Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Miss Mule Goes to School

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I’ve owned several horses and they’ve all been quite good in one way or another, some more than others, but I’ve never had a horse as good as my mule Ellie.

Maybe it’s because she is a mule and not a horse at all, but I think it has more to do with her age. I’ve never had a horse as old as her, and with age comes wisdom. At 19 years old, there isn’t much she hasn’t seen and what she does see doesn’t spook her. It’s more than that though. She seems to have a sixth sense about what people need, especially children. When kids are around her, the smaller they are, the more still she is. She knows instinctively not to move her feet until they’re well away from her.

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My favorite example of her sixth sense, and the one that I’m most grateful for, is how she acted the first time I rode her. I had her for 7 months before I was able to ride her because she had a ligament injury when I got her. She was given to me on the condition that I rehab her and give her a less strenuous job than she had before. The horse I had before Ellie was a mare with a lot of problems. The first time I sat on that mare, she bucked me off immediately. I wasn’t expecting it at all and didn’t want it to be a habit, so I got back on. She immediately bucked me off again. That was the start of a year long ordeal in which I made progress in riding her, but never got her as safe and solid as I needed her to be. I didn’t realize how much fear I had after riding that mare for a year. I had never been afraid to ride; in fact, I had been stupidly brave. But all that bravery was replaced by a feeling of terror when it came time to ride Ellie for the first time.

Even though I knew Ellie was broke as broke could be, when it was time to climb up there and sit on her back, I was petrified. What if she bucks me off like Heidi did? What if I’m stuck with another animal that doesn’t like me? What if I can’t shake this fear? As I walked Ellie over to the mounting block and put one foot in the stirrup, I couldn’t believe how completely the fear had taken over. I could either quit riding entirely, which plenty of people have done after a bad experience, or I could swing a leg over. I don’t know who I am without horses, so I swung the leg over and waited to see what would happen.

And then, nothing. Ellie didn’t move a muscle. I could feel tension in her body that mirrored mine, and that forced me to take a deep breath and relax. She was used to the rider getting on and going, but I didn’t want to go anywhere yet. I just wanted to sit on her and get used to the feel of her, and she let me, even though I could tell she didn’t understand it. I sat there for a good five minutes while she stood still as a statue and let me pull myself together. She knew what I needed and she offered it. All of that to say that when I got invited to bring one of my equines to an elementary school for Farm Week, I knew Ellie was the one for the job.

Russell, the man who owns the barn where I board, has a daughter who teaches kindergarten. She asked her dad to bring the tractor and trailer to give the kids a hay ride, a couple chickens to show them, and a horse. She actually asked if he could bring our mini donkey, but our mini donkey isn’t well trained enough for the job, so I suggested Ellie instead.

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We got to visit with the kindergarten class and the special needs class. When I pulled Ellie out of the trailer, there was a lot of ooohing and aaahing because she’s very large. Russell asked the kids what kind of animal she is and we got several guesses, all incorrect (cow, horse, pony), and then I explained that her mama was a horse and her daddy was a donkey and that makes her a mule.

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When I brought her over, the kids sort of rushed her before the teachers could get them in a line, but Ellie was fine. She stood like a statue again and didn’t move a single hoof until they had cleared out. They petted her and asked questions and I told them how mules helped with farm work in the “olden days” by pulling plows and carts. She was a big hit.

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Russell showed the kids her big teeth!

The cafeteria ladies saw her outside and brought her some baby carrots, which she happily accepted. One of the ladies asked if she could hug Ellie, and I said, “Sure!” so she hugged her around her neck and Ellie stood there chewing her carrots and taking in the love.

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I am not a people person and I typically avoid interaction with people I don’t know. If you sit next to me on an airplane, I will not talk to you. My idea of hell is having to make small talk with strangers. I really enjoy sharing my equines though. I could talk about them all day and I love watching people’s reactions to them, everything from intimidation because of their size to awe and wonder. The equines are a bridge between me and other people. If we can talk about horses, I can talk all day.

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When I was a kid I was totally horse obsessed, and I can spot a kid like that a mile away. One of the special needs girls seemed especially enraptured by Ellie. She walked back toward her hind legs, I think to get a better look at her from every angle, a desire I can relate to. Her teacher fussed at her a little, and I could tell she was distraught at having done the wrong thing. But then she came back up by Ellie’s head and petted her some more and smiled as bright as ten thousand suns. That little girl couldn’t say much, but I could see it. She got bit by the horse bug.

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