All novice equestrians are coached to remain calm and try not to show any sign of fear or anxiety because horses are prone to pick up on such emotions and become more nervous and spookier themselves.
While this information rarely helps to relax a beginner rider, it’s still very useful knowledge to have when dealing with horses and even more so with mules, who tend to be even more sensitive to their handler’s feelings. A handler in a hurry is usually interpreted by equines as a problem of some sort that they might not want to be involved with. If you really want to slow down or stop a mule, just get yourself worked up into a big hurry about something and try to impose your need to be in a rush on your mule.
This isn’t so much true about a mule being ridden. They’re accustomed to being ridden fast and a good mule enjoys that sort of action as much as anyone. It’s when working from the ground like loading them into a horse trailer or other such activities that are usually conducted in a relaxed, calm fashion that they become suspicious of being rushed.
My mules are some of the best and most cooperative I’ve ever known. They all come when called, stand for haltering and can’t wait to jump into a horse trailer. I won’t own a problematic animal or even allow one in a pasture with mine.
Problems such as being difficult to catch or difficult to keep fenced in seem to be very contagious. My mules like to go out riding and they cooperate in every way to help make this happen. Some will even start picking up halters off the ground and basically “ask” to come along. My main mule, Zeb, has also learned to fetch my hat when I throw it for him. He likes me and trusts me about as much as is possible for a mule.
Inspired by the lovable character “Deets” from my all-time favorite Western novel Lonesome Dove, I decided I should always have a sewing needle handy. The freed slave, Deets, always carried a large needle tucked into his pants for the constant repairs required by his worn-out pants and for the occasional surgical needs that arise when one keeps the company of Texas Rangers. He probably saved Ranger Jake’s life by digging out a mesquite thorn from the delirious Jake’s swollen thumb, resulting from the mesquite thorn’s poison.
I rarely wear work gloves and so am constantly looking for needles to dig slivers and thorns out of my hands. This, along with the potential that I may someday need to sew something, prompted me to start carrying a needle. Not trusting my luck with a needle poking anywhere through my jeans, I opted to stash it in my hat band instead.
One morning, after having just dug a few cactus spines out of the palm of my hand from a bad landing off a mountain bike, I went out to pet my mules. As they approached, I threw my hat out onto the ground, spinning it to make it land upright so Zeb could pick it up by the crown instead of crimping the brim and slathering the inside with saliva. Zeb bent down to pick it up as usual but stopped mid motion and then instead started sniffing around the brim. He apparently smelled the slight traces of my blood, or maybe traces of the infection from the festered spines on the needle stuck in my hatband. With an unbelievable dexterity of his lips rivaling that of a surgeon’s fingers, he carefully plucked the tiny needle from my hat band and I watched in horror as it disappeared into his mouth.
Now had it been a cow swallowing that needle, I wouldn’t have given two hoots. Not only have I never been so attached to a cow as I am to Zeb, but the needle probably wouldn’t have posed much threat to a cow. I’ve seen ranchers and even veterinarians poke an unsterile pocket knife into the bloated gut of a cow to release the gas without causing infection and with full recovery. Such a poke would be a death sentence to an equine. They are far more prone to systemic infections in their digestive tracts and might not survive the painful passage of a needle without expensive and doubtful surgery.
I had no lead rope nor even belt with me. I thought about taking off my shirt to put around his neck but decided that might be enough out of character to raise suspicion. If I did anything wrong right now my best friend would likely jog away watching me over his shoulder as he swallowed the needle. The thought of that filled my head with an explosion of adrenaline as I tried to approach one of the world’s best lie detectors, acting as though I hadn’t a worry in the world. Typically, once I threw my hat out for him, I would generally ignore him, refusing to feed or pet him, until he retrieved my hat. So just approaching him like that was already a breach in protocol that could make him suspicious.
Routine and protocol are very important to mules. Having been close friends with Zeb for almost 15 years, since he was a baby, I still need to go through certain formalities with every fresh encounter. Even when he comes running to me, anxious to go for a ride, I still need to respect his space until invited into it. If I were to be in a hurry and try to just halter him right off the bat, he would likely step back and question my intentions. No, I must first hold my hand out to sniff as one might do with a stray dog, even though he obviously knows who I am or wouldn’t have come running up in the first place. Once he reaffirms my odor, he will drop his head to have his ears scratched and then rise up to shake his head vigorously before wanting the halter put on.
I managed to keep my hands calm and confident as I let him sniff me and then scratched him along his muzzle just below his eyes as most mules like. He dropped his head for me to rub his ears, as usual, which I did, but I kept a hand on his muzzle when he rose up again to keep him from shaking his head as he normally would in response to ear scratching. I didn’t want to lose track of the needle during his shaking action. Even If he shook it out of his mouth, I’d never see it and would have had to proceed as though he had swallowed it. I continued rubbing his muzzle as I started working the fingers of my other hand into the corner of his mouth. As I reached around his limp, sponge-like tongue, I knew this was the moment of truth.
Equines have various vulnerable spots that allow a handler to immobilize large animals with minimum effort. Young horses can often be frozen in place by flexing their tail up over their back – but not always. A little more effective, but almost sure to make a horse head shy, is twisting down an ear. A good bite on the upper lip will immobilize almost any horse, mule, or donkey and, although I’ve been guilty of hanging off a horse’s lip like a bulldog, most folks use a pinching tool called a twitch for this. Pulling a horse’s tongue out to the side and hanging on is supposed to be another immobilization technique that I’d seen before but had never tried. Zeb had always been such a good boy that he’d never had to experience any sort of effort to restrain him and I was afraid that any such effort now might be sufficiently alien as to make him panic. I managed to get a hold of his sponge-like tongue without any abrupt or spooky movements and hang on to it as calmly as I could, trying to make this strange behavior seem as routine as possible.
He pulled back, stretching out his tongue with its weird feeling of soft, rubbery flesh and very weak muscles, but he did so slowly and carefully as I continued petting and reassuring him with my other hand and with my voice as I choked back my own panic. He was just starting to relax back toward me when I saw the needle on the side of his tongue just about to disappear back into his mouth as he slowly leaned toward me. I managed to pull just hard enough to keep his tongue out without causing him to sit back again and smoothly slid my free hand across his muzzle to retrieve the needle.
Zeb continued standing there looking somewhat puzzled and curious as I stood staring at the needle and feeling the relief wash away the adrenaline. I was weak in the knees – exhausted by the weight of the tiny needle I held so tightly between my thumb and forefinger.