Spooky Mules

by Max Harsha
originally published in 12/08

Here lately I have had several phone calls about what to do because their mules seem to shy at a lot of things, and they wonder how they can get them over the problem.
Well, first of all a mule is very keen on what goes on around them, as most of us are. When they are out on the trail they are going to encounter many things that they normally don’t see around where they are kept, so naturally they are going to be skeptical of many things they may encounter. This is why it is best if you don’t want surprises to get mules that have been ridden a lot in the wild, so to speak, and have encountered a lot of things not seen at home.

I recommend mules with a little age on them that have been ridden out a lot in the wild, and have come across different situations. I really like mules that have been used on ranches around here, as they have been exposed to deer, elk and/or bear on many occasions, as well as cattle, havalina and especially charred stumps. The reason I say charred stumps is, I have seen well-broke mules that you would have a heck of a time riding up to a black, charred stump.

I can remember several years ago four of us were going riding up in the wilderness and I had saddled my mule and was riding him around, while the others were getting ready, when he came to a black, charred stump which was barely sticking above the ground, and from the way that mule acted you would have thought he had encountered a bear! He whirled and tried to run away from it, and that is when the Harsha mule bit came into play, because I could control him with that bit.

We went around and around for 15 minutes or more before I could ride him right across that stump. This was his first time to the mountains and he found a few more ‘boogers’ that day, but it did not take me long to get him to ride up to them because I had won our first war.

Now, normally on a mule like that, when I got home with him I would have got some of those black leaf bags and filled them full of hay and tin cans and such and hung them around his feed trough and around the water trough and hung them loosely enough that the wind could blow them around.

This is the way I recommend to get the mule used to the boogers. When I said normally that is what I would do with a mule like that, is because I sold him that day to a friend who was with me, and was making fun of me when I was having the stump trouble on the start.

That day I had put a running walk on him that was as smooth as it gets, and he could darn sure cover some country. The friend wanted to ride this mule, so he got on and away they went in that running walk, in the very comfortable gait. He asked me what I would take for the mule and I told him; he replied he would give me about $500 less and I told him he better take his money and get a hearing aid, as that was not what I priced the mule for. To make a long story short, when we got back to our rigs the friend said he would go ahead and buy the mule. Later his girlfriend at that time got to riding the mule and fell in love with him (the mule, not the man) and when they split up, she got the mule.

I guess the moral to this story is, cowboys don’t get lucky all the time.

I’m looking for a place in Kansas or Oklahoma to do a little squirrel and quail hunting this fall and winter; if you know of a good place, give me a call at 575/535-4220.


by Max Harsha, Author of the Mule Skinner's Bible

Tom Curtain, Ray Hunt and Max Harsha at the benefit symposium for Tom Dorrance

I don’t know how to explain this exactly, as I am just an old country boy, but this is the best word I could come up with to explain this article. To me, it is a communication that exists between humans, humans and animals, and animals themselves. It can be by mental, sight, sound or smell that you can get these readings. First of all, you have to accept that it does exist.

Have you ever had the feeling that someone was staring at you, and you turned around and saw them? I can remember one time I was elk hunting and I was crossing this opening in the timber and felt this eerie feeling something was staring at me. I kept on going until I got across the area and into the woods again, then I concealed myself and waited and watched across the opening. It wasn’t long until I saw an elk come out from across the area and move to my upper right, from where I was located.

Another time I was sitting down and have this peculiar feeling someone was coming up behind me. I turned and there was someone right behind me, I don’t know his intentions, but he stopped immediately and turned away.

I have always gotten along well with animals and I think that has given me a way to perhaps communicate with them and understand how I can better get along with them. I relate to them in a positive manner that lets them know I am not going to hurt them, and in most cases we soon form a bond of trust.

One instance, a man, living not too far from me, called and wanted to sell me a mule. I asked him what she was like and he said they had ridden her and she seemed all right that way, but she was skittish when they could catch her, and she was hard to catch. I told him I wasn’t interested, as I only liked mules that were easy to get along with. I knew this man pretty well and he was a really nice person; he called again and asked me to come get the mule and find her a home, and that he would sell her to me at a very reasonable price. I knew an outfitter who would buy her to pack, and he was able to get along with mules of this type pretty well, and agreed to go get the mule. The man told me he had the mule in a pen and his wife could catch her. When I arrived she was still loose in the pen. I went in the pen with a halter and lead and the mule started around the pen; I blocked her and she stopped and we sized each other up for a moment, then I walked up to her and stroked her on the neck and put the halter on and led her out. I was told to be careful as she might try to jerk loose. I led her up to the back of my pickup equipped with racks. As far as we knew she had never loaded in a pickup like that. I stroked her on the neck a bit and stepped up in the pickup and she almost beat me in. I don’t know why the man didn’t get along with the mule, because she never gave me any trouble. I sold her to a lion hunter at a bargain price and told him she had been hard to catch for the previous owner. Later he said she was okay for a while, but then got hard for him to catch. To tell you how some people can exaggerate, the man I bought her from later told me he was visiting with my friend down by El Paso, and he told him about me walking up to the mule so easily and catching her and loading her in my pickup. My friend told him that man could probably have loaded her in a Volkswagen if he wanted to.

