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Today we honor the sacrifices that our brave enlisted men and women have made to protect and serve our country. Throughout history, mules have also played an important part, serving alongside soldiers. One occasion where their value cannot be underestimated was the Burma Offensive of World War II. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) or more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders was a US Army long-range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit. In addition to its specially trained soldiers, it also included mules.
The mules came from Missouri, Texas and Tennessee and were shipped to Calcutta. They were then transported into Burma by aircraft, and later in the operations were dropped from planes with special parachutes that consisted of an inflatable dinghy (in which the sedated mule would be placed) and attached to a triple cluster of three 28-foot silk parachutes. Mules were capable of being loaded and packed within 20 minutes of landing.
The terrain of Burma (modern-day Myanmar) was almost impossible for vehicles to transport and deliver supplies. Mules are well-know for their sure-footedness, self-preservation and hardiness and were the perfect four-legged soldiers. They packed weapons, ammunition, food and water, medical supplies, equipment and radios through a 700-mile trek of what was considered some of the harshest jungles on the planet.
The men switched between being muleskinners and soldiers and many bonded deeply with their mules by the end of the offensive. One soldier remembered, “We couldn’t have gone half the distances we did and gone half the places we did without the mules.”
Click here learn more about Merrill’s Marauders.
Foaled June 2, 1980, Lucky Three Sundowner was the last mule born at my mother’s Windy Valley Ranch and at two weeks old, the first mule to become part of my own Lucky Three Ranch. He showed successfully at Halter, English and Western Pleasure, and became the 1984 World Champion Reining Mule at Bishop Mule Days. However, his greatest accomplishment was to make it to Fourth Level Dressage after introducing Dressage to our Bishop Mule Days show, and after winning the World Championship at Third Level Dressage in Bishop in 1992 and 1993. (They did not offer Fourth Level.) He never really liked the Full Bridle and did all this in a Snaffle Bridle. Mules were not allowed to compete in the A.H.S.A.-sanctioned shows with horses during that time, so we were limited to schooling shows with horses to measure our progress. However, with his help, and with the help of other Dressage enthusiasts like Carole Sweet and Audrey Goldsmith, we laid a foundation with goals that were finally realized eighteen years later when mules were finally officially accepted into the Dressage Division of the United States Equestrian Federation. To date, “Sunny” is the only mule in history (that I am aware of) to be schooled at Fourth Level Dressage. He was working on Piaffe, Passage and Flying Lead Changes every two strides when he was retired at twenty-three years old…truly a remarkable friend and ambassador for his breed! This week, he finally crossed over the “Rainbow Bridge” due to a tumor that eventually prevented his ability to chew. He will be profoundly missed!
It’s been almost five years since I rescued Rock and Roll. Roll was a real nut when I first got him. He would hide behind Rock and looked like he would spook and run away at any minute. I was convinced that Rock lived that whole year from 2010-2011 to make sure that Roll would have a good home without him. Roll is a whole lot calmer now and much more trusting. His physical condition is incredibly improved with our slow, sequential and logical approach to training. I knew he would never be able to pull anymore heavy wagons or even carry a heavy rider and with the side bones and ring bone, I never really expected him to stay sound and be able to carry me under saddle, but he has attained what I thought in the beginning were very high goals. This is no special training approach…it’s what we do! Rock and Roll were the ultimate validation of my entire training program! He now stands quietly while mounted in the open driveway for the very first time …
This morning Roll had lots of fun reading Training Mules & Donkeys: A Logical Approach to Longears. He’s always up for posing and this day was no exception. We just strolled down through our longears sculpture park where we found a bench that would allow both of us to read comfortably. Roll is in good health and has almost finished shedding his winter coat. It was really too hot (in the 90’s), so any strenuous exercise was definitely out of the question.
Before and after his recent trim…
Side passing is an advanced lateral move that should be prefaced with extensive leading training, first on the flat ground. Your equine will be ready to move to obstacles when you can throw the lead rope over his neck and he will obediently follow at your shoulder.
