Friday, 23 November 2007

Widget - by Helen Pring.

But why a mule?

I have always been interested in mules but had never really given them a serious thought before, I had never met one and in truth never expected to do so. However last June just before my first son was born I unexpectedly lost my old and beloved horse. Suddenly I found myself without anything except my old chestnut broodmare too keep me company. It wasn’t until November that I really began to miss having a riding horse around so I turned my attention to finding something good in traffic, box, clip, to handle and something that I could take out anywhere and know it would be sane and sensible. I did rather think this was a lot to ask but it was worth a shot. Well the first thing I realised very quickly was that a good happy hacker was an awful lot of money!! Where was I when the horse market boomed?! Whilst trawling through the internet I found an article about mules, I read it with interest and the idea was born that I may have just found the ideal animal for me. I got in contact with the British Mule Society and introduced myself and started looking for my first mule.

Then on day in late April I got an e-mail from Ann Dyer with some details of a 15hh mule for sale about 2 hours drive away. I thought that I might as well go and have a look ‘just so that I can have a look at a real life mule, oh but maybe I ought to take the trailer, just in case..’ So a friend and I drove up to see this mule of which I knew nothing about. After getting horribly lost a few times (never ask a non-driver to navigate) we eventually got there. My first impression of Widget was that here was the poorest, most unfriendly animal I had seen in a very long time.

Her owner told me that she was broken to drive as well as ride, and in a subsequent conversation with her previous French owner I learned that she drove, ploughed and packed too. She refused to be caught at first and when we did get her she stood tied up with those lovely long ears back and a scowl on her face. Her tack consisted of a treeless saddle, I have heard that they are very good but this one had been in a bag for a while so was out of shape and a bridle with a long shanked bit and curb chain. It did occur to me that this might be the epitome of all the stories about stubborn mules and with some trepidation I mounted. I didn’t want to take the poor old bag of bones too far in fear she might not make it. However she set her ears back and refused to go up the lane. Her owner told me she had little steering, which didn’t go far to reassuring me. But a combination of my squeezes and her owners flaps and slaps we went off up the lane

What made me buy her I can’t say, she certainly made no effort to impress but there was something I liked, under the thin nearly bald exterior. So I paid the money, got her passport and loaded her into the trailer. She loaded and travelled well, and after what seemed like hours she arrived in my yard.

As I unloaded her my husband came to have a look and said ‘What a dopey stupid looking Donkey’ but he duly helped me put her away for the night. I did learn later on that one of the local girls was riding past after she arrived, and as she went by Widget let out a mournful bray, resulting in a very rapid speed increase down the road for one very surprised child!!
I put her out into our orchard next to the old brood mare Autumn, who being a very accepting little mare, just did the cursory hellos and went back to grazing. After I left I had two phone calls from concerned people in the houses next to the orchard who told me that my new funny looking horse was trying to break down the fence in between her and Autumn, by the time I got up there ( about 5 mins!) she had broken through and was grazing contently by Autumn. I did wonder what I had gotten myself into as I put antiseptic cream onto the cuts and scratches that pushing through barbed wire fences tends to cause. I had a really good look over her and discovered that ,apart from being able to feel every rib and her breast bone sticking out about three inches, she had lice everywhere and then I found an abscess on her dock which needed quite a lot of attention. Her off hind had quite a large cavity where she has had some White Line Disease but that is well on the mend now. I also wormed her with Lung worm specific wormer as she had a suspicious cough, and since the worming she hasn’t coughed once.

Over the next few days I started riding her out accompanied by Autumn who had recently come back into work. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt regarding her mouth, so I put a fat mouth eggbutt in her mouth and away we went. She was as light and easy to stop as I could have wished for and I found our early that milk tankers and tractors held no fear for her as she boldly strides past anything and everything. The only time she gets agitated is when you try to rein her in when a lorry is approaching, she doesn’t consider that a mere articulated is worthy of a change of pace. I had always expected mules to have short, choppy action and was very pleasantly surprised by just how comfortable she is. I have ridden a lot of horses over the years and the closest comparison I could make was that of a Thoroughbred, I don’t find that she is any less comfortable in any pace then a good horse, in fact her walk and trot are very balanced and after she got used to the idea that she could canter with me on top, that is also coming on leaps and bounds. And whoever said Mules can’t gallop have obviously never tried to keep up with a small chestnut pony going flat out over the beach! Autumn does struggle to keep up as Widget walks out like she has a mission to complete in record time, but that is a small price to pay for a happy forward going ride.

Over the following weeks I couldn’t believe how fast the weight was going on and she now comes trotting over to greet me with that strange sound like an asthma attack that they make. She has bloomed and with careful lice treatment which is still ongoing, and the combination of a bit of work and food she has transformed into a lovely animal.

I expect all mule owners have heard most of the comments that people make, ranging from things that incensed me like
‘well of course you’ll never teach THAT any manners’ or ‘ what on earth did you buy such a ugly thing for’ all the way to people telling me how beautiful she is and how much they like mules. The main thing people asked was can you ride them? I did find it difficult not to be sarcastic as most people asked this question whilst I was sitting on her! I was riding her one day when someone, looking rather embarrassed confessed that she didn’t realise I had been talking about a real mule, she thought I was just being rude about my new horse! I have since taken her on fun rides where you get lots of funny looks and double takes, but the first one on the Quantocks she was met at the end by a crowd of people who had heard that there was a mule going round and wanted to have a look! I did feel rather like a celebrity, and Widget stood and let herself be admired while she drank orange squash from my cup

She has been to the beach and has proved herself to be quiet but enthusiastic when taken out and just so bold and safe. She has quirks of course, like playing ‘hide the water bucket’ when she is in. So far it has disappeared into several new and exciting places, just right for mum to spend half an hour looking for it. And she does tend to untie the gates and let herself and Autumn out, which would be fine except they always make a bee-line for my father-in-law’s veggie patch. I have started to teach her to jump coloured poles which she is taking to with a willing attitude. We are doing a bit of schooling which, much to my satisfaction, is going very well and I am hoping to get her entered in a test in the spring.

So really I have Ann to thank for the lovely mule that I have, she didn’t look like the fun 9yr old that she really is when I first saw her, but since then we have gotten to know each other and I would like to think that she is fond of me, as I just love her to bits. Husband still can’t see the beauty in her but he does admit that she carries me as safely as he could wish for. I am a mule convert and I don’t care what anyone says about mules, I just love those long ears!

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