You've recently decided to buy a mule and spend long, happy days strolling through the woods together, relaxing and communing with nature. You start poring over ads in local papers, looking through notices on farm supply stores, and repeatedly asking everyone you know who can even spell mule if they know of any for sale. Before long you find yourself anxiously driving out to inspect what you hope is going to be your ideal trail companion. Unfortunately, this is the point where things usually start going wrong. An enlightening, and disturbing, recent experience got me thinking about what people, even experienced horsemen, need to keep in mind when test driving a potential new equine.
I'd been looking for a small and gentle trail mule for a friend for months. We'd driven countless miles and looked at mules of all shapes and sizes. While some of them were pretty nice looking, none were what a finished trail mule should be. A few were downright scary. So when I saw the ad on a local message board under the heading "Gentle Gray Mule $500", I was skeptical. I know good and well that most people who have an honest to goodness gentle, healthy, experienced mule are not going to sell it for $500, but some part of me felt guilty for assuming the worst. Maybe because it was holiday season. Maybe I'm just trying to be less cynical lately. I don't know. Whatever the reason, I decided to call about it just in case it turned out to be a rare hidden gem. How bad could it be, really?
I called and was told by the gentleman on the phone that the mule had belonged to his friend who was going through a rough patch, and that's how he ended up with the Gentle Mule. "It's kid broke!" he said very enthusiastically. Repeatedly. He must have mentioned at least twenty times that the owners kids had "ridden it and messed with it for years", and even though my brain kept translating that into "bratty kids had annoyed it for years", we agreed on a time for us to go see it. Soon my friend and I were on our way. As we pulled into the drive, I noticed man and mule standing in the yard waiting for us. The little gray mule was already tacked up in saddle and bridle. I thought to myself, "Yep, this is going to be good," but once again I chided myself for being too negative and got out of the truck.
One quick glance told me that the mule was angry. How did I know that? His body language screamed it loudly and clearly. From our phone conversation earlier I knew that it had been a month or so since it was ridden. Maybe it just wasn't in the mood to give up its life of leisure and go back to work. Sure. That would make sense. "Be positive" I told myself yet again.
As we got closer, the next thing that really jumped out at me was the condition of its feet. Gentle Mule's hooves were horribly overgrown to the point that the toes were curling upwards and out. Great. By this point I knew that trying to keep a hopeful attitude was a waste of time. Gentle Mule's fur was thick but very rough looking. There appeared to be fresh blood smears on one of its knees and on one side of its face. "Got into the briars off the road when I was warming him up before you got here," the man replied when asked about it. "Uh-huh" I replied rather half-heartedly.
As I looked it over, I was relieved to see it wasn't skinny and starving. Oh no. It was fat, so fat in fact, that it had the ever dreaded neck crest. A second glance down at the hooves revealed old tell-tale founder rings. "He could use a worming, don't ya think?" the man said cheerfully, startling me out of my deepening stupor. "Yeah… That and some years-overdue hoof and tooth care" I answered while poking around in Gentle Mule's mouth. "I'd say he's at least 18-20 years old" I added. The guy looked confused and said, "Well, the owner told me he was 13…" We all exchanged uncomfortable glances. Gentle Mule just continued to look angry.
The man went to mount and I was startled when he said, "Hey, take hold of that bridle there for me. I don't want him running off with me". My friend and I once again exchanged glances. With a firm grip on Gentle Mule's bridle, I nodded for the man to get on. The mule looked angrier but did nothing more than tense up as the man mounted and got settled. He rode the mule around for a few minutes as we stood quietly and watched. Our sighs became audible as we watched the man try to steer Gentle Mule, only to have him grab the bit and pull hard in the opposite direction. To his credit, Gentle Mule did, in fact, walk, trot and canter, but it didn't look particularly comfortable for either of them. Soon the man dismounted and it was my turn. I knew the poor thing was uncomfortable so I just walked him on a loose rein on the soft grass growing along side the paved drive. His body was still tense and angry feeling, but after a couple of minutes Gentle Mule realized I wasn't going to pull and jerk him around and he relaxed considerably. As his body relaxed, his gait softened and became very smooth, considering the condition of his feet. Sadly, I realized that this had been a nice riding animal at some point in the past.
