Interview with Mountain Built Mules
Mules are a misunderstood species and I think equine enthusiasts really love them or want nothing to do with them. There isn’t a lot of in between. In this interview, you will learn how breeding, the right training, and understanding can really make a difference in the type of mule you have. There are a lot of bias opinions about mules and not all are true. If you are truly interested in learning more about mules, then I think this is a really helpful interview to read. It can bridge the gap between understanding mules better and breaking down the comparisons we make between horses. Alyssa Younker does a great job at explaining them. I hope you enjoy!
Can you tell us a little about your mules and how you got started riding mules?
I got my start with mules when I was in my early 20’s and moved to Central Oregon for a time to become a horse trainer. During a Buck Brannaman clinic at the facility I trained out of, I was approached by a lady who owned a very touchy molly mule. She was spectating and had been watching me ride in the clinic for the past couple of days. She thought I would get along with her mule and wondered if I would take the molly in to work with.
This molly had been in and out of trainers and had a tendency to bolt. Even though I had no experience with mules, I needed money. I was dang near starving and completely broke. So, I agreed to take the molly for 30 days. I told the owner that I would assess the mule and we could continue on from there.
It took closer to 60 days of working with this mule daily, but she started coming around. Within just a couple of months, I was riding her out on the trails with no bolting issues. We went out for a long ride one day. I was riding the molly; the owner was on another of her mules and her friend was on a fox trotter horse.
We decided to ride up a ridge and ended up on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence from the truck. With no gates in sight, we ended up riding 6 miles down the fence line before we found a way through. We had to ride down some pretty technical terrain, which I questioned. The horses I had ridden would have stumbled their way down, with me holding my breath… but not that molly. She picked her way down the rocks so precisely I never once felt like we may stumble or slip. That was the moment I remember thinking, “These things are awesome!”
The molly kept progressing, and the owner was thrilled with her progress. She brought me another of her mules to work with. This time it was a three year old John she needed started. He was sweet and gentle and the polar opposite of the molly. It wasn’t a week into his training- I had him on the trails, crossing bridges, logs, etc. I realized all those rumors and tall tales about mules weren’t at all true. They weren’t stubborn or revengeful. They were smart, kind and willing to try. I started receiving phone calls from people asking if I could work with their mules, but I was moving and didn’t have the facilities any longer. However, my experiences with those mules stuck with me over the years.
Fast forward ten years, my husband and I had been horseless for a few years. We were trying to purchase property and get lined out with a truck, trailer, pasture, etc. before purchasing a couple of horses again. We planned to mostly ride in the mountains, pack, go on backcountry camping trips and that sort of riding. I asked him “have you ever considered buying mules?” It wasn’t long after that we purchased my mule Clyde and the rest is history.
We currently own four equines. Clyde is a 5-year-old white John mule out of a Smart Little Lena AQHA mare and by a spotted jack. He has the goofiest personality and is always into something. I’m excited to see what all he develops into as we progress together. We are planning to enter Bishop Mule Days and Jake Clark Mule Days in the near future with him.
Reata is a 6-year-old Buckskin Dun molly mule. We found her through a classified ad. When we went to look at her, it was apparent her current owners and her butted heads. We brought her home expecting somewhat of a train wreck. She was touchy, spooky, and had a tendency to pull away from you. But in the past year that Reata has been with us, she has developed into a trustworthy mountain mule. Her personality is starting to show through and she is one of the sweetest mules.
Timber is a 2-year-old Driftwood bred AQHA grulla filly. She’s been a great little horse for us and we are looking forward to starting her packing with light loads this year. She’s going to make a nice saddle horse for us in a couple of years.
Houlihan is our newest addition. He is a 2-year-old buckskin dun John out of a BLM mustang mare. We just purchased him, but already he’s part of the family. He will also be packing light loads with us this year.
Can you explain why mules are misunderstood and deemed stubborn?
Mules have a high level of self preservation that typically gives them the reputation of being “stubborn”. A mule isn’t going to do anything that may cause harm to them. While you can force a horse to do something with fear and intimidation, those techniques won’t get you very far with a mule. But if you are patient and take the time to build a strong partnership with a mule, I firmly believe they will do anything for you.
