Who Needs Time or Money...We Have Mules!

by Jennifer Schmuck - Hennef, Germany

I think everybody who owns one can agree when I say that there is hardly any other pastime that can cost so much time and money as having equines. People who don’t have mules, horses or donkeys of their own tend to think that we have a lot of money because we have our mules and keep them here on our land. My reply then is usually, “No, we used to have money, now we have mules!”

What people usually don’t get is that mules are priceless! I look out of my window and see Katie munching her hay with that lovely satisfied and self-absorbed expression in her large mule eyes. Or Larry standing at the gate with a happy expectant face. Who can resist those longears?

What makes me talk about money, of all things? Well, we tried saving for a trailer. But try as you might, something just always comes up. First thing that needed to be bought was a new saddle for Katie, of all things! Exactly what I wanted to avoid, and why I had brought a nicely fitting saddle with me from Missouri. Well, in Missouri that saddle slipped forward a little when riding down a really steep trail. No problem, I had bought a britchen exactly for that purpose. When we went on our first trail ride here in Germany though, the saddle started to move forward even on level ground. I was totally baffled. What seemed to have happened is that while the mules had their long vacation (eating all they want and being petted almost bald in isolation in Decatur, Texas) Katie’s back seems to have changed. My saddle lady here suspects she has lost muscle mass in her shoulder. So as a correction pad didn’t help, and I realized I couldn’t have a britchen constantly keep the saddle in place even on level ground. I reluctantly wrapped up my beautiful mule saddle and stored it away in the hope of using it again some day.

Now Katie has a back that is pretty straight, a little downhill, and her withers aren’t very pronounced. One look at her and the saddle traders here, use to horse backs, knitted their brows and said they didn’t think they have anything that would fit her. And that proved to be true. A custom made western saddle was not possible for me and Katie, as we couldn’t wait for at least ten weeks without being able to ride in the meantime. And what’s more, I didn’t know a saddle maker here that I trusted could really fit a saddle to Katie’s back. Thankfully I came across a lady specialized in a new type of saddle with adjustable panels which had also shown in pressure tests to distribute the weight evenly. She first fitted Katie with an endurance saddle that had no horn, which of course made me grope into thin air! I must have looked pretty silly reaching for a non-existing horn! Luckily I only had to use this until Katie’s saddle with horn and custom made panels (to level out her downhill back) was ready. After ten weeks and dumping even more money on the table I now have her fitted with a very nice looking saddle that she really likes and I find very comfortable. And it has a horn!

As if that hadn’t already cut a deep enough hole into our savings account, it became soon obvious that something had to be done about Larry’s front feet. We are in the process of transitioning our mules to barehoof, and this is not always easy. They have good feet and don’t need shoes here on our trails, but Larry doesn’t take that easily to walking over gravel without shoes. Now we cannot avoid all gravel, because we don’t have much choice in our trails anyway. On top of that Larry had started to tell us that he wasn’t enjoying the trail so much anymore. He was treading carefully because he was wary of gravel even if there was none. And he had stopped flopping his ears!

So what to do? We didn’t want to shoe him, and our hoof orthopedic also said the hooves are fine, he just needs time to adjust. She then gave me the phone number of a very nice lady who is specialized in hoof boots. The hoof boot lady was thrilled! Mules! How wonderful! I wanted Renegade hoof boots, if possible, because I like the way they are easy to put on and easy to handle.

I had decided I wanted a pair for Katie, too, as the lady would be here to fit Larry anyway and Katie might need them on rough ground. We knew the boot story would end very expensively, as it costs of course a fee for driving out to us. But anything to see those Larry ears flop again and have him enjoy the trail!

The boot lady came armed with patience, lots of treats, and a huge number of boots in all colors. The first boot she put on Larry’s foot was a thing that looked like a big black clot, it was just to see what he would say to a hoof boot. Well, let me put it this way: it was pitiful. I thought we might need defibrillators because Larry had a heart attack and needed to be reanimated. He reared, then stood there, eyes bulging, not daring to move. Then he tried to move, but his hoof was gone and instead a black monster was moving with him! He froze and just stood there, hardly breathing. Tears were shooting into my eyes, I felt so sorry for him. It was incredibly hard not to be able to explain to him that it was for his best!

