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For most people, racing nearly 30 miles and climbing 13,000 feet up a mountain—and back down again—alongside a pack burro might be the most challenging experience of their life. But for world champion pack burro racer Hal Walter, raising an autistic son has brought many new unexpected trials that were much more serious than a 900-pound donkey barreling down a mountain path. Hal recognizes and explores the parallels between these two important elements of his life, pack burro racing and fatherhood, in his new book, Full Tilt Boogie.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people’s ability to communicate and understand certain social interactions—some people with autism may have trouble interpreting sarcasm, or understanding the facial differences between a smile and a grimace. Hal’s wife, Mary, is a nurse, and started recognizing potential signs of autism, such as sensory issues, early on in their son, Harrison. They ultimately received an official diagnosis from Denver Children’s Hospital when Harrison was almost four, which Hal describes as a “certain comfort,” despite initially resisting the necessity of the label.
In raising Harrison, Hal was able to draw on his experience as a pack burro racer, noticing the similarities between the two situations. “The real key to success with either burros or autistic children is extreme patience and allowing them to find their own way,” Hal writes in Full Tilt Boogie. “Each is a unique individual and one cannot exert command over either one with good results.” The “patience” approach has proven useful in both Harrison, who is now 10, and Hal’s career as a pack burro racer, which has spanned 30 years and multiple world championships.
Hal introduced Harrison to donkeys at a young age—his first overnight packing trip took place the summer after he turned three—and drew on the established benefits of hippotherapy (or in this case, asinotherapy). Although, like most kids, Harrison might now say he’d prefer to be playing Angry Birds on the iPad than riding burros, his parents have seen a change in him after riding. “We noticed right away that on the days when Harrison rode, and even on days following a ride, there was a marked improvement in his disposition and behavior, and fewer tantrums,” he says. Hal isn’t sure exactly what it is about the donkey riding that helps Harrison—whether it’s the soothing motion, the fresh mountain air, or a combination of several things—but the positive effect is undeniable.
According to Dr. May Dodd of the Donkey Shelter of Australia, donkeys work well as therapy animals because “their gentle and affectionate nature brings a calming effect over all those they come into contact with.” She says donkeys are particularly useful for distressed people, as their relaxed nature can balance and calm anxious, agitated emotions. Hal has noticed his donkeys’ caring nature, especially as his son was just starting out as a rider. “I think the better ones have a sense of taking care of the less capable riders,” he notes.
In pack burro racing, Hal attributes his multiple wins and places as being skilled—but perhaps not the best—at both the running and animal training elements. He notes that in order to get a win, “everything has to come together on that day for me,” down to the smallest variables and pieces of luck—and those can’t always be predicted, or even planned for. “The unpredictability of raising an autistic kid is a lot like burro racing,” he adds. “Only when they believe something was their own idea do they truly excel.”
Click here to find out more about Hal, Mary and Harrison on Hal’s website, and get your own copy of the ebook or paperback on Amazon. Full Tilt Boogie recently topped Competitor’s list of 13 Running Books You Should Be Reading Now.
On December 31, 2014, the world lost a very special man at 82 years of age and I lost a very special friend. I heard about Von Twitchell long before I ever met him. Bishop Mule Days is an annual rendezvous for mule and donkey lovers from all over the world and I remember how excited I would get when I heard the name Von Twitchell echoing from the announcer’s booth. I would run as fast as I could to watch him and Miss Kitty in the gymkhana and cattle roping events. I knew I would be in for an amazing demonstration of teamwork and skill between a man and his beloved mule!
Von was a cowboy in the truest sense of the word. When not in Bishop, he cared for and managed cattle ranching properties in the Western states. He was unpretentious and humble…a quiet, honest, trustworthy and simple man with a down-to-earth sense of humor. His life was about love of family and the animals in his care. When I interviewed Von in 2009 for our Those Magnificent Mules: The Bishop All Stars documentary, I asked him, “Von, you had a mule, Miss Kitty, that was inducted into the Bishop Mule Days Hall of Fame and we’d like to hear about that mule.” To which Von responded, “I bought her from a hippie.” I was taken aback and laughed out loud, “You bought her from a HIPPIE?!!!”
