle. We have also had three sessions of bodywork done and his saddle checked and fitted.
Progress was steady, but sticky in places, and if I had been plotting it on a chart then the green line of his improvement in hand would have risen much quicker than the blue line of his ridden work. Having a rider on bored makes him feel more vulnerable, and therefore more inclined to make his own decisions.
I have been collecting Mule Tales for a whole year now; it has been a very fun and rewarding hobby, and I have ‘met’ so many fantastic mules and their equally wonderful owners. Don’t forget that you can check out the Mule Tales page to see them all!
Anyway, what better way to celebrate the one year anniversary than with the brilliantly named Squealy Bob? Carolyn, Squealy’s owner, says she’s often thought that he and Marty are very similar personalities and I have to agree. Marty wouldn’t dream of squealing or striking (too scary!), but everything else sounds very familiar. They even look rather alike!
“Squealy Bob and his buddy, my QH gelding Ace.”
1. Please introduce us to your mule!
Squealy Bob is eight-years-old, out of a rangy quarter horse/mustang mare and a mammoth jack. He stands about 13 hands and thinks he’s as big as the big boys he runs with in the pasture.
Toby Jack and his person, Laurie, are one cool pair! This little mule got a lucky break when Laurie went to view him, and now he holds his own in obstacle challenges, archery, dressage, trail riding and cow work.
Laurie is a horsemanship trainer based in Georgia, USA, and you can view her website here.
1. Please introduce us to your mule!
Toby Jack is an 8 year-old-mule. He is out of a spotted saddle mare and stands approx. 14.3 hands. His “mule-anality” is a combination of a curious, playful boy and an anxious, worried watch mule.
Marty and Xato’s tumultuous love affair has been interrupted due to the fact that I’ve taken out restraining orders against them both.
A little under a month ago, the herd moved over to the front paddocks in order to graze it down before the spring growth starts to come through. There is not a lot of space out there, and so I have split the herd in two during the day, when Iris is out, and at night (when Iris is in the stable, keeping Little Mare company) I was putting all three boys together in one paddock. Our herd is usually peaceable enough to coexist nicely in even the smallest space, but unfortunately Xato – though a sweetheart – is also an incorrigible antagonist and I would arrive in the morning to find evidence of midnight mayhem. Not wanting to risk them in the dark, I separated the mules overnight and only put them out together during the day.
Unfortunately, although I never actually witnessed any play between them, Xato was almost always ending the day with a ripped rug, or another chunk missing from his mane and tail, or a new and bloody wound on his neck. So both mules are now out with a horse chaperone and a fence between them; at least until they’re back in a bigger area.
Xato’s favourite spot to have his morning hay is by the “window”, which allows him to loom over anyone riding by on the lane below. This morning while I was poo-picking, I heard a rider exclaim, “Is that a MULE?!” “Yes,” came her companion’s weary reply. “There’s two of ’em.”
Marty has a balcony view, too. Can’t show favouritism after all. When he first moved here he used to hide behind the hedge and shout unexpectedly at anyone riding by; it made him very popular.
On Saturday, Xato and I had our first hack (or trail ride, for the American readers). I’ve decided to copy what a lot of the US folk seem to do and keep a note of how many miles we do under saddle. So far, that totals two whole glorious miles!
Admittedly, we probably went out before we were ready; but now that I’ve got it out of my system, I am in a better position to appreciate what needs working on and do the work that needs to be done. I wouldn’t recommend this as a way to discover where the holes are, of course.
We had no agenda when we left the yard, intending to see how he got on and base our distance on that; but he was as good as gold and followed along behind Iris like a seen-it-all, done-it-all trekking pony, all the way down to the village green and back. He didn’t react even when Iris did an impromptu tap dance over an unexpected dustbin, and when she remembered how scary that section of road had been on our way back, he stood patiently while Ben worked her through it and moved on again only when I asked him too.
The less good thing was when he became love-struck over a pretty redhead and decided to turn around and follow her. It wasn’t a major deal as I just kept him bending, disengaged him, and moved him on once we were pointing in the right direction – but it was a tad embarrassing and not something I want him doing!
Anyway, here are some photos from the last few days.