You know he is ready to move on to lunging when he will freely follow at your shoulder obediently through all the obstacles both straight forward such as tires, and through lateral obstacles such as the tractor tire.
The next stage is to first teach him the basics of lunging to build bulk muscle…
…and then begin straight forward and lateral exercises on the drive lines both in the round pen and then in the open arena to enhance core muscle strength, balance and coordination. He has learned body awareness (proprioception), knows where his feet are and is able to be completely responsible for his own balance without leaning on you. The end result of all this attention to detail is the ability for your equine to execute all movements in good equine posture that makes it much easier for him to comply with your wishes.
Now that your equine has built up his core muscle strength and is more balanced and coordinated, he is ready to learn to Side Pass the “T” on hand signals alone. Your equine originally learned to side pass a single rail and the “T” on the lead rope and then on the drive lines. Now begin to Side Pass the “T” with just the halter.
When your equine is easily Side Passing the “T,” you can remove the halter, use a dressage whip as an extension of your hand and ask him to do the same movements with only slight indications from your whip along his side.
Inspiration doesn’t always come when you’re expecting it, and Rachel Anne Ridge certainly wasn’t anticipating a life-changing experience when a homeless, injured donkey showed up in her driveway.
In her new book, Flash, Rachel describes the amusing and touching journey that she and her family experience with a donkey named Flash At a time of financial and personal uncertainty, the last thing Rachel needed was to take on an equine.
Flash quickly became a part of their family. “It did not take long to fall in love with him,” she said. “There was definitely an immediate bond we felt.” There were immediate lessons as well. Rachel had never owned a donkey before, though growing up she made excuses to visit her friends who had horses. “I was your typical, horse-crazy town girl,” she recalls, “but I didn’t have any day-to-day experience with keeping either donkeys or horses.” The unique personality traits of the donkey set in motion a series of discoveries that took Rachel deep within herself and her beliefs.
Rachel’s book is filled with insights inspired by Flash’s simple and honest approach to life that often left her rethinking her own perspectives. “There’s something about their demeanor that invites a quietness and a calmness,” she says, adding, “they’re gentle souls.” And it’s not just her—she’s noticed that Flash inspires smiles and chuckles from just about everyone he meets. “With donkeys, there’s this connection of joy that happens with people.”
Flash has helped inspire Rachel in a lot of ways—even in her art business. As a mural painter, she always wants to give people exactly what they want, but over the years she knows that they can sometimes have trouble articulating their true desires. Working with Flash though, she’s learned how to ask the right questions, and to get much better on picking up on cues, especially non-verbal signals like changes in body language. “Flash definitely made me a better listener,” Rachel says.
Flash has motivated Rachel to be more self-confident and assertive as a person—two qualities donkeys tend to have in spades. “Flash just is who he is. He has no pretenses. … I’ve spent a lot of time feeling insecure about who I am and doing what other people want me to do,” says Rachel, but working with Flash—and seeing his unapologetic approach to making the best of his life—has been energizing. She’s working to “let go of that need for other people’s approval, and just be okay with who I am and where I am.” There is a level of vulnerability that comes along with letting go, and as her book suggests, “we need to wear our donkey heart on our sleeve.”
Most of all, Flash’s appearance in her life awakened a fuller discovery of her faith. As a daughter of missionaries, she has always had a close relationship with God, but there was something about the deepness in Flash’s eyes, the softness of his muzzle, and the pertness of those long ears, that in challenging moments opened her heart in new ways. She notes that God can show up in people’s lives in many different ways, and to stay open to signs—don’t just wait for a perfect, clear message. “Flash came into my life at a really pivotal time,” she says. “It was exactly what I needed.”
Today, Rachel continues to write and create murals and has recently adopted a new miniature donkey companion for Flash.
Flash is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Costco and local bookstores, or visit Rachel’s website for more information.
