Keep It Safe Trail Riding




by Brad Cameron, Cameron Mule Co., Corvallis, Mont.

Wouldn’t it be great to head out on the trail and have the confidence to know that everything was going to go well? To know that you could control your mule’s feet, stop him in an emergency, and ride through problems because you and your mule were working together? It is a great feeling to know that your mule is taking care of you on a ride, because you are taking care of him.

In thinking of a topic for this months Trail Riding issue the first thing that jumps to my mind is safety. I know of so many riders who head out, only hoping to survive the day. Many people ride with fear, expecting the wreck to happen. Even more people ride along in a state of bliss, with no idea of the explosion that is about to take place.

Lots of riders feel that safety has nothing to do with the mule at all. They think safety comes from some sort of bit, and the bigger the better. A bit should be used to communicate with the mule and not for overpowering him with pressure. Many places I go there are folks who use a moderate bit for training but they have to stick the monster, nose biter mule bit on for trail riding. “I need that for brakes” they say. If you think the “train by pain” method is going to stop a mule in a panic situation then friend, you are riding on borrowed time. When the chips are really down that mule isn’t going to care about you regardless of the amount of pain your bit is inflicting. It is only a matter of time before the wreck happens.

One of the biggest problems people create is simply being oblivious to the mule as they ride. A real common example is the trail rider who just lets the mule go down the trail at his own pace. You know the one’s I’m talking about as you’ve probably ridden with some. Their mule just plods down the trail ever so slowly. Then when they ride down into a draw, or get behind the others, the mule trots up the other side or trots to catch up. Once up the other side it goes back to plodding along. Then it’s just trot and plod and trot and plod all day long. It makes for a miserable day. In situations like this riders are not actively riding at all. They are simply sitting on top of the saddle, totally unaware of what the mule is doing or how the mule is feeling. Often times a mule might start out a ride being troubled about something. If you are unaware, the longer the ride goes the more troubled he gets. You might be several hours into the ride when suddenly, while unwrapping a candy bar from your pocket, he spooks and bolts off. Thus the bewildered rider is left on the ground wondering what happened. Almost everyone, including myself, enjoys trail riding. If I can get folks to be more aware, and work at getting with their mule, it would just make things safer.

Cowboys are some of the most routine trail riders I know. You may not think of it as trail riding but we are out riding all the time and encountering all the same obstacles anyone else would while on the trail, only there is no trail in cattle country! When my cattle are turned out to graze in the summer months there are no groomed trails or easy loops to get to them. Often when going to check my cows, our rides just getting to the cattle could be considered extreme by most. I don’t even own a four-wheeler so everything I do is with a mule. At the time of this writing I am calving and sometimes have to ride in extreme conditions. Rainstorms, snowstorms, darkness, slick icy footing, etc. If a cow is calving and needs to come in during a storm in the middle of the night it is something that has to be done regardless of the conditions. I have to have my mules where I can rely on them, no matter what. So I am constantly trying to practice what I preach so that no matter what I do, I can feel like I will stay safe. When we do head to the high country with open trails and beautiful scenery it is relaxing, fun and always something we enjoy.

So how do you avoid some of the pitfalls and start riding safer and with more confidence? Start learning how to get your mule working with you. Learn to listen to your mule and read what he is telling you, without anthropomorphizing and putting the animal’s reaction into human terms and emotions. Most important keep him thinking about you while you are riding by becoming an active rider, not just a passenger. I often tell people in the clinics that you have to be in the driver’s seat driving, not in the passenger’s seat taking a nap. Here are some ideas that will start you toward a safer and more enjoyable trail ride.

Make sure your mule is mentally with you before you even get in the saddle and leave the trailer. He may be distracted by other sights and sounds at the trailhead so do the groundwork first. By directing his feet through the halter driving exercises he will have to focus more on you than on his environment. Get that focus before mounting up, it only takes a few minutes.

Practice your emergency lateral stop a few times before leaving the trailer. With one rein, ask your mule to bend his head around and use your leg to bump his hindquarters over. Get control of the life and energy that is in your mule as soon as you get in the saddle. By disengaging his hindquarters you are again directing his feet, which will shift his focus to you.

Actively ride and actively direct your mule’s feet during your ride. You don’t have to overwork yourself while trying to enjoy your ride. Little simple things can keep your mule focused on you. Choose the speed in which your mule goes down the trail. You don’t have to wear your mule out by asking him to really hurry all day, but don’t let him choose the pace. Just a nice walk with a little life to it. Avoid the trot and plod. When you ride into a dip in the trail pick up on the reins and get a hold of him just before you hit the bottom. Don’t let him trot up the other side, be sure that he walks up. Little things like this can keep your mule thinking more about you. You folks who have worked with me in the clinics know exactly what I am talking about in these steps so practice it and maybe help a friend to learn. In conclusion, if you are taking steps to keep your mule mentally close to you, you will also become mentally more aware of your mule. By doing so you will realize much sooner if your mule is getting troubled and be able to deal with it long before it gets out of hand. By taking a more active roll in riding you can cut down on the variables and have many safe and enjoyable trail rides, think about it.