Von calmly explained, “I bought her from a hippie. They was gonna farm with her and she was four years old and I bought her for $400, and three or four years later I brought her down here (Bishop)…and she was a world champion. And, she was four times a world champion down here and three times reserve world champion. At 19 years she won the world champion gymkhana mule here and when she was 20, I think she was 23, I retired her and started riding this mule (Silky) here (at Bishop) and I’ve been riding her ever since.”
Von has numerous friends at Bishop Mule Days and no doubt, everywhere he went. He made the annual trek every year to Captain the Drill Team for Nita Vick and to carry the American Flag in the Grand Entry that opened the performances on Saturday and Sunday. I remember one year I was so honored when he asked me to ride with him and carry the California flag beside him! To me, he was a celebrity and I was the proverbial awestruck fan. I accepted his offer in utter disbelief! I carried that flag proudly (even though I was from Colorado) because to ride beside Von Twitchell was a privilege indeed!
Every year I looked forward to seeing this very special man with the kind face, warm heart and the twinkle in his eye! He always greeted me with a big smile, a humorous story and a great big bear hug! He has a wonderful family and a lot of friends, and we will all miss him terribly, but I like to believe that he and Miss Kitty are still riding the range and smiling down on all of us…another very special cowboy angel in Heaven!
A lot has changed at Lucky Three Ranch since 1980—and sometimes the only way to see all that progress is from the sky! Luckily, aerial photographer Ryan Hofmeister, of Heaven’s View Photography in Sterling, Colorado, has had his camera focused on the ranch since the very beginning, and has captured some truly amazing images from the air throughout that time.
Ryan first met Meredith shortly after she moved in to Lucky Three Ranch. He had captured an image of the young ranch on one of his routine fly-bys, and stopped by to inquire if she wanted the photo. She did, and that image became the cover of Lucky Three Ranch’s first Christmas card. Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t print Meredith’s name on the cards that first year, and she had to sign all 300 cards individually by hand. “I never made that mistake again!” he joked.
For his most recent shoot, Ryan also included a rare bonus: nighttime shots of the ranch. All photographers know how challenging it can be to capture images in low light, as even the slightest shake of the elbow can cause a blurry image—trying to do the same from the air requires a special technique. “It can be done with a tripod,” Ryan says, “but that doesn’t do much good when you’re moving 100 miles per hour through the air.” Ryan flies with another pilot, and they position the aircraft in a way that the plane is almost suspended in motion as Ryan holds his breath and takes the photo, trying to keep as still as possible. Ryan takes each and every photo himself on a handheld camera, including manually focusing it for each shot.
This photo session took around three hours to complete, progressing from day to night, and resulted in more than 600 photos on Ryan’s trusty Nikon. By the end of the session, they were flying in complete darkness, but the day certainly resulted in some incredible photos.
For more information about Ryan Hofmeister and Heaven’s View Photography, please visit heavensviewphotography.com.
Meredith Hodges was recently interviewed for Modern Farmer, a website and magazine for people interested in global agricultural issues, as part of a series of donkey-themed articles! Meredith discussed her training methods and philosophies, and specifically how they relate to—and must sometimes be altered for—donkeys. Check out the full interview here.
During Roll’s recent workouts, since his x-rays and last trim, he has felt very stilted and his movement was causing twisting in both hind feet. He was visibly tense through the croup and hip sections in his body. When I rode him, he had no impulsion and did not seem to be capable of initiating any impulsion. When we did the x-rays, there was a slight rotation in the left hind foot and not rotation in the right hind. We determined that the twisting in the right hind was due to undue stress on that leg from shifting the balance from the other three feet that all had slight rotations in the coffin bone. Our vet thought that it might make him more comfortable if we left more heel to flatten the rotation and get the coffin bone in the left hind more parallel to the ground. The result was both hind feet created a situation with ligaments and tendons that left Roll walking behind like he was on blocks with no suspension or impulsion to his gait and a twisting in BOTH hind feet. He was quite literally unable to walk correctly rocking heel-to-toe anymore and the right hind was sliding diagonally underneath his body when he walked.
When tracking straight forward in prior lessons, the visible wrinkles in his flanks were prominent as he stepped straight forward. After he was trimmed leaving more heel, the wrinkles were no longer present as the leg flattened them as it went diagonally forward. Impulsion was literally impossible for him and he had perpetual tenseness in the hind quarters. After his trim/shoeing today, he recovered immediately! We saw relaxation in the hind quarters as soon as both feet were trimmed and as he walked off, the twisting was almost gone and he bounced into an energetic impulsive trot for a few steps before I slowed him down! He had not done that for over a month! So, Roll is now happy again and ready for more lessons!
