The Final Exam

by Clyde, the Little Red Mule That Could
(Translated by Lila Wheatley, Etna, Wyoming,

Our latest humans, Lila and Vic, are our fourth owners. They are very patient and kind, and we get along well with their horses. Our previous human’s were nice enough, but didn’t have much confidence. We were spooked by his inexperience a few times, which scared him into selling us.

That’s where Lila and Vic came in. They took time to work with us on saddling and pannier loading at home in the round pen and then out in their pasture before taking us on long rides every weekend in preparation for hunting season. We had a few minor setbacks, like going through the “hard to catch” and the “difficult to halter” phases, and I was afraid of the saddle for a while, but we worked through it. And then we had our “final exam” before elk season on the last weekend of deer season.

We took our first long weekend pack trip with our new humans to Stewart Mountain, only a 10 minute trailer ride from home, on the last weekend of deer season in September. The neighbor came by to see the new editions to the family. While Lila and Vic were talking to him, they forgot to tighten our cinches a few extra times before we were loaded on the trailer. (I’d heard a previous owner say that mules are like “torpedoes with suction cups for feet.” I prefer to have the cinches tightened numerous times before setting out on the trail.)

The sun was setting by the time we unloaded. Lila was riding Capone, the young mustang, and leading me packed with coolers (with no top pack or no mantie), and Bonnie tied behind me. We had to stop to open the big elk fence gate to continue up the mountain, which was only about a half-mile from the trailer.

That is when I started to panic. I quickly cut in front of Capone to tell him that something was wrong. Lila kept trying to get me to go behind Capone by snapping my lead rope with the chain, but something was terribly wrong with my saddle.

I kept running in front of Capone to get everyone to stop. When they finally stopped, after almost getting my lead rope completely tangled into Capone, they realized the problem. My loose cinch had caused my saddle and load to slip back, and now the cinch was at my flanks, in perfect position for a bucking rodeo. Luckily, everyone remained calm while the coolers were unloaded and the saddles were re-tacked and re-loaded. I felt like a ticking bomb, but I stood still.

It was almost dark when we set off again, this time Vic lead me without anyone behind me. Bonnie was tied behind Junior, the Appaloosa pack horse. We met two hunters on horseback coming down the trail who told us they had just seen a bear, but nothing else. As we got closer to Quakey Flats, where the steep trail levels out for a while, we could hear elk bugling all around us. We must have gotten in the middle of the herd.

The night was warm and the moon was giving us enough light to get to camp without a headlamp. Since it was late and dark, there was just enough time to unload everyone, set up the tent, and tie all the equines to trees for the night. The elk bugling was still continuing as the humans got in the tent, but since there were lots of branches crackling nearby, the great guard mule Bonnie kept blowing her loud warning call for an hour or so to make sure that no elk or bears would come into camp.

The next morning, after they set high lines up, the humans took only two horses to go hunting and left Junior with us back in camp. When they returned, empty handed, they let us take turns, two-at-a-time, grazing in hobbles. When it was my turn in the hobbles, I showed them how agile I was by jumping over logs, twisting, bucking, rearing, galloping in tight circles and rolling.

After the second day of hunting, coming back again empty handed, we loaded up and started the one hour ride down the mountain to the trailer. I carried the coolers again, this time much lighter and stuffed with dirty laundry, so nothing inside would make any noise. They tightened my cinch a few more times and it remaining tight for the entire trip down.

At the trailer, our humans usually unload us as a team so that our loads come off easier and faster, but they did not this time. Lila was un-tacking Bonnie and Vic was un-tacking me. When my pack cinch rope got a little hung up on the saddle, Vic walked to my other side to get it untangled. At the same time, I moved to the left to give Vic more room, which made the pack cinch fall to my side, which startled me. I pulled back on my lead rope, which tightened my lead rope chain on my chin and made me go forward into the trailer to loosen the chain like a rubber band, almost catching Vic in between the trailer and me in the process.

By this time, Vic had called Lila to help and she quickly untied Capone from next to me so that I had more room. Vic untied my rope at the same time so that I would not get hurt struggling. When I saw that I was untied I bolted from Vic’s hands and ran right through Capone’s lead rope so we were both now loose. Capone sensed my panic and took off down the fence line, while I turned and went into the chest-high barbed-wire fence. The fence was old, and I was able to lean into it and break a few rotten fence posts. When I was pushing on the fence, my panniers got a bit hung up and were now a bit off-centered by the time they broke free. Now the panniers were wobbling on my back, so I ran really fast to buck them off, but they kept wobbling on my sides. I kept galloping and bucking until the strap on the panniers broke and the coolers were able to come out and spill their contents all over the neighbors pasture.

