Lessons with Mules
Scrolling through Facebook this morning I came across a post from the American Mule Association. It was the Year End results from 2018. Much to my surprise I saw that Wyatt, my gorgeous 16.1H 10yr old leopard spotted Appaloosa john mule, had come in first for the Long Ear Versatility Program. The LEVA program is to recognize mules that compete in Open horse shows. Wyatt and I competed in USDF Licensed competitions at Training Level. 2018 had started out really exciting for Mr. Wyatt, but his old demons caught up with us and I made the tough decision to retire him in June. Seeing that he had been so successful with limited showing brought back the initial depression I felt when questioning if I was making the right choice. Could I have done anything else? I know in my heart it was the best decision for him, but it is hard to let go. We had so many years of fun adventures. I have always struggled with letting go, I guess I mistakenly correlate it to failure. Working with mules in the past 11 years has undoubtedly taught me the value in patience and tenacity, and now they have taught me the grace in moving on.
My introduction into the mule world started when I moved to the farm I have now called home for the last 11 years. Mr. Leslie Davis, the owner, had bought a cute 14.1H QH molly mule named Buttermilk to work with. I was 19 and thought I could do anything. I had been riding very seriously since I was 7, had started multiple horses, and was an accomplished rider for my age. I took it upon myself to try and start this mule. I quickly learned that mules do not care if you are an accomplished rider. Everyone is a rookie until proven otherwise. I spent a week in the round pen with Buttermilk, trying to get her to do what I wanted. Every day I stood in the middle and cried with frustration. I was trying to train her like a horse, and my first sharp revelation was MULES ARE NOT HORSES. I can imagine that Buttermilk laughed pretty hard at this kid crying every day, who was not as intelligent as she. Embarrassed and questioning my sanity, I gave up after a week or two. Mr. Davis, who has worked with mules his entire life, saw my exasperation and stepped in. He helped me understand how to reason with mules. You earn a mule’s respect, and it takes time. Once you get there though, you have never had a bond with an animal like that. I would be lying to say I never thought about giving up again, but little by little Buttermilk saw me as a leader and partner. She adored jumping. I don’t remember her ever saying no to anything I pointed her at in the 2 years I was blessed to ride her. We did some Combined Tests, always scoring well in Dressage and clean in the jumping. One of my favorite memories of her was at Harrison Mule Days in Woodbine MD. The class was a speed jump round, and of course the object was to jump the course of 2ft jumps as fast as possible. Buttermilk FLEW around the course, blowing everyone away. We then did a fun jump off with another mule, I think we ended up stopping at 4ft. I have never had a friend like Buttermilk. She started to come up slightly off, and we found out she had a non-surgically removable bone chip in her fetlock. We spent an entire day at Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center, and after draining all options, were told the best thing to do was retire her. I was devastated, and so was Buttermilk. In 2012, after many months of coming to terms with not having my best friend to go forward with, I decided I was ready for another mule. I wanted something flashy. I emailed countless people about mules, until one day I saw him. He was on the homepage of a farm in Minnesota. It was a horrible picture, but there he was, the epitome of flashy, 3yr old polka dotted “Spock”. I had to have him. He was bought sight unseen off a horrible picture. (I do not recommend this by the way) When he walked off the shipper, I thought “God, what have I done?” He was hands down the ugliest equine I had ever seen. He had an Appaloosa rat tail, bony thin, terrible neck and a huge head. I had already decided his name would be Wyatt, and it sure fit him. We put him in a paddock to move around, and he started to trot. That’s when I knew God has a great sense of humor. He moved like a warmblood. The moment of awe was fleeting and replaced with shock as he promptly jumped the 5ft fence from a standstill. After a week or so of getting him to stay put, it was time to see what he knew. I was told he was green broke to ride, which I realized was code for “May have been within 20ft of a saddle once.” I was walking out of the tack room with a saddle pad and he kicked me 10ft right back into the tack room. That bruise was one of my best to date. You couldn’t touch his legs without Matrix type moves to avoid the back feet. He could kick forward past his shoulder with his back foot, without moving. He was a nightmare. With a whole lot of patience and Advil, I got him domesticated, and started under saddle. Initially, he was unbelievably lazy under saddle. Except when he decided he needed to go back to the barn, in which