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  • January 5th, 2014

Long Eared Horses

By Joel M. Vance

I have a thing for mules and I like to think they have a thing for me.  But who can tell with a mule?  They look like a horse, but a trained horse does what you tell it to do while a mule, trained or not, operates on mulesense.

Portrait of Andy Mule

Portrait of Andy Mule

I’ve been aboard mules when they ignored instructions from the wrangler and did what their innate commonsense told them to do.  Once in the Black Hills of Wyoming on a horse packing trip the wrangler led the horse string down a steep slope, sliding and struggling, across a small stream.

Andy, the mule assigned to me because I looked like a mule guy ( he was the only mule in a remuda of 26 animals) looked at his equine kin stumbling along, shook his long ears, and veered left, along a dim trail, probably created by previous mules, and used a shallow decline, no slipping or sliding.  We rejoined the horse string and Andy resumed his contemplation of the unfathomable stupidity of his fellow equines.

As most know a mule is a hybrid animal, a cross between a female horse (mare) and a male donkey (cross a stallion with a female donkey and you get a hinny).  The result is a creature with a horselike body, but a donkey face…and one that is almost always sterile.  Female mules are jennies; males are jacks.  The only sure way to get more mules is by crossbreeding horses and donkeys, but the occasional mule has more on his mind than his next bale of hay and the equipment to do something about it.

It may pain groupies of King Arthur and his noble knights to discover that, rather than riding noble steeds of the horse persuasion, knights of the era preferred mules because they are bigger and stronger than horses and it takes a big animal to tote a fully-clad knight.  They also have more endurance for those long rides of conquest.

There is a reason outfitters chose mules to transport folks from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top.  They are far less likely than a horse to step off a thousand-foot drop.  They don’t spook at imaginary ghosts and they get to the top with energy left over.

Ridin' Andy

Ridin’ Andy

I rode a mule laughingly named Ol’ Streak out of the Canyon, a five-hour trip on a trail that looked to me too narrow for obese tomcats.  The wrangler, a petite woman, was riding a Missouri jumping mule.   That’s not a breed; it’s an attribute.  Missourians have developed a strain of mules to ride to hounds, usually after coyotes which tend to go long distances in straight lines.  Long distances in Missouri inevitably means a barbed wire fence and the riders have trained their athletic mules to jump them.

It’s not genteel riding to hounds, with a scarlet-coated rider sharing leaps over fences.  Instead the mule rider dismounts, drapes a protective cover over the top wire, and the mule obediently leaps the fence.  Jumping mules have been known to leap nearly six feet high, so a four-foot fence is no challenge.

“Since this is a jumping mule,” I asked the wrangler, “don’t you worry that it’ll look into the Canyon and decide to make history with the longest mule jump ever?”

“Mules are smarter than that,” she said.  “My mule does like to stand on the edge and look down, though.”  So, I found, did all the mules.  “Don’t face them in,” the wrangler said. “A mule will never walk off the edge.  A horse might.  So face the mule over the edge.  They like to see the scenery.  But if you face him toward the inside he just might back off.”

So my mule faced out and enjoyed the glory of the Canyon, while Joel  Vance, an acrophobic shambles, kept his eyes tightly shut and prayed that, like the guy flying me in an airplane, my pilot would make a safe landing on top of the Canyon, not the bottom.


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