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Spoiled by good mules

Retirement isn’t what it used to be: carefully mounting a rocking chair for gentle exercise; donning bifocals for light reading; sipping lukewarm tea with lemon to keep your aging throat fit for telling the same old stories over and over and…

No. At least for Pat Hooker, departing a lengthy career 20 years ago meant boldly heading out on wilderness adventures, riding one mule while towing loaded pack ones along behind. Hooker, you see, is and has almost always been, a mule man.

Thus he was born and raised in the Grand Junction, Colo., area 75-years ago. As a child, he rode bareback up and down canal banks on small donkeys; much easier for a kid to slip aboard an itty-bitty burro than to bother saddling up a hulking horse. Besides, he really liked his fuzzy, long-eared companions.



Pat Hooker displays obvious fondness for his Palomino mule, Pepsi. Monty, Hooker’s Arabian horse, stoically endures the sappy scene! Photo by Ingrid N. Hooker

As a teenager, Hooker got into hunting. He and a group of equally fervent friends soon decided, however, that being a pack animal wasn’t nearly as much fun as leading one.

So, after more than enough treks loaded down with elk or other meats strapped to their own backs, the young hunters sought out a sturdy horse. It would just be a “loaner.” It wasn’t like they had to commit to ownership or something. Perhaps even a mule would do.



Area dentist Dr. Sorenburg owned 15-20 of the latter species and showed them a well-trained one particularly adept at packing gear in and elk out. Hooker took a look and was immediately charmed by the black, standard-size john.

“He was just wonderful!” Hooker gushed, even now after these many years.

Yes, the creature was gentle, and in his late 20s. Hooker was in his late teens. Nice match. Loan deal approved.

Life continued, as did hunting treks with the loaner mule properly packing equipment in and killed quarry out.

After college, Hooker began working at Kodak, where he remained for 32 years, 20 of that in their Human Resources Department.

He and his hunting pals still rented pack animals for their tracking treks. Then, somewhere farther up along time’s trail, he chose to acquire his own stock. He owned two horses, but the Appaloosa was already 19 in the late-1980s. By 1998, that good gelding was too old for mountain climbing.

Nothing equals gorgeous Colorado wilderness scenery, like this view from atop Zeb in Cimarron, Colo. Photo by Ingrid N. Hooker

MOUNT UP ON MULES

Fate intervened. Hooker attended a mule clinic somewhere south of Branson, Mo. He learned a lot. Not only that, but a Kodak co-worker, Judy Sandoval, had inherited two mules from her father.

She and husband Chris offered to sell Hooker one of the recently gifted-to-them animals. The john was beautifully unusual in that he was a Palomino, a unique color for a mule.

Conversely, he was wily, disliked men, refused to load in a trailer, misbehaved for the farrier, etc. But something about the 9-year-old hooked Hooker, so he eagerly bought the project mule. Sandoval loaded “Pepsi” into the trailer (because neither her hubby nor Hooker could handle him.)

Safely back at his place, Hooker off-loaded Pepsi directly into a round pen where the man-hating mule spent the following couple months in solitary confinement. His two basic needs, feed and water, were met solely by his new owner, but on the human’s terms, not the mule’s. It had to have been a screamingly boring trust lesson, but there stood and stood and stood stubborn Pepsi, dubiously contemplating his future.

After about six to eight weeks, Hooker saddled him up. Even though maybe taken down a peg or two, 14.3 hands high Pepsi still eyed the man with a wary eye as Hooker gingerly swung up into the saddle. Did the yellow critter display any gratitude for this chance of boredom relief? Oh no, not a bit. The ornery mule leapt and bucked and unceremoniously dumped his “master” into the dirt.

Left to right, pack mules Pepsi (unique Palomino) and Jed and share a wonderful backcountry Colorado day with Pat Hooker, riding Zeb. Photo by Ingrid N. Hooker

Dusting himself off, Hooker next tried out skills honed at the mule clinic. He’d learned to tie a bucker’s head high, get on, and soundly apply the spurs. It might not have been pretty, but the hapless cowboy stayed mostly aboard using that technique for several rides.

One day, Pepsi just gave up, or gave in, or gave his heart and soul to Hooker. Anyway, that wonder took place 24-years ago. Mule and his man are still together. They’ve shared countless happy hours and days on the trails and out hunting.

Pat Hooker on Zeb and Ingrid Hooker on Jed share this amazing scenery fit for a Colorado movie. Photo by Janet St. John

Hooker described golden Pepsi (who was unavailable for his part in this interview) as “perfect.” Good as gold. A magnificent mule.

When Hooker’s second horse needed to be replaced, he bought a 6-year-old john down in Oklahoma from Terry Nickel. Nickel was the mule trainer/trader who’d conducted the Missouri clinic. Hooker dubbed the 15.3hh black mule “Travis T-Bone,” aka Travis.