“Here we go again, Spuds, but something feels really different and strange.”
Earlier this week, Meredith Hodges made a special guest appearance on Jim Swanner’s All About Horses radio show on WKAC, to discuss mules, donkeys, and horses. Click here to listen to the archived show, which airs every Monday at 9:30am on WKAC or streaming online.
Roll was a little hesitant and stiff during his workout in the dressage arena through the hourglass pattern with me riding today. I couldn’t tell at first if he is just being overly careful because I was on board or if he was truly having issues with his feet. The more he did, the better he got as far as traveling, but there was significant problems keeping him between the reins. I attribute that to previous drivers with very bad hands. He does seem to know how to track straight between the reins with adequate forward impulsion. He clunked the ground rails as I led him through the pattern the first time, but after adjusting the distance between the ground rails, he did much better both on the lead line and under saddle. He did very well staying erect and bending through the rib cage around the corner cones. He also gave me intermittent surges of impulsion and did not seem at all lame when he did it. At trot, he got wiggly on his straight lines, but I am encouraged that will pass as he gains more strength and impulsion. All in all, it was a very nice first-time serious hourglass workout under saddle!
After two years, we finally finished our latest longears sculpture, a fountain called “Dreaming of Friends” by Robin Laws of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and I couldn’t wait to share this with all of you! This piece was done to accommodate the twenty LTR longears (plus one miniature horse) that were not champions and did not have their own commissioned piece. We try not to play favorites here!
Tours are currently closed for the winter season, but make sure to book your visit to see the statue in person in the new year through our website.
Small figurines of the Spuds and Augie topper may be available for public purchase—please contact us for pricing, availability, and more details.
After a couple of weeks working on flatwork leading training through the hourglass followed by a couple of lessons in the round pen, I decided to do some coordination work over the obstacles. In Stage One of obstacle training, the only task is to get through the obstacles, changing fear into curiosity. In Stage Two, we break things down into smaller steps and square up at every interval to facilitate good equine balance and add coordination to his movements.
Can you believe it? A mule has made it to the US Dressage Finals! Laura Hermanson and her champion mule Heart B Dyna are heading to Kentucky to represent longears in the national competition—for the first time ever. But they are asking for your help to make it there. Here is their story in Laura’s own words:
A MULE makes it to the US Dressage Finals in Kentucky! I am Laura Hermanson and I have been training and working with mules for over 10 years. I have enormous passion for these incredible equines and believe anything is possible with them. This has been proven true! My own dear mule Heart B Dyna competed throughout the year at 3 star sanctioned shows earning scores up to 75% and qualifying for both the CDS state and USDF regional championships. We had an incredible time at the Championships educating people about mules and being able to ride along side Olympians! I was thrilled to be living my dreams, and then my dream became even greater. The US Dressage Finals invites the top two equines at each level from every region throughout the country as well as a wildcard based on scores. It all comes together for an incredible showcase of the best Dressage horses in the US. And then the unbelievable happened, Dyna and I received an invitation!!! This is the first time in history a mule has been invited to the USDF Finals! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to expose people to mules on a huge national platform. I have put this together to ask for help making this possibility become a reality. Anyone that knows me is aware of how hard I work and how extremely dedicated I am to mules and the sport of Dressage. It is VERY hard for me to ask for help, but the expenses to travel across the country and attend this show are beyond my reach. I would GREATLY appreciate any financial help to make this pioneering journey possible!
Congratulations and best of luck to Laura and Dyna! If you would like to help them make it to Kentucky and make us proud, check out their GoFundMe page here.
It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of our courageous and talented 34-year-old Sire-Supreme, Little Jack Horner (1980 – 2014).
He is survived by hundreds of mule and donkey offspring, leaving an amazing legacy of performance in Gymkhana events, English and Western Pleasure, Trail, Reining, Driving, Dressage Driving, Second Level Dressage and Stadium Jumping to four feet in exhibition. He was an affectionate jack with impeccable manners right to the end. On the eve of his passing, I left him standing like a statue with ears pricked and a fixed stare toward the Rocky Mountains. I glanced over my shoulder and as the sun went down, it cast a halo around his entire body as if God was beckoning him home…I knew in my heart he would not make it through the night…he will be sorely missed!
