MULE CROSSING: Disaster and the Effects of Training
By Meredith Hodges
Disaster is not always predictable, or even expected. We all know the weathermen are not always right, yet they are usually somewhere in the ballpark concerning what is about to happen. This summer has been unusually HOT and on this particular evening I was glad to be able to settle down in my pajamas and watch a movie. Although we have stalls for everyone in our two barns, we often opt to leave the eight mules from the South Barn in the dirt pen overnight when the weather is good. This makes for a lot less stall-and-run cleaning in the morning. I no sooner settled on the sofa when I heard a very peculiar noise coming from all around and on top of the house. HAIL, I thought, and got up to look. There was a lot more than just hail headed this way! Dark, ominous clouds slowly made their way across the sky, sheeted in lightning with loud roaring thunder. The hail, mixed with sheets of rain, began coming down faster and harder. I looked out the sliding glass door of the back deck and noticed my mules were running and dodging all over the dirt pen. They ran for the shed, but the wind was pushing the hail into the shed, and they bolted right back out again. They would need to be brought in to the barn! This wasn’t going to let up any time soon.
I waited until the hail had subsided a bit and made my way to the Grain Room where I filled a bucket with oats to put in the South Barn feeders. I always reward my mules for coming in when they are called! I couldn’t get all the way to the main South Barn doors because the guys had been doing some serious trenching to replace the existing water lines that had gone bad and sprung leaks everywhere. The black poly pipe was put in 20 years ago with non-galvanized clamps that were now rusting. We would be replacing the poly with Pex, but for now the trench was wide open with huge piles of dirt along the edge, most of the way down the road and in front of the South Barn doors. I did manage to get to the north end of the South Barn runs, went through the gate and into the closest pen, just as the thunder rolled and the lightning began again overhead. Instantly, down came a torrent of rain and hail!
When I got inside the barn, I went directly to the light switches…no lights…DANG! The only light in the barn was coming from the outside doorways when the lightning flashed. Thankfully, it was sheet lightning and not lightning bolts! As my eyes adjusted to the dark alleyway in the barn, I could make out the feeder doors, so I began dumping oats into the feeders and left the feeder doors open. They provided a bit more light into the alleyway…not much light, but it was better than pitch black! I no sooner finished dumping the oats into the feeders than the sky really opened up and let go with full force rain and hail! I just stood in the middle of the rough cement alleyway, lightning flashes all around me! I waited, afraid to touch the metal building, until I realized the building was grounded and shouldn’t necessarily pose a problem. So, I opened the stall door at the middle of the barn, entered the stall, and stood in the doorway to the run to watch the spectacle…pretty amazing show! I prayed for an opening to make my way across the pen, through the gate and alleyway between the barns to the next pen off the North Barn where mini donkey, Spuds, was housed. Things toned down a bit and I took advantage of the lull in the storm. I ran to the gate at the end of the pen, but I forgot, it was Lindy’s pen and she digs deep holes in front of her gate!
I tripped as I went into the hole, but luckily saved myself by grabbing the gate! Quickly as I could, I unlocked the chain (you have to have chains if you have Longears!), then made my way to Spuds’ pen across the lane. I unchained his gate and closed it behind me. I didn’t want an escapee! Spuds was waiting just inside the doorway to his stall, so I went to his inside stall door, grabbed his halter that was hanging just outside the door (good place for it in case of emergency!), put it on him and led him into one of the empty stalls on the north side of the North Barn. We keep those stalls empty when we can, so we can block the heavy winds by closing all the doors on the north side. It keeps the inside of the North Barn calm on the south side, and even blocks the winds from going all the way through to the South Barn.
By the time I got inside the North Barn to turn on the lights (Luckily they worked!), the rain, lightning and thunder had revved up again! I would need to pause before taking my side trip to the house to get my flashlight, before retrieving the mules from the dirt pen across the north road. My only thought was that it would be difficult to tell them apart in the darkness of the South Barn alleyway with no lights. I never doubted for a minute that they would behave. We have a very predictable routine that makes handling them very easy and stress-free no matter what the conditions might be. However, if I couldn’t tell them apart in the dark, I might put them in the wrong stalls and they would not like that. Even that would be hard to do because they each know which stall is theirs, but any mistake on my part could cause resistance and bad behaviors on their part. So, I would need my flashlight!
The downpour finally let up, so I ran as fast as I could back to the house for my flashlight. I got it and was back to the North Barn just in time for another downpour that lasted about three minutes. The lightning was getting more extensive and lit up the whole sky above. Hmmm! I didn’t relish the thought of running into the open area on the north side of the barn…the last leg of my journey to the dirt pen. There were four gates to latch back to open the MULE CROSSING from the dirt pen to the barns. I opened the stall door at the far, east end of the north barn. As soon as it looked safe to proceed, I made my way to the first gate where I could see all eight mules waiting patiently for me at the second gate across the road. I quickly opened the gate in front of me and sighed with relief to see that two ends of the double gates ahead on either side were already in place. I just had to swing the other sides to meet them, and get them chained together. Finally…the last gate was ready to be opened and as I opened it, the mules came sedately through the gate and walked to the stall door I had opened at the far, east end of the North Barn. I signaled Lance to take them all in while I brought up the rear and closed the gates behind me. I didn’t want anyone turning back. Merlin and Vinnie decided we were going through the wrong stall door into the North Barn and stood at the far west stall door. That is the one they usually use when we let them back and forth to turnout.