After a few minutes we took off the boot and let him graze a little. That always calms him down. Then we tried on a Renegade boot. It fit! We couldn’t think of anything but let Larry find out that it is okay, so we let him loose in the pen. He immediately tried to get rid of the boot by trying to bury his hoof with boot on in the sand. Then he tried to pull open the velcro that keeps the boot on with his teeth That wouldn’t do, so we took him out again and let him graze, with the boot on. Lo and behold, as soon as he found out that he could eat his grass with the boot on, he was okay with it. Even with both front boots on. We then put a fitting pair on Katie’s hooves (“Oh! Pretty! Do these come in red, too?” was all Katie seemed to think about them) and set out on the trail for the last test. Would they stay on their hooves? You bet!

Larry and Katie walk out in long strides, and Larry even walks just as fast as Katie.

Now we’re all set, Larry is flopping his ears again, Katie and I have a saddle we both like, and in October, we get two weeks of vacation to spend with our mules! The saddle, the boots and the fitting cost an arm and a leg. So what? Spending quality time with your mules...priceless!

I just hope we can ride the trail at all with people holding us up all the time to ask if those are mules, and now what the heck are they wearing on their feet?!

A Visit From the Dentist

by Jennifer Schmuck, Hennef, Germany

In 2008 we were looking forward to travelling to Missouri in April of 2009. Of course, waiting for something that great seems to slow time down to an eternity. Thankfully my friend Cindy sent me back issues of Mules and More that I could read to pass the time and learn about mules!

In one of those back issues was an article on equine dental care, stressing how important it is to have your mule’s teeth checked regularly. I put that on our “to-do list” at once. Of course, that “to-do list” changed considerably once the mules were here. Checking teeth got overshadowed by finding a fitting saddle, Larry sitting on his butt and needing a chiropractor to put his back right again, hoof boots, Steph taking riding lessons, working on Larry’s hind feet, etc., etc. I did talk with our friends here who own several horses and a mule about this, and they said they have a nice equine dentist who comes once a year and checks all their equines. They also believe it is important to have teeth checked and if necessary treated. So after having the chiropractic over for a follow-up visit on Larry this spring and ordering a trailer, we decided to continue spending money on our mules left and right and made an appointment with the “tooth fairy,” Mrs. Schmidt.

This lady turned out to be exactly as described by our friends, very friendly and open about procedures and (gulp!) costs. She said the mules would need to be sedated if treatment was needed and that she would come with a vet she’s working with if we would prefer to get it all over with at once. We immediately decided to have them both come over on this first appointment to get it all done with at once if needed.

I dreaded the appointment. I was worried how the mules would react to the sedation, if they would need to be treated, and how the one who would have to wait for treatment would react to what is done to the other. I was afraid one of them might panic because of the noise and smell. I expected both would need some treatment, as it seems that many equines need to have their teeth done some time in their lives. One of the reasons I had made that appointment now was that the chiropractic had found one of Larry’s jaw joints to be locked. She thought he might have some kind of malposition. Katie seemed to be eating less hay lately, as well.

The day came, and the vet and equine dentist arrived. Both turned out to be nice, chatty and excited to do something a little different and treat mules. These would be their first mules, having treated donkeys and horses and seeing our friends’ mule from a distance (that mule hates vets). Larry and Katie were, of course, already at the gate. They love visitors. We put halters on them and Mrs. Schmidt checked their mouths with her hand. Just as I had thought, both needed work done. Katie had some sharp ridges that needed to be done and Larry had the same, plus he needed his wolf teeth pulled. The ladies started to bring all their equipment to the dry lot, where they had decided to work on the mules. Looking at the equipment had a different effect on me than on my mule: I grew a little pale (I’m afraid of the dentist myself, so the instruments looked pretty scary to me!) and my mule got more obnoxious.

Katie wanted to be first, whatever was being done. The more equipment accumulated in front of the gate, the more excited the mules got, crowding the gate and quarrelling. The last time something interesting was brought to the gate was when Larry’s chiropractic came with her big box to kneel on, and Katie had thrown a hissy fit when it turned out the lady came for Larry and not for her, too.

Larry can be scared of new things, so we decided to start with him. The vet sedated him while I tried to keep Katie away. The sedation worked wonderfully, and Larry snoozed peacefully while the dentist put something in his mouth that looked like a torturing device and kept his mouth open. Then she started to work on his teeth. She used a dental drill and a rasp. It smelled of rasped tooth material and it was loud, but Larry was completely relaxed with his sedation and Katie was mortally offended that once again Larry had all the fun. She had tried several times to butt in (also literally, by trying to get the nice lady to scratch her butt instead of making a fuss about Larry) and was sent away. So she resorted to standing in line and sulking.

