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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.
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!
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!