Life Lessons from a Rodeo Cowgirl

1994 World Champion Bull Rider, Melissa Phillips took life by the horns and rode her way to the top.

Her titles include:

  • 1985 Cowboys Regional Rodeo Association Best Dressed Cowgirl of the Finals.
  • 1992 Reserve World Champion
  • 1992 Rough Stock Rookie of the year
  • 1993 Women’s Pro Bull Riding Champion
  • 1994 Challenge of Champions—Invitational only
  • 1994 Reserve World Champion Bull Rider
  • 1995 National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Nominee
  • 1995 National Cowgirl Hall of Fame Rough Stock Champion
  • 1996 Producer of 5 Bud Light Cowgirl Classics held at the Allen Ranch  Bixby, Oklahoma dedicated to Domestic Violence Intervention Service
  • 1996 Bud Light Cowgirl Classic Bull Riding Champion
  • 1997 1st Woman Bull Rider on Super Bull Tour
  • 1998 1st Woman Bull Rider World’s Toughest Tour
  • 2006 1st Woman Bull Rider Longhorn Rodeo Tour
  •  Rough Stock High Mark Ride of 3 Finals

Read her life story – available at Amazon books. Life Lessons from A Rodeo Cowgirl: Taking Life by The Horns: Roberts, Cindy K, Phillips, Melissa Geller: 9781523664627: Books

Know Where To Hang Your Hat – Status Is Everything

An interesting concept is status. Mules being as independent as they are, know where to hang their hat. They mingle, hang out, and move around in the paddock and pasture, to where it benefits them. They figure out herd dynamics quickly and make it all happen for them. For the mule, it’s all about him or her. Mules get this. They get the status thing and use it to their advantage. Dang! How cool is that?

So, where you hang your hat, is crucial for mental and physical health. So yes, status is everything.

Understandably, prolonged periods of feeling like you’re low status can thus lead to illness and depression. If your serotonin remains diminished for a long enough time, you’ll also become angry and may even feel the urge to violently lash out at others. This is not cool. You really need to take a time out and hang with the mules.

So, this status thing…unfortunately, there is a fair share of unscrupulous “business people” that muddy up a sector of the mule industry. This is nothing new, so watch yourself.

Just as you have an ingrained desire to seek status, others do too, and part of that drive is to connect with high-status people. As your confidence grows, your network of friends and peers will reflect as being positive growth. Remember, status isn’t just about looks or wealth, so this isn’t a purely superficial attraction. Both men and women want to befriend and partner with a guy who brings all kinds of valuable things to the table, whether that’s intelligence, wit, loyalty, or skill; everyone wants high status and hardworking people on their team.

And the mules; don’t want a deadhead on their team or a troublemaker. They go by their rules of conduct in the pasture and around the barn. Mules are good about the status thing. I admire mules that can detect dishonorable intentions faster than the stagecoach that left the depot.

Running an equine business is a challenge. Just remember, developing status leads you down the trail of success; to making new friends, finding romantic partners, and building a rich social network.

And that is why I like working with mules. They will teach you to look deep into your heart and soul; they will humble you and allow you to have a deeper understanding. That’s the deal breaker right there. I think I will hang my hat, right here.

Cool Mule Stuff – Shop Here

Click on the above link to visit our Mule Store! You need this stuff!


Mule Hoodie Sweat Shirt

Mule Bumper Stickers!

Mule Tumbler/Water Bottle

Mule Candles!

Mule Coffee Mugs!

2024 Mule New Year’s Resolution

Here we are, let’s get at it! If you have questions, you know where to find me.