Like most equine welfare advocates, “Wild Mustang” Robin Warren has a lifelong love of horses and is deeply concerned with their wellbeing in the face of human interaction. Unlike most other equine advocates though, Robin also has to contend with the perils of middle school—that’s because, despite years of experience of helping equines under her belt, Robin is still just 13 years old.
Animals have always been a big part of Robin’s life, and she points to literature like Black Beauty and Marguerite Henry’s Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West as works that inspired her to take action. Though she didn’t have a horse of her own as a child, she recognized the indomitable spirit of the mustangs and, at eight years old, started a petition to help the wild horses. Along with her mom, she collected signatures by going door-to-door and standing outside the local library, but this proved to be a slow process. For later activism, they switched to a more modern approach, using online petitions on change.org. “You get more word out over computers and the internet now than just passing out flyers and press releases,” notes Robin.
Currently, Robin’s focus is ensuring that equines captured by BLM are housed in adequate holding facilities, with accessible shade and water—all basic elements that should be provided to equines in any situation. She’s also working to collect signatures for a Nevada ballot measure that would expand protections for wild equines by recognizing feral horses without signs of domestication as wild horses.
“Wild horses have been here for a long, long, long time,” Robin says of her pursuits. “All they really want to do is just live together and be able to raise their children, and teach them how to survive the wild.” She’s particularly inspired to help these equines maintain their way of life in a setting they’ve carved out over centuries. “It feels like we’re taking away their home, when it’s really their right to live there freely.”
Robin notes that the wild burros are important to consider, partly because “there’s so many of them out there.” Burros “deserve to be treated with respect,” she adds, whether they’re living free in the wild or engaged in work for humans.
In addition to her mom, Robin also works with kids in the Youths’ Equine Alliance, an organization she founded. Robin describes the purpose of YEA as a place for young people “to be able to get together and stand out and show everyone that we can make a difference as well.” YEA sends out email newsletters to update interested parties, and members attend events when they can, to help spread the word.
Robin maintains that there are lots of ways to aid the cause, even if you don’t live anywhere near a colony of wild mustangs and burros, like she does. “Everything helps,” she says. “Getting the word out, donating to organizations and adopting are all great ways.” She believes in her causes fully, and maintains her faith that certain practices—like helicopter round-ups—will soon be a thing of the past. “The more supporters there are, the closer we get to the goal of saving the mustangs.”
To other kids who might be considering fighting for a cause of their own, Robin has advice from her own experiences: “Never get scared and never get overwhelmed. Just let your voice be heard, and don’t let them push you down.”
The Youth’s Equine Alliance (YEA!) was introduced in 2012 by Robin Warren at the International Equine Conference. Our youth advocates raise awareness about horses and burros, both wild and domestic in order to inspire other people to also speak up for equines. Through education, activities and joining together as teams, the youth hope to encourage children’s admiration of horses and burros and motivate people of all ages to be a voice for equines.
To help collect signatures for the Nevada ballot initiative, please click here. Visit YEA’s page or join their mailing list for more information about getting involved in all of their current projects.
The Lucky Three mules willingly come off the grass pasture at any time of the day that they are beckoned. This is the result of routine management, humane training practices and an ample reward system. Not one equine here out of 30 head is herd-bound as we have become as good friends with them as their equine buddies!
The following is a guest post from Hearts and Horses, the Loveland, CO-based equine therapy center.
Last week, Meredith Hodges came out to Hearts & Horses for an incredible day of professional development for the Hearts & Horses staff. During the day, Meredith demonstrated training and equine handling techniques, using Allie and Sadie, the two mules that she donated to Hearts & Horses. Hearts & Horses staff spent time in the classroom and in the arena with Meredith as she shared her training tools that aid in effectively communicating with equines while developing their balance and working toward conditioning, so they can perform to the best of their ability as equine therapists and in any other career.
While Hearts & Horses focuses on equines as Therapeutic Partners, Meredith’s training techniques are invaluable for horsemen and horsewomen of all backgrounds.
Meredith and Lucky Three Ranch have been long time supporter of Hearts & Horses and all of our diverse programs. We so value her support and guidance and look forward to our continued partnership and friendship in the future! Thank you Meredith!
