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A letter from George Washington, written in 1786, was recently put up for auction by bookseller William Reese. The letter is in regards to a donkey sent to Washington’s Mount Vernon ranch for the purpose of breeding. Washington is well-known for his agricultural brilliance and for breeding the first American mule. The correspondence was written a during a breif period of retirement and a few years before Washington became president.
Washington writes: “Dear Sir, When your favor of the first inst., accompanying the she ass, came to this place, I was from home – both however arrived safe; but Doct. Bowie informs me that the bitch puppy was not brought to his house. Nor have I heard any thing more of the asses at Marlbro’, nor of the grass seeds committed to the care of Mr. Digges. I feel myself obliged by your polite offer of the first fruit of your jenny. Though in appearance quite unequal to the match, yet, like a true female, she was not to be terrified at the disproportional size of her paramour; and having renewed the conflict twice or thrice it is to be hoped the issue will be favourable. My best respects attend [Mrs. Sprigg] & the rest of your family. With great esteem & regard, I am Dr. Sir Yr. most ob. serv. Go. Washington.”
The Missouri mule is a well-known symbol of American strength and perseverance, thanks to its significant contributions both within the state and throughout the country. Today, the mule still serves as Missouri’s official state animal, so the connection remains strong. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has put together a great photo slideshow about the history of these iconic equines and their role in the Show-Me State—click here to see the full slideshow! (You may need to reload the page when you get there.)
Are equines prey or predators? Although some trainers base their methods on the idea that equines should be approached as “prey,” this blog post by Sara Annon explains that the answer may not be that simple.
The real lesson in this is that the predator/prey model of horsemanship is inaccurate. Rodents are prey animals. Horses are herd animals. Their enemy is the weather (click here and here). Horses die from hypothermia in winter, drought in summer, and starvation when grazing is scarce. Weakened animals are picked off by the occasional courageous wolf pack or lion. I say courageous because it only takes one quick smack with a hoof to break bones, and for a predator that is a death sentence.
IDAHO SPRINGS – Long ago before his long beard and long hair turned white, Bill Lee thought about what to be.
An oral storyteller, yes, because that, he felt, was a noble profession. That was needed in the ever- urbanizing West. But what to be?
“I decided on the mountain man,” said Lee, 67, reflecting in his log cabin, “because it was a really short-lived era in history.”
So he would go as the mountain man, fur coat and musket and all, to schools and libraries in towns up and down Interstate 70, to tell the kids about what used to happen in these mountains. And inevitably he would talk about the burro – Spanish for donkey – and he’d tell of the animal that was relied upon for toting supplies through the surrounding wilderness.
Toward the end, he would jump two centuries to the present. And he’d tell the kids about what they might decide to do with the burros one day:
Run with them.
Lucky Three Ranch knows a thing or two about elderly equines—miniature mule Lucky Three Franklin just celebrated his 40th birthday on April 1, and we’ve been happy to celebrate many of our other equines through their 20s and 30s.
That’s why we’re very happy to acknowledge Tootsie, a resident of the wonderful Donkey Sanctuary in Ireland, who is an incredible 54 years old—making him one of the oldest mules ever. The Donkey Sanctuary rescued Tootsie in 1992, and he is part of their “Super Grannies” group of equines that are all over 30 years old, who receive special treatment, feed, and love from the Sanctuary’s volunteers.
Curious about other historically aged equines? Longears have the opportunity to live particularly long lifespans, so there may be many out there, but here are a few we know about: Suzy, Rosie and Eeyore, donkeys who lived to be 54; Flower, who is believed to have reached the age 70; and Joe, a 45-year-old full-sized mule from Colorado Springs who’s still around today.
Wishing well to all of these sweet seniors!
West Point Military Academy Press Release
“General Caslen, on behalf of all Army Rangers and the Class of 1975 and the West Point Society of South Carolina, we present you with Paladin!” said Steve Townes ’75, CEO and Founder of Ranger Aerospace LCC, who has been West Point’s “mule donor in perpetuity” for well over a decade. ( Since 2001. )
Four-year-old Paladin, whose name refers to 1 of the 12 legendary peers or knightly champions in Charlemagne’s court, began his West Point experience on March 31, 2016, reporting to Ranger III, now gray in his muzzle.