Another time a lady called and insisted I come and get a pair of mule she had that had been getting out and were running in the national forest; the forest service threatened to fine her if it happened again. I told her I wasn’t interested, but she insisted I help her out, so I finally gave in. When I got there she had the mules in a “so-so” pen and as soon as we started in I could see this Appy type mule getting very shook up. I was afraid she was going to try and jump out. I told the lady to get back and let me approach them. As soon as she got away the mules settled back down and I went ahead and took my time and they let me catch them with very little problem.

As I led the mules out the lady told me to be careful as they are liable to jerk away. I was sure they wouldn’t be a problem as they were following me like a couple of dogs. I loaded them and took them home. The next day a couple from Silver City came by and was interested in buying a mule. All I had to sell was the pair of mules, and I told the couple I hadn’t had the time to ride them, but they were supposed to be broke. They were in a large pen and the lady walked over to look at them while her husband and I went to look at my dogs. When we came back the Appy mule had come up to this lady and had her head through the fence, and the lady was scratching her ears. I asked how that happened, and was told she was just looking at the mule and after a while she came over to her and stuck her head through the wire, and they became friends. Now, don’t tell me there isn’t a mind-to-mind thing between humans and animals. I got the mule, saddled her up and rode her, then the lady got on and rode her. They bought the mule and they have been happy ever since.

Now, getting to the point of why this is important to understand. I have people call and ask about my Harsha mule bit. I tell them it will work to the point of where you will feel you are in complete control, and it will do you as much good as it does the mule. They will ask, “How is that?”, and I tell them that when you realize you are in control the vibes you put out will make the mule feel more at ease than if you were apprehensive about what your mule might do. Don’t think your mule doesn’t sense this, not only by mind, but also by the smell of anxiety your body puts out. The best example of this is, a man and his 30-year old son came to see my mules and the young man walked in the pen and the mules scattered like a bunch of quail. His dad told the son to get out that animals didn’t like him or something to that effect. Anyhow the older man walked out among the mules and they gathered around him like he was their mother.

Many of you have heard of Ray Hunt, the famous horse trainer who trained many people on how to train horses. I had the opportunity to meet one of his students Tom Curtain, who was at his father’s place at Columbus, NM. Joe Runyan had called to see if I wanted to go with him, as he was taking a mule to get shod and I did since I needed to pick up a mule in Silver City, which was one the way.

This mule I was picking up was a nice looking young mule, but wild, and had never been haltered. I finally got the mule caught and loaded and we went on to R. L. Curtains at Columbus. Tom was there and R. L. saw my mule and suggested Tom work with my mule while I shod Joe’s mule. Tom agreed, and I told him the mule was as green as they get and was about 3-years old, and maybe he didn’t want to fool with him. Tom suggested we put him in the round pen and he would see what he could do. I had put the rope in his mouth (see July 2010, page 14), so I would have control. When we got the mule in the pen Tom took the halter off. I told him I had had trouble catching him; Tom said not to worry. He started working him around and around in the pen for some time, then he blocked him and when he turned around and took off the other way Tom let him go and he repeated this until the mule would finally stop and let Tom put the halter back on. To make a long story short, Tom worked with the mule until he rode him within the hour, with a halter and lead. Ray Hunt was putting on a benefit for Tom Dorrance, who had helped Ray get started. Tom had some serious health problems and Ray was putting on this training symposium to help raise funds. R. L. made a bronze sculpture showing Ray and Tom working a colt. We drove to Lubbock, Texas to pick up some of the bronzes to be sold for the benefit. While there Ray and I were visiting and I asked him who might be one to take his place some day, and he said he would like to see Tom do it, as he had the best understanding with horses of about anyone he has trained. There was about 40 of the people there Ray had trained. There were four pens of 10 trainers each and out of all of them, Tom was the first man to have caught his assigned colt and had him saddled and ridden on the outside. Tom darn sure put on the right vibes.

The Thief Knot...One of My Favorite Knots

by Max Harsha, Cliff, N.M.