I dismounted and offered the reins to my friend, but he politely declined. He'd seen quite enough and was not impressed. I quietly whispered the possibility of a "rescue and retire", but he'd already done his share of that and couldn't bring home yet another one. Same here. If I brought home every neglected equine I ran across I'd have hundreds. Since I haven't won the lottery yet, this fellow was not going to be coming home with me, either. Miserably, I continued on with the test drive so I could at least tell some other folks I knew about this mule in hopes of finding it a suitable home. While running through a mental list of every responsible mule owner I could think of, I casually reached back to rub Gentle Mule on the hip. Immediately his body jerked and his ears went flat back, tight against his neck. Well that was interesting! "I believe he might want to kick!" the man said excitedly. The look of surprise on his face was genuine. "Yes, I believe he might," I answered as I stepped closer to Gentle Mule's shoulder and reached back to touch the top of his hip again. The speed at which he kicked out was astonishing. "Wow," was all I could think to say.
"I didn't kn..." the man started to say as I reached back and touched Gentle Mule's hip yet again, and once again was answered by his lightning-fast kick. These weren't warning kicks, oh no... they were kicks meant to crush an attacker's skull or jaw. "Well, I never have touched his feet or anything, I didn't know he'd do THAT!" he exclaimed. Gentle Mule's ears were pinned flat against his neck, his teeth bared in a vicious grimace as over and over again he violently lashed out with every touch of my fingertips. "Wow, he can really kick" I said rather lamely. The man, looking embarrassed, agreed that this wasn't the mule for my friend and rather awkwardly we parted ways.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens to people all the time, and not everyone gets to find out the animal has deep psychological issues before they hand over their money and get the poor beast home. Sometimes, they only find out when they get hurt by the "gentle, kid-broke" animal. So, here are a few things I'd like for you to keep in mind when you go to look at a potential mule-friend:
- Plan your visit when you can spend some time with the animal. Twenty minutes is NOT enough. Ask the owners if you can ride it out on trails, preferably a couple of times, on different days. Better yet, ask if you can take it home on a trial basis if you pay for it, the amount to be refunded if you aren't happy with it after a week. (If it is returned in same condition.) If you do take it on a trial basis, be sure to have a contract in hand before you hand over the money and take possession of the animal. Make sure the contract is worded well and that everyone involved signs it and has a copy.
- Interact with the animal. Touch it all over. Pick up its feet. Tug on its tail. Hug it. Is it ok with all this? Or does it shy away, worry, act defensive, or even violent? Obviously, it is normal for an equine to display some concern when a total stranger approaches it and proceeds to do things it may have never experienced before, but use good sense in deciding whether or not its reaction is reasonable or not. (And I shouldn't have to say it, but I will… Be Careful.)
- If the animal is already tacked up for you when you get there, ask to see it untacked and released, then caught again. It doesn't matter how good it rides if you can't catch it.
- If you get there and it's already tacked up and heavily sweating, just get back into your truck and leave. Seriously.
- Ask to see the owner ride it first, at all gaits. If the owner won't ride it, neither should you. It never ceases to amaze me how many people will buy a horse or mule after riding it only at a walk for twenty minutes or less. Even if you never plan on doing more than walking it once you get it home, have someone else you trust ride it through all of its gaits as part of the test drive.
- Look at it. No, I mean really look at it. Is it healthy looking? Coat shiny? Eyes and nostrils clear of drainage? Its eyes should be clear and shiny, as opposed to dull and dead looking. Look for glazed and dilated pupils; these are signs of possible sedation. If it is in "pasture condition", are its hooves healthy looking even though they may be untrimmed? If it is allegedly a riding animal being ridden regularly, check to see if its hooves have been trimmed or are at least well worn from riding. Pay close attention to the frog. Is it healthy looking and firm? Or does it smell rotten and feel squishy? If the animal is fairly lean, does it have an overly large belly and rough coat? If so, it's probably carrying a huge parasite load which will need to be treated immediately. Not a deal breaker by any means, but you will need to figure the treatment in to your total cost. A healthy animal will look healthy. Pay attention to the details.
- Does it notice its surroundings without jumping around crazily? Lead it around the owner's yard. Find scary things to lead it up to and watch its reaction. Crinkle stuff around it. Jump around a bit. An animal that is sensitive may still be worth the effort and eventually make a fine arena horse, but on the trail it can be a real pain in the behind.
There are many things you can do to test out a potential riding companion. All it takes is a little forethought to come up with a long list of ways you can test out a horse or mule before you hand over your hard-earned cash. A good trail companion is an investment, so don't be afraid to treat it as such. Your health and well-being depend on it.