In a ceremony to welcome the Army team’s newest mule, Director of Cadet Activities COL Tom Hansbarger ’92 officially signed in Paladin, who had two green duffel bags tied on his back. Several notable guests were on hand to witness the event, including VA Secretary Bob McDonald, another member of the Class of 1975, and LTC Anne Hessinger, an Army veterinarian who served at West Point from 2003 to 2006 and is now an equine officer at Fort Bragg, NC.
Paladin, small in stature, posed calmly for a round of photos after reporting to Ranger III, the mule in the red sash, before being led across the street to the barber while onlookers cheered him on with a rousing “Beat Navy!” chant. Paladin showed his spunk though when he kicked out his left hind leg toward the barber who was trying to get close tom him in order to shave a big “A” into his hind quarters. “He’s just nervous, just like every other plebe on their R-Day,” remarked an officer in the crowd who was watching the event.
At the conclusion of the event, Ranger III and Paladin were loaded into horse trailers for a trip to Morgan Farm, where Paladin will spend his summer at his quarters. He will be officially introduced to the West Point Community and Army football fans on September 10 when Army West Point hosts Rice. The mule mascots will lead the team onto the field, carrying flags and interacting with fans.
Paladin, whose name was selected by the Corps of Cadets and approved by the Superintendent, is the third mule donated by Townes, a former mule rider and former Army officer with the 75th Ranger Regiment who has set up an endowment ensuring the Academy’s future mascots. Ranger III and his brother Stryker, Townes’s last donations, both reported for mascot duty at West Point in 2011.
First and foremost, a routine grooming schedule at least every other week and preferably every week is essential for the hygiene of your equines. We use fly masks without ears on the animals that are sensitive around their faces and we spray with Tri-Tech 14 once a week for insects that will pester your equine. We NEVER clip the insides of the ears. Regular grooming once a week to remove excess hair, mud, etc. will eliminate places on the animal, including their legs, that would be subject to their laying eggs. We worm our equines in January, March, May, July and September with Farnam ivermectin and then break the cycle with Strongid in November to prevent the cycle of internal worms and parasites. Using Johnson’s baby oil in the manes and tails helps keep the flies at bay, helps to prevent “frizzies” and train manes to lay over, and will also keep other animals from chewing on them.
In order to keep flies and other insects under control, all stalls, runs and pens need to be kept free of manure and debris daily. Barns need to be cleaned periodically with disinfectant.
Fields and pastures should be harrowed in the spring, fall and between hay cuttings. Only rake hay when absolutely necessary before baling. Turnout fields should be kept separate from your hayfields. Do not use manure on your hay fields. This can cause an increase in weeds that can attract more insects since equines can pass weed seeds through their digestive tract.
Keep all tack and equipment clean so it does not attract flies to your tack room and grooming area. Spray the tack room when you leave with a household flying insect spray for any residual flies.
Here are several rules to remember for good management and insect control around your own farm:
1) Feed the right kinds of healthy feed for equines and know the differences for mules and donkeys. This requires some research on your part. Do a quick body check at each feeding.
2) Keep all stalls, pens and sheds free of manure (clean every day!) and routinely harrow your pastures.
3) Keep manure collection piles well away from your house and barns (we have ours hauled away weekly).
4) Keep all water sources clean with a weekly cleaning schedule.
5) Practice good grooming practices at least once a week. When grooming, do a complete body check on your equine to look for any oddities that might arise and treat as needed. If certain body areas begin to get sores (like Jack sores), scabs, or bumps, use Neosporin or if they are severe…Panalog, also called Animax or Dermalone by prescription from your vet. And, know WHEN to call your veterinarian.