The reason I call this the thief knot is because it is so quick to untie. I use this knot to tie my mules, and when you get used to it, it is a very easy knot to untie. Another thing is that it is handy, as all you have to do is yank on the tail and it releases. This is exceptionally handy for leading a pack string in that you can just ride by and grab the end of the rope (as shown above) and ride off, and you have the lead mule secured before you ever release him.

Figure 1 shows how you start the tie, then in Figure 2 you have taken your right hand and shoved the loop through the loop you were holding with your left hand. Now you have the tie completed.

Figure 3 shows the completion, and your right hand is holding the rope coming from the mule. Now, if you are going to leave your mule tied for a while you should half-hitch the ear of the tie so the mule can’t grab the end with his teeth and release himself, as shown in Figure 4.

There are other ways to use this knot, for instance you would like to have someone hold a green mule while you get on, and you are by yourself, just tie one end of the rope to the hitching rail and loop the rope through the halter and make the same type of tie knot. After you get on just take the end of the rope and pull on it and release the mule after you have mounted.

Another way I have used it is if I have a green team and I am by myself. I will have hitched the team tied to the hitching rail so as to have them secured while I am getting in the wagon after I have untied them from the hitching rail. I will tie the left mule with the same procedure as I did with the mule I wanted held when mounting. In this case I needed a longer rope to come back to the wagon, so I could release the team after I got in the wagon. In this case I generally had a short rope tied between the bits, so as to keep the right hand mule tied to the left mule until I released them. Of course, when you release them you just let your rope lay. When I release the team I swing them to the right to take off.

You will find this knot very handy after you get the hang of it, so play with it until you get it right.

Hope you enjoy these tricks of the trade.


Cabin Fever...and Thoughts of a New Mule

Cimarron "getting high" in 1989 - Photo by John Sheally III

by Max Harsha
Cliff, N.M.
Author of the Mule Skinner's Bible

This is the time of the year when you can get cabin fever...and some of us start thinking about getting a new mule.

A lot of what you should look for in a mule depends on your age and your experience with equine. The older you get the more you need to look at purchasing a very, very well broke mule. This mule should be one that won’t booger at anything or jump out from under you. This type of mule is few and far between and darn near impossible to buy, even if you happen to find one. Some of the best purchases I have made of this type of mule have come up due to a divorce or financial difficulties.

This would generally be a mule I had seen at one time and had told the owner that if they ever needed to sell their mule, to call me. When they would call, I could not get there fast enough to get ahead of the proceedings. Most of these people knew I would give a fair price, so they called me first.

Most of the mules I look for are under 15 hands, out of a smaller quarter-type mare and sired by a Spanish jack. The jack would generally not be over 13.2 hands, or at most 14 hands, but well made. Mules with good dispositions are usually out of mares and jacks with good dispositions.

There didn’t use to be as many mules with good dispositions as there are now. In the past, if a farmer had a mare with a bad disposition, he would breed her to a jack instead of a good stallion. Years ago, for some reason, many jacks had a poor disposition, so the resulting mule was ill-tempered, too.

So, when you are thinking about that new mule, look for one that is quiet and has a good disposition. If the mule is spooky when you walk up to him, or is head shy, leave it alone and look for another.

The photo on this page is of Cimarron, a mule I owned; she stood about 13.2 and I could coon hunt with her. She had a super disposition and all my kids learned how to ride on her. She was very intelligent and would stand perfectly still until the kids would get on. They couldn’t get her out of a walk until she knew they could ride well enough. She could sense how much they knew. One time my wife Pat and I went to go riding with some people. I saw that this man’s wife was very tense on the mule her husband had given her to ride. I asked if she was uneasy about the mule and she replied she was. Pat, who was a good rider, was riding Cimarron, so she and the lady traded mules for the ride. We were riding along and came to a little creek, which normally Cimarron would have loped across, but she sensed this lady couldn’t ride well and she walked down into the creek and back out like she was carrying a sack of eggs.

Cimarron was very athletic and Pat heeled steers off her. I headed off of a mule I called Cajun Miss. Irvin Williams of Moravia, Iowa, was putting on a mule show up in southern Iowa and he was also having a team roping at the same time. Well, I was just starting Cajun at heading and they were having a team roping over at Unionville, Mo., during the county fair. We decided to take Cajun to the fair to get her used to the crowd. It had just rained that day and the roping box was very muddy. I told Pat to get in the heeling box and get ready, as I knew Cajun was not going to stand good in the heading box. I told the gate man to not pay attention to my mule and when I nodded my head, regardless of where my mule was, to open the gate. Actually it gave Cajun a little advantage because as I was turning her around I would nod my head and she didn’t have time to bog down in the mud. There were 50 plus teams entered, all horses but Pat and I. We won the first go and Pat caught both heels on the second go, but we were out of the money. We got third in the last go, which placed us second in the average.