  1. Start an emergency mule fund. Keep tucking away extra cash for an emergency
    that may come up unexpectedly. Be smart about this, stuff happens, and as you know, you can’t bubblewrap your mules or donkeys.
  2. Clean out and organize your tack room. Use a broom to whisk away the cobwebs, wipe down your leather with conditioner, and cover your saddles/gear with a cover. Dust is destructive to leather.
  3. Focus on riding with a purpose. If you don’t have a purpose, what’s the point? That comes from a mule’s perspective. Not having a purpose develops boredom in the mule, horse, or donkey. Yes, I know you ride for therapy, to get away, to get mule time in, but remember, you’re the leader. Develop your partnership between yourself and your equine. In other words, don’t be a knucklehead. (wink)
  4. Create a plan for barn safety, such as eliminating fire hazards and loose boards. If you are a boarder, offer to help out and make a note of what is needed to keep the environment safe for your mule or horse. Contribute to a mule or donkey charity. And research the charity first to make sure they are credible. You’re doing good here, so keep moving on with the list!
  5. Contribute to a mule or donkey charity. And research the charity first to make sure they are credible. You’re doing good here, so keep moving on with the list!
  6. Build up your stamina and muscle by exercising 3-4 days a week. You don’t
    have to be a Ninja fighter; proper balance and controlling your moves will keep you in the game longer. Moving up and down stairs several times is the simplest and easiest way to develop your agility. My secret weapon is 5-pound weights. I do 25 repetitions of curls, and 10 repetitions of the overhead shoulder press. I will do 10 sets each day and it works for me.
  7. Read a mule/donkey book from a trainer or professional you look up to. If you
    want to be entertained while reading on your favorite subject, pick up one of my books, they’ve been grouch-tested! (wink)
  8. Attend a clinic either as an auditor or rider. There’s always something to be
    learned or shared with others. There are many podcasts and online clinics you can attend to suit your needs. So many choices!
  9. Stay positive and celebrate your progress. Surround yourself with friends and
    family that have a healthy outlook and support your dreams. This is all good stuff here, keep moving, you got this!
  10. Learn to refine your aids (seats, legs, hands, etc…) Remember those Ninja moves you are working on number five on this list? This will help you to be able to strengthen your body and sharpen your riding skills. I see so many riders with poor posture, riding slumped over in the saddle. One false move
    during a ride, and bam! You’re dumped!
  11. On those non-riding days, get involved with horse board games such as:
    The Fantasy Ranch board game allows you to build and manage your own dream stables. This ranching horse board game includes three different levels, making it great for people of all ages. Herd Your Horses is an exciting board game that lets you play from the rancher’s or horse’s perspective. Horse Sense is a board game that will test your own horse knowledge. Throughout the game, you will learn about horse care, health, breeds, and riding. With over 200 hundred horse fact questions, your horse skills will be put to the test. This board game allows you to expand your horse knowledge while testing you on what you know. Gallop Home board game will put your equestrian skills to the test with this intricate board game. Players can try their hand as a horse trainer, with a full range and variety of skills to choose from. Horse Bingo board game, no matter your age, Bingo is something that you can enjoy playing. This rendition of Bingo takes it to the next level by incorporating horses into the game.
  12. Keep a journal. Record or document your rides. Keep a record of time spent with
    your mule. I go back and read the journals I have kept over the years; it is enlightening to me, humorous, and so rewarding!
  13. Here we are, the final round…make this a routine before your turn-in every night: Always check on the herd, say your prayers, and stay true to yourself. You’re worth it and we have a job to do. Remember, I’m counting on you.

My Heart & Soul…

My mule journey has brought to me amazing discoveries on what the mule is made of. As absurd as it seems, I cry for them, I pray for their well-being and I like to help others who are in need when working with their mules.

Cindy K. Roberts with Zan Parr Bar performance bred mule, Cache.

In 1985, I started working with mules and donkeys only; at that time I didn’t want to experience another sick horse on my farm and after losing two, I wanted a stronger equine to show and ride trails. I bought mules at an auction, broke out a couple of mules, and didn’t think it was all that tough to do. I didn’t think I was gifted, I merely thought most people didn’t take the time to study and understand the animal they were working with. Knowing that mules have a different mindset, I acknowledged it, accepted it, and worked with it… All this time, I have been captivated by the mule’s perspective and have been documenting my findings along the way. Looking for a way to develop a higher skill set, I bought mules at more auctions to fine-tune them or correct undesirable behavior issues. I bought mules that reared, kicked, and couldn’t be caught and I couldn’t get enough of it. Every mule I worked with was an individual and no two were alike. That is when I knew…I am now in mule college and I am not sure when I will graduate. 