6) Use Tri-Tech 14 by Farnam fly spray weekly for bugs and insects that can pester your equine. This seems to be the best and longest lasting. Herbal remedies and other sprays will work, but will need to be applied much more often.
7) Never clip the hair inside of the equine’s ears! The hair will keep out most insects.
8) Do not clip the hair on the legs unless you absolutely must for showing! The hair protects the legs from insect bites.
9) Use fly masks for those mules and donkeys that have sensitive skin around the face. Farnam Super Masks will usually fit most animals. You can find them in most tack and vet stores.
These simple rules will help to keep all your animals healthy and happy, and will leave you with a fresh and clean-smelling, nearly insect-free facility.
Mules have served as the loyal mascots at the United States Military Academy at West Point since 1899, as a symbol of heartiness and durability. This great video from Army Athletics details the history of mules both as mascots to the teams, as well as in service to the army at home and abroad. The video also follows the mules that are taking their place of honor at West Point, as the previous generation of the mule corp retires.
A recent article at the Chronicle of the Horse had us excited to share the story of Buckeye, an 8 year-old Appaloosa mule who has been showing off the versatility of mules with his skills in the arena.
When Buckeye first came to owner Christina Gregory, he was a little green under the saddle after being mostly used as a driving mule for an Amish family. After some initial work with Christina, he began training with 22 year-old Samantha (Sammi) Majors.
Sammi began him with dressage and earlier in the year he was impressing judges and scoring consistently in the high 60 and low 70 percents in recognized shows. This fall she decided to add jumping in preparation for a show. “He loves jumping. For a long time we would work on dressage stuff and school him over cavalletti, and he always loved it. We’d be doing a 20-meter circle, and if we went anywhere near the cavalletti he would try to pull me to it,” said Majors. “As soon as we started jumping he took an immediate liking to it. That’s all he seems to want to do now is jump, jump, jump!”
He recently returned home from the North Carolina State Fair Mule and Donkey show with plenty of ribbons, winning Most Colorful Mule class, Hunter Hack class, Coon Jumping, Pleasure Driving-Single Mule, reserve champion Pleasure Driving, the Turnout Class and Reinsmanship.
Today we honor the sacrifices that our brave enlisted men and women have made to protect and serve our country. Throughout history, mules have also played an important part, serving alongside soldiers. One occasion where their value cannot be underestimated was the Burma Offensive of World War II. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) or more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders was a US Army long-range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit. In addition to its specially trained soldiers, it also included mules.
The mules came from Missouri, Texas and Tennessee and were shipped to Calcutta. They were then transported into Burma by aircraft, and later in the operations were dropped from planes with special parachutes that consisted of an inflatable dinghy (in which the sedated mule would be placed) and attached to a triple cluster of three 28-foot silk parachutes. Mules were capable of being loaded and packed within 20 minutes of landing.
The terrain of Burma (modern-day Myanmar) was almost impossible for vehicles to transport and deliver supplies. Mules are well-know for their sure-footedness, self-preservation and hardiness and were the perfect four-legged soldiers. They packed weapons, ammunition, food and water, medical supplies, equipment and radios through a 700-mile trek of what was considered some of the harshest jungles on the planet.
The men switched between being muleskinners and soldiers and many bonded deeply with their mules by the end of the offensive. One soldier remembered, “We couldn’t have gone half the distances we did and gone half the places we did without the mules.”
Click here learn more about Merrill’s Marauders.
