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Sad Loss for Longears Industry: Goodbye to Crystal Ward

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A professional trainer, judge and animal inspector, Crystal Ward owned the Ass Pen Ranch in Placerville, California, where she raised and trained horse, mules and donkeys. The first year she came to Bishop Mule Days was in 1979. She happened to be coming through Bishop on vacation and it really intrigued her. She thought the mules were simply outstanding. Crystal had a show career with horses, but the following year she decided she had to own a mule. She showed up the next year with a horse trailer in tow, and at that point Bishop Mule Days was still offering an auction. She swiftly bought a mule at the auction and had been coming back ever since.

Her first mule was a wild little critter that didn’t make much progress. So the following year she bought a mule named Skeeter Sea from George Chamberlain, a dealer in mules in Los Alivos, California; the mule was previously owned by Slim Pickens. When Slim Pickens showed up as Grand Marshal in the Bishop Mule Days Parade, he told Crystal, “We used to own that mule.” She showed him with 55 mules in the class and won the Western Pleasure class that year. Although he was nice in the Western Pleasure classes, she couldn’t see owning this mule for the long term due to his generally bad manners. Later, she picked up a mule in Northern Montana and brought him back and started training him…his name was Final Legacy. He was a good honest mule and she kept him for the long haul.

Back in the early ‘80s, Crystal got really interested in riding side saddle, so she joined the International Side Saddle Organization and ultimately rode in the Presidential Inaugural Parade with Final Legacy in 1993, hauling him from California to Washington, DC, in the middle of January. He was a good honest mule and she loved him. She showed him in many classes at Bishop Mule Days over the years…from Western to English, dressage, driving and side saddle.

In more recent years Crystal switched to raising and showing donkeys. She had a variety of donkeys, from miniatures to mammoths. She fully understood that you have to take a different approach when training a donkey and produced training videos with Napa, California, videographer, Video Mike. She truly appreciated a good donkey: “Donkeys are like potato chips—you can’t have just one.”

In our interview in 2009, Crystal told me: “We call them [donkeys] ‘desert canaries,’ but that goes hand-in-hand with donkeys. They do like to talk and it can be loud, but you know I’ll still take a donkey any day. I live with the noise, but then again, I’ll have peacocks, barking dogs and roosters in my backyard. Donkeys are just one more noisy farm animal that I can certainly live with.”

For Crystal, it was always a matter of learning…English, Western, Side Saddle…the whole nine yards! She always performed to the best of her and her mule’s ability and she believed a lot of it was a matter of finding just the right mule!

Crystal enjoyed her interview for my documentary series, Those Magnificent Mules; she appeared in “The Bishop All Stars” episodes. (We have all of these episodes available to watch online.) She said: “We were showing back in the early ‘80s, beating the paths to Bishop Mule Days. The one thing I know about mule and donkey people is that it’s fun competing…nice rivalry. When you come out of a class, your fellow competitors will shake your hand and offer you a bit of encouragement. It’s like family when you show at a mule or donkey show. It’s something you always look forward to until the next time.”

You are so right, Crystal! You will remain in our hearts, forever a part of our longears family… we will miss you!

  1. Karin Klarkowski03-15-2014

    Wonderful writeup, Thank You

    She will be deeply missed.

  2. Dianne03-15-2014

    So sorry to lose such a great women. God bless her family

  3. Marilyn Schmidt03-15-2014

    Crystal was my trainer when I was a little girl. She was a mentor in my life we rode in several parades together and she got me into riding side saddle I was 9 1/2 at the time she let me show Eternal Midge and I showed Final Legacy in Rosemond Or. I lost touch for a few years but got back in touch with her at Bishop Mule Days last year. She had the kindest of hearts especially when it came to kids the most wonderful spirit and soul always having a smile on her face. Crystal impacted my life and I am so greatful for that!! The world lost an angel but she’s looking out for all of us up in heaven. I’ll miss you so much Crystal I love you for everything you did for me and for being in my life!! :) Please give Eternal Midge and Final Legacy loves from me I miss you something awful but I’ll see you on the other side. The world lost one of the most important people and you will truly be missed R.I.P Crystal I love and miss you!!! :(

  4. Judith Knight03-15-2014

    My heart goes to the people that she knew for even I feel a sadness, and she really helped the Mule and Donkey industry. I am reading this and I know some horse owners that have Donkey, or Mule for companion for their Horse(s) and the Donkey or Mule make great Guard(s). Mule and Donkey people seem to be very compassionate for I loved reading this and I too miss Crystal even though I do not personally knew her, she touched me. Thank-you to writer and the Mule and Donkey people.

  5. Joanie kilbride03-15-2014

    My deepest sympathy to family and friends …what a great loss. It hit me hard to hear the news, l have followed her training techniques from the beginning in 2004 when l bought my first donkey – abused, miserable and lonely he was. Through loving, caring and with the right training, l took this crabby, semi-wild donkey and made a real genial man out of him. l trained him well for saddle, he knows all his cue, he’s a great friend as well.. Even though you’re no longer here with us, l like to say thank you Crystal, you have helped me and my donkeys and you will never be forgotten, and sadly missed. Joanie from Canada

  6. Patrick03-15-2014

    What an amazing life story, as with many, it was cut short, with many chapters unwritten.

  7. Diane Vandenberg03-15-2014

    courageous lady and will be missed,my daughter loved the longears
    and would have loved to have one before she passed away in 2008 and I’m sure they will meet upstairs, where all beautiful women
    go.

  8. Pat Hookstra03-16-2014

    Crystal could communicate well with all animals, no matter the length of their ears or number of legs. I loved talking with Crystal and I’m a computer geek. As the manager for my husband Jim’s equine veterinary practice, I had many conversations over the years with her about her critters, the injured equidae of other owners, boarders to be bred, upcoming shows, and emergencies. She was so easy to work with because of her kindness, vast experience, and incredible calm.

