As most of you know, I’m a horsey kind of girl... but today I’m learning about the horse’s ... how do I put this delicately? ... less attractive cousin, the mule. Actually, that’s mean ... mules are goddamn cute, in a boofy-headed, cumbersome sort of way. And according to Paradise’s resident mule expert Billy, these animals are “the greatest gift that God gave to man.”
“This country would not have been founded, grown, built if not for mules. Mules were used in mines, they were used in road building, railroads, brought the pioneers. Horses don’t hold up so good,” Billy tells me over breakfast.
“Anything you can do with a horse you can do with a mule. And more. They are easier to train than a horse because they are smarter. They pick things up easier. And if they don’t then you’re doing it wrong. Whereas with a horse, they’ll just pick up what they’re telling you, right or wrong. A mule will come back and say, you dumb ass, that’s not right! A lot of people think that’s being stubborn, but it’s not.
“One reason a mule is so good for packing is because a mule takes responsibility for what’s on its back. A horse won’t care, it will bonk into trees. A mule will look after its load, move around trees. The best way to train a horse is to tie it to a mule.”
Mules, of course, get a bad wrap in some circles. Some do have a tendency to kick. And when they do kick, they aim to hurt. “They can kick a fly right off the end of your nose,” Billy says.
They are also sometimes considered stubborn - but according to Billy, that’s because their handlers are doing it wrong.
“If you see someone lead a mule and they’re pulling on it from in front and it won’t go, it’s because the mule's looking at the human going, 'Dummy, if you don’t get out of the way I’m gonna walk all over you. Turn around and walk and I’ll go with you.'”
Mules - the result of breeding a donkey jack with a horse mare - have been around since ancient times, and were first brought to the USA by the Spanish.
I ask Billy is a mare feels ripped off when she’s bred to a donkey. “The mares don’t mind going with the donkey. They don’t know the difference. It’s all from behind, they can’t see it. It’s a scent. They feel proud at the end.”
Apparently one in 100,000 mules are born fertile. In all his years dealing with mules, Billy has seen two fertile mules - both in Wyoming. “That’s why it’s the best state for breeding mules. Must be something in the soil.”
Paradise Ranch has 13 mules in total - eight of them used for packing. Billy’s favourite mule is Curly, because he ain’t the easiest of mules.
“You have to keep one eye open with him. I like mules that test you. Most of the mules here are so sweet and gentle, they do good. But Curly will test you. He’s the one with two bells in his tail, to let you know he kicks. Don’t go behind him.”
OK - thanks for the warning, Billy!