Foaled June 2, 1980, Lucky Three Sundowner was the last mule born at my mother’s Windy Valley Ranch and at two weeks old, the first mule to become part of my own Lucky Three Ranch. He showed successfully at Halter, English and Western Pleasure, and became the 1984 World Champion Reining Mule at Bishop Mule Days. However, his greatest accomplishment was to make it to Fourth Level Dressage after introducing Dressage to our Bishop Mule Days show, and after winning the World Championship at Third Level Dressage in Bishop in 1992 and 1993. (They did not offer Fourth Level.) He never really liked the Full Bridle and did all this in a Snaffle Bridle. Mules were not allowed to compete in the A.H.S.A.-sanctioned shows with horses during that time, so we were limited to schooling shows with horses to measure our progress. However, with his help, and with the help of other Dressage enthusiasts like Carole Sweet and Audrey Goldsmith, we laid a foundation with goals that were finally realized eighteen years later when mules were finally officially accepted into the Dressage Division of the United States Equestrian Federation. To date, “Sunny” is the only mule in history (that I am aware of) to be schooled at Fourth Level Dressage. He was working on Piaffe, Passage and Flying Lead Changes every two strides when he was retired at twenty-three years old…truly a remarkable friend and ambassador for his breed! This week, he finally crossed over the “Rainbow Bridge” due to a tumor that eventually prevented his ability to chew. He will be profoundly missed!
Inspiration doesn’t always come when you’re expecting it, and Rachel Anne Ridge certainly wasn’t anticipating a life-changing experience when a homeless, injured donkey showed up in her driveway.
In her new book, Flash, Rachel describes the amusing and touching journey that she and her family experience with a donkey named Flash At a time of financial and personal uncertainty, the last thing Rachel needed was to take on an equine.
Flash quickly became a part of their family. “It did not take long to fall in love with him,” she said. “There was definitely an immediate bond we felt.” There were immediate lessons as well. Rachel had never owned a donkey before, though growing up she made excuses to visit her friends who had horses. “I was your typical, horse-crazy town girl,” she recalls, “but I didn’t have any day-to-day experience with keeping either donkeys or horses.” The unique personality traits of the donkey set in motion a series of discoveries that took Rachel deep within herself and her beliefs.
Rachel’s book is filled with insights inspired by Flash’s simple and honest approach to life that often left her rethinking her own perspectives. “There’s something about their demeanor that invites a quietness and a calmness,” she says, adding, “they’re gentle souls.” And it’s not just her—she’s noticed that Flash inspires smiles and chuckles from just about everyone he meets. “With donkeys, there’s this connection of joy that happens with people.”
Flash has helped inspire Rachel in a lot of ways—even in her art business. As a mural painter, she always wants to give people exactly what they want, but over the years she knows that they can sometimes have trouble articulating their true desires. Working with Flash though, she’s learned how to ask the right questions, and to get much better on picking up on cues, especially non-verbal signals like changes in body language. “Flash definitely made me a better listener,” Rachel says.
Flash has motivated Rachel to be more self-confident and assertive as a person—two qualities donkeys tend to have in spades. “Flash just is who he is. He has no pretenses. … I’ve spent a lot of time feeling insecure about who I am and doing what other people want me to do,” says Rachel, but working with Flash—and seeing his unapologetic approach to making the best of his life—has been energizing. She’s working to “let go of that need for other people’s approval, and just be okay with who I am and where I am.” There is a level of vulnerability that comes along with letting go, and as her book suggests, “we need to wear our donkey heart on our sleeve.”
Most of all, Flash’s appearance in her life awakened a fuller discovery of her faith. As a daughter of missionaries, she has always had a close relationship with God, but there was something about the deepness in Flash’s eyes, the softness of his muzzle, and the pertness of those long ears, that in challenging moments opened her heart in new ways. She notes that God can show up in people’s lives in many different ways, and to stay open to signs—don’t just wait for a perfect, clear message. “Flash came into my life at a really pivotal time,” she says. “It was exactly what I needed.”
Today, Rachel continues to write and create murals and has recently adopted a new miniature donkey companion for Flash.
Flash is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Costco and local bookstores, or visit Rachel’s website for more information.
It’s hard to believe that I have already spent 35 years in the business with mules, donkeys and a vast array of equine-related activities. I have always loved horses and began riding when I was only two years old. I was about as horsey as a girl could be—when I wasn’t riding, I was reading horse books, drawing horses and engaging in anything that remotely resembled a life with equines. At one point, I even designed a 100-stall barn and vowed to rescue every horse in our country that was being abused. Little did I know then, my 100-stall barn would have been terribly inadequate.