That wise purchase was in June 2001. In August, Nickel hauled a load of mules up to Colorado’s Adams County Fairgrounds. A flashy sorrel Hooker had greatly admired was among them, the potential buyer having backed out of the deal. Hooker hurriedly jumped into the deal and bought “Otis.”

“He turned out to be marvelous,” recalled Hooker.

Also marvelous are three mules he bought from Mike and Janet St. John, owners of Windy Hill Mule Farm in North Carolina. Zeb is a 15.3 hh black john; bay Jeb, also a john, is 1-inch shorter at 15.2; Diesel, also 15.2, is a dark bay john.

Nothing equals gorgeous Colorado wilderness scenery, like this view from atop Zeb in Cimarron, Colo. Photo by Ingrid N. Hooker

Hooker declared the St. Johns among the finest mule owners and trainers he’s ever met. They truly care about their stock, he affirmed. Janet refuses to sell any of her animals until she’s thoroughly checked out potential buyers and their facilities.

THE RESORT HORSES

In 2001, Hooker, wife Ingrid and some relatives were packing on the Western Slope’s Flattops Wilderness Area, about five miles in.

Ingrid stayed at the vehicle while Pat loaded gear on mules Travis and Otis. He set off on Pepsi with his hunting partner riding Hooker’s Arabian, Monty.

Along the trail, they crossed paths with an outfitter from nearby Budges Resort. With the man were some clients and a string of pack horses. Everyone cordially greeted as they passed one another. All seemed well.

Momentarily, a commotion ensued. Maybe it was a slithering snake, or a bee sting, or a Sasquatch sighting? But anyway, all the resort’s pack horses came thundering, bucking and plunging toward Hooker and company. None appeared interested in stopping or veering away.

Hooker and his buddy had dismounted to adjust a pack and so were now afoot but loosely holding reins. Pack mules Travis and Otis observed the approaching stampede and shed their normally sane demeanor to join in the crazy fun storming towards them.

They spun around and slammed into Hooker’s back, knocking him down; his glasses flew off somewhere. He kept ahold of Pepsi but the other three equines had left the scene.

Meanwhile, back at the campsite, Ingrid looked up just in time to see Monty trotting towards her. Pleading for help? She mounted him and set off along the trail, hunting for the missing hunting party.

She found Pat searching around the ground for his glasses. No mules nearby. Anywhere. Sure was quiet.

Eventually, Ingrid found Pat’s errant glasses hung up in a tiny pine tree just beside the trail. Wranglers from the lodge had caught and returned Travis and Otis, who were coated head to tail in thick, black mud. Odd.

Hooker asked where the cowboy had found the mules.

“Stuck in a bog,” the wrangler replied.

Hooker: “How’d you get them out?”

Wrangler: “You don’t want to know.”

Okay. All’s well that ends well.

Within the next couple days, Hooker and the lodge manager met on the trail. Hooker jovially suggested the guy invest in better-mannered stock. The manager just smiled and answered, “Well, at least you’ll always have a good story to tell!”

Indeed.

INGRID’S MULES

Ingrid Hooker said she and husband Pat have been together since 1997. She originally thought he was joking when he proclaimed he was getting a mule. Ingrid had owned an Appaloosa, Arabian, and a Pony of the Americas but switched to mules when Pat got Pepsi; because he hadn’t been joking.

Ingrid claimed Travis T-Bone as her personal mount. When he died from colic at age 24, she took Otis under her wing. They also enjoyed many good years together

Then one night Otis was turned out into his field, fit as a fiddle. The next morning he lay dead, apparently from either an aneurism or heart attack, at the young age (especially for a mule) of 18.

About three or four years ago, Ingrid acquired a 15.2 hh superb mule in Winchester, K. Appropriately named Chester for his hometown, he fit comfortably into Ingrid’s heart. She noted that everybody loves her great big brown john mule and his great disposition. Even the farrier is an avid fan of Ingrid’s third mule.

When Ingrid’s son from a previous marriage, Jake Busch, has visited, he’s ridden the mules. When Pat’s son, Jonathan, and his two boys visit from Grand Junction, Pepsi is their first choice. And when the St. Johns came for a 2018 visit, they also rode and packed on mules for a phenomenal trip up in the Flattops. The Hookers love sharing their well-trained animals with family and friends.

Michael and Janet St. John visit from North Carolina with their Colorado friends and customers, Pat and Ingrid Hooker, in 2018. They equally enjoy their backcountry time with Diesel, front mule, and Travis T-Bone, behind. Photo by Ingrid N. Hooker

Pat Hooker summed up his longtime, long-eared passion, “When you get a good saddle mule, they’ll spoil you. You’ll never go back to a horse.”

Currently devoted owners of five good saddle/pack mules, Pat and Ingrid Hooker are delightedly spoiled!

Michael and Janet St. John visit from North Carolina with their Colorado friends and customers, Pat and Ingrid Hooker, in 2018. Photo by Ingrid N. Hooker
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