Using my creative mind has enabled me to work with a troubled mule, for hours on end. I took the challenge and went to work; the results were remarkable. The late Max Harsha once said, “Pack a sandwich in your hip pocket and strap a canteen to your belt, then go to work with that mule.”

I am passionate about my work and that means I can be emotional. I thank my lucky stars that God is in my heart because I am growing into a better person.

We are going to take an incredible journey; your outlook on life will change, and you will have laughter in your heart. Your mule will look at you differently. I will share with you how I developed a deeper understanding of my mules and how I worked at cracking the “mule code.” Now let’s go to work…

Remember, the mule is a mirror to your soul . . . Keep honesty in your heart so you like what you see and feel.

Safe Holiday Decorating at the Barn

Decorating the barn for Christmas can be fun and creative; since that is our home away from home, why not? Sharing the holiday spirit with your equine is always special, and while you’re at it, don’t forget the horse trailer needs decorations too! A few things to be aware of, and then have a blast with the decorations!

When hanging lights, be smart about it. Remember, the newer, and more expensive, LED lights don’t heat up. Do not string regular holiday lights, as the dust, hay, and wood in the barn will just act as kindling. And you don’t want to create a fire hazard! Be aware of extension cords, as well. These can heat up, cause a trip for horses or humans, and also become an excellent treat for pests and rodents to munch on. Overloaded circuits are a recipe for disaster.

Know that mistletoe and holly, while festive and lovely, are toxic to horses, dogs, and cats! If you crave that look, go for artificial versions of these holiday favorites. Poinsettias are mildly toxic as well.

Stay away from tinsel and garland. This is too tempting for the barn cats to “hunt” these, then run down the aisle being followed by a long string of holiday spirit. When eaten by a curious horse, it might lead to a blockage. You don’t want a sick horse or mule because of this!

It’s also a great idea to keep all decorations away from the reach of equines. If your barn uses Dutch doors or stall guards, keep decorations far away, or just supervise when your horse can look around.

Some excellent options for decorating barns include wreaths on the barn doors, outside lights, and even sleigh bells. Most barn dwellers like horses, cats, and barn dogs won’t fancy a bell as a snack.

And use artificial plants, to avoid poisoning your pets and you have the benefit of re-using them! Additionally, any artificial pine will be better as it won’t drip sap everywhere!

Something tells me, you got this…carry on, and Merry Christmas.

Sizing Up the Competition

Mules and horses are good at this. They know how to get around the hay pile, they know who they can nudge over and who they can boss around. It’s called herd dynamics.

The water trough is another example of defining herd dynamics. There may be an informal line at the water trough, but everyone knows their place. If a horse or mule steps up before his “turn” then ears quickly lay back, and the structure of the pecking order is then reenforced. What pecking order you say? The basic pattern of social organization within a flock of poultry in which each bird pecks another lower in the scale without fear of retaliation and submits to pecking by one of higher rank. That pecking order!

Broadly speaking, a dominance hierarchy in a group of social animals…that pecking order!

Several years ago, an informal race was set up near the levy along the Missouri River between Cowboy the paint horse, and Rawhide the bay mule. They were both competitive by nature and they were fun to ride. The topic of who is faster, the horse or the mule came up and to settle the argument, the race was scheduled on one, early Summer’s evening.

There were horse riders watching on the sidelines along with the crowd of flies and mosquitoes. Everyone was ready…the race started off with a bang! Myself, riding Cowboy down the main stretch, and Bronco Laura on Rawhide the fearless bay mule, are galloping full speed ahead all the way down the throughway. We are moving fast down the entire track! At the straightaway, I

am leaning forward, giving a pep talk into Cowboy the paint horse’s ear to win this thing! Bronco kept the course on Rawhide the bay mule, by yelling and screaming at the top of her lungs, and slapping leather! Cheers and hollering took over the entire valley!

