Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mules Do Trails Best!

by Jennifer Schmuck
Hennef, Germany

“Mules do trails best!” That is what it says on a sticker on our mule trailer. And it is the truth! That’s why we wanted mules, not horses. We wanted trail buddies who enjoy the trails as much as we do. Actually, no, that’s not exactly why we were looking for mules, but that’s what we ended up with! What we wanted were sure-footed equines that are smart, sturdy and smooth to ride. That was, apart from reliability, the top of our list. What we got was so much more.
Trail riding here in Germany is very different from the US. The population density is much higher here, resulting in less space for more people. Meaning there are a lot less trails that are shared by a lot more people. People don’t trailer out much, if at all (you should see our gas prices!), but ride out from home. Riders aren’t particularly popular, depending on where you live. In many parts of Germany you are only allowed on designated horse trails that are often in bad shape and start someplace in the middle of an area and just end a couple of miles later. If you don’t want to fly your equines in and out again you are pretty much at a loss!
We live in an area where we can ride out from home, but only to share the trails with mountain bikers (the kind that silently rush towards you scaring the beejesus out of your mule) and similar specimen. After meeting huge farm machinery on our way back home one day we decided to buy a trailer to trailer out into a better riding area. That was a good decision, as we found beautiful trails.
It was the first time since we got our mules from Missouri to Germany that we started to have some real fun on the trails. Larry recognized the area for what it was (nice woods to ride in!) and started flopping his ears and swinging his butt. Katie started to relax some as she was surrounded by trees and brush. Behind all that brush and trees wild mule eating beasts might lurk, but she found some courage and decided it couldn’t be that dangerous after all.
For the first time since our trail rides in Missouri, the mules could show their quality as trail mules. Katie was leading, and she was so happy to be a trail mule (she used to work mostly in the arena). She really had no idea about what a good trail mule was, but she definitely considered herself one! She moved down the trail with bells and whistles, enthusiastically taking in the scenery, while stumbling over branches and walking where the deepest mud was. She always tried to take everything in, including nice juicy twigs appearing in front of her nose. When the going got rough, Katie thought taking your head high and rushing through would be exactly what should be done. I’m very sure she was wondering why the ground wasn’t kept nice and good to ride on like she was use to in the arena. But she loved trail riding and never got discouraged.
And after I put some trail miles on her she got considerably better, she rarely stumbles anymore. She still insists on walking where I think she’d better not, but she’s easy to guide. What she really hates is going back the same way we came, and while we’re at it, going back to the trailer is not her favorite direction! What I especially like about her is her big heart. Katie gives her best, and at times the trail is pretty challenging for her. I can see that when she is all sweaty when we come back to the trailer. Sweaty but very happy!
Larry is usually behind us with Steph. By this time Steph has progressed so much (he started out on Larry as a complete rookie) that Larry and Steph are a regular team. Larry not only enjoys being on the trail, he is also a seasoned trail mule. He always negotiates the trail with care and thought. I don’t think I have ever seen him stumble. If the going gets rough and Katie doesn’t know which way to pick through deep mud or other rough ground, Larry and Steph will take the lead. Katie is offended of course, but she follows Larry’s trail. The kind of trail Larry likes best is going up hills, through mud, over logs. The more challenging, the better. If you want to see his ears flop, ride him on a trail that makes Katie wonder whether it is a trail to ride on at all!
In the beginning Steph had problems with Larry trying to rush downhill. The first thing we did was check saddle fit, and indeed his saddle was pinching his shoulders. He had outgrown the first of his saddles, he had put on so much muscle. We changed the saddle, and it was better but not perfect. Because of his former saddle pinching he had also gotten into the habit of hollowing his back, and by that couldn’t get his hindquarters engaged going downhill. Just like most young mules that are started under saddle. It took Steph a few weeks of riding downhill in serpentines, and then Larry got the hang of it.
One thing both mules have in common is that they like to take their time. They have both a fast ground covering walk, but they don’t rush or want to trot or lope. We like that, but it’s also the reason why we will probably always be on our own on the trail. Weirdly everybody here likes to trot or lope on the trail. Why the rush? I have no idea. We like to smell the roses!
If you would ask which one is the better trail mule: Katie, the former arena mule with not much trail experience, or Larry, the seasoned trail mule, sure-footed and considerate, I would not be able to answer objectively. For me, my Katie is the best trail mule, because she loves trail riding so much she trots into the trailer and starts flipping her lead rope with her nose. She is that annoyed if we don’t go right away. She’s the best trail mule for me, because she has so much fun it would lighten the day for anyone. Larry is the best trail mule for Steph, because Steph can concentrate on riding while Larry picks his way safely. Best of all is though that they are both such happy trail mules. And once again it all comes down to the most important factor when choosing a mule: the right attitude! 

 Steph and Larry on a trail ride
A landscape view of one of the Schmucks frequented trails

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