The Mule Diaries – Licking & Chewing
By Cindy K Roberts
I keep a diary on my mules. I’ve documented my training techniques over the years, kept records, and filed my reports and photos on every horse and mule I’ve worked with. I like to take notes, handwritten and mental as well as using my cell phone. Sometimes I lick and chew throughout the note-taking process. I tried jotting down bullet points about an episode or incident but that didn’t work for me; later on, I’d proceed to file the condensed version of my thoughts and not have a clue as to what I was thinking or texting about! That is why I am so fastidious about my note-taking. When a thought or finding overwhelms me, I immediately pencil it on paper while licking and chewing. [In the equine world, licking and chewing will occur when the animal has registered a thought, the horse/mule has changed from a higher anxiety to a lower anxiety and has accepted the idea.]
To enhance the stories written in my diary, I picked up a 15:2 hand paint mule, that had been on unemployment most of her life. She wasn’t the kind of mule that you could easily read; I gathered that she was trained harshly early on, then at some point in her life, received ill-treatment or none at all due to misinterpretation of her behavior. I knew these issues would take time to work on, but in time I thought this mule would become a special mule worth owning, and I would have reached another goal. I named her Cabo.
The constant tail twitching, a cow kick or two and three bites later . . . I learned just how special this mule really is. It took some work to get her into the trailer and that can be typical of a mule that has had time off or perhaps not hauled enough. I studied her, and she studied me; in some ways, this mule had an intimidating presence about her; I swear, Cabo had a look about her, as though she were able to read people . . . sizing them up for the kill.
After loading the mule, Cabo stood quietly in the trailer, made mental notes, and licked and chewed the whole way home.
After arriving at the barn, I opened the gate and turned her out with the herd knowing that I had my work cut out for me; tomorrow we would work on approaching and being haltered. The herd pretty much ignored her and just as I figured, Cabo galloped over the south ridge as though she had just busted out of jail. I knew then this was the kind of mule that required training while I kept a sandwich in my hip pocket; and a water bottle worn on my belt throughout the training sessions. Spunky mule trainers will confirm, there are no lunch breaks when training mules; of course, I updated my diary accordingly.
I LOVE CATCHING MULES. As weird as it sounds, I feel as though I am playing the part of Dog the Bounty Hunter . . . the thrill is in the hunt! Dog the Bounty Hunter can get a good read on the criminals he is tracking, I feel the same way about mules on the run. The sport of catching the most wanted mule excites me; it just flows through my veins! If you are lucky enough to have other team members working with you, it’s really a hoot! The excitement, the cussing, the hollering as you approach your most wanted mule…it is a captivating experience! As I have recorded in my findings, appropriate mule hunting clothing and effective gear is required when going after a habitual runaway. Khaki pants and athletic shoes won’t get the job done. For this job, lace-up boots or Justin Gypsy boots with rubber soles are best to be worn with your favorite pair of Wranglers™, treated with anti-chigger spray. Leather gloves, a rope halter, and a lariat are essential.
I’ve worked alone to snag mules but it’s even more fun to saddle up another mule and take off after the mule in question. Riding close and putting pressure on the absconded mule (the one who failed to show up for his/her court date) is just enough to keep them worried. Eventually, the runaway mule will stop to rest mentally and physically. Next, I step down off my saddled mule to approach the evasive mule with the rope halter in my hand. It’s interesting, during this process I find that older herd members would stand around watching the game I call, “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”
The older mules and horses in the herd would quickly tire of the “catch-me-if-you-can” game the absconded mule is playing; some shake their heads and pin their ears to show their disapproval. Several times I would get so close to the animal and the mule in question would take off again! A younger member of the herd may step away to clear the path for the mule on the run simply because the young mule is intimidated by this whole scene. As frustrating as it may seem, the thrill of going after that mule again made it even more exciting for me.
Leaping onto the saddled mule, with the reins in my left hand and the rope halter in my right, I’d lope after the alleged lawbreaking mule. After several attempts of stop-n-go antics, the mule eventually gets tired and willfully gives up…just like an episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter!
In pursuit of Cabo…five sandwiches and ten water bottles later, I finally got the rope halter on her. I was elated! I was proud that I stalked that mule morning and afternoon for five days while chattering non-stop, as she took refuge in the low-hanging cedars. Once she was caught, I could tell she had a relieved look on her face. I think being on the run took a toll on this mule, we walked back to the barn as she licked and chewed the entire time. This incident alone was a lengthy new edition added to the mule diary.