We were neck in neck when all of a sudden, Rawhide took an abrupt rubberneck

move to initiate a Sally-Stink-Eye stare tactic! You know the Sally Stink-Eye Stare Tactic, where the opponent sizes you up in a micro-second. Where you feel in an instant, it’s curtains for you! That Sally-Stink-Eye Stare tactic!

That was the moment that Cowboy the paint horse became fearful of the competition all because Rawhide the mule, eye-balled him all the way down the track! Rawhide the mule won the race by two lengths easy! Another historical moment recorded in the Devil’s Island Boarding Barn Hall of Fame!

There will be a time in your life, for you to compete at what is important to you. Whether it is a job position or being first to the counter at a K-Mart Blue-Light special.

Losing to the competition can be emotional, however, you need to focus on:

  • Accepting your loss.
  • Keep your spirits high.
  • Preparing for your next competition.
  • Congratulating the winner right away.

Cowboy the paint horse took the loss pretty hard, so I started one-on-one sessions with him on building his self-esteem. He got rewarded

for the slightest try on his part on whatever I asked of him. And it wasn’t long after that, Cowboy bounced back and became very full of himself. And that’s how you take it on the chin. OK, you got this!

Mental State of the Mule

Due to the hypersensitivity of the mule, their mental state can easily escalate into an anxiety level that would encourage bad behavior. You see, mules can feel energy from other equines and from a person. Their intuition is far keener than ours and mules will often mirror the feelings of their rider and respond accordingly. Our world is different from the mule, as humans we view emotions differently than mules do. We may mask our feelings. But in the presence of a mule, these animals can sense the way we really are. When a person interacts with a mule, they become part of the mule’s environment, and that person ultimately becomes a herd member.

One reason some people prefer mules to horses is that the former are generally easier keepers. A mule approximately the same size as a horse, at a similar level of work, consumes less feed. A mule can eat anything a horse eats, but he uses it more efficiently. For the sake of not overfeeding your mule, consult your veterinarian for the best diet for your mule or donkey.

Always remember, you can never force a mule to obey you. If you forget this rule, your mule will remind you when the appropriate time comes. If you try to force the mule, any compliance will be short-lived. The best methods are based on explaining to the mule what you want. If you use a method of restraint, like a twitch or a Scotch hobble, it must be approached with the idea that you are explaining to the mule that you want him to stand still, not that you are forcing him to submit. This is where a good degree of handlers often fail in their mule training.

Handlers often try to “drive” a mule to compel it to do what they wish. Horses may be driven or pushed into an impulsive state of energy. When a whip is applied to the horse, he will instinctively spring into motion (although sometimes not in the desired direction). When a whip is applied to a donkey, his instinct is to remain where he is until he is sure of the situation. If an abusive handler were to continue to whip the donkey, he would become more resolute and may drop to the ground in a heap of defiance.

It is not the donkey’s nature to panic and flee, as may be observed when a donkey is spooked. He will walk or trot (or, in an extremely frightening situation, canter) a short distance, stop, and evaluate conditions before going farther. A spooked horse may bolt uncontrollably over a great distance, causing harm to himself and/or the rider in the process. What puzzles many mule handlers is that in any given situation the mule may act like either the donkey or the horse. The muleteer must recognize and appeal to both the horse and the donkey temperament resident within the mule. Most of all successful mule trainers recognize that the mule is a unique individual.

A mule’s or donkey’s attitude to his work is one of partnership with his handler. While well-trained horses obey without question, mules and donkeys are more task-oriented. They seem to be concerned with the overall job, rather than with isolated cues. Once you have taught a job to a mule, he will continue to perform the task almost unaided and in clockwork fashion. If you interfere with his task by continually giving cues, he will be offended and may resist.

