Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Final Exam

by Clyde, the Little Red Mule That Could
(Translated by Lila Wheatley, Etna, Wyoming,

Our latest humans, Lila and Vic, are our fourth owners. They are very patient and kind, and we get along well with their horses. Our previous human’s were nice enough, but didn’t have much confidence. We were spooked by his inexperience a few times, which scared him into selling us.

That’s where Lila and Vic came in. They took time to work with us on saddling and pannier loading at home in the round pen and then out in their pasture before taking us on long rides every weekend in preparation for hunting season. We had a few minor setbacks, like going through the “hard to catch” and the “difficult to halter” phases, and I was afraid of the saddle for a while, but we worked through it. And then we had our “final exam” before elk season on the last weekend of deer season.

We took our first long weekend pack trip with our new humans to Stewart Mountain, only a 10 minute trailer ride from home, on the last weekend of deer season in September. The neighbor came by to see the new editions to the family. While Lila and Vic were talking to him, they forgot to tighten our cinches a few extra times before we were loaded on the trailer. (I’d heard a previous owner say that mules are like “torpedoes with suction cups for feet.” I prefer to have the cinches tightened numerous times before setting out on the trail.)

The sun was setting by the time we unloaded. Lila was riding Capone, the young mustang, and leading me packed with coolers (with no top pack or no mantie), and Bonnie tied behind me. We had to stop to open the big elk fence gate to continue up the mountain, which was only about a half-mile from the trailer.

That is when I started to panic. I quickly cut in front of Capone to tell him that something was wrong. Lila kept trying to get me to go behind Capone by snapping my lead rope with the chain, but something was terribly wrong with my saddle.

I kept running in front of Capone to get everyone to stop. When they finally stopped, after almost getting my lead rope completely tangled into Capone, they realized the problem. My loose cinch had caused my saddle and load to slip back, and now the cinch was at my flanks, in perfect position for a bucking rodeo. Luckily, everyone remained calm while the coolers were unloaded and the saddles were re-tacked and re-loaded. I felt like a ticking bomb, but I stood still.

It was almost dark when we set off again, this time Vic lead me without anyone behind me. Bonnie was tied behind Junior, the Appaloosa pack horse. We met two hunters on horseback coming down the trail who told us they had just seen a bear, but nothing else. As we got closer to Quakey Flats, where the steep trail levels out for a while, we could hear elk bugling all around us. We must have gotten in the middle of the herd.

The night was warm and the moon was giving us enough light to get to camp without a headlamp. Since it was late and dark, there was just enough time to unload everyone, set up the tent, and tie all the equines to trees for the night. The elk bugling was still continuing as the humans got in the tent, but since there were lots of branches crackling nearby, the great guard mule Bonnie kept blowing her loud warning call for an hour or so to make sure that no elk or bears would come into camp.

The next morning, after they set high lines up, the humans took only two horses to go hunting and left Junior with us back in camp. When they returned, empty handed, they let us take turns, two-at-a-time, grazing in hobbles. When it was my turn in the hobbles, I showed them how agile I was by jumping over logs, twisting, bucking, rearing, galloping in tight circles and rolling.

After the second day of hunting, coming back again empty handed, we loaded up and started the one hour ride down the mountain to the trailer. I carried the coolers again, this time much lighter and stuffed with dirty laundry, so nothing inside would make any noise. They tightened my cinch a few more times and it remaining tight for the entire trip down.

At the trailer, our humans usually unload us as a team so that our loads come off easier and faster, but they did not this time. Lila was un-tacking Bonnie and Vic was un-tacking me. When my pack cinch rope got a little hung up on the saddle, Vic walked to my other side to get it untangled. At the same time, I moved to the left to give Vic more room, which made the pack cinch fall to my side, which startled me. I pulled back on my lead rope, which tightened my lead rope chain on my chin and made me go forward into the trailer to loosen the chain like a rubber band, almost catching Vic in between the trailer and me in the process.

By this time, Vic had called Lila to help and she quickly untied Capone from next to me so that I had more room. Vic untied my rope at the same time so that I would not get hurt struggling. When I saw that I was untied I bolted from Vic’s hands and ran right through Capone’s lead rope so we were both now loose. Capone sensed my panic and took off down the fence line, while I turned and went into the chest-high barbed-wire fence. The fence was old, and I was able to lean into it and break a few rotten fence posts. When I was pushing on the fence, my panniers got a bit hung up and were now a bit off-centered by the time they broke free. Now the panniers were wobbling on my back, so I ran really fast to buck them off, but they kept wobbling on my sides. I kept galloping and bucking until the strap on the panniers broke and the coolers were able to come out and spill their contents all over the neighbors pasture.

The three-year-old horses that were grazing in this pasture were now joining in the excitement and I ended up chasing them around a few times to get rid of every last piece of load or pannier attached to me. I got pretty tired by this time and my saddle was still on pretty tight. The cinch was in the right place but at a bad angle. My humans stood in the middle of the pasture, so I ran to them and let them un-tack me. Again, I felt like a ticking bomb, but I didn’t move while they helped me get rid of that saddle.

I felt fine once that saddle was off. I walked calmly back to the trailer and stood tied. My humans walked around the pasture picking up all the pieces of coolers, socks, underwear and trash. They chased the three-year-old horses back into the other side and closed the gate so that they would not get out.

I only had a minor scratch on my chest and forearm. We loaded up and went home without further incident. I heard my humans say that I failed my final exam and would have to go to “winter” summer school. I would not be ready to go to elk hunting camp. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

I did learn a few lessons during this experience, things that will maybe help me pass my next exam: (1) Always tighten the cinch on a mule at least three to five times before starting on the ride; (2) Un-tack a new, skittish mule as a team, with a person on each side of the mule for more efficient tack removal; (3) Don’t use the chain with the halter, as that seems to make problems worse. My follow up: I was pretty scared at the sight of an approaching saddle blanket or saddle, but after months of “winter” summer school, I am happy to say that I can get saddled and lead without a problem. We have not used the chain with the halter and I seem to stay happier without the noise of that chain. The sound of a pannier rubbing against my saddle is still a bit unnerving so I will have to keep attending mule school all year until I can get used to the sounds of the pannier against my saddle without getting skittish.

About the author: My name is Clyde and I am a nine-year-old, 13-hand sorrel john pack mule. I’m very curious and like people. I enjoy being the class clown. I look for interesting toys to pick up and throw around, invent new games, tease horses and chase dogs and cats. My “partner in crime,” Bonnie, is an eight-year-old bay molly pack mule. Bonnie is very shy and prefers to stay away from people until she really knows them, but loves to carry a load and work. She is 100 percent business. 

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