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On December 31, 2014, the world lost a very special man at 82 years of age and I lost a very special friend. I heard about Von Twitchell long before I ever met him. Bishop Mule Days is an annual rendezvous for mule and donkey lovers from all over the world and I remember how excited I would get when I heard the name Von Twitchell echoing from the announcer’s booth. I would run as fast as I could to watch him and Miss Kitty in the gymkhana and cattle roping events. I knew I would be in for an amazing demonstration of teamwork and skill between a man and his beloved mule!
Von was a cowboy in the truest sense of the word. When not in Bishop, he cared for and managed cattle ranching properties in the Western states. He was unpretentious and humble…a quiet, honest, trustworthy and simple man with a down-to-earth sense of humor. His life was about love of family and the animals in his care. When I interviewed Von in 2009 for our Those Magnificent Mules: The Bishop All Stars documentary, I asked him, “Von, you had a mule, Miss Kitty, that was inducted into the Bishop Mule Days Hall of Fame and we’d like to hear about that mule.” To which Von responded, “I bought her from a hippie.” I was taken aback and laughed out loud, “You bought her from a HIPPIE?!!!”
Von calmly explained, “I bought her from a hippie. They was gonna farm with her and she was four years old and I bought her for $400, and three or four years later I brought her down here (Bishop)…and she was a world champion. And, she was four times a world champion down here and three times reserve world champion. At 19 years she won the world champion gymkhana mule here and when she was 20, I think she was 23, I retired her and started riding this mule (Silky) here (at Bishop) and I’ve been riding her ever since.”
Von has numerous friends at Bishop Mule Days and no doubt, everywhere he went. He made the annual trek every year to Captain the Drill Team for Nita Vick and to carry the American Flag in the Grand Entry that opened the performances on Saturday and Sunday. I remember one year I was so honored when he asked me to ride with him and carry the California flag beside him! To me, he was a celebrity and I was the proverbial awestruck fan. I accepted his offer in utter disbelief! I carried that flag proudly (even though I was from Colorado) because to ride beside Von Twitchell was a privilege indeed!
Every year I looked forward to seeing this very special man with the kind face, warm heart and the twinkle in his eye! He always greeted me with a big smile, a humorous story and a great big bear hug! He has a wonderful family and a lot of friends, and we will all miss him terribly, but I like to believe that he and Miss Kitty are still riding the range and smiling down on all of us…another very special cowboy angel in Heaven!
A professional trainer, judge and animal inspector, Crystal Ward owned the Ass Pen Ranch in Placerville, California, where she raised and trained horse, mules and donkeys. The first year she came to Bishop Mule Days was in 1979. She happened to be coming through Bishop on vacation and it really intrigued her. She thought the mules were simply outstanding. Crystal had a show career with horses, but the following year she decided she had to own a mule. She showed up the next year with a horse trailer in tow, and at that point Bishop Mule Days was still offering an auction. She swiftly bought a mule at the auction and had been coming back ever since.
Her first mule was a wild little critter that didn’t make much progress. So the following year she bought a mule named Skeeter Sea from George Chamberlain, a dealer in mules in Los Alivos, California; the mule was previously owned by Slim Pickens. When Slim Pickens showed up as Grand Marshal in the Bishop Mule Days Parade, he told Crystal, “We used to own that mule.” She showed him with 55 mules in the class and won the Western Pleasure class that year. Although he was nice in the Western Pleasure classes, she couldn’t see owning this mule for the long term due to his generally bad manners. Later, she picked up a mule in Northern Montana and brought him back and started training him…his name was Final Legacy. He was a good honest mule and she kept him for the long haul.
Back in the early ‘80s, Crystal got really interested in riding side saddle, so she joined the International Side Saddle Organization and ultimately rode in the Presidential Inaugural Parade with Final Legacy in 1993, hauling him from California to Washington, DC, in the middle of January. He was a good honest mule and she loved him. She showed him in many classes at Bishop Mule Days over the years…from Western to English, dressage, driving and side saddle.
