Grand Junction brothers raise and train Gaited Mules
February 18, 2013
While some people might think of mules as either pack animals or a type of transportation to carry visitors into the Grand Canyon, to Paul Smith of Grand Junction, Colo., they are something special — smart, athletic, and "quick to catch on to things" when in training. What might be surprising is that some are actually gaited, like what one would experience with an American Saddlebred, a Peruvian Paso, or a Tennessee Walking Horse.
Paul, along with his brother, Rod, has been raising gaited mules out of Walker and Fox Trotter mares now since 1997. The offspring of a female horse, or mare, and a male donkey, or jack, a mule inherits the head, hips, flat withers, and legs of the donkey. The ears are like a horse's only much longer and the eyes are big, round and soft. Known as a hybrid, it is hardier than a horse; is less likely to founder or colic; and can take much heavier workloads. Both of the sexes, referred to as either "johns" or "mollies," are born sterile but the males still need to be castrated in order to prevent them from behaving like stallions. Rod's own jack, a gray, white, and reddish Roan named "Pretty Boy Floyd," stands 56-inches high and tends to throw stock that is unbelievable. "Floyd's offspring have been consistently mellow, gentle and easy to work with. They have good confirmation and pretty heads, and come in all kinds of colors including bay, palomino, buckskin and Lineback dun — complete with zebra stripes on the legs."
Depending on the breed of the dam, a mule can inherit a wide variety of gaits such as the foxtrot, the stepping pace, the single foot, or the rack. In addition, there are the flatfoot, ambling, or running walks, all of which can be described "as if the animal were hurrying homeward at twilight with oats in mind." (Quoted by Dr. F. L. Rogers, a former horse show judge.) When doing the running walk, the mule's head bobs in rhythm to its footwork — known as nodding — and those long ears flop up and down. Smooth, comfortable to sit, and ground-covering, such gaits will get the rider where he or she needs to be in a hurry, often at five or six miles an hour instead of the usual four. The fancy footwork doesn't quite come as naturally to the mule as it might to a horse, however, so "the training is trickier. You have to start by developing the muscles that are needed to gait by putting on a lot of miles," Paul says. "If the animal drops down into a hard trot, it's the part of the trainer to help them get back into stride and then hold them in the gait. Sometimes one just needs a little help, such as pushing it into the bit with your legs and pulling the head up a little, or adding some weights to their shoes. It's a fine line, and you have to feel it."
Depending on the size of the sire and dam, a mule can be anywhere from pony to draft size and these days they are being used competitively in everything from barrel racing, roping, trail, reining, dressage to even jumping events. According to the American Mule Association, "The modern mule is highly intelligent and versatile" and Paul certainly agrees, adding, "They have really wonderful personalities. I think they are more challenging to work with than horses because they are so smart." Born with legendary sure-footedness, they are also capable of picking their ways along rocky, steep or deadfall-covered terrain with greater ease. As for the myth of their stubborn streaks, "that's not true. If one finds itself facing a situation that might be too dangerous, it simply won't go there."
To get his young mules off to a good start, every fall Paul, who is a packer and guide, hauls them to J Bar H Outfitters in Meeker, Colo., for a stint in "boot camp." According to owner Jeanne Horne, "I LOVE his gaited animals. They are not only refined mentally and physically, but they are elegant on the trail as they move around and through things. And they really pay attention, always wanting to know what's next. More so than any of my personal mules (she has 22, most out of draft stock) they are extremely sensitive and tend to pick their own people, such as whichever wrangler is going to be paired with them. If you really want a nice, loyal animal that aims to please, Paul's gaited mules are it."
Paul, who used to be a builder before the economy got bad, now farms hay in addition to raising gaited stock. "I have 35 acres of my own and lease an additional 165, raising an orchard alfalfa mix, some sorghum sudan grass and some oat." It keeps him busy in the off-season, but if given the choice he would rather be in the woods with his critters … especially Kate, his personal gaited mule. "You should see them together," Jeanne smiles, "they are truly attached at the hip." And from the feel of the wonderful ride one gets on those mules, the pair is attached at the saddle, to boot. ❖