Mules are renowned worldwide for their outstanding muscular endurance, but what gives them this ability to outshine their horse and donkey parents? Hybrid vigor has long been recognized and widely exploited in animal and plant breeding programs to enhance the productive traits of hybrid progeny from two breeds or species. However, its underlying genetic mechanisms remain enigmatic.

Researchers from Northwest A&F University in Yangling, China, set out to understand more about the molecular mechanisms at work in mules that provide this superior muscular endurance.

They said their work, in which muscle, brain, and skin samples from mules, hinnies, and their parents were tested, revealed significant differences between mules and hinnies, as well as differences between mules and both of their parents.

Apart from skeletal muscle tissue, which is the main difference that separates mules from hinnies and their parents, there are also clear differences between these animals in both the brain and skin. The findings, they say, provide new insights into the genetic mechanism underlying hybrid vigor in mules. The work could provide the basis for future studies of the genetic and molecular mechanism of hybrid vigor in donkeys and horses.

Interestingly, the mule has a different odor altogether. He doesn’t smell like a horse and he doesn’t smell like a donkey. This could very well be a factor in sensitive horses decide not to accept a mule as a herd member, simply because of his physiological traits provided by Mother Nature.

As prey animals, horses prefer to stay in herds, and communication is accomplished by body language rather than vocalization and sound. They rely on body position and subtle body and head cues, even the twitch of an ear or the widening of an eye, to communicate within the herd.

Overall, mules tend to be healthier, sounder, and live longer than horses. This might result from hybrid vigor, and the genetic superiority of crossbred animals. Mules are less prone to injuries because again, it is due to their heightened sense of self-preservation.

So why are mules known for being kickers? If you think about it, the horse is the nervous nellie in the mule equation. It is the horse that is prone to kicking and horses are nervous creatures. The horse mare handed down the kicking trait to her offspring the mule. The mule being naturally suspicious and cautious should be worked with or trained not to kick. This is simple enough by tying the mule in a rope halter to a tree or hitching post; using a lunge whip or broomstick merely to touch his legs up and down while assuring him this is ok. If the mule has been owned by a heavy handler, he may be fearful of the whip/broomstick; simply caressing his sides and topline while rewarding him will help him through this process. After several days of introducing the touching of the legs with a lunge whip or long stick (along with moving your hands in closer to the mule’s leg), the handler will be able to ask the mule for his foot. By doing this, a soft cotton rope placed around the ankle and then pulling up while asking for the foot is foolproof. Holding the foot for a second or two is best in the beginning.

When working with young mules (6 and under) keep in mind their mental state is different than compared to a horse. For one, the horse will go along with you and submit to you, whereas the mule will carefully think things through first. Handlers tend to rush a mule’s schooling, not realizing the damage that can be done by doing so. Anytime a mule is lacking an introduction to a new task or lacks foundation training will undoubtedly show up in a mule’s confidence level; and at some time, somewhere it will surface. That is why the working partnership you have with your mule is critical to your training program.

A recent interview with Brock Milam of Milam Mules (Missouri) gave sound advice about working with mules. He said, “To be successful and to really get along with that mule, you have got to take the time and learn that mule. And let that mule learn you. If you let him get by with things, then it is a matter of time before an unskilled rider will decide to trade off for a different mule.”

I think we tend to have so much going on at work and at home that we spend time with our horses and mules as recreation/therapy time for us. We release our nervous energy at the barn, check our cell phones for updates and we tend to lose the connection. Remember when you are with your equine partner, he has a heart and soul…an emotional side to him that is looking for leadership and comfort. Stay safe, ride your ponies, and don’t forget the oats.

How To Work With a Smart-Ass

Note: this article has been grouch-tested. (wink)

Working with mules over the years has kept me amused, captivated, fascinated, and focused, as well as being challenged. I like a challenge; it develops your creative side to problem-solving. And what better way to develop your skill set in problem-solving than by working with mules?