The three-year-old horses that were grazing in this pasture were now joining in the excitement and I ended up chasing them around a few times to get rid of every last piece of load or pannier attached to me. I got pretty tired by this time and my saddle was still on pretty tight. The cinch was in the right place but at a bad angle. My humans stood in the middle of the pasture, so I ran to them and let them un-tack me. Again, I felt like a ticking bomb, but I didn’t move while they helped me get rid of that saddle.

I felt fine once that saddle was off. I walked calmly back to the trailer and stood tied. My humans walked around the pasture picking up all the pieces of coolers, socks, underwear and trash. They chased the three-year-old horses back into the other side and closed the gate so that they would not get out.

I only had a minor scratch on my chest and forearm. We loaded up and went home without further incident. I heard my humans say that I failed my final exam and would have to go to “winter” summer school. I would not be ready to go to elk hunting camp. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

I did learn a few lessons during this experience, things that will maybe help me pass my next exam: (1) Always tighten the cinch on a mule at least three to five times before starting on the ride; (2) Un-tack a new, skittish mule as a team, with a person on each side of the mule for more efficient tack removal; (3) Don’t use the chain with the halter, as that seems to make problems worse. My follow up: I was pretty scared at the sight of an approaching saddle blanket or saddle, but after months of “winter” summer school, I am happy to say that I can get saddled and lead without a problem. We have not used the chain with the halter and I seem to stay happier without the noise of that chain. The sound of a pannier rubbing against my saddle is still a bit unnerving so I will have to keep attending mule school all year until I can get used to the sounds of the pannier against my saddle without getting skittish.

About the author: My name is Clyde and I am a nine-year-old, 13-hand sorrel john pack mule. I’m very curious and like people. I enjoy being the class clown. I look for interesting toys to pick up and throw around, invent new games, tease horses and chase dogs and cats. My “partner in crime,” Bonnie, is an eight-year-old bay molly pack mule. Bonnie is very shy and prefers to stay away from people until she really knows them, but loves to carry a load and work. She is 100 percent business. 

Jail Break on Mumford Creek

by Bonnie, the Shy Molly
(Translated by Lila Wheatley, Etna, Wyoming,

It was my third season at the elk camp at Mumford Creek, so I knew my way around. The trip from the trailhead to camp is about nine miles with one long steep pass to go up, over, and down to the Willow Creek drainage. Our old neighbors, Jones, Elsie and Diamond, and their humans, Chris and Jen, came with us on the first weekend. Chris, Jones and Elsie joined us for the second weekend.

Jones is a younger mustang who was previously in my herd and my old boyfriend. Elsie, Chris’s horse, is a very mellow 15-year-old mare and is now dating Jones.

Chris got his cow elk on Friday evening after the ride into camp. Jones and Junior, from our herd, packed the cow elk back to camp during a sleet storm on Saturday morning.

On Saturday afternoon, most of the horses were high lined or hobbled and napping or grazing in the afternoon sunshine, drying out after the wet morning. Vic and Lila told Chris the number one rule of hobbling: never hobble pasture mates at the same time. Though Chris had just trained Elsie to be hobbled the previous weekend, he assured us that since she was new to hobbling she wouldn’t go very far, even if Jones was hobbled, too.

The humans were preparing for a few more weekends of camp, so they were cutting firewood with the noisy chainsaw. They fell two dead trees about 100 yards on the west side of the cook tent. We were all resting in a horse highline area about 75 yards across the creek and on the east side of the cook tent. When those trees hit the ground, the shaking ground and the loud noise was quite startling. By the time the firewood project was complete it was snowing steadily with a fresh inch of snow on the ground at about 6 p.m. When Chris and Lila went to feed the animals they found that three of us were missing.

Jones, Elsie and I were all hobbled, so when we heard all that commotion with the chainsaws and falling trees, we high-tailed it toward the trailhead. We didn’t get very far, because Elsie wasn’t as fast or agile in her hobbles as us younger equines, and Jones didn’t want to leave his new girlfriend behind.

