Capt.JoeV@Gmail.comI had my mule only a short time when I received a call from my friend Garrett. Garrett farmed and lived in Indiana, owned a dude ranch near the Little Belt Mountains in central Montana, and was an avid horseman. Garrett invited me to join him and his friend Randy for an overnight stay in the Hoosier National Forest near Bloomington. I told Garrett that I wasn’t sure if me and Molly had enough skills to go along. He assured me that things would go well and it would be an unforgettable experience. My wife encouraged me to go. It was short notice as I was alerted on Wednesday and we were scheduled to leave on Friday at 5 a.m.
|Molly Rose is outfitted with a “Dakota” mule saddle, a 3/4 inch wool “Wells 5 Star” contoured mule pad, and a “Weaver felt lined Smart cinch.” This combination never slips, even on the steepest slopes. The old Mexican saddle was sold on consignment|
Garrett’s goose-necked stock trailer was modified for his long distance trips to Montana. He had constructed a tack room and had added a 75 gallon water tank in the front so that he could water his livestock effortlessly. His four door pickup truck had dual rear tires and a powerful 10 cylinder engine.
Molly loaded easily due to the presence of an equine companion and off we went to get Randy and his horse. Randy spent his summers in Montana working at the dude ranch. We soon reached Randy’s place. He was a slightly built young man, who lived with his parents and helped work the farm. He owned a mare that was small, older and dark bay.
We arrived about noon, and to my surprise, the horse camp was not occupied by horsemen, but by hunters clad in blaze orange. It was mid-November and Indiana’s deer gun season was in full swing. I wished I had brought along some orange clothing!
It didn’t take much time for Garrett to unload the livestock. My new mule saddle and tack were still on order, so I brought a Mexican saddle that I had acquired with a big pie-plate horn. I had no breast collar or crupper and had only a blanket for a saddle pad. I wasn’t prepared for the ground we were about to cover. Garrett had a weathered saddle with the pad glued to the saddle, and both Garrett and Randy were in full cowboy attire complete with custom chinks, spurs, boots and cowboy hats. Their horses were outfitted with cruppers and breast collars. I looked a little out of place wearing work boots, a sweat shirt, baseball cap, and riding a mule with a vaquero saddle. Randy didn’t mount his horse in the conventional way, instead he leaped onto her back without every putting his foot in the stirrup. The horse never flinched. Randy’s maneuver was reminiscent of a western film.
Garrett took a quick look at his wrist-mounted GPS before we entered the woods. The trails were not well marked and were difficult to follow. Occasionally Garrett took a glance at his GPS on our return trip to make sure we were heading home. As we meandered through the winding and often steep grades, I quickly discovered that Garrett and Randy were rough riders. Without hesitation they would leave the trail, pushing their horses by making them descend steep grades, cross treacherous washouts, and gallop up leaf-and rock-covered peaks. At one time Randy’s mare fell to her knees and promptly bounced back up without Randy ever leaving his saddle. Since I was too unsure of myself and of my mule and not willing to risk injury to either of us, Molly Rose and me were satisfied to lay back and watch the action from the trail.
Upon return to camp, Garrett’s and Randy’s horses were used up, but still capable of more. They were accustomed to Montana’s mountainous trails. The breast collar on Randy’s mare had rubbed her chest raw from the rigorous activity he had put her through, and maybe his saddle should have been cinched up a little tighter. I asked Garrett how he maintained his balance, and he said, “I keep hold of my air handle.”
The camp was primitive with only hitching posts, and two outhouses. Garrett and Randy tied the mounts to the same hitching post and in close quarters of each other. They hung hay nets for the animals and gave them a drink of water from a nearby stream. Randy and I started a campfire, and Garrett pulled a tepee out of the horse trailer and quickly set it up. The tent had no floor, and Garrett had no heater and no lighting other than a flashlight. I thought to myself that the night could be a long one.
The campfire was going strong when Garrett brought out his cooler and cooking tripod. The cooler contained a large Dutch oven filled with some delicious homemade chili his wife had earlier prepared. We all sat around the fire exchanging stories while the chili cooked. We had two folding chairs, so I had to sit on the cooler. It was placed too close to the fire, and because of the intensity of the flames, the cooler began to melt. Before we discovered the meltdown, one corner of the cooler was damaged so that the cooler was no longer air tight.
During dinner, Randy’s mare, for no apparent reason, went berserk and was furiously kicking my mule. She managed to get her rear facing Molly’s flank. Molly had no wiggle room because she was in the middle and Garrett’s horse stood its ground. Molly took several kicks to her rear before we could get her and the horse apart and relocated to separate posts. Molly seemed unhurt, but she had been rattled. As I had anticipated, the night did turn out to be a long one. The temperature dropped and I was cold. Furthermore, many of the hunters had generators and these made very unsettling noises all night. I welcomed the morning sun and hoped that the day was going to be a nice one. The animals survived the night better than I did and they appeared ready for another challenging day. After breakfast, Garrett gave me a bit of country wisdom, “don’t sit on those cold and dirty toilet seats, just hover!“ Soon we were saddled up and ready for the new day.
Garrett’s mustang routinely took a few “frog leaps” every time he mounted. I asked Garrett what that was about and he said , “good horses have spirit.”
It was disturbing for me to ride through the woods seeing numerous hunters perched in trees suited up in orange and armed with shotguns. Not only were there other horsemen, but I also observed people hiking and I saw a scout troop as we made our way to a lake that Garrett wanted to see. As we were heading up a sharp switchback a gunshot rang out, all the animals jumped, but none dared to spin, rear or buck on a ledge that hung several hundred feet from the forest floor.
Continuing on to the lake, we met the hunter whose earlier gunshot had bagged a nice eight pointer. The hunter was an elderly man. He approached us and asked if maybe one of our animals could pull his deer out of a gully just off the main pathway. He had some rope and Randy volunteered his horse. Getting the buck out of the gulley was too much for the senior huntsman. Sam looped the rope around the deer’s neck and dallied it to his saddle horn. He mounted up and urged his mare forward. As soon as she felt the tension from the rope and saw the deer begin to move, she went feral. Sam had a raging, bucking bronco under his saddle. His “air handle” failed him and he hit the soft ground with a thump, but only before striking a tree with his shoulder. He was okay but a little embarrassed that him and his horse were not the team he imagined. His mare almost certainly had little exposure to the smell of blood or contact with a freshly killed animal. The old timer was temporarily on his own. We forged ahead knowing that he had a walkie-talkie and some friends just over the ridge.
As we approached the lake, I noticed that my Mexican saddle was slipping backward. I told Garrett and he geri-rigged his lead rope into a satisfactory breast collar. This worked well for the rest of the day.
We trailered up and headed back to civilization as the sun set behind the thick wall of gray, shadowed forest. I came home with stories to tell and muscles to rest. I was tired, but in a good way. I felt refreshed and privileged to have enjoyed this unique experience. Molly slept out in the pasture the entire next day.