Mules have introduced me to a lot of cool new experiences; from work opportunities like the magazine, to awesome adventures such as the International Pack Animal Meeting (or Säumertreffen) which I still haven’t got round to writing up yet. I’m very bad, I know.
My most recent adventure involved the second annual Maultiertreffen, hosted by Triple Mountain Ranch in Germany. Triple Mountain Ranch is a ‘Wanderreitstation’, a place where people can bring their horses (or mules!) to stay the night while on a journey, or as a base to enjoy the beautiful trails around it. It’s run by husband and wife team, Iris and Josi Ritzerfeld, who are fabulous hosts – and they make the most delicious liquorice schnapps, just as a little added bonus there!
Of course, Germany is a little too far for me to take Xato and Marty. Fortunately I am blessed with very kind friends – Nathalie Leplang, who owns Hepscheid Longear Trails in Belgium, contacted me in July to ask if I would like to attend the event and that she would lend me one of her mules to ride. What an opportunity! I’ve been wanting to visit with Nathalie and her mules ever since this Mule Tale in 2016, so this was a perfect chance.
I travelled to Belgium via Eurostar, which was my first time using it. It was marginally cheaper than a flight (I would recommend booking well in advance, as prices go up closer to the date of departure) but I was very nervous about it. However, I love mules so much I was prepared to deal with the nerves of travelling alone to a foreign country on a mode of transport I hadn’t used before!
Going through the tunnel actually only takes about twenty minutes, which really surprised me. There’s WiFi available, allocated seats, a buffet car, and on the train from London we also had charging sockets in both UK and EU format (though none on the train home from Brussels), so it was a pleasant trip.
The whole journey – including getting the train to London Waterloo, two tube trains to Kings Cross, Eurostar to Brussels, Brussels to Liège-Guillemins, and then Nathalie’s car to Hepscheid – took about eight hours, but I actually preferred it to travelling by air. You still have to go through passport control and have your bags / body scanned on Eurostar, but it’s a much quicker process than at an airport.
My European mule friends did discover that I am, disappointingly, not as chatty and extroverted as I might appear online. Real Life Me experiences existence like a perpetually startled rabbit, whereas Online Me can sit and type from the comfort of her own unpopulated sofa. Real Life Me was also painfully aware of how bad her knowledge of foreign languages are, whereas everyone else appeared able to speak at least four languages fluently; I felt bad about expecting people to listen to me babble away in English. Ben is really good at picking up languages, but I struggle. I try and make sure I memorise how to say “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry” in any country I visit though, which I guess says a lot about me.
Belgium has three official languages, just to make it even harder for us uneducated Brits: French, Dutch, and German. I also discovered that people from the Netherlands pronounce some Dutch words a little differently than people in Belgium do; Nathalie explained it as being like British English and American English.
The Dutch words for “leading (a horse)” and “suffering” are very similar, something which I’m sure both my mules would agree on.
The German word for left is “links”, which led to extreme disappointment every time someone shouted it because I adore lynx and kept thinking that someone had seen one.
On the way home, I was waiting for my train in Liège when a man approached and started talking to me. “Ik spreek geen Nederlands,” I said proudly, having just memorised it from my phrase book for precisely this kind of situation while completely forgetting that Liège is mainly French-speaking, and he switched effortlessly into fluent English and asked if I had any food or drink I could share with him. I had an Alpro milkshake that I was really looking forward to but I handed it over because, honestly, I was not worthy.
There were nine mules in attendance, which I think is the most mules I’ve ever seen in one place together. I found it interesting to see how easily they understood the task at hand and got on with the job; it seems to me that mules love to have a job to do, and these ones certainly proved that. I was also intrigued by how well they all got on as a group – there was only one mule who liked her personal space and threatened to kick if another mule got too close. At one point, a grey mule ridden by a guy named Wolf approached the mule I was sat on; we had a drop and a barbed wire fence behind us, and I didn’t know my mule well enough to know how she would react, so I hustled her out of there before they could touch noses. Wolf explained that mules are more social creatures; something which I’d never had the chance to really observe before, as I’d never seen mules who didn’t already know each other interacting. Xato and Marty love to talk to any horses we meet, but unfortunately not many horse riders want them to!
Nathalie has four mules (and a mule-in-waiting – I was really hoping Baby Longears would be born before I left, but it was not to be!), all of whom came with us. There was Dakota, who is a gorgeous Ardennes mule (not that I’m biased towards the drafts at all), BamBam who’s a Spanish mule, and the two “Fjule” half-sisters, Tizanes and Aurore. They both have the same mother but Tizanes is smaller than Aurore and more compact. It’s interesting what difference the donkey half can make!
Nathalie put me on Aurore which I was glad of, as she was very easy to ride – rarely spooked, didn’t worry about things, didn’t baulk, didn’t want to run off. Perfect for me and my recovering nerves. On the ground we had a few conversations, as Aurore thought I wasn’t worth listening to and I thought I was, but we found a happy medium fairly quickly. The thing with mules is that they really like consistency and routine, and if you come in and mess with the way they expect things to be that can be quite upsetting to them; as she wasn’t my mule and I was only there for a few days, I felt I had no right to expect her to do things my way and so we compromised.