Then, at last, it was her turn. She was injected and snoozed just as peacefully as Larry, who had started to come around again. Now Larry often behaves like a little boy, but this time he was one tipsy little boy which made him a handful! Obviously he either had totally forgotten that he was already done, including the wolf teeth removal, or he was just very interested to get a different point of view of the situation. In any case he ambled once around the dry lot and then was back trying to peer into Katie’s wide open mouth and/or help the dentist get some work done by standing obnoxiously close to her, probably in case she needed a “hand.” Getting rid of him proved to be difficult as he wasn’t very coordinated yet plus didn’t react to being shushed away. I myself couldn’t believe anyone would like to stand there in the dust of tooth material and the racket of the dental drill. Our mules thought it to be great afternoon entertainment! The whole atmosphere was similar to a nice tea party. The ladies were having a good time with our mules, chatting happily and laughing about mule antics, and our mules had a great time having dental work done. After loading up all their equipment again and petting the mules one last time the ladies left.

They had told us to not give any hay for an hour and be prepared that it could take until the next morning before the mules get used to the new mouth feeling. That didn’t sound too bad, but I hadn’t reckoned with the mule logic that is profoundly different from horse logic. Larry didn’t get the part about no hay for an hour and started calling for the hay immediately. Was he disappointed when we brought it out an hour later! They both dug in and almost at once made confused faces, dropping half chewed hay from their mouths. It took Larry and Katie almost a week to get used to the new feeling while chewing. And, of course, they blamed the hay. If you have difficulty chewing your hay, your hay can’t be good to eat. So they nibbled just enough to not starve, and pulled the rest out to pee on it. Apart from wasting the good hay it really got on my nerves that they would not eat enough. Neither of them is overweight. Both usually sport a hay belly, but have no fat deposits. After a few days finally both mules decided the hay fit to eat again. Phew! The ladies will be back next year for a check-up. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if they would be greeted by friendly whinny-brays!

My "Been There, Done That" Mule

by Jennifer Schmuck
Hennef, Germany

Jenn's dad leading their dog, followed by Jenn riding Katie

When I was looking at ads for mules that were for sale, I frequently came across the “been there, done that” mule. This sounded to me like the kind of mule we should be looking for as a mount for my husband Steph, a beginner rider. I assumed a mule that has been there and done that would be a mule that would be laid back in new situations, calmly travelling down the trail, used to everyday situations...or so one would think. But that was before I got my mule, Katie.
Katie is a “been there, done that” mule. She’s been there once, done that before and now she’s bored. Ride the same trail twice, and her lower lip drops until it almost drags on the ground. She slows down until Steph’s mule Larry has to push her from behind. Tapping her with the end of a rein results in what appears to be an abused and offended mule, suffering calmly (but very obviously) and I’m glad we usually don’t meet anyone on the trail who would ask me what I had done to her. Katie is not a seasoned trail mule (shhh, don’t tell her I said that!) but I put some trail miles on her since she came home to us and she is doing really well.
You can probably imagine how trailriding looked like when we didn’t have a trailer yet and had to go the same trail all the time. Either Katie was shuffling along, setting new records in slow walking and aging perceptibly in the course of minutes, or she was looking out for something to make a fuss about (did you know there could be anything from a mountain lion to pink elephants in even a small bush?!), or she was watching for some entertainment in the form of spooking, turning, eyes bulging…you get the picture. We provided a reliable source of amusement for our neighbor Mr. Esch who lives right beside the trail near our house.
I was so relieved when we got the new trailer. After the trailer loading problem was solved we finally could explore new trails. The problem is a trail is only ever new once!
I have to admit I’m probably just as easily bored by the same trails as my mule. After having ridden all the trails we found in that area, distraction presented itself in the form of my father, who is 70 years old and loves hiking. He wanted to see where we ride. He wanted us to take our dog, too, who usually has to stay home because she is too excited to stay reliably beside the mules when we ride. Lo and behold, with dog and dad in front, Katie thought it a fun outing again. Phew! I even got some earflop out of her.
The next weekend my father was back home again, so we had to go without him and I knew we would need a new area to ride. We had found a parking spot for the trailer and set out to explore the woods we had seen on the map, and which Michael, our friend with the problematic perception of parking space, said was good for riding. It turned out to be a rather depressing riding area. The woods were very dark and eerie, it was mainly gravel roads, and as most trails on the map turned out to not exist anymore we got lost and had to go the same way back that we came. Which lead invariably to a complete meltdown of my “been there, done that” mule, who just made it back to the trailer, in complete disbelief that I really had made her take the same trail back that we came. 
That evening Michael called and asked how the trail was. I said the woods were dark and sinister, and that neither we nor the mules liked it. “Oh ya,” he said, “the woods ain’t pretty in that area.” It was good we were talking on the phone, as I would have kicked him in the shin really hard otherwise.
Of course the “been there, done that,” mule has also had her feet done before. Now having her feet done is boring. It gets considerably more interesting when throwing up the rope with her nose while the hoof lady rasps away on her hooves. There would also be the option of chewing on the lead rope, or destroying the end of the rope by pawing on it (of course standing on only two feet, as the hoof lady is working on one of the hindfeet at the same time). If finished with all that and the feet are still not done yet, fall asleep and let the hoof lady hold up the hoof if she can (ignore the swearing that might interrupt your sleep). The “been there, done that” mule also always likes to be helpful, as in finding the tools the hoof lady might have mislaid. While the hoof lady rasps away on the left front foot, the right hind leg can easily stretch out to unexpected lengths and find the nippers she might have been looking for. (Katie is not one to get distracted by angry yells, in case you wondered).
Now after making a lot of fun of my “been there done that” Katie, you probably think she is a really spoiled annoying brat. You know, partly you are right. If she’s bored she can really get on your nerves. But she is the best mule ever for me. She has a great sense of humor and a big heart. She trots into the trailer and is that eager to go out and do things. She doesn’t know much about trail obstacles and difficult terrain, but she always gives her best. She would never offer to kick or buck. If something is difficult or scary, she is always willing to give it a try. Of course, once a danger is braved, well, you know, it gets boring…