I actually founded the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, in 1980, although I had many years working with horses and six years working with mules before then. I had moved to Colorado with the intent of going to Colorado State University to get my veterinarian credentials, so I sought out places to live in Fort Collins. It was a fluke that a contract fell through and this tiny little 10-acre sheep ranch became available. I remember standing in the driveway, my vision crystal clear in my head, and told my mother, “This place HAS LOTS of possibilities.” She gave me a bemused nod and said, “It definitely has lots of possibilities.” I don’t think she had any idea of what was to come, but, I had a vision!
Over the past 35 years, Lucky Three Ranch has slowly developed into the vision I had in my mind that day. My involvement in the equine community has grown into something much more meaningful than a 100-stall barn, as I’m now able to engage with people around the world through my equine training series, online school, and even on my Facebook page. I would love to teach all equine owners how to appreciate and enjoy their equines as much as I enjoy mine in a multitude of different ways. It is so incredibly rewarding when I see happy animals with happy owners doing the things that they love together. This is the gift that I have been given in life by my Maker to share with others and their joy is my reward! Thank you to all of my friends and fans for your loyalty and support. I couldn’t have made it 35 years without you and the magnificent equines that color my life!
The following post comes from Steve Edwards of Queen Valley Mule Ranch. Working with equines can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, but, as with all animal-related activities, accidents can happen. However, exorbitant insurance rates are currently threatening trainers’ ability to provide clinics for equine owners, forcing them to cancel or drastically limit these sessions due to cost. Steve is one such trainer, and below he discusses his experiences with insurance companies, coming to the conclusion that his only option moving forward may be to forgo future clinics.
I recently received a letter from the State of Arizona. It seems that working with equine livestock and with people in a clinic setting represents the same degree of professional risk as being a police officer of a fire fighter. In light of this, insurance through the State Insurance Fund is no longer available to me for my professional work. I am sure this is related to claims analysis and the like, but it sure puts a different spin on how I will proceed with my work!
Over the years I have been in a expert witness for cases involving equine accidents. I will give you overview of one of the cases to which I contributed.
A Court Case I Was an Expert Witness For
The case involved two women who had been very good friends for over 30 years . One lived in California the other in Arizona . The woman from California drove to Arizona to a nice horse facility with corrals, RV parking lots of trails to ride t meet up with her friend. One lady rode a mule the other rode a horse, The mule was a fine trail mule but had one problem: the mule was very difficult to put in the trailer. After a wonderful week of riding and after enjoying each other’s company riding together as they had for over 30 years, the incident occurred.
On the morning the ladies decided to head home, the lady with the mule started to load the mule into the trailer. Her friend chose to hide behind the truck and trailer peeking around the corner. Yes, the mule was once again giving the owner a hard time not wanting to load in the trailer.
A person watching the lady load the mule came over to help. She started waving her arms to get the mule to go in the trailer. So at this point, there is the person who owns the mule trying to load it, and a “helper” waving her arms to try to encourage the mule to go forward onto the trailer. It is likely that many of us have seen this very same scenario and we may have even participated in this task. But long story short, the mule started pulling the lady away from the trailer pulling her backwards and despite her efforts, the mule backed over the friend who was hiding between the truck and the trailer.
Does Your State Protect You? Mine Does
In most states, there are State laws that are there to protect the equine owner in such cases. Arizona has such a law. Being in the business, I post signs reflecting this all over my ranch. From the gate to the corrals I have these notices and I think everyone should do the same, even if you just keep your animals for your own use.
You may be interested in rest of the story. The lady that the mule backed over went through several months in the hospital and several years of physical therapy, She did not sued for damages but the insurance company did, and in the lawsuit the person helping load the mule who was waving her arms, the owner of the stable, and the lady who owned the mule all had to pay portions of the award either by their insurance or by their pocketbook.
It is pretty clear that no matter what the State laws say or what insurance you might have (home owners or otherwise), suits are likely to result in damages that any participant may have to pay. Even if you only had to pay 1% of a one million dollar claim, that still amounts to $10,000.