It’s hard to believe that I have already spent 35 years in the business with mules, donkeys and a vast array of equine-related activities. I have always loved horses and began riding when I was only two years old. I was about as horsey as a girl could be—when I wasn’t riding, I was reading horse books, drawing horses and engaging in anything that remotely resembled a life with equines. At one point, I even designed a 100-stall barn and vowed to rescue every horse in our country that was being abused. Little did I know then, my 100-stall barn would have been terribly inadequate.
I actually founded the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, in 1980, although I had many years working with horses and six years working with mules before then. I had moved to Colorado with the intent of going to Colorado State University to get my veterinarian credentials, so I sought out places to live in Fort Collins. It was a fluke that a contract fell through and this tiny little 10-acre sheep ranch became available. I remember standing in the driveway, my vision crystal clear in my head, and told my mother, “This place HAS LOTS of possibilities.” She gave me a bemused nod and said, “It definitely has lots of possibilities.” I don’t think she had any idea of what was to come, but, I had a vision!
Over the past 35 years, Lucky Three Ranch has slowly developed into the vision I had in my mind that day. My involvement in the equine community has grown into something much more meaningful than a 100-stall barn, as I’m now able to engage with people around the world through my equine training series, online school, and even on my Facebook page. I would love to teach all equine owners how to appreciate and enjoy their equines as much as I enjoy mine in a multitude of different ways. It is so incredibly rewarding when I see happy animals with happy owners doing the things that they love together. This is the gift that I have been given in life by my Maker to share with others and their joy is my reward! Thank you to all of my friends and fans for your loyalty and support. I couldn’t have made it 35 years without you and the magnificent equines that color my life!
I swear, his giggling began in his toes. In the way only an unselfconscious 8 year old can laugh, it filled his whole body and the whole arena, bursting out in millions of chubby bubbles. I could feel them around me, infecting me with joy. Pretty soon, I was giggling so hard that I was having a hard time keeping pace with the trotting horse. He lifted his chin into the air and declared, “LOOK AT ME! I’M HAVING SO MUCH FUN!”
Anyone who works with disabled kids will tell you that, on many days, we learn more from them than they learn from us. When I got to Hearts and Horses today, I was teary-eyed and tired. I had briefly thought about cancelling and staying home to regroup, but made myself drive the 20 miles. Well, needless to say, I left this afternoon feeling energized and light-hearted, my burdens put into perspective by some very special kids.
Here’s what I learned:
Ask for and accept help when I need it.
How often do I turn down help, insisting I can do everything on my own? How often do I cheat people out of the opportunity to minister to me because I have some delusion that I don’t need help? These kids are teaching me that there is no shame in asking for and accepting assistance. And, it blesses both the giver and the receiver!
Eyes forward – keep the big picture in mind.
Kids have no problem looking with wonder at what’s around them. One of the key aspects of being a successful rider is looking where you want to go, rather than down at the horse’s head. I rarely have to remind a kid of this. This is a big lesson for me! I often have my nose in the gritty details of life, buried in the things that can’t be changed. Looking up, looking around, and focusing on where I want to go is a game-changer.
Find my balance.
I am amazed over and over again how easily children take to riding, even kids with disabilities. Kids don’t over-think “how” they’re supposed to sit or hold the reins. They just do what feels comfortable, and they’re usually right! As the horse moves or turns or changes gaits, they naturally make minor adjustments to their balance. I am the absolute worst and getting stuck off-balance in my life. I’m trotting along, leaning left, eyes all over the place, hands flailing, thinking that’s normal. I could take a cue from them and make some minor, necessary adjustments to find and keep my equilibrium.
Laugh at the funny stuff.
How many things pass me by every day that I’m too pre-occupied or too grumpy to laugh at? This NEVER happens to children. If something is funny, they laugh. Outrageously. The horse went fast when they weren’t expecting it. Laughter! The horse peed. Big laughter! The horse leader tripped and almost fell (ahem, that was me). Gigglefest! Funny stuff happens in life, often disguised as something uncomfortable. When did I forget to laugh?