Fitting the Saddle Mule: Conformation Types

In the November 2010 issue of Mules and More, Jenn Schmuck (Hennef, Germany) talks about finding the right saddle for her husband's mule, Larry. She got help from Saddle Solutions, who wrote the following article on saddle fitting:

Fitting the Saddle Mule: Conformation Types
by Saddling Solutions (www.SaddlingSolutions.com)

There is as much variation in the shape of mules' backs as there is among horses. As with horses, some mules are very easy to fit while some are much more difficult. There are a few conformation types that are more common in mules that will require special consideration when fitting saddles.

1) The Very Straight Back

Some mules have a back without a lot of dip to it when viewed from the side. Their spine may be almost completely straight from the withers to the hip. Since most saddles are made for the "average" type of horse back, which has a downward curve, saddles will often rock, cause excessive pressure under the center of the saddle, and be unstable both laterally and front to back on this type of

mule back. A treed saddle built specifically for a mule may have less rock to the tree and may work. A treeless saddle, particularly of a less structured type or a type that will break in and mold to the mule's back, may also be a good fit.

2) No Withers At All

Some mules have very flat withers, like a donkey, and this may also be combined with a downhill conformation (withers lower than hips). Lack of withers may result in problems with the saddle shifting laterally. When combined with a downhill build and shoulders that are smaller than the barrel, it can also result in saddles sliding forward. In this case something more flexible often conforms better to the shape of the mule's back, and the better the saddle conforms the less likely it will be to move around.

3) The Very Narrow Back

Some mules are very narrow, and may be narrow and A-framed all the way back into the loins, unlike horses which typically widen out towards the loins. This may be combined with (1) and/or (2) with or without a downhill build. The main consideration here is finding a saddle that offers enough clearance for the withers and spine. Among treeless saddles the best brand for this type is usually the Startrekks. They have ample wither and spine clearance, and while they break in and mold to the horse, they won't collapse and lose clearance as they age.

4) The Very Round Back

Some mules are very wide and round, and this may also be combined with (1) and/or (2) with or without a downhill build, resulting in a tube-shaped body on which it is very difficult to achieve good saddle stabilty in any direction. Again, it is important to ensure that the saddle fits the shape of the back and is wide enough, and a more flexible saddle that can mold to the mule's back may work best.

5) The Stoic, or the "Stubborn Mule"

This isn't a conformational trait, but can come into play when evaluating whether your current setup is working. Mules have a reputation for stubbornness, but this is often only the good sense of self-preservation they inherited from their donkey half. If a mule refuses to do something, don't just assume it's stubbornness, they may be very stoic to pain and may only show that they are uncomfortable by having difficulty or becoming balky when things are asked of them. One of the first things that should be checked when training problems are encountered with any equine is saddle fit.

Saddling Solutions is the US importer for Startrekk treeless saddles, and a distributor of Barefoot treeless saddles and saddle accessories. --- www.SaddlingSolutions.com

Steph Schmuck and Larry in his new saddle. See the November issue of Mules and More for the complete article!

Desensitizing Larry

by Jennifer Schmuck
Hennef, Germany

After Steph’s wreck (“Once They Know How To Get Rid Of You,” Mules and More, February 2011, pages 32-34) I knew something had to be done.