Why This Is My Last Clinic
Finding insurance for the equine trainer or owner is very difficult especially when you are training equines and people. I am sad to say that my insurance just tripled in price due to the “risky occupation”. Even though I have never been hurt, nor has anyone in any of my clinics or training sessions that have spanned 25 years or more, the rate is truly unreasonable. So to make a long story short, there is a very good possibility that this will be my last year for training mules, donkeys or people because of the expense of trying to cover my butt.
I love training. I love seeing people try my training techniques and I especially like witnessing the mule and donkey owners use these techniques that make dramatic changes in their animals. But as the world changes we must change. Now I’m sure that there’s always going to be people that will train without insurance. Some have nothing to lose and some just flat don’t care. When you are looking for a trainer, there is so much more to it than just climbing on the mule and riding. There is more to it than just putting the donkey to the cart. Finding a true professional trainer is very difficult. I hear from many people who have had mules trained and have had nothing but problems. I can tell you this is not always the mule and donkey at fault. When I used to take a mule with me on the circuit, I would have someone climb on the mule and ride it. Just before this I would do the demonstrating of turn on the forehand, turn on the hindquarters side passing. Then I would ask the audience who has been riding for 25 years. Hands would go up and I would choose someone to ride the mule that I just rode. In a matter of minutes, it would look like the mule was not even broke!
I was talking with Dr. Robert Miller one day and we were saying how much of a joy it was to contribute to the equine community, not just the United States but all over the world. Dr. Miller has traveled to more countries than I have, but we both enjoy seeing the equine community changed for the good. But we both noted with sorrow that the cost of being a professional trainer and teacher is a rapidly growing concern. It will change the future of the industry for sure and not necessarily in a good way.
Are You The Person I’m Looking For?
I would be interested in feedback from attorneys and insurance adjusters. Please give me a call (602-999-6853) or e-mail me, here. I want to stay in business but as it goes right now my last clinic will be in Fredericksburg, Missouri and I will head back to the ranch because that is all I can afford for insurance for the year.
This has become a very litigious society for sure. I am not sure who can do anything about the fact that some people refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. It is not always someone else’s fault that an animal exercises its own will or that the student does not do as he or she is directed. There is inherent risk in riding an animal. We can do a lot to try to limit our risk. We can train well. We can follow instructions. And when we feel that something might not work out for us, we can just say “no”! But ultimately, it is one’s own decision to come work with an animal. If you are working with a professional trainer or teacher, you may be somewhat safer. But when we hear a little inner voice saying “don’t do it”, we should probably listen.
Something You May Not Want to Hear
One other point I would make is that there are times when a professional trainer may suggest to a student that the animal that he or she has may not be the best choice for that person. When I say this, I may see tears from some. I may hear others say, “well that is why we are here – so you can make this work”. Still others will take the information and agree. But know that such advice is not given lightly and is only given after I have had time to observe the animal, observe you, and observe the two of you together. Some things can be fixed. Others are more difficult. A few are impossible. The comment is never meant to be mean or ill spirited. It is for everyone’s safety. Any trainer worth his salt will tell a student if there is clearly a mismatch of animal and owner. But this is just one little piece of this new and bigger puzzle.
I encourage equestrians to accept the inherent risk of their activities and to let their local and state governments know that they do acknowledge that risk. If we cannot find a way to make professional trainers able to do their jobs while being covered reasonably with insurance for the job, we will see fewer quality trainers and have less help available to riders. Your professional trainer is a huge resource to you and your equine.
Please visit Steve’s website for the original post.
It’s always great to hear from people who have used our training materials successfully with their equines, so we loved getting an email recently from Becky of Becky’s Homestead, showing off a video of her formerly hard-to-catch mules, Emma and Charlie. Using Meredith’s methods, the mules now come to the gate and exit quietly, and turn to Becky to await further instructions—no chasing required.