Cabo was then placed in a small corral with an amazing view of the pond and lower field. A soft place to roll, a shed, a huge water trough, shade, and meals were brought to her every morning; I saddled her every day.
Every day Cabo shook her head, pinned her ears, tried to bite, refused to pick up her feet, and twitched her tail. After using a soft cotton rope and then getting a hold of a foot, the mule then took pleasure in leaning into you. Even though I felt she had special qualities about her, Cabo’s attitude did not improve. She wasn’t a lawless kind of mule; she didn’t buck, rear, or race back to the barn…she was the kind of mule that I call an opportunist. When an opportunity arose, Cabo took it. Opportunities such as the cell phone rings, and this was an opportunity for Cabo to bolt for 100 yards or so. Drinking water from out of a plastic bottle; not to mention the sound of plastic crinkling as you drank the water down, could easily be accounted for bolting another 200 yards or so until you realized, just drop the dang bottle and shut the mule down with two hands while leaning back. Riding downhill gave Cabo the opportunity for her to run, shake her head, and then head for a low tree branch to unseat the rider…licking and chewing after each episode. That’s an opportunist.
I took Cabo to a Loren Basham Cow Working Clinic. Loren diagnosed her as “her give-a-damn is busted.” That’s not a good evaluation of a mule as it takes a lot of quality training and time in hopes of reviving their spirit once their “give-a-damn” is busted. Wow, I thought, this mule is very special. So, I went to the gym every day, working out, learning new moves and balancing techniques to aid me in this mule’s training. As usual, everything has been recorded in the mule diary.
It wasn’t always a fun ride; there were times I was so worn down and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this anymore. Maybe I’ve reached the age where I just want to drive an automatic, maybe I need to try something new in my life, like sewing or painting. I even whined and cried in my mule diary…yikes! SMACK!!! #!%!! I slapped myself back to reality. I then took a sheet of paper and documented the pros and cons of working with this mule. Mathematically figuring, I now know what needs to be done. It’s down on paper, it’s recorded in detail, it’s official and I started tackling the list to fix this mule.
The following day, Giddy up Jann and I were cutting down vines on the new trail located on the south ridge. One tiny vine came across my waist and didn’t break as I expected; I flipped backward, landing face down on the soft ground thinking . . . ‘well that didn’t quite work out.’ The opportunity came for Cabo to trot off downhill, stop, lick, and chew while waiting for what came up next. Giddyup Jann’s old mare then came to life for the first time in several years. That broken-down horse reared to the right, reared to the left, and did a jig all because of a loose mule that responded to a trail-stunt-gone-wrong opportunity. Eventually, things were back to normal and the incident was noted on a page by itself in the mule diary.
Later that winter, Medicine Man Dave rode along with me on the south ridge at a good pace. Dave is a retired radiologist otherwise known as an alternative practitioner; Dave can make quick diagnoses for most of the injuries that develop from risky barn activity. Risky activities such as stepping on a horseshoe nail, receiving rope burns, being attacked by chiggers, and performing heroic maneuvers that involve sprains.
As we slid down the southern slope, I could tell that Cabo was not very confident with her footing. I was hoping by now she was ready to take on more challenges; amazingly Medicine Man Dave’s gaited mare was not having any problems at all. Soon, Cabo lost her footing, and quickly went down on her side while trapping my left ankle underneath her! The only way to describe the incident is…it was a True Grit moment, minus the 1873 Winchester sporting rifle that Rooster Cogburn used to take on the outlaws (that) we would have been trailing! Since I am a biased pro mule owner, I like to tell people that Medicine Man Dave’s horse stopped abruptly and tripped my mule on the trail; it makes me feel better about the whole incident anyway.
The ankle is not broken but the ankle sprain is severe according to Medicine Man Dave; Cabo collected herself and walked gracefully downhill to wait . . . licking and chewing while trying to sort out what just happened. I will give this mule credit. During a trail ride mishap, Cabo doesn’t hightail back to the barn like other knucklehead mules that I have owned.
After several attempts to stand, Dave finally shoved me on top of his springy, spotted mare like a sack of potatoes. I was hesitant to get on a horse; it was either that or a helicopter ride out of the south ridge to the ER! Dagnabit!