And now…I am creative, and I have problem-solving skills. Mules have also helped me to develop my independent side. I remember some years ago, hauling back from Colorado from a mule event, I had a palomino horse mule in the trailer; my trailer tire blew on the highway and I could not get cell service. So, I pulled the roadmap out, placed my pistol in my vest, saddled up my mule, and rode into the nearest town. A couple of hours later, I was back on my way.

Another time, the axle broke on that very same trailer while hauling through Kansas. I saddled up my mule and rode back through town to a horse motel that was a few miles down the road. The trailer was still under warranty, I was laid up for a couple of days at the horse motel. When I got home, I sold that trailer.

I suppose if I had not established myself as a leader in my mule’s life, we would have never made it out of the trailer during these emergency road incidents. You see, mules are sensitive creatures and will easily feed off your emotions. That is why your durability as a trainer is significant in working with mules. Leadership, herd boss, whatever you want to call it, the mule knows if you have grit or not. Being prepared and having confidence will help to develop your leadership skills; just remember a mule does not want to hang out with sissies. A sissy will just drag down the herd; mules know that to be safe from predators, the herd must be strong, healthy, and have it together.

A keen sense of awareness is what Mother Nature gave to the mule. In other words, mules have a high sense of self-preservation, so it is in your best interest to have it together when you approach your mule. That very mule already sized you up the very moment you walked into the corral. That mule already knows what your demeanor is for that moment; that is why you need to be established as a confident leader. I guess in a lot of ways…you are working with a smart ass.

Look, nobody likes a smart ass. They can make you look stupid. They will do things to get your attention when they are bored…because that is what mules and smartasses do. Mules will chase anything in the pasture and run from lawn equipment that they have been exposed to for years…all to work off excess energy.

You probably already know this, but mules can open doors, crawl through, or jump fences to visit in the next pasture, then return home just in time for you to feed him. And to think, this all started from boredom.

Now that you are aware that your mule is bored, you now decide to vamp up his training program. You take the time to set up an obstacle course around the barn to train your mule…except for one thing. Your mule responds by testing you…after all that is what they do. (wink) Mules will question you about the need to walk through a tire obstacle when they can easily walk around it or jump over the stuff in the first place. I mean, what’s the point?!

Again, they will question you…why get into the trailer when the other horses and mules are just tied up or hanging around? When crossing a bridge or river…is it really necessary to cross here? After all who is in charge here? This is the mindset of the mule…remember, it is his job to question you.

This is where the leadership thing comes in. It is your job to be the leader; you are the one in charge, your decision to ask the mule to do something should be based on that the mule is mentally and physically prepared to accomplish the task. It is essential that no harm will come to your mule, and you as the leader give him time to think about it to check things out. Successful mule trainers set up a situation where their mule will succeed. You want your mule to believe in you and to quietly show you that he is trying. By giving the slightest try, you the leader will give praise and encouragement to the mule. Your approach when presenting new things to your mule is important. The mule needs to be comfortable to be willing and to be able to respond to your request because they are emotional creatures. And remember, mules are supposed to think things through and check things out first because they are smarter than both their parents! The mule is simply behaving as the awesome creature that Mother Nature allowed him to develop into. After all, he is not supposed to be a horse or a donkey. He/she is just being a mule, the very smart ass that you are working with!

It is the mule’s job to think of clever ways to get out of what you want them to do. It is your job to be creative in your training program to get the mule’s curiosity stirred up while ensuring no harm will come to him. If the mule suffers injury then the deal is off. If things get boring, then your mule has no further interest in the lesson.

Now that you know you are working with a smart ass; you have your work cut out for you. You are not a whiner; you are determined to succeed. You possess the qualities of being a successful mule trainer. You are committed, conscientious, sensitive to your animals, creative, playful, logical, independent, and patient. You look for answers and you know what it takes. You realize what the mule needs physically or mentally and can follow through in giving it. OK! NOW WE’RE GETTING SOMEWHERE!

All right, you’ve got this…carry on. If you need help, you know where to find me.

Cindy K Roberts
I think clearly when I’m in the saddle.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Follow by Email