Mules seem to come in two flavors . . . good or bad, with not much room for in between. Billie Jean was one of the good ones,
though when I started her, the two of us sometimes seemed like two fence posts colliding.
I was starting colts out of semi-rundown public stables in New Mexico when one of the boarders asked if I would start their mule.
When I was younger and dumber, I would ride anything that was single toed and hair covered so I agreed. The groundwork went smoothly, and she was handling really light in the driving lines. All that changed with the first ride.
It seemed that the round corral was as far away from her mother as she had ever been. It also just happened that the round corral was a two-rail affair, with rotted rails and posts. After warming her up in the driving lines, I swung aboard and things started out
smoothly . . . til I switched direction. It was then she decided she wanted to check with her mother to see if this new activity was acceptable, and she ran through the round pen, breaking two rails and a post.
Just by chance, my good friend Wendell was there. Of course he thought this was the funniest thing he ever saw. Since the round
corral was inoperable at this point, I switched to plan B. I stepped off of Billie Jean and led her to the arena, which just happened to be next to the pen she lived in with her mother. Of course when I stepped back on her, the first thing she did was check with mother
again. I had her head pulled around to my left knee and was thumping on her inside rump to get her to turn but all that accomplished
was putting me on a runaway mule that could’nt see where she was going. Luckily, this fence was a little stronger than the round corral and had woven wire under the rub rails, so even though we did manage to break another post, the fence remained up, less or more. Because Billie Jean could’nt actually get though the fence and hadn’t thought about trying to jump it, she just ran up and down the fence, looking for a hole and trying to rub my legs off. By now I was going to be semi-satisfied with her just stopping.
Of course by this point, going through the side of the round corral had dropped to number two on Wendells list of funniest things, and he was literally rolling on the ground laughing at me. After a few minutes of running up and down the fence, she finally ran all the way to the corner, and I managed to get her stopped and stepped off of her. Still laughing, Wendell started giving me instructions
about what I was doing wrong. It only took half a second for me to ask him to show me how to do it right. He proved one thing.
Perspective sure changes the situation because watching him have the wreck had me rolling on the ground laughing.
Changing gears, we saddled a broke horse, and Wendell ponied me around the arena a few times and turned me loose. Once we got her convinced that she wasn’t hooked to the pony horse, I was over the hump. Now at the time, I had fifteen colts I was riding. To decrease the amount of ribbing I got about riding a mule, Billie Jean was worked early in the morning before anyone was around.
Other than the occasional spook when she would become an iron-jawed freight train,she was a really fun ride. A lot of these new age
trainers are convincing people that all you have to do to prevent a runaway is to teach them the single-rein stop. This works pretty good in the arena, but when youre in the brush, on a levee or between a fence and the pavement, this method is a little hazardous to try. You either crash off the levee or into a tree (or car) or maybe just slam-dunk your ride to the ground, using yourself as a landing mat.
I’d been riding Billie jean outside about two weeks when she first pulled her locomotive trick. There was plenty of area to ride out, but
to get there, I had to ride a quarter mile down the road (past a taxidermy shop), cross a main highway and two bridges over irrigation canals. On the near fatal morning, I was starting to cross the first bridge when Billy Jean spotted something a she hadn’t seen before: four people jogging towards us with their dogs. She spun around so hard, my hat popped off, and I heard the squealing of tires on the pickup she ran in front of, and the race was on. By the time we reached the stables, she was down to a collected lope with her head set, but she still had no conception of the word whoa. As we went by the stable, I noticed her owner putting out feed, so I waved back at her. Not knowing we were in a semi-controlled runaway, she commented to me that night about how good Billie Jean was doing.
The second close call was in the brush where no one could see. I was working a little with another trainer, and I’d told him about my
mule situation. Being helpful, he showed me a little trick using draw reins and hooking them to the buckle of the cinch. Now I didn’t think anything about it until a few mornings later. Billy Jean was enjoying her jaunt along the Rio Grande, and everything was fine until
she was accosted by mule-eating mallards.
Once again she wheeled around and headed off, this time through the brush and trees, at mach twelve. As if bouncing off trees and having my face whipped by branches wasn’t enough to contend with, I couldn’t seem to get the slack pulled out of the reins. Finally I
came to the end of the rein and had a snap in my hand. Mentally cussing the cheap snap for coming loose, we finally came to a stop wedged in a thicket of tamarack. As I started to step off, the saddle felt just a little loose so I sort of hopped off, being braced by the brush. That was when I discovered that the snap hadn’t come loose, but the cinch had un-buckled itself and was hanging a good six inches below the mules belly. (Needless to say, Im a quick learner and never tried that method again.)
Something seemed to click with her, and she never gave me any more problems. In fact, by the end of three months, she was burying
her butt to stop and turning on a dime. Her owners really loved the way she handled about anything they threw at her. That is until they went out to a friends to work cows. Several miles out from the house, Billie Jean saw her first cow and turned back into the steel-jawed locomotive that didn’t stop until she was back at the house. For some reason, they didn’t try working cows on her after that.
I did get to work with her one more time. I had somehow got mixed up in being the field rep on movie sets for the ASPCA. It was kind of a neat job for a while because I could ride horses I had in training on movie sets and get paid both for riding the colts and making sure the movie animals were being treated humanely. They needed a gentle mule that would pack and didn’t know where to find one. I called Billie Jeans owners and asked them if they would be interested in leasing her out.
I picked her up a few days before she was actually needed and rode her on the set to get her used to all of the activity. She handled it like a pro. In fact, the first time she was led behind a covered wagon I rode inside the wagon, and she kept sticking her head inside looking for something to eat. After following the wagon around for several days, the script called for the wagon train to come to an impassable spot and for the contents of the wagons to be loaded onto the teams and packed off. This is where Billie
Jean proved just how sensitive and sensible a mule can be. Loaded with all sorts of odd objects such as baskets and chairs, Billie Jean followed the woman leading her with no hesitation; then she stopped the scene. As I was on a horse directly above her and just out of the shot, I