Becky writes: “I love your method because you don’t have to be a tough, roping cowboy to train your problem mule. I also really like that you say people need to train their own mule so they develop a relationship. I have seen it countless times, where someone sends their horse or mule out to a trainer and the animal is perfect for the rough, tough cowboy or cowgirl trainer—then it goes home to the middle-aged woman and acts the same old way. Bottom line, there is no short cut to developing a good relationship with your animal.”
One of the keys to Becky’s success was that she did not try to modify or rush the exercises, and did them exactly as laid out in the training program. Although it can be tempting to quickly move to more advanced lessons, like riding, your equine needs to build those skills—and muscles—on the solid foundation provided by beginning training. And as Becky experienced, these methods can produce amazing results!
For most people, racing nearly 30 miles and climbing 13,000 feet up a mountain—and back down again—alongside a pack burro might be the most challenging experience of their life. But for world champion pack burro racer Hal Walter, raising an autistic son has brought many new unexpected trials that were much more serious than a 900-pound donkey barreling down a mountain path. Hal recognizes and explores the parallels between these two important elements of his life, pack burro racing and fatherhood, in his new book, Full Tilt Boogie.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people’s ability to communicate and understand certain social interactions—some people with autism may have trouble interpreting sarcasm, or understanding the facial differences between a smile and a grimace. Hal’s wife, Mary, is a nurse, and started recognizing potential signs of autism, such as sensory issues, early on in their son, Harrison. They ultimately received an official diagnosis from Denver Children’s Hospital when Harrison was almost four, which Hal describes as a “certain comfort,” despite initially resisting the necessity of the label.
In raising Harrison, Hal was able to draw on his experience as a pack burro racer, noticing the similarities between the two situations. “The real key to success with either burros or autistic children is extreme patience and allowing them to find their own way,” Hal writes in Full Tilt Boogie. “Each is a unique individual and one cannot exert command over either one with good results.” The “patience” approach has proven useful in both Harrison, who is now 10, and Hal’s career as a pack burro racer, which has spanned 30 years and multiple world championships.
Hal introduced Harrison to donkeys at a young age—his first overnight packing trip took place the summer after he turned three—and drew on the established benefits of hippotherapy (or in this case, asinotherapy). Although, like most kids, Harrison might now say he’d prefer to be playing Angry Birds on the iPad than riding burros, his parents have seen a change in him after riding. “We noticed right away that on the days when Harrison rode, and even on days following a ride, there was a marked improvement in his disposition and behavior, and fewer tantrums,” he says. Hal isn’t sure exactly what it is about the donkey riding that helps Harrison—whether it’s the soothing motion, the fresh mountain air, or a combination of several things—but the positive effect is undeniable.
According to Dr. May Dodd of the Donkey Shelter of Australia, donkeys work well as therapy animals because “their gentle and affectionate nature brings a calming effect over all those they come into contact with.” She says donkeys are particularly useful for distressed people, as their relaxed nature can balance and calm anxious, agitated emotions. Hal has noticed his donkeys’ caring nature, especially as his son was just starting out as a rider. “I think the better ones have a sense of taking care of the less capable riders,” he notes.
In pack burro racing, Hal attributes his multiple wins and places as being skilled—but perhaps not the best—at both the running and animal training elements. He notes that in order to get a win, “everything has to come together on that day for me,” down to the smallest variables and pieces of luck—and those can’t always be predicted, or even planned for. “The unpredictability of raising an autistic kid is a lot like burro racing,” he adds. “Only when they believe something was their own idea do they truly excel.”
Click here to find out more about Hal, Mary and Harrison on Hal’s website, and get your own copy of the ebook or paperback on Amazon. Full Tilt Boogie recently topped Competitor’s list of 13 Running Books You Should Be Reading Now.
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 lot has changed at Lucky Three Ranch since 1980—and sometimes the only way to see all that progress is from the sky! Luckily, aerial photographer Ryan Hofmeister, of Heaven’s View Photography in Sterling, Colorado, has had his camera focused on the ranch since the very beginning, and has captured some truly amazing images from the air throughout that time.