In more recent years Crystal switched to raising and showing donkeys. She had a variety of donkeys, from miniatures to mammoths. She fully understood that you have to take a different approach when training a donkey and produced training videos with Napa, California, videographer, Video Mike. She truly appreciated a good donkey: “Donkeys are like potato chips—you can’t have just one.”
In our interview in 2009, Crystal told me: “We call them [donkeys] ‘desert canaries,’ but that goes hand-in-hand with donkeys. They do like to talk and it can be loud, but you know I’ll still take a donkey any day. I live with the noise, but then again, I’ll have peacocks, barking dogs and roosters in my backyard. Donkeys are just one more noisy farm animal that I can certainly live with.”
For Crystal, it was always a matter of learning…English, Western, Side Saddle…the whole nine yards! She always performed to the best of her and her mule’s ability and she believed a lot of it was a matter of finding just the right mule!
Crystal enjoyed her interview for my documentary series, Those Magnificent Mules; she appeared in “The Bishop All Stars” episodes. (We have all of these episodes available to watch online.) She said: “We were showing back in the early ‘80s, beating the paths to Bishop Mule Days. The one thing I know about mule and donkey people is that it’s fun competing…nice rivalry. When you come out of a class, your fellow competitors will shake your hand and offer you a bit of encouragement. It’s like family when you show at a mule or donkey show. It’s something you always look forward to until the next time.”
You are so right, Crystal! You will remain in our hearts, forever a part of our longears family… we will miss you!
Our hearts go out to Connie Bartels for the loss of her beloved Homer, longtime friend and loyal companion. He will be missed.
“Sunday when we rode while I was taking his tack off I was talking to him telling him what a good boy he is and what a good ride we had. Then I hugged him tightly as I always do….he knew me, and he liked me a lot. To think that I will never ride him again is heart wrenching to me. He was my good friend and buddy…..and I would never find another Homer. I am very sad today, but I am thankful for the many years we were friends. Only mule people would understand this.”
We were sorry to hear about longtime mule skinner Buddie Stockwell. We appreciate all the work that Buddy put into mules in Colorado with the Rocky Mountain Longears Association. Here is one of my favorite stories about Buddy.
In the fall of 1984, Loveland, Colorado muleskinner Buddie Stockwell and horseshoer Jerry Banks, along with a few friends, decided to make a hunting trip into the Rocky Mountains. Packing in, the weather was beautiful with warm temperatures, calm breeze, and nary a hint of what was to come. After setting up camp and tending to their horses and mules, the hunters went about the business of tracking elk. Hunting was good, but after a few days, one evening brought with it an unpredictable storm of incredible severity. The hunters awoke the following morning to find their camp buried in four feet or more of snow, and with no chance of the storm lifting.
Quickly, the hunters packed up what they could on the horses and mules; tents and a lot of gear had to be left behind since time was of the essence. As they left the campsite, snow deepened and the terrain underneath was steep, rocky, and treacherous. They had only gone a short distance when the snow became so deep, and the terrain so hazardous that the horses refused to go one step farther–the horses would not blaze the trail out! Anxiety was high and the hunters were fearful of never making if off the mountain.
In the face of great danger, Buddie asked his trusted mule, Goliath, to break trail for the others, and with slow, careful, deliberate steps, Goliath led them all safely down the mountain to their trucks and trailers, which were also buried in snow. In bitter cold, they freed the vehicles, loaded them up, and made their way back to the lowlands to safety. The storms on the mountain worsened, and it was spring before Jerry and Buddie could return for the rest of their gear–but both men and their friends were grateful to Goliath for leading them down the mountain to safety.
With heavy hearts, we at Lucky Three Ranch say goodbye to our good friend, Cliff Uber. Cliff was an inspiration to everyone who knew him. His grace, courage and sense of humor will be missed.
A selection of the official statement from Hearts and Horses is below:
It is with an incredibly heavy heart that we announce the passing of our rider, volunteer, trainer and dear friend Cliff Uber. For ten years he has graced us all with his beautiful presence, infectious smile, sense of peace and patience and a wonderful sense of humor. The grief we are experiencing can not be described.
This world was a better place with him in it, and saying he will be missed dearly just doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg of love we have for him.