After the wreck I could not think straight at all. I concentrated on looking after Steph, who had three broken ribs and was in severe pain.

After a few days I finally settled down and started thinking about the situation. As with any mule/horse/donkey/dog/pet, etc., it all boils down to four options when a problem occurs. First option: give the animal away. Two: have the animal stay with a trainer to fix the problem. Three: have a trainer help you fix the problem. Four: fix it yourself.

The first option was never an option for us, we know what a great mule Larry is, and he will only get better. That’s what my friend Cindy said when she met Larry, and she is absolutely right. The second option wasn’t an option, as the trainer I would have chosen (Loren Basham, of PairADice Mules in Belle, Mo., who found Larry for us) is on the other side of the ocean. We would not take Larry out of his home and leave him with a trainer we don’t know here in Germany. Plus, Larry has bonded very strongly with Steph and needs to see him every day. The third option was something to think about. The fourth option scared me at that point, as I had been deeply shocked by the incident and felt shaken still.

I had worked for almost ten years as a behavioral therapist mainly for canines, but occasionally for horses, donkeys, a goat, or whoever needed me. I had worked on behavior modification, conquering an animal’s fear and similar issues using positive reinforcement. I was qualified to work with Larry, but I was not yet ready. So I decided to call Gary, a trainer from the United States, who is now in his seventies and has been living and working in Germany for the past 15 years. He had also worked and showed mules in the US.

I tried to explain the problem to Gary, which wasn’t easy. It took me another week to really see through it all and understand that Larry has a problem dealing with anything new. In our first talk on the phone Gary told me the same thing as Loren had recommended via email already: sack Larry out. Well, that sounded easy enough! Gary also thought we have to do that ourselves, and said we could meet later in the process. He did not have much hope for us first, as he said Larry is already 10 years old and set in his ways. But when I told him that we had worked through the problem with Larry’s hind feet and that Larry is great with giving all his feet now, he was impressed and said Larry must have a very nice disposition. You bet he has!

I started with a homemade flag. Just a whip with a small rag tied to the tip of it, nothing scary. Well, that’s what I thought! I divided the paddock so that I had a square to work in, that kept Larry with me and Katie out of the way. Now you just heard me say that Larry has a problem dealing with anything he doesn’t know, right? So to divide the paddock was something new and unusual, and a whip with a rag on it was unusual too. And there I was, wanting to work on despooking Larry, setting him up in a weird surrounding holding something very weird in my hand. In a split second Larry was displaying one of the behavior patterns I wanted to change: running bug eyed from something scary. Great. Exactly what I did not want!

It took me quite a while until Larry stood still, but I only needed to lift that short whip with the rag (a.k.a. the mule eating monster) and off he went again. That was no good. I ended on a good note, meaning I calmly put away the whip when Larry stopped to stare at me and gasp for breath.

The next day I took the rag off the whip, divided the paddock and got to the point that I could touch Larry with the rag, on his neck. The day after that I had to start all over again, and that was the point when my background as a trainer kicked in. I was such an idiot! It was time to regroup, and put some facts to paper.

The notes I take as a behavioral therapist in these cases are different, as I try to understand the background of the “patient.” If I just want to modify a behavior I write down what that is, then what kind of behavior I would like to see instead and find a way to modify the behavior pattern.

The behavior patterns of Larry were a) shutting down and ignoring something that bothers him (we call that the stimulus) until he cannot take it anymore, and then b) run from it in panic. If you don’t know Larry well, you would not ever realize he is shutting down if you don’t push him over his threshold so that he tries to run. If Larry is scared enough he won’t shut down but run immediately (as in the moment he was scared and bolted in the indoor arena). It’s difficult to recognize his seemingly calm behavior as a complete shut down. You’re dealing with an animal that has withdrawn from the situation and is in self-preservation mode. But if you know Larry you can see how his eyes lose their focus, and even his ears aren’t pointed towards anything anymore. If you work while he or any other animal is in that state, you’re just wasting your time as the animal is not able to learn while withdrawn mentally from the situation. Not so much different to a human being under severe stress or fear!

Now what behavior would I rather like to see? I want Larry to be courageous enough to face a scary thing, check it out, and know it is something he can deal with. I don’t want him to be oblivious to his surroundings, that, in my opinion would not be desirable in a good trail mule, but I want him to find his own courage to check the “mule eating monster” out. Many people want their equines just like their dogs; to be used to anything and everything and be OK with it. The thing is, you really cannot desensitize your animal to any and all possible stimuli to get him used to it. Instead you can aim for a desirable reaction to something new. That reaction should not be scared, but interested in something new or scary, and if insecure to check in with you.