Ryan first met Meredith shortly after she moved in to Lucky Three Ranch. He had captured an image of the young ranch on one of his routine fly-bys, and stopped by to inquire if she wanted the photo. She did, and that image became the cover of Lucky Three Ranch’s first Christmas card. Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t print Meredith’s name on the cards that first year, and she had to sign all 300 cards individually by hand. “I never made that mistake again!” he joked.
For his most recent shoot, Ryan also included a rare bonus: nighttime shots of the ranch. All photographers know how challenging it can be to capture images in low light, as even the slightest shake of the elbow can cause a blurry image—trying to do the same from the air requires a special technique. “It can be done with a tripod,” Ryan says, “but that doesn’t do much good when you’re moving 100 miles per hour through the air.” Ryan flies with another pilot, and they position the aircraft in a way that the plane is almost suspended in motion as Ryan holds his breath and takes the photo, trying to keep as still as possible. Ryan takes each and every photo himself on a handheld camera, including manually focusing it for each shot.
This photo session took around three hours to complete, progressing from day to night, and resulted in more than 600 photos on Ryan’s trusty Nikon. By the end of the session, they were flying in complete darkness, but the day certainly resulted in some incredible photos.
For more information about Ryan Hofmeister and Heaven’s View Photography, please visit heavensviewphotography.com.
Meredith Hodges was recently interviewed by Anna Roth for Modern Farmer, a website and magazine for people interested in global agricultural issues, as part of a series of donkey-themed articles! Meredith discussed her training methods and philosophies, and specifically how they relate to—and must sometimes be altered for—donkeys.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call equine specialist Meredith Hodges a “donkey-whisperer,” considering that she’s spent most of her life coaxing donkeys and mules into unprecedented acts. She fought to get them incorporated into competitive equine events around the world, and is a firm believer in the animals’ intelligence, thoughtfulness and the fact that a donkey or mule can do everything just as well as a horse can.
From her Lucky Three Ranch in Colorado, she’s created a small empire of books (including the influential Training Mules and Donkeys: A Logical Approach To Longears), TV shows, charitable programs, and animal welfare and advocacy groups. Her training approach — culled from other equine experts, including Richard Shrake, as well as behavior modification techniques she learned during her time as a psychiatric technician in the ‘70s — includes patience, mutual respect and plenty of oats. It works, and now Hodges is a much sought-after sage for donkey owner woes.
Modern Farmer: How did you get started with donkey training?
Meredith Hodges: I started with my mother’s ranch out in Healdsburg. That was my introduction to mules. I found out real quick that the horsemanship training techniques that I had learned before were just too expedited and not detailed enough [for donkeys].
I thought everything that everyone else does, that [donkeys] were stubborn and don’t want to do things. It took me about three months to realize that they are just simply looking out for themselves. They have a very high sense of self-preservation. They’re extremely intelligent, sure-footed, resistant to disease and when they get into a situation, get tangled into a fence or something, they won’t thrash around but wait quietly to get themselves out of it.
Mules do exactly what you teach them. If you chase them they think they’re in a game and supposed to run away. They think it’s pretty funny. They have a tremendous sense of humor and love to humiliate human beings. We’re pretty foolish, we don’t realize we’re getting sucked into a game here.
MF: How do you get them to do the things you want them to do?
MH: I realized that every equine we were working with would respond and repeat good behaviors when they were rewarded with the oats. I used to feed the animals who go for [pasture] turnout oats in the morning, and when I turned them out for an hour they wouldn’t want to come in from the pasture. I decided to shift the oats to the evening feeding, and as long as the oats were there waiting for them they always come in to the dirt pen. I never had to chase them, it was just, here they come. I thought, there’s something to this.
Check out the full interview here.
Earlier this week, Meredith Hodges made a special guest appearance on Jim Swanner’s All About Horses radio show on WKAC, to discuss mules, donkeys, and horses. Click here to listen to the archived show, which airs every Monday at 9:30am on WKAC or streaming online.