By Kayla Hebert
It was a soggy spring day and I remember it pretty clearly. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my parents and a neighbor that had come by for coffee. I had never met this neighbor before, so being the age I was, I was curious to find out as much as I could about the stranger.
One of my mother’s favorite coffee topics was 4-H. Our family lived, sweated and bled 4-H. My mother was repetitively bragging up my latest horse 4-H achievement when something sparked my neighbor’s attention. She was telling him how I was training with an Olympic level dressage trainer and re-training an old race horse from the track. I suppose he was pretty impressed to hear about a 12 year old girl accomplishing tasks usually tackled by older individuals. This is when he posed the question. He turned to me with a little grin and asked, “How would you like to be a muleskinner?” I was young and loved anything to do with horses, so I took him up on the offer. Little did I know I was gearing up to play a whole new ball game!
I quickly learned the term muleskinner is not meant to be taken in the literal sense, but is the slang form used to describe an individual who can “skin” or outsmart a mule. To the untrained eye, a mule appears to be God’s most stubborn creation, hands down. However, anyone who knows anything about a mule knows they are not stubborn, but extremely intelligent. I became savvy to this a little slower than my mule would have liked, I’m sure!
It wasn’t long before our neighbor brought two mules for my sister and I to condition for the race. One was Ethel, a smaller painted mule, and the other Betsy, a buckskin. Since my sister was smaller, she was more suited to Ethel, who was as sweet as a mule could be. She tolerated anything my sister and I threw at her, and believe me, at that age we were dumb enough to test her patience on more than one occasion. Betsy, on the other hand, was a little less patient and a whole heck of a lot smarter than me. She would bite or kick while I was reaching for the cinch, as if to say, “If you can’t get this stuff on me you can’t ride me!” I looked at Betsy and she looked at me, off came that saddle and bareback it was! After we got to know each other better and she trusted me, she allowed me to get the saddle cinched with only the occasional glance my way and stomp of a foot. We went riding almost every day after school and half the summer, until it was time for The Great Canadian Mule Race at the Bruce Stampede in Alberta.
I remember the excitement and nervousness on the day of the 10-mile race. We brought the mules to the Mule Condominium set up on the grounds, which is a cozy area for the mules to be stabled. Many of the competitors brought portable panels so the mules could have space to stretch their legs, instead of being tied to the trailers all day. We spent the day relaxing and watching the rodeo. When it was time I groomed Betsy until she shined. We got tacked up, warmed up and into the arena. I could feel her muscles shivering beneath me. She was excited too, she’d raced plenty of times before and her mule memory was as sharp as ever!
We paraded the mules for the spectators to see and the bets were placed. As the announcer called each mule and rider, we lined up; ready to race the route we had practiced. All the mules were excited and pranced at the starting line. I took a deep breath and waited to hear the blow horn. Finally, it blasted and we were off! Out the arena and down the gravel road for our 10 mile trek. I could taste the dust in my mouth and wondered how Betsy could breathe. Like a trooper she kept on galloping down the country roads and through the sloughs. The older muleskinners told us some entertaining stories as we galloped along the roads. The mules stayed in a tight pack until the last couple of miles, at which point you could tell which mules had been conditioned a little harder and had the will to win. My sister and I were at the front of the pack, along with our neighbor aboard Charlie.
There was a little mule called Applejack who began to creep up and take the lead in the last mile. We could see the stands and hear the crowd cheering. Little Ethel ran out of gas and dropped back a bit; it was between Applejack, Charlie and Betsy! We came into the arena neck and neck, hooting and hollering, encouraging our mules to push a little harder. At the last moment Applejack pulled ahead, winning the race.
This was an experience I will never forget. I continued to race aboard Betsy for the next few years, until it was time to go to college. When college was all said and done, I returned to the Bruce Stampeded to find the beloved 10-mile Great Canadian Mule Race was no longer running! There are no younger muleskinners to take over for the retirees. The problem is most people my age are a little too “proud” to take a mule as a mount. I believe it is because people are uneducated about the mule and their unique talents.
I love the mule for its sense of humor. Yes, it is true that every horse has a personality and their own quirks, but I have never met a horse that could almost laugh with you (or at your sometimes) like a mule will. I love the mule’s strong sense of self-perseverance and above average intelligence, which certainly makes them a safer mount than a horse. I love their longevity, and that for the most part they are stronger, sturdier and more sound than the horse. It is not uncommon for a mule to be used well into its twenties. If there is one thing I have learned about mules it’s that if you find a good mule you’d better take good care of him and treasure him as a companion. Thanks to his extraordinary memory and loyalty, you can have confidence that he’ll remember it and you can bet your boots that he’ll return the favor!
Update from Russ Shandro, “Dave Simpson (2010 Champion) and George Hines are returning this year. These two veteran muleskinners are seeded, as number 1A and 1B, to challenge for the Teddy Holden memorial Mule Racing Buckle. Latest update has it that George, after a one year absence, has been at the track routinely, prepping Copper, his 10-year-old molly mule for the 28th annual contest. George has only missed two races since its inception.
Scouts have reported Dave has been seen at his regular practice spot, also preparing. And this year’s, “dark mule” could be ridden by Kayla Hebert, as she has been honing her skills in preparation for the Great Canadian Mule Race.”
Back in 1983, when Ted Holden was recruiting mule owners to challenge in a race, he could be seen regularly taking his three mules to the track for practice. That summer, at the sermon in the United Church, the Minister was sporting a “shiner”, yes a black eye.
One of the children asked how it happened. Earlier that week Teddy was riding one mule and ponying the other two. As the Minister drove by he tooted the horn. The mules Ted was riding startled and bucked, off came Teddy. Ted go things settled down and then climbed back on…..the Minister then hooked the horn again. Off came Teddy, once more. Ted got things settled down once again, smiled, and then walked over to the parked vehicle where the Minister was just rolling in laughter. Ted spoke to the Minister….with his fist! That was it, no more honking, no more rosy complexion. The 2011 Bruce Stampede and Great Canadian Mule Race is scheduled for July 30-31. Contact Russ Shandro at 780/632-7510 for more information.