I made a feeble attempt to “herd” them toward the east door, but they were having no part of being “herded,” so I just gave up and told them to follow me…or NOT! Before I even made it to the doorway, I could hear the storm surging again. I politely stood to the side when I heard Merlin and Vinnie come running to the door. They slowed as they passed by me and went through the doorway and into the North Barn…at a walk. Inside the North Barn, all eight mules were bunched up in the alleyway. Spuds loudly brayed his dissatisfaction at being put in a strange stall. It’s amazing that the smallest donkey on the place has the LOUDEST voice! Then I remembered…I had not opened the gate at the end of Spuds’ run after I had put him in the other stall. That is why everyone was still bunched up in the North Barn alleyway between the stalls. I called Lance to come with me (He’s the leader) and went to open the gate. He was followed by Lindy (his girlfriend), April (Her sister) and Sassy (Lance’s sister)…while Merlin lagged behind. We proceeded through Spuds’ pen, across the lane between the barns, through Lindy’s pen (after traversing the big hole!) through her stall, then into the dark alleyway of the South Barn. I led Lance to his stall by his fly mask, opened the door and let him go in. April was next, but she had a hard time seeing her door with her fly mask on, so I just pointed the flashlight at it, and she went in. Sassy took that opportunity to dash into the barn and trot to her stall door where she waited for me to come and open it. I didn’t even need the flashlight for her!
When I went back to Lindy’s stall, she was threatening Merlin who was standing right outside her back door under the overhang. I took her out of her stall and put her in an empty one across the alley, so I could retrieve Merlin and the last three mules from the North Barn. The storm was building up again. Merlin was happy to be in the safety of his own space. I could see the last three mules eating hay and oats from the floor in the North Barn two runs away. I would need to wait again before crossing. I tried calling, but they could not hear my voice due to the incredible decibels of the roaring thunder. It took another four, or five, minutes before it subsided this time. When it finally did, I ran across the runs and into the North Barn. The mules just looked at me inquisitively as if to say, “What?!” I just told them, “Quit eating and get your butts to the South Barn!” They immediately complied and walked through the two runs into the South Barn, and into the dark!
I came behind them with the flashlight and pointed it at each of their stalls. Guy went first, looking for his Lady Love, Sassy. He was happy to be back next to her. Angel looked stoic and lost at the west end of the barn. She wasn’t too far from her stall, but could not make out the door in the dark. I walked up to her, slid the door open and pointed the flashlight to show her the inside of her stall. Then she abruptly woke up and quickly entered her stall, relieved to be in her own familiar surroundings. She peeked out the doorway in time to see another sheet of lightning flash though the clouds and across the sky! That was when I noticed that Vinnie was really disoriented at the east end of the barn. He didn’t even notice the feed cart stacked with hay with my oats bucket perched on top! Ordinarily, he would be the first to make a beeline for any bucket! I hurried to his stall, opened the door and pointed the flashlight inside, but he just stood there…frozen. I gave a short tug on his fly mask and he then stepped into his stall…also relieved to be HOME! Lance peered out the back door of his stall and watched as the rain persisted. There was so much lightning outside that it looked like daylight at times. I went to the empty stall retrieve Lindy and put her back into her own stall. She was happy to go back to her feeder to finish the oats.
I used to take off their fly masks each night, but I began to notice there were benefits to leaving them on. Merlin poked his eye on a tree when he was a yearling and almost blinded himself. For twenty-seven years, he has had to wear his fly mask to protect that eye from dirt, debris and flies that were attracted to the medication we were using on him. The fly mask never posed a problem as long as we kept it clean. When the weather got hot in the springtime, we used the fly masks on those mules that had sensitive skin around the eyes and who were prone to sunburn. They never had a problem seeing anything because looking through the fly mask was like looking through a screen door. During the storms like this one, the mask protected their faces from the pelting rain and hail. The rain actually washed the fly masks clean. When we have no rain, we just wash the masks as needed. Putting them back on when they are still damp, keeps the mules’ foreheads cooler in hot weather. At night, when they lie down in the deeply bedded stalls, the fly masks keep the shavings from irritating their eyes. With hygienic practices in the environment and regular stall cleaning and grooming, parasites and flies have ceased to be a problem. I have never had to put fly masks, or leg protection of any kind, on my donkeys or horses. In the case of this disaster, the fly masks came in pretty handy to safely lead them to their stalls…in the dark!
I walked through the barn one last time and checked to make sure everyone was okay. They were all drenched, but not stressed, as they munched their oats. I still wasn’t able to go out the front doors, so I made my way through Lindy’s stall. I had to wait another three minutes for the storm to subside again before traversing Lindy’s pen to the gate…side-stepping her huge hole…and then latched and chained her gate behind me. I could hear Spuds calling from the stall in the North Barn, “Hey, don’t forget ME!” I latched and chained the gate on his pen and went to the barn to fetch him. He was also a VERY happy Mini Donkey to be snugly tucked into his own “bed” for the night. I made the rounds in the North Barn to make sure everyone got their measure of oats before I left for the night. I took one last look and turned off the lights. I waited through yet another downpour before I closed the main doors of the barn behind me and headed for the house. It was 10:30 p.m. when I walked into the house. Whew! What a night!
I am so grateful that I have always been consistent and routine about the way I handle my equines. Handling them through this incredible storm was a piece of cake! Being consistent and routine about my actions wasn’t an easy task to learn, but through self-discipline and persistence, in the end, I was able to be consistent and win their trust! Now, my equines all know exactly what to expect from me and never get anxious about anything I ask of them. In the middle of a disaster such as this, they know undeniably that I will be there to rescue them and make them comfortable again. They don’t have to hurry; they don’t have to rush, just behave and do what I ask…and everything will be okay. When things are done haphazardly, equines get anxious. They never know what to expect and can become difficult during stressful situations. When you discipline yourself to be kind, respectful and reliable, they know they can TRUST you! And, TRUST goes a long way toward cooperation and safety for all of you!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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