It was dark, cold and windy and the snow was getting heavy. We jumped the creek and headed down the trail. It’s not difficult to run in hobbles; it’s similar to a gallop. Jones and I had to continually wait for Elsie to catch up since she was older and was getting very tired and hobble sore. We hesitated at the creek crossing near the camp down the trail about a mile, but didn’t visit the horses since we had to go past the big wall tent to get to the horse corral. We weren’t in the visiting mood.

By this time it was snowing pretty hard and covering our tracks in the trail, but we kept going. We spent the night at the intersection of Mumford and Willow Creek. The grass is plentiful there and the ground near the creek has some thermal springs nearby, so it was a little warmer.

We didn’t know it then but our humans had searched in the snow that night for two hours before giving up and heading back to camp.

At daylight we crossed the deep muddy section to get to the south trail to head back to the trailhead. The pace was slower than the night before due to about five inches of fresh snow and our pasterns getting sore from all the hopping in our hobbles. Elsie didn’t want to keep going; she kept telling us that our humans would be here soon to take off the hobbles and take us back to camp. Jones was leading the way, I was in the middle, and Elsie brought up the rear. We saw a few elk along the Mumford River bottom and they ran from us when they heard the chains from our hobbles clinking against the rocks as we moved.

We took a long drink and stood in Willow Creek to soothe our sore ankles and then started up the long hill. There was a large herd of elk in the big pasture at the start of the long hill and we traveled behind them for about a mile taking our time and eating the really tall meadow grass along this stretch of trail.

We wondered why our humans were taking so long to find us on the trail and take off these darned hobbles. But they did finally catch up to us. We were over halfway to the trailhead, about five miles from camp. Jones was halfway up the long hill, and I was right behind him, but Elsie said she could not take one more step with the hobbles on. Lila caught Elsie and took off her hobbles. Chris caught Jones and haltered him and took off his hobbles.

Lila tried to catch me with some pellets but I am still untrusting when there are strangers nearby and the setting is not familiar. I did want the hobbles off (we all had terrible leather burns on our ankles) but I just couldn’t bring myself to put my nose into the halter. Lila could tell that I wanted the hobbles off so I stood still while she took them off. I followed at the back of the string and stood a while in each creek crossing to give my sore ankles a much needed soaking. Vic and Grampa were still out hunting but returned soon after. I let Lila catch me and put on my halter once we got back to camp at the highline.

Lila, Chris and Vic rode to the top of a high hill to make a call to tell Chris’s wife, Jen, that he would be a day late getting back. I stayed at camp with the other jail breakers while the others rode up the steep hill behind camp. The humans couldn’t get enough reception to make a call, but they could get enough to send a text message. It was dark by the time they returned. We jail breakers had not had any camp feed since Saturday morning and it was now 7:30 on a Sunday evening.

The next morning Vic and Grampa led me with the two mustangs to go elk hunting to the east. Lila rode Matt and led Junior to help Chris pack his elk out to the trailhead to the east. We were tied up on a ridge line and Vic and Grampa had just finished a hunt on foot, when a noisy helicopter landed about 100 yards away and Vic spoke to the people inside. When Lila and Chris were about an hour from the trailhead, a low flying helicopter had flown over them. At the trailhead they were greeted by Sheriff Bob, who happened to be Chris’s neighbor, who told them he had tried to reason with Jen to wait a few more hours before insisting that Search and Rescue begin their search for Chris. Lila, Matt and Junior headed back to camp (after unloading Chris’s elk and a quick lunch break) and arrived at dusk to find a note in the wall tent from the search and rescue crew. (Good thing Jen had ridden with us to camp the week before to give accurate directions!) Jen had not received the text message saying Chris was going to be delayed due to the jailbreak. Our jailbreak had caused the County Search & Rescue to dispatch their helicopter but at least we had a happy and safe ending that would make a good campfire story someday.

Our humans did learn some lessons from our jail break:

1. Never let current or recent past pasture mates be hobbled at the same time.

2. Never leave animals hobbled when cutting down trees or using the chainsaw. 3. If your cell phone does not get good reception and you have an “almost” emergency, dial 911 since your cell phone reception will be boosted when you dial 911. We confirmed this with our local cell phone company and county dispatch and would recommend for readers to confirm the same with their local cell phone companies and county dispatch.