Celebrate little accomplishments like they’re a big deal.
One of the most poignant and humbling things I have learned is that some kids have such major challenges that when they tap their heads and say, “Helmet!” it is cause for an eruption of celebration from all of us. I have never been more excited than I was today when a mostly non-verbal little girl managed to say “Whoa!” to her horse. I could have cried with joy. There are a million little moments of grace in my daily life. I need to recognize them and celebrate!
Learn when to say “Whoa” and when to say “Walk On”
It is a really big deal when these kiddos finally learn how to command their horse to stop and go. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment and autonomy. When they finally figure it out, they use those skills happily and with great abandon. They make that horse stop just because they can. And sometimes, they make the horse stop because disaster would strike if they kept going! Learning when to say walk on (yes) and whoa (no) is a skill I could work on for the rest of my life, and still never have down pat. I definitely need to practice.
So I ask, who was helping who today? Well, I can certainly tell you that I walked away changed and blessed beyond measure. Some of the best lessons in life are the simplest, and come from unexpected places.
postscript: You, too, can volunteer at an equine therapy center! Two years ago, I had ZERO horse experience. They trained and molded me into a horsewoman. Contact your local therapeutic riding center and ask! In Northern Colorado, we are blessed to have the best of the best, Hearts and Horses, in our back yard. People come from all over the country to be trained here. Come join me and experience the magic! If you can’t help physically, you can help support equine care and rider scholarships by going to http://www.heartsandhorses.org/giving A little bit goes a long way.
The following post comes from Steve Edwards of Queen Valley Mule Ranch. Working with equines can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, but, as with all animal-related activities, accidents can happen. However, exorbitant insurance rates are currently threatening trainers’ ability to provide clinics for equine owners, forcing them to cancel or drastically limit these sessions due to cost. Steve is one such trainer, and below he discusses his experiences with insurance companies, coming to the conclusion that his only option moving forward may be to forgo future clinics.
I recently received a letter from the State of Arizona. It seems that working with equine livestock and with people in a clinic setting represents the same degree of professional risk as being a police officer of a fire fighter. In light of this, insurance through the State Insurance Fund is no longer available to me for my professional work. I am sure this is related to claims analysis and the like, but it sure puts a different spin on how I will proceed with my work!
Over the years I have been in a expert witness for cases involving equine accidents. I will give you overview of one of the cases to which I contributed.
It’s always great to hear from people who have used our training materials successfully with their equines, so we loved getting an email recently from Becky of Becky’s Homestead, showing off a video of her formerly hard-to-catch mules, Emma and Charlie. Using Meredith’s methods, the mules now come to the gate and exit quietly, and turn to Becky to await further instructions—no chasing required.
Becky writes: “I love your method because you don’t have to be a tough, roping cowboy to train your problem mule. I also really like that you say people need to train their own mule so they develop a relationship. I have seen it countless times, where someone sends their horse or mule out to a trainer and the animal is perfect for the rough, tough cowboy or cowgirl trainer—then it goes home to the middle-aged woman and acts the same old way. Bottom line, there is no short cut to developing a good relationship with your animal.”
One of the keys to Becky’s success was that she did not try to modify or rush the exercises, and did them exactly as laid out in the training program. Although it can be tempting to quickly move to more advanced lessons, like riding, your equine needs to build those skills—and muscles—on the solid foundation provided by beginning training. And as Becky experienced, these methods can produce amazing results!
Mules have served as the loyal mascots at the United States Military Academy at West Point since 1899, as a symbol of heartiness and durability. This great video from Army Athletics details the history of mules both as mascots to the teams, as well as in service to the army at home and abroad. The video also follows the two new mules that are taking their place of honor at West Point, as the previous generation of the mule corp retires.
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.