Click here for more information about Lucky Three Ranch including tours, training and education opportunities.
Roll had a really good leading workout today. He did do very well negotiating the gate.
Roll stayed in sync almost without a misstep during the whole lesson!
He did bend his body nicely through the rib cage around the cones.
He did seem to have a little trouble aligning his back feet. He kept getting them a little closer to each other than he has in the past, but it will improve with practice.
When I asked for more energy, he had it! A marked improvement from the beginning of his training!
Roll is rounding across the top line and stepping well underneath with his hindquarters.
Roll gets more gorgeous every day! For a mule, his mane and tail are amazing!
Lengthening his stride is no longer an issue!
He stays in sync with every step I take.
With nice clean halts…
…and exceptionally straight rein backs…
…he’s a STAR!
In 2007, when Meredith Hodges decided to film a television documentary about therapeutic riding, she headed to Loveland, Colorado-based therapeutic riding center, Hearts and Horses. There, she met five-year-old Sarah Foley and her mother, Diane. Sarah was born with generalized body weakness, making it difficult for her to perform tasks that required any sort of physical stamina or strength. Luckily, Diane is a physical therapist, and began looking for creative ways to help strengthen her daughter’s body. A pony ride at a friend’s birthday party immediately captured Sarah’s attention, and she began hippotherapy when she was two years old. By the time we interviewed her, Sarah had moved from hippotherapy, where the horse was being used as a modality to assist with her low tone, to therapeutic riding, where she was developing riding skills, controlling the horse independently of her volunteers.
Today, Sarah is twelve years old. We caught up with her and Diane to talk about how their lives have changed since that original interview. Even now, Diane notes that riding plays an important part in Sarah’s life. “She is still riding once a week,” said Diane. “She’s kept it up pretty much the entire time.” After a period of vast improvement, in which she was showing no signs of disability or physical deficits, Sarah ended up developing arthritis. Diane termed it “A little bump in the road, so she got more active in horseback riding, and has now overcome that also.”
When we speak on the phone, Sarah sounds like any bright, happy and enthusiastic preteen. “I’m feeling really good,” she says. “I love horseback riding, and I swim a lot, and I like playing with my dog.” She dreams of becoming either a teacher or an actress on Broadway some day. Sarah still does her riding at Hearts and Horses, and is now paired with a speckled gray horse named Boomer, that she describes as a very big challenge—but one that’s very close to her heart. “If Boomer went up for sale at Hearts and Horses, ever, I would buy him just like that,” she says. In general, Sarah describes horseback riding as an empowering experience: “I feel like we have a connection kind of. I can do anything when I’m on a horse. “
Sarah eventually moved from needing the assistance of two sidewalkers and a leader to only a leader. With the increased strength and confidence, Sarah’s instructor began to incorporate preliminary vaulting moves to strengthen her core and sense of independence. She was thankful for the assistance of the side walkers though, as it showed her she was capable of amazing things even in her first days of riding. “It made me feel more confident in myself, that I could ride on my own,” she recalled. “As [I used] the side walkers less and less and less, I started to get more confident … and finally I’m to the point where I am right now.” Equine therapy is more than just physical rehabilitation, as it also focuses on training people to be better riders and gain confidence, regardless of their starting capabilities. “I’m a really good rider now because of horse therapy and what they did for me,” says Sarah, also pointing to the inspiration of her parents: “My parents had a big part in it, making me not quit horseback riding and keep going with it—not that I would want to quit, but they would not have let me quit, that’s for sure.”
At the age of twelve, Sarah has accomplished a great deal in her life already, but describes it with an air of humility, simply saying, “It’s been a long road.” As advice for other people in her position, she stresses the benefits of positive thinking and optimism. “I think that anything can be overcome,” she says. “Maybe not always physically, but overcome mentally,” adding that physical transformations are sometimes possible too, like her success with arthritis. “I think people can do anything if they really, really want to,“ she says, and it’s clear that Sarah’s unflinching belief in that statement, along with her equine therapy, will help her accomplish anything she truly desires.
Visit Hearts and Horses’ website to find out more about their commitment to therapeutic riding, and watch Sarah’s full episode of Those Magnificent Mules, “Walk On: Part 2,” available to rent on demand.