he would then take off as fast as he could and slam his chest into the chained gate. Buttermilk had taught me that the rule of pulling a horse’s head to one side to get them to slow down and regain control does not apply to mules. Mules are very capable of running in their desired direction with their nose on your foot. I finally convinced him he would be done much quicker if he didn’t keep trying to run out the arena and move forward. Slowly but surely, his training improved. His gaits were wonderful, his walk was fantastic. When I started showing him at schooling shows, he was received very well by judges. He always scored in the upper 60’s and low 70’s at Training Level. We freaked out a lot of horses in the warmup, though Wyatt was always happy to meet a new friend and introduce himself. Usually it was the riders that were more upset by the mule than their horses. I played around with him, teaching him to pull a log and an arena drag. We did some mule shows, showing Western and Hunter. I never jumped him because he was very long in the pastern and I knew that would be an injury waiting to happen. He stayed very lanky and thin until he was about 6, and then he filled out into a gorgeous, thick, tall dude. He grew 4 inches from when he arrived. Wyatt always had a fan club wherever he went. People walking through the State Fair would flock to the trailer to see the spotted mule. We have been bringing a tent of animals to Field Days of the Past in Goochland, VA for years, and Wyatt became a main attraction. I would ride him bareback through the crowds of thousands of people, and he was always happy to stop for a pet and pictures. To this day, people will come up to me and say, “Aren’t you the girl with the spotted mule?” He has been told many times he greatly resembles a giraffe. We had a (possibly drunk) woman walk up to him at a fair and proceed to fawn all over the “confetti mule”. He ate up every minute of all the fairs and festivals. I could go on for days of the stories and memories we made together. I showed him a few times at licensed USDF shows in 2015 with great success. Mostly everyone was supportive, but we had plenty of ugly comments. If you’re going to show a mule at a rated Dressage show you better have a thick skin. Life happened and he had about a year off. When I tried to bring him back into work, he was very cold backed. He would lunge fine, and then he would blow up the minute I sat on his back. Once the initial tantrum was over, he was very willing to work as usual. Was it pain related or behavior? Mules are incredibly smart, and Wyatt was not the most motivated individual and had greatly enjoyed his vacation. I tried to take him to a few shows in the fall of 2017 and we ended up scratching because his behavior was so bad. After treating for ulcers, floating teeth, chiropractic, vet evaluation, injecting stifles, custom saddle, and warming up his back with a Back on Track blanket pre-ride, I felt certain that I had addressed most avenues that could be causing pain. One day I gritted my teeth and rode out the bucks. That was the last time he bucked for a long time. We showed all spring in 2018 and he was amazing. I had planned to qualify for the Region 1 GAIG Championships and then move up to First Level. In May the bucking started again. I had him looked at AGAIN by a vet, and we injected his hocks. Riding him became a chore, who wants to try and dodge the ejecto button every time they get in the saddle? The final straw was at Morven Park in June when he completely came unglued when I mounted him. No sooner had I sat in the saddle he went straight into bronc bucking. A bystander yelled “Donkey gone wild!” I somehow stayed on, but when I got him to stop long enough to dismount, I had made up my mind that enough was enough. Obviously, something was making him uncomfortable and it was not fun for either of us anymore. We scratched the rest of the weekend, and when I got home, I worked to find him a companion situation. He is now living the dream at a farm where he can just be Wyatt. He is truly loving life with no expectations.
I am so thankful for all the memories and opportunities Wyatt and Buttermilk gave me, though I am sad that we couldn’t have made a few more. They certainly taught me the value of patience and helped me understand that it is okay to call it quits. When all options have been exhausted and things are still not positive, it cannot be considered failure. It takes courage to let go when you have done all you can. You must use discernment for the wellbeing of everyone involved. This is a lesson I have carried into my personal life. The knowledge I have gained from those two mules cannot be bought, and I have become a much more aware and creative trainer for it. I have had the opportunity to start and train several mules in the time I had with Wyatt, including the molly I showed as well in 2018, Fancy. I currently have 2 homebred Hanoverian mules that I am beyond excited to get going. Hopefully we will have many years of making memories together. I know they have just as much to teach me as I will teach them.