Were I working with a dog, I would use positive reinforcement (clicker training preferably) and modify typical canine behavior (either stare at something strange and react to it, or try to run) into the desired behavior (look at the scary/dangerous thing, look away from it at me to check in and have this behavior reinforced). Now I was working with a mule, so the behavior I wanted to reinforce was to not shut down or run off, but face the danger and even check in with me. To achieve that, the crucial point is not to drive Larry over his threshold, not to push him too far so that he either shuts down or tries to bolt. He is a very smart guy, and I’m trying to show him that if he faces the danger, he’ll be fine.

Training this involves a method called “Advance and Retreat.” The main idea is simple and sounds easy: if the equine stands still or faces the danger, you take the danger away. This is supposed to make the equine no longer feel helpless, but more courageous. 

In practice, this way of desensitizing looks like this: you approach with the scary thing (“advance”). Only advance so far that you see the mule tense or take off (you are working with a rope and rope halter, and in some fenced in area). Do not advance any further, as this is the point at which you will cross the threshold if you are not very careful! Now the mule is allowed to run around you if needed, to move his feet, to stare and snort. You stay where you are, just keep the nose of the equine tipped towards you. The moment the movement stops, or if the mule hasn’t started to move around, the moment you see some sign of relaxation, you take away the stimulus. That’s the retreat. The second you see a desired reaction to the stimulus, retreat (as in taking away the scary thing, take a few steps back, say a few soothing words). Then repeat. You will be able to advance further and further each time. You will see some very nice progress in a short time, provided you do not cross the threshold and never advance further than your equine tells you he’s OK with. In a very short time the equine will understand that holding still and relaxing will make the scary thing go away.

While this is a simple concept, it sounds difficult. It is easy though, only the timing is not always easy to keep. Two common mistakes are overwhelming the equine and scaring him even more and taking away the stimulus while the equine is reacting poorly to it. If you know the website youtube.com, you will find a video of Julie Goodnight (horsemastertv) showing a short glimpse of how it is done. You can also find an article on this method on her website. She very probably describes it much better than I can, haha! Email if you can’t find it and I’ll send you the link.

Has this way of desensitizing made Larry not wary of new things? No, not yet, but he is already much more willing to give them a chance. It will take more time until he will be really accepting of new things, but he has already changed a lot. He used to go away when Steph was working in the paddock, for example using a ladder to climb up and change a light bulb in the shed. Usually Katie came investigating while Larry went away to the hayfeeder so that he could safely ignore the scary ladder. Now they both come investigating (which does not make working easier for Steph). When I come with something new to work on with Larry, he doesn’t snort and try to go away, he just backs up to a safe distance to look at it and we can go from there. I have to keep in mind that if you change something, you have to go back again and do the same all over again, albeit faster than before. When I saddled Larry, the paper feed bag I was using for desensitizing was making sounds on the saddle which was very scary again, so I had to start over with the paper bag although he was fine with it when not carrying his saddle. Also, what you do on one side of the mule you have to do all over again on the other side. Larry for example is much spookier when touched from his right side. When it was obvious that Larry would not try to run anymore (which was already on the second day of working with him like I described), I stopped dividing the pen and Katie “helped.” Helping as in being bored by the whole thing, and asking for a piece of carrot when she couldn’t have been in the way more. Because for Katie, nothing is more boring than being desensitized! I am really proud to say that today Larry helped Steph changing a neon lamp on the hay shed. He stood right beside the ladder, investigating the neon lamp, the plastic shield, and even the cardboard box it all came in. He stayed right there with Steph, so that when the new lamp was installed he could have his ears scratched. Katie was bored and eating hay from the feeder, while Larry paid such careful attention I’m sure next time he’ll change that neon lamp all by himself!

Mules Do Trails Best!