Medicine Man Dave then hand-walked his mare out of the field as I tried to play the part of the rescued injured rider as best I could. If only I had a hanky and southern accent, I could have originated a tear or two. Dave treaded up the hill while towing his horse, I turned my head and whistled for Cabo, and to my surprise, the mule walked steadily up the hill, behind the painted horse, and back to the barn! There’s that special quality that I was looking for in this mule! Cabo faithfully followed us back to the barn! Alternative Practitioner, Dave said I watched too many Fury episodes when I was a kid.
A deer hunter’s carcass sled awaited me at the gate, in which “Deer Slayer Dennis” pushed me the rest of the way to dump me into my Dodge Nitro. I wasn’t going to the ER for treatment, since Medicine Man Dave gave me his opinion and that was good enough for me. Meanwhile, back on the Homefront, I got caught up on reruns of Gunsmoke and High Chaparral and every detail is being recorded in the mule diary.
Two weeks later…I couldn’t afford to give Cabo time off, so I limped to my truck, schmoozed the mule into the trailer, and hauled her to John Erick of C&H Horse training to be saddled and ridden; a month later I hauled her back and let her know that she is now under probationary status. Any more screwy stuff on the trail and she will do time…in the mountains with a pack saddle. Cabo leaned one ear in my direction, pretending she was paying attention. (Another discrepancy has been noted.)
My ankle wasn’t healing as fast as I’d hoped it would, but I saddled up anyway, climbed on top of some structure, and got into the saddle. I soon learned Cabo was still very much an opportunist. That mule sensed that I wasn’t working at full capacity, so she attempted to run off at any given opportunity, sideswiping trees along the way. After every episode, Cabo stood still, licking and chewing.
My grandfather, God rest his soul, was a muleskinner for the U.S. Army. He enlisted in the Cavalry back in 1924 and he loved adventure while in the saddle. By the time I took on the mule challenge in my life, my grandfather had passed on; he loved his whiskey, and that got the best of him. I do have Grandpa’s letters and a journal from his Army days, and that drives me more into working with mules.
That evening, I recorded the events carefully and while in deep thought…I realized these dicey episodes are nothing more than mind games. I was now very much aware of what I was up against and it’s personal. I could feel my heartbeat, my adrenalin was at an all-time high, my senses heightened and now I am moving forward with gusto…the game is on! I realize I could always take the easy way out and buy a horse, but I won’t do that. I’m smarter and tougher than that. A mule will humble you and this will allow you to develop into a better person inside and out.
Next, I loaded up Cabo the mule and headed to a campground one hundred miles away. I set up camp 20 feet away from her stall, sat in a chair, and studied her while adding notes to my mule diary. I jotted down specifics with energetic strokes of my pen. Five pages later, Cabo gulped her water and her ears went parallel as she licked and chewed. She knew I now had her number and the game was up.
The next morning, I saddled Cabo, strapped on my spurs, and mounted her from a rock or fallen tree as my ankle was still trying to heal completely. We rode through the Missouri Ozarks, crossed the Jacks Fork River, loped up through Coyote Passage and back down through the valley, stumbled back through the high water, and rodeoed between Kayaks on the river. Cabo then danced around a couple of snakes, went airborne to avoid a monster dump truck, picked up her pace, and looked for predators all week long. We charged after groundhogs, plowed through brush, sailed over fallen timber, dodged low branches, darted around fallen rock, and chased after a coyote on the run. We rode through a thunderstorm, watched the eagles fly over the river, and counted the fish that hovered around the lily pads in the deep blue pond. I think Cabo enjoyed the afternoon when we counted fish, or maybe it was because we were just standing around and doing nothing. Every evening I had new, thrilling details to scribble in my mule diary.
After a week of boot camp, Cabo brayed at the first sight of me carrying hay to her. She now stands quietly to be saddled, loads quietly in the trailer, stands patiently while tied and rides anywhere I point her as we ride alone. She greets me at the gate and snubs the rest of the population; she rides heavy in the front end and is forward in the bridle; because of this, my biceps have really developed, and my lower back and balance have all come back. All of these fine points have been recorded and my experiences are well noted in the mule diary.
Cabo is turning out to be that mule that now has a heart. When we go to work, she now gives a damn. Cabo recognizes my rank, otherwise known as leadership. She still has days where I am put to the test, and that’s OK, that’s her job and I accept the challenge.
I update my diary every day, keep a list, and check off the items we have accomplished, and I swear, at times I catch Cabo standing there…STUDYING ME. I then grab my pencil and notebook documenting my findings and we both exchange glances…as we lick and chew at the same time.