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.
1. Please introduce us to your mule!
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!
2. How did you meet him?
Richard was a Craigslist purchase or sorts. I was an inexperienced mule owner and looking for an experienced pack mule. I began mule shopping during the worst possible time — in the dead of winter with ice and snow on the ground, sub-freezing temperatures, and few mules on the market. I had passed on the only other mule I had seriously looked at, as it had major issues around large dogs and would not be suitable on the trails I intended to frequent with my new mule. I finally saw a Craigslist ad for a mule a few hours from my home that might fit my requirements. So I spoke with the seller and decided to schedule a time to see his mule.
When the day came for me to see the mule listed on Craigslist, however, the seller informed me that he had already been sold … there were a few other mules in his herd that the seller would consider selling to me, though as I would learn, the seller was a regular horse trader — buying mules and horses cheap at auctions or from private parties, spending some time working with them, and then selling them at a higher price. I was completely intimidated to consider any mule under these circumstances given my inexperience,and especially given the imbalance of experience between potential buyer and seller in this case; so I took a seasoned, mule-owning friend along with me.
When we arrived at the seller’s ranch, he led Richard around, put some packing tack on him, and then turned Richard over to me as I had requested to lead Richard on my own for a bit. Richard proceeded to stumble on the iced-over road and then, becoming a bit anxious, he pushed and drug me far and wide, very much using his four legs and slight traction advantage to my disadvantage. The seller proclaimed that Richard, who was considerably underweight, was also only 13 years old — an age that my more experienced mule-owning friend severely disagreed with. I engaged the seller a bit further to extract as many facts as I could (I had driven a significant distance to get there), but secretly I had decided that this was NOT the mule for me. Richard had been pushy on our walk; he was underweight; he clearly was not as young as the seller was claiming; and I was pretty sure the whole thing had been a “bait and switch” attempt for the seller to get rid of stock he didn’t want or couldn’t easily “flip”.
My friend and I drove home as I expressed my disappointment. The only thing I had seen that I felt was a positive about Richard was that he had been extremely calm with a large dog nearly underneath him, likely from his years around Great Pyrenees dogs used to protect this area’s sheep herds. Other than that, I was convinced I did not like him. My more experienced friend saw things differently, though. He saw a very personable and calm demeanour in Richard, and he chalked up his pushiness on our walk as Richard simply doing a bit of testing with me, if not just a matter of considerably poor conditions with ice on the ground. I wasn’t convinced yet, but I tried to keep an open mind as my more experienced friend expounded upon all the great temperament aspects he had seen in Richard — going as far as telling me that if I didn’t take him, he was interested in purchasing Richard for himself.
I pondered the situation, debated at length with myself, and finally decided that I would offer to purchase Richard on terms that would allow me to bring him back with a full refund after two weeks if desired. The seller agreed and signed my contract. I spent multiple hours doing ground work with Richard nearly every day of the next two weeks. My vet checked him out, agreed that he was certainly not 13, but stated unsolicited that Richard was one of the most easy-going mules he had worked with as a vet. I was sold!
3. What do you do with him, and what are your plans for the future?
I was drawn to the personality and trail capabilities of mules, and I purchased Richard for the very specific purpose of launching a trail-side coffee service on the almost 200 miles of trails that run through the open foothills, just minutes from the city of Boise. Our trails are frequented by hundreds of hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians on any given day during the summer. Last summer, we served coffee on 18 occasions for members of our community, with Richard packing in roughly 200 lbs of gear, up to four miles into the trail network. Once packed in, we set-up a temporary table and hand wash station and serve either hot pour over coffee that we prepare on site or cold brew coffee on nitro out of kegs and a packable stout tap our friends built for us.
We serve our trailside coffee “on the house”, accepting only tips and donations, as we like to encourage any and all who venture by us to stop, share a cup, and converse while taking in the beautiful scenery. Of course, Richard has become a huge draw, and we get a ton of people who come mostly to pet Richard and spoil him with the carrots and apples they pack in. We have come to the point where we can only run our coffee service for two-and-a-half hours at a time, as we consistently serve upwards of 100 patrons and exhaust all the supplies Richard can carry in that time period.
Richard and I have packed into the nearby mountains for family camping trips, and we have plans for building out our skills and capabilities. We’ve started to work towards some saddle mule skills. Though this has no purpose for our business, we enjoy working together, and Richard is attentive and eager to learn.
4. Can you share a story that you feel sums up your mule and/or your relationship with him?
When time allows, I try to accomplish most tasks without putting Richard in a halter and lead; whether it is picking out his feet, moving him in the pasture, blanketing him, or applying the much dreaded and super scary FLY SPRAY. While approaching tasks in this manner builds a lot of trust, it also leaves room for antics, and Richard is not above testing the waters on tasks that he has accomplished many times before.
One such episode happened this winter. We had some significant wet and cold weather here, and Richard had a period of feeling a bit sick, so I was blanketing him fairly often for the colder spells. On one of these blanketing occasions, I opened the barn for Richard, and he gladly came in and started helping himself to the hay bales (as I imagined he would).
While he was stuffing his face, I went into the tack room to retrieve his blanket. When I appeared with his blanket, he looked at me as if I were carrying a flaming chainsaw and bolted from the barn. What ensued was a good 30-minute process of me driving Richard off around the pasture, waving his “evil” blanket at him, until he decided to come in to me and be comfortable with it. The result, after many false blanket phobia shenanigans, was that Richard stood completely still and allowed me to put the blanket on him and do up the six straps underneath in the middle of the pasture and without being haltered or flinching a muscle. Likely Richard was bored that day and desired a bit of entertainment (even more than getting at the hay bales), but in the end, I see episodes like this as an opportunity for growth and re-affirmation that we can work through to achieve a task together without forcing it.
5. What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt as a mule owner, and what piece of advice would you give to someone new to mules?
The most important thing I’ve learned as a mule owner is to have a sense of humour and be positive about everything – including the times when Richard and I are not reaching a goal together as quick as we would like (potentially due to some exhibition of personality on Richard’s part).
After Richard and I started serving our cold brew coffee on the trails, we began receiving lots of requests from people wanting to purchase our coffee on the flat lands. We went all in, and that has led to a multi-month build up to our current business activities of bottling and distributing our product to local shops and grocery stores. Being an entrepreneur is a high-stress endeavour, and there is always a task at hand that you feel personally responsible for achieving … and you wish you had achieved it at least a week ago, always!
My approach to Richard is in stark contrast to this, and I very purposely try to make my interactions with him into time that builds me up and emotionally “recharges my batteries”. With Richard, I can accept that we might not reach our goal, today, tomorrow, or a month from now. And with him, there is no forcing — he is a mule, and he has a considerable size advantage over me. All I ask is that we come together with some earnest effort — the journey with Richard is the destination.
If you would like your mule to be featured here, then please contact me either via this blog, message me on my Mulography Facebook page, or email me at: herecirm (at) gmail.com. I would particularly like to hear from UK mule owners (purely because Mulography is about owning a mule in the UK), but am happy to take worldwide submissions!