MULE CROSSING: An Historical Lady Muleskinner 2017
By Meredith Hodges
Mules have led me on the journey of a lifetime! My first introduction to mules and donkeys was in 1973 at my mother’s Windy Valley Mule Ranch in Healdsburg, California, where we raised and trained hundreds of mules and donkeys for a variety of uses across America. Many of them we sold to George Chamberlain and they subsequently went to work in the Grand Canyon. At first, I was truly afraid of these animals after hearing all the old myths, but as soon as I met my first mule, I was certain they had to be wrong. Apart from being stronger, tougher and more durable animals, they were also personable, affectionate and quite humorous! Although at that time they were primarily used for packing and driving, their incredible intelligence and conformation led me to believe that they could be trained to become amazing equine athletes! After all, with the addition of the jack’s strength and intelligence, they are always better overall than the horse out of which they were bred.
In 1979, I witnessed my first Bishop Mule Days Sierra Nevada packer’s rendezvous. That was where my career in training mules and donkeys in every recreational equine event began. I was “ass-tonished” at the impeccable way these knowledgeable men and women handled their mules, wagons, packs and equipment with such grace and dignity…and not without a proper measure of good humor! I caught a very bad case of “Mule Fever” and began my own pursuit with Longears in ALL forms of equine athletics. Bishop Mule Days grew from the weekend packer’s rendezvous into the weeklong show over Memorial Day weekend that it is today, adding new classes each year to accommodate the accomplishments of a lot of Longears-lovers like myself along the way. Little did I know, the friendships I started then were to last a lifetime!
In 1980, I founded the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colorado and embarked on a breeding and training program of my own with Lucky Three Sundowner, the last mule and Little Jack Horner, the last donkey jack born at Windy Valley Ranch in 1980. Sundowner was shipped to the ranch right away, but Little Jack Horner had to wait and be picked up a year later. Just outside of Sparks, Nevada in 1981, we were hailed to pull over by a jolly and quite charming man, Ernie Fanning who ran up to my truck and blurted through the driver’s side window, “I just KNOW you have a Windy Valley jack in the back of that trailer!” To this day, I don’t know how he could tell it was a Windy Valley jack only by the head and ears that showed above the stock trailer back door. All I can say is that man certainly knew his mules and donkeys, and I made yet another friend for life that day!
Years passed, Bishop Mule Days grew, and as did my love for Longears and the people that came with them. I bred and showed Longears for many years, then judged and began a promotional career in support of Longears everywhere. Bishop Mule Days was where I met Bonnie Shields, the leading half-ass Tennessee Mule Artist and illustrator for my children’s series of books and DVDs, Jasper the Mule. Even though I no longer showed, I was still a welcome part of the Bishop Mule Days rendezvous family year after year as a respected dignitary and sponsor. One of our greatest thrills was when Bonnie, Jasper and I were invited by Bobby Tanner to ride in the old Borax Wagons pulled by the 20-Mule Team in the Bishop Mule Days parade three years in a row (2012-2014). What an incredible honor that was!
When Bobby Tanner, primary owner and trainer of the 20-Mule Team and Henry Golas from the Death Valley Conservancy approached me with the idea of building new Borax Wagons as exact replicas of the old Borax Wagons used so many years ago, I thought it would undoubtedly be a worthwhile project! The original Borax Wagons sat on their pedestal in Death Valley unprotected from the elements, nearly completely destroyed and certainly not salvageable. I jumped at the opportunity to help sponsor the original building of the Borax wagons and the project was born!
On January 1, 2017, the new Borax Wagons and the 20-Mule Team made their debut in the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California. They held a practice in the desert near Bishop before they left for the parade and the mules all did great! On the parade route, they would be asked to make a tight turn onto Colorado Avenue in the midst of a lively crowd and would be asked to “jump the chain” to make that turn. What a spectacular feat to behold and they did it beautifully on parade day.
I was unable to make it for the Tournament of Roses Parade, but a few weeks afterwards I received an amazing surprise from Bobby Tanner! I was presented with the official jacket, shirts, vest, scarf and hat that they all wore in the parade in honor of my contribution to this overwhelming project! I am humbled and thrilled to be able to be a part of making history the way that we have with these new Borax Wagons and the 20-Mule team. There is discussion about putting these mules and the teamsters “on the road” with their unmatched demonstration of skill and expertise for the public to view as a reminder of our undaunted history. Mules signify and share the strength, tenacity and endurance of the American spirit of those they have served. And although they have always been perceived as an “underdog” and blight on society, mules have risen to the pinnacles of history, as has this LADY MULESKINNER with her pioneer spirit, right along with them! Only in America!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her new accredited equine university at TMDEquineUniversity.com and her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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