    Crystal was truly an expert. Both a scholar and an equestrian, she improved the life of donkeys and their owners considerably. She shared books with Jim and recently spoke to the international community at The Donkey Welfare Symposium at UC Davis with Dan Sehnert, “What well-trained donkeys can do!”.

    She cared for horses and donkeys as patients and boarders for some of our clients. They and the donkey community here trusted and appreciated her. This is a tragic loss.

    Thank you Meredith for honoring dear Crystal and giving us a place to share our grief.

    Sincerely,
    Pat Hookstra

  9. Melissa Sanders03-18-2014

    Thank you Meredith for sharing stories and beautiful photos of Crystal!

    I first met Crystal about 12 years ago. I had just purchased two donkeys that had not been handled very much and I needed some help in getting started with them. She lived about 45 minutes from me and was willing to come over and help me. I was so impressed with her that I decided to have her work with them full time at her place. I went to her ranch one day a week for a lesson for five months. What a wonderful experience that was! I enjoyed watching her communicate with them . . . she was such a natural, a true ‘donkey whisperer.’ And, she was a great teacher for me as well, very kind and calm, and never made me feel dumb. I really appreciated that. Sometimes after the lesson we would have lunch together and visit. She enjoyed showing me all her animals and different things around her place. On one occasion my husband came with me to a lesson and afterward we went into her home and we could see an area where she kept photos, awards and nice tack, and she was willing to spend time showing it to us. We were amazed and impressed at all of her accomplishments. She also helped me with registering my donkeys and purchasing the correct tack; she even took me with her to a horse and tack sale several hours away to help me pick out the right tack at a good price.

    I enjoyed her wit too. When I told her that one of the reasons why I named my baby donkey Nellie was because I thought it would be fun to say ‘whoa Nellie,’ without missing a beat she said “You mean, GO Nellie.” I laughed soooo hard . . . I think of that often and smile!

    I treasure all the memories I have of her and am having a hard time accepting the fact that she is no longer with us. The world is certainly a better place because she was in it. I thank our good Lord for creating her, and thank you Crystal for caring and sharing!

  10. Jan Jensen03-19-2014

    I met Crystal in the early 80’s in Santa Cruz. We soon became great friends and she had me help her show many of her wonderful longears and crew for her on her trips to the Rose Parade and Bishop Mule Days. I had only ridden english/eventing so she brought me into a whole new world!

    I have spent the last two Saturdays at her property recovering as much as we can from her home that burned. Thankfully, we have found many of her treasures, awards, tack and equipment. Mark Meyers will be putting many of these items on display at his Donkey/Mule Educational Center in Texas.

    You can visit her memorial page at:
    http://www.greenvalleymortuary.com/sitemaker/sites/greenv0/obit.cgi?user=1266260Ward

    Please feel free to sign her guestbook

    Ride on Crystal! You will be missed but never forgotten.

    • Melissa Sanders03-19-2014

      Dear Jan, I am so happy to hear that you have found many of Crystal’s treasures, awards, tack, etc. as I thought they had probably all perished in the fire and thought how sad that was too. It is nice to know they will be on display at an educational center. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to go through the items . . . you are a true friend.

      Sincerely,
      Melissa Sanders

  11. laura03-21-2014

    My sincere condolences to her friends and family. She will be missed. RIP.

  12. Jessica Hausman03-24-2014

    So grieved to hear of the passing of this wonderful friend ,protector and trainer of Burros, Mules and horses. She will be missed by so many in both the animal and human world. God bless and keep you Crystal Ward.

  13. Hap + Su Bullard04-10-2014

    I cannot put into words how we will miss Crystal, even though we have not seen her in 15 years. We met in 1982 at a Bay Area Mule and Donkey Association show at Graham Hill show grounds. We were showing (or trying to) our donkey Christmas, who was adopted right from China Lake as an abandoned foal. Crystal was always so helpful and positive and with her help we were able to make him into a true gentleman. Thank you Crystal, we will remember you always…

  14. Michele Kimzey04-16-2014

    I had the fortunate experience of meeting Crystal through mutual friend,s and loved her right away. She was very quiet yet alway’s had a big smile on her face. Crystal helped me last year as my sweet sister in law was dying of cancer. I brought my mare to Crystal’s to be closer to my sister in law and Crystal not only took the best care of my horse, she would alway’s ask about my sis and talk me through the process of the cancer and what to expect and the grieving process on my end. She offered whatever she could to help. I love you Crystal and all I can think of to make sense of all of this is that God really needed an Angel to care for his long eared herd. I miss you.

  15. Ginny04-19-2014

    I barely knew her, but like her right away…I was searching for a performance donkey for Easter and Christmas pageants, and I contacted her after having no luck. She sold me a gorgeous little Mammoth donkey named Asspens Whoopie. On the small side, and having been passed around a bit, Crystal always took her back when owners didn’t want her anymore. I told her what I needed a donkey to do, and she told me this one was perfect. She is, and has been delighting crowds for the last 4 years. I kept in contact with Crystal, assuring her of Whoopies good care with photos and letters, because Crystal really did care about her donkeys. This year, after receiving the horrible news, I am in shock. Crystal was a truly wonderful animal advocate, while being kind and informative to people at the same time…you will be missed, and no worries, we will care for Whoopie until she is ready to reunite with you…:-)

  16. Deb Kovac05-01-2014

    Just heard the horrific news. Although I never met Crystal I had conversed with her via e-mail. She was always a source of inspiration for me and my work with saddle donkeys. Crystal, you will be missed and I hope the legacy you have left behind is some comfort to your friends and family.

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