We had three rides in total; one before we left Belgium on Friday, a twelve mile circuit around the hills and forests on Saturday, and a leisurely eight mile jaunt on Sunday which took us into the citadel of a 12th century castle for lunch. Very cool.
There is nice riding where I live – over a thousand acres of easily accessible National Trust and common land – but it can be very crowded with other rides, cyclists, hikers, dog walkers, dirt bikers, and off-road vehicles especially on weekends (unless you skulk around in the bowls of the Punchbowl, like I do). In Germany however, they have the “right to roam” which allows far greater access to trails and fun places to ride. We met only a few other travellers on our rides and the country is also 30% forest, which is heaven for a nemophilist like me. We have forestry land near me but you need a permit in order to ride on it (or a fast horse…). I think this right to roam makes it much easier for people to go on long distance trail rides and be able to stop at Wanderreitstations like Triple Mountain Ranch. In England, you would not be able to get very far without having to traverse busy roads at some point; in Germany, we only crossed a couple and even when riding through the town on our way to the castle there was very little traffic around.
On Saturday’s ride, the place where we stopped for lunch even had dedicated horse ‘parking’! A good-sized corral with plenty of grazing, hitching rails, and even a little hut in the middle where riders could presumably shelter in bad weather.
I think my future plans really need to involve 1) learn at least three other languages 2) get very rich 3) transport my mules to Germany or Austria 4) explore gorgeous trails and drink good beer forever.
Hepscheid Longear Trails provides accommodation for up to five people, and if you don’t want to ride a mule you can bring your own equine with you. While I was there I stayed in the very luxurious attic apartment with my friend Süzz; it has two beds (a single and a double), a fridge with drinks, coffee machine, TV, table, and corner sofa. A very nice place to hang out and spend time in!
At Triple Mountain Ranch we slept in a cosy dormitory adjacent to the saloon bar. I really liked this place! We ate in the bar and there was a fridge containing beer and soft drinks that you added to your tab during your stay. Outside was a covered seating area – it even had a windbreak that you could pull across when the weather was cold – and a firepit.
As a weird aside, I discovered that I really shouldn’t sleep on the top bunk anymore. In Austria, we stayed for two nights in an alm house where several people shared each room. Ben and I were on the top bunk and on that first night I experienced sleep paralysis twice; “waking” initially to see a strange man standing on the ladder and reaching for me, and then “waking” again to find the apparition above me and trying to strangle me. In Germany, I “woke” on the first night to find myself facing the wall unable to move and a creepy child’s voice whispering behind me. This recent event reminded me that when I was younger I used to regularly have nightmares where a strange man was trying to reach me from my bunkbed ladder. I have experienced sleep paralysis and night terrors in a regular bed, but I wonder what it is about bunkbeds that seems to increase the chances of it for me?! Anyway, that’s my weird story of the day. Thanks for listening.
Anyone who’s been following Mulography for the past year or so, especially on the Facebook page, will know that I have had a teency weency confidence problem. All spring and summer, Ben has been schooling Xato for me and getting him better at bending and stopping; I progressed from just sitting on him (Xato, that is), to lead-rein rides in the arena, to being able to ride for a few minutes by myself, to lead-rein rides out on the trail, and then the weekend before I left for the Maultiertreffan I managed to ride “by myself” on two hacks with Ben on the ground as support.
Three days of riding with strange mules when I could barely get on my own without my heart thumping may sound insane, but when I sat down and visualised myself doing it I felt no fear. Trekking holidays have always had this effect on me; I tell myself that the horses know their job, they know their route, and that they wouldn’t be trekking horses if they were inclined towards silliness. I have no history with them so I can allow myself to trust in their ability. This creates a virtuous circle where my calm affects my mount and their calm affects me.
I was convinced that if I could experience this calm confidence on muleback, then it would help me with my own mule on my return. Xato is not a silly mule, he’s not actually prone to spooking or bolting, and he has become much more confident in himself and our requests since Ben’s been working with him; all that was left was getting me to the point where I could take over.
Before we rode on Friday, I felt a little nervous; but as soon as we were heading off down the road, Aurore’s sure stride swinging underneath me, I immediately forgot all the fear that had been plaguing me for the past eleven months. We trotted and even cantered, with me in the lead! It was amazing!
I rode in the arena two days after getting home; the next day, I got on in the stable yard, rode straight out into the wide open hay field, and rode unaided around the lower half when previously I could not walk five strides from the gate without panicking. I did not feel any fear at all. This doesn’t mean I’m cured and I’m sure I will still have days when my guts feel like they’ve been replaced with jelly, but things are definitely looking a little brighter than they were!
Thank you so, so, so much to Nathalie for inviting me and lending me such an awesome mule to ride, to Iris for hosting the event, to Debby and Süzz for being excellent riding buddies, to everyone for making my visit so utterly cool, to the bemused gentlemen on a Brussels platform who answered my panicked question about whether this was the Liège-Guillemins train, to Ben for holding down the fort and looking after all my animals while I was away, and to my parents, in-laws, and the lady who hired me to look after her horses and sheep, for their contributions towards my travel. You all rock.