Rest in Peace our dear friend…
A Celebration of Cliff’s life will be held at Hearts and Horses on Saturday, December 8th at 3:30. Attire is casual western wear. We will have a potluck dinner, please rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org with what you are bringing.
The family has requested that In lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made to Hearts and Horses. Details can be found under the giving tab on their website: www.heartsandhorses.org.
Cliff Uber has been recognized as the 2012 PATH Intl. Independent Adult Equestrian award winner! He will be honored as a special guest at the PATH Intl. Awards Banquet held at the 2012 PATH Intl. Conference & Annual Meeting on November 2, 2012 in Bellevue, WA. Thanks to Purina Mills for providing travel schloarships for the equestrian award winners. As the Independent Adult Equestrian National Award Winner he receives scholarship reimbursement funds of up to $1500.
You may recognize Cliff from his appearance on the “Walk On, Part 1” episode of Those Magnificent Mules, and we are extremely proud of his success!
Bud (Sir Rocko) has earned the PATH Intl. Horse of the Year for Region 10 and will also be honored at the awards banquet. As a regional winner, he is a finalist for the 2012 PATH Intl. National Horse of the Year Award, which will be announced and celebrated at the awards banquet. Bud has been with Hearts & Horses since 2005 and is a most deserved recipient of this award!
As a proud representative of the American Donkey and Mule Society, Lucky Three Ranch is deeply saddened to say goodbye to our close friend, and co-founder of ADMS, Betsy Hutchins. She was one of a kind and shared our love for longears. We will miss her very much.
Statement from the ADMS:
It is with great sadness that the ADMS announces the loss of one of our co-founders, Elizabeth “Betsy” Hutchins. For over forty years, Betsy devoted her life and her home to the promotion of longears around the world. She and her family spent time not only in the daily operations of the ADMS (originally housed in their hundred-year-old farmhouse in Denton) but raised, trained and showed donkeys and mules as well. All four of her children were brought up with the animals and can be found in pages of the older Mr Longears and Brayer magazines.
Betsy and husband Paul converted part of their home into the operations center for ADMS. The BRAYER magazine used to be hand-typed and copy pasted up on the dining room table. Large built-in shelves all around the house were filled with donkey and mule figurines of every type. As the ADMS grew over the years, it began to encompass the sun porch of the house, gaining more equipment and taking up more time. Betsy and Paul ran it solely for many years, with the occasional volunteer for help. Betsy wrote many articles on donkey and mule care, much of it taken from her own experiences dealing with the longears living in their large acreage property.
While Betsy always maintained she loved air conditioning, if animals needed care, she was outside taking care of them. If a friend came by needing a place to unload a donkey for the night, she’d make sure the gates were closed, the water tubs full and the hay brought out. She would stack hay if needed, hold heads or hooves for hoof trims, give medicines or baths to the animals, whatever was needed. She truly loved all animals, whether longears, dogs, cats, or guinea pigs, which she raised for years as a hobby.
When Paul and Betsy retired some 12 years ago, her involvement in ADMS slowed, but never stopped. She still joined the staff (by then hired on to continue to run ADMS) at shows, sitting at the information table and talking to everyone with a smile. She often handed out ribbons at shows, while husband Paul was judge or ring steward. Even though she had retired, she could still be counted on to answer questions that just couldn’t be solved, except through experience.
She loved to travel the world, and went on cruises over the years, the latest just last month. With a passion for gardening, she found lovely plants and had over 160 cuttings potted at last count. A friend recounts that she heard the news of Betsy’s passing while watering cuttings from tea roses Betsy had
Betsy is survived by husband Paul, children Scott and wife Tammy, Melissa “Missy” and S.O. David, Melinda “Mindy” and husband Steven, Patrick and wife Katie, grandchildren Clayton and Audrey, and friends around the world too numerous to count.
Long time friend Becky perhaps has put it best in her note to ADMS: I know there is an ass or two in heaven braying in happiness that Mom has come over the Rainbow Bridge to be with them. And no, that was not thunder. It was a stampede of critters running to meet their Mom. Godspeed, Betsy.