Another interesting bit of history I have heard is that in times past, if a mare was to throw colts with a bad temperament, she was no longer bred for horse colts. Instead, she would be bred to a jack and used to produce mule colts. This then produced mules with bad temperaments. They were hard to handle and gave mules a reputation as being hard-headed. However, nowadays well bred, good producing mares are used to produce fine mules. These foals have great dispositions, lots of athletic ability, and correct confirmation. As the breeding progresses, so do the quality of the mules that are being produced.
Does your approach change when training mules compared to horses?
The short answer is no, not really. We are huge advocates of the methods used by horsemen like Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, and others like them. We use these same methods and ways of communicating regardless if we are working with a horse or a mule.
However, we will say that mules can take a little longer with some things, particularly those they perceive as harmful to their wellbeing. Mules have a high level of self preservation and while you can force a horse to do something, mules are hesitant and often downright refuse to do anything they believe might cause pain or injury to them.
I don’t remember the exact quote but, Tom Dorrance said something along the lines of, “You have to treat a mule the way you should treat a horse” and we believe those words wholeheartedly. If you can build a relationship with a mule, and gain his trust… they will do anything for you.
What activities do you mainly do with your horses and mules?
We purchased our mules with the main thought of mountain riding. But we are drawn to the backcountry and are excited to continue learning the art of packing. Other than that, we look forward to competing with our equines in various events at Mule Days around the country.
I hope to start Clyde my John on cattle work such as cutting and fence work. As well as patterning him around barrels and poles. He is athletic and seems to have an interest in cattle. Maybe that’s the Smart Little Lena breeding coming out in him. He’s such a willing mule, and athletic enough, I feel like he would try whatever event I asked of him.
Do you feel safer riding a mule on a trail than a horse?
It depends on the horse or the mule, haha. But joking aside, in steep, rocky and technical terrain I feel that most of the time mules out perform horses. There are definitely horses that are surefooted, just as there are mules that are clumsy, but in general mules have a 4×4 gear they are able to tap into when the trails get rough.
What are your favorite characteristics about mules?
There are a lot of good traits in mules, but I think my favorite is their personalities. Once you establish a strong relationship with a mule, they are like big dogs. Ours love being with us and are always happy to receive some ear scratches. Each one is unique and all have their quirks and goofy tendencies, which we absolutely love.
Mules are actually quite athletic and versatile. What sports should people consider using a mule for instead of a horse?
Really anything. Nowadays they have mules entered in about any event you can think of. Working cow mule, jumping, dressage, western pleasure, barrel racing, roping, you name it. Mules are proving their versatility in and out of the arena. I’d suggest people check out Bishop Mules Days, Jake Clark Mule Days, Bryce Canyon Mule Days and other such events if they want to see all that mules can do.
Is there a difference in demeanor when it comes to Molly mules and John mules?
We’ve found that Johns seem to mature mentally at a slower pace than the Mollies. The Johns we have had are complete goofs. They are like teenage boys, always causing some sort of “trouble” getting into whatever they can. But they have a steady demeanor, whereas the mollies can be affected by their cycles like mares can be. We own both, and like both. I don’t feel we are partial one way or the other.
If you could give only one piece of advice regarding mules or horses, what would it be?
Get your basics solid. We are huge advocates of groundwork, and working on a solid foundation. Regardless if you own horses or mules, I see a lot of people getting in a hurry and not taking the time to do things correctly. Consistency, repetition and patience are so crucial in developing that partnership and a safe, dependable equine.
Even if you have an equine under saddle, but skipped out on the groundwork, I would encourage people to go back to the basics. It’s interesting the holes you will find in their foundation work, and how much better they will be under saddle if you get things right on the ground.
What is the most important lesson horses and mules have taught you?
There are so many. I wouldn’t be who I am without horses and mules. The first thing that comes to mind is patience. Patience in the equine itself, patience in the process, patience with myself. Horses and mules will keep you humble in a hurry.
If you rid yourself of time frames and expectations, working with your equines becomes much more enjoyable. It’s great to have a plan for your session or ride. However, if you can be flexible and read your equine and where they are on that day, and make adjustments to suit what they need, a lot of frustrations are avoided.
A huge thank you to Alyssa and Jason from Mountain Built Mules for agreeing to this interview.
(All images are credited to Mountain Built Mules)