by Jennifer Schmuck
Hennef, Germany

“Mules do trails best!” That is what it says on a sticker on our mule trailer. And it is the truth! That’s why we wanted mules, not horses. We wanted trail buddies who enjoy the trails as much as we do. Actually, no, that’s not exactly why we were looking for mules, but that’s what we ended up with! What we wanted were sure-footed equines that are smart, sturdy and smooth to ride. That was, apart from reliability, the top of our list. What we got was so much more.
Trail riding here in Germany is very different from the US. The population density is much higher here, resulting in less space for more people. Meaning there are a lot less trails that are shared by a lot more people. People don’t trailer out much, if at all (you should see our gas prices!), but ride out from home. Riders aren’t particularly popular, depending on where you live. In many parts of Germany you are only allowed on designated horse trails that are often in bad shape and start someplace in the middle of an area and just end a couple of miles later. If you don’t want to fly your equines in and out again you are pretty much at a loss!
We live in an area where we can ride out from home, but only to share the trails with mountain bikers (the kind that silently rush towards you scaring the beejesus out of your mule) and similar specimen. After meeting huge farm machinery on our way back home one day we decided to buy a trailer to trailer out into a better riding area. That was a good decision, as we found beautiful trails.
It was the first time since we got our mules from Missouri to Germany that we started to have some real fun on the trails. Larry recognized the area for what it was (nice woods to ride in!) and started flopping his ears and swinging his butt. Katie started to relax some as she was surrounded by trees and brush. Behind all that brush and trees wild mule eating beasts might lurk, but she found some courage and decided it couldn’t be that dangerous after all.
For the first time since our trail rides in Missouri, the mules could show their quality as trail mules. Katie was leading, and she was so happy to be a trail mule (she used to work mostly in the arena). She really had no idea about what a good trail mule was, but she definitely considered herself one! She moved down the trail with bells and whistles, enthusiastically taking in the scenery, while stumbling over branches and walking where the deepest mud was. She always tried to take everything in, including nice juicy twigs appearing in front of her nose. When the going got rough, Katie thought taking your head high and rushing through would be exactly what should be done. I’m very sure she was wondering why the ground wasn’t kept nice and good to ride on like she was use to in the arena. But she loved trail riding and never got discouraged.
And after I put some trail miles on her she got considerably better, she rarely stumbles anymore. She still insists on walking where I think she’d better not, but she’s easy to guide. What she really hates is going back the same way we came, and while we’re at it, going back to the trailer is not her favorite direction! What I especially like about her is her big heart. Katie gives her best, and at times the trail is pretty challenging for her. I can see that when she is all sweaty when we come back to the trailer. Sweaty but very happy!
Larry is usually behind us with Steph. By this time Steph has progressed so much (he started out on Larry as a complete rookie) that Larry and Steph are a regular team. Larry not only enjoys being on the trail, he is also a seasoned trail mule. He always negotiates the trail with care and thought. I don’t think I have ever seen him stumble. If the going gets rough and Katie doesn’t know which way to pick through deep mud or other rough ground, Larry and Steph will take the lead. Katie is offended of course, but she follows Larry’s trail. The kind of trail Larry likes best is going up hills, through mud, over logs. The more challenging, the better. If you want to see his ears flop, ride him on a trail that makes Katie wonder whether it is a trail to ride on at all!
In the beginning Steph had problems with Larry trying to rush downhill. The first thing we did was check saddle fit, and indeed his saddle was pinching his shoulders. He had outgrown the first of his saddles, he had put on so much muscle. We changed the saddle, and it was better but not perfect. Because of his former saddle pinching he had also gotten into the habit of hollowing his back, and by that couldn’t get his hindquarters engaged going downhill. Just like most young mules that are started under saddle. It took Steph a few weeks of riding downhill in serpentines, and then Larry got the hang of it.
One thing both mules have in common is that they like to take their time. They have both a fast ground covering walk, but they don’t rush or want to trot or lope. We like that, but it’s also the reason why we will probably always be on our own on the trail. Weirdly everybody here likes to trot or lope on the trail. Why the rush? I have no idea. We like to smell the roses!
If you would ask which one is the better trail mule: Katie, the former arena mule with not much trail experience, or Larry, the seasoned trail mule, sure-footed and considerate, I would not be able to answer objectively. For me, my Katie is the best trail mule, because she loves trail riding so much she trots into the trailer and starts flipping her lead rope with her nose. She is that annoyed if we don’t go right away. She’s the best trail mule for me, because she has so much fun it would lighten the day for anyone. Larry is the best trail mule for Steph, because Steph can concentrate on riding while Larry picks his way safely. Best of all is though that they are both such happy trail mules. And once again it all comes down to the most important factor when choosing a mule: the right attitude! 

 Steph and Larry on a trail ride
A landscape view of one of the Schmucks frequented trails

Longears are Good for the Soul

by Jenn Schmuck, Hennef, Germany, jennifermandy@googlemail.com

I think all of the Mules and More readers know how good our longears are for us. My husband and I feel blessed to be owned by them every day. There’s nothing like coming home from work and being greeted by a longear hanging her head over the gate to get some ear scratches. After spending some time in the dry lot or even just watching them through the windows all stress and troubles just melt away and we feel calm and happy. Watching our three mules and the donkey munch their hay is just so peaceful (well, if they’re not jostling for the best spot at the hay feeder). And the countless situations when I look out of the window and see our boys playing, or the girls grooming each other, or someone having found a spot in the winter sun, lying flat on the side...It’s just wonderful to live with longears.

This is not something we should take for granted. I was reminded of this lately when my husband Steph’s good friend Piotr came to see us over the weekend. Piotr lives in Berlin, a big noisy metropolis. He lives in an apartment with a noisy neighbour above him. He leads a busy life, often with worries, as he has a company that develops electrical surveying systems. Lately, he has often had customers who won’t pay their bills, so he struggles to keep his company afloat. At one point a few weeks ago he was so exhausted, done in and tired that when he called Steph he made hardly any sense. He said that he needed a break, that he couldn’t go on right now and that he would get into his car and drive over to see us. He did, although he couldn’t get away from his office until late and it is a six hour drive to get here.

When he arrived I was struggling not to let him see how much his exhaustion showed. His hands were shaking, he was extremely hectic and nervous, and he looked dead tired. I made him eat something and then we all went to bed.

He slept straight through and got up already looking much less tired and his hands weren’t shaking anymore. Still on the couch under his sheets he had exclaimed about the quiet and peace. After breakfast we took him out to the longears, and Steph handed him a fork to help shovel poop. It was quite hilarious to see him try to use the fork, until Steph showed him how you scoop up the poop and shake the fork so that the sand falls through the fine teeth. At this point not only had the men company (that is normal here, you cannot do anything without having at least one longear with you who oversees what you’re doing), but also was the company very interested to see such an exotic handling of a poop fork!

The sun was shining thankfully, and Piotr and Steph were surrounded by happy longears who butted in wherever possible to get scratches and pats. Piotr had started to smile and laugh again, but he was still talking very fast and moved faster than necessary. He was better, but still tense. After cleaning the dry lot we took out Larry, Steph’s john mule, and Will, my Mammoth donkey, to be brushed. Piotr brushed Larry with Steph’s help. Larry was being very patient with Piotr, who of course had never brushed an equine before and tried to use the wrong brush in the wrong way on the wrong body parts. Steph told Piotr what brush to use for what part of Larry, and explained that Larry was also telling Piotr that and explained about tail swishing. When everybody was ready we all went for a walk. At first Piotr walked behind us, enjoying the quiet, and the landscape. Will and I walked in front, because he always wants to go in front (in his opinion you really cannot walk second in row and if you ask him to, he will walk painfully slow). After a while Steph convinced Piotr to take Larry’s lead rope, and that helped Piotr to forget any stress or worries he had brought with him, as he now had to concentrate to keep Larry from taking breaks to snack. He had to pay close attention or Larry’s head would go down and there they were, grazing instead of walking. Will in the meantime was disgusted, walkies, as the name implies, are for walking and taking in the scenery, not for eating.

We walked a nice loop over the hills surrounding our home, a trail that offers nice vistas of little villages, the woods, and pastures. It was a wonderful day for a walk.

In the evening Piotr went outside with us to feed. He watched me put together everything, asked me to explain what they have for dinner. Instead of being all fidgety he leaned on the gate and watched us tie everybody to their designated dinner post. He was to hold Will the donkey’s dinner bowl for him that evening, as it’s always nice if someone holds the bowl so that Will won’t step into it and turn it over. I think this was the icing of the cake for Piotr. He was holding the bowl and beaming. Will, who usually isn’t a big fan of strangers, really liked Piotr and was munching away contentedly. Standing there, in our dry lot in our peaceful valley, with my wonderful donk, Piotr let go of all his stress and worries and finally found an inner calm.

The next morning Piotr was pretty deft at cleaning the dry lot with Steph, and then was taught how to scratch ears and butts. He had escaped his hectic life for a weekend. He left for home that day, with new energy and a new calm.

This visit has called to my mind again how blessed we are. Steph has always said that cleaning the dry lot before leaving for work is not a burden of any kind, but a great way to start his day. Now Piotr understands why. Our longears are the best therapy to cope with our hectic work lives. It’s not only trail riding that is good for the soul, but just being with longears. Of course trail riding is wonderful too. Our girls love to go trail riding and when we are on the trail they are so obviously happy to go and radiating that happiness that it makes you just blissfully happy yourself.

People who do not know longears often exclaim about how expensive it must be to keep them, and all the work that needs to be done, and how we live out in the boonies and away from the cities. All I can say is, we lead a wonderful life and I wouldn’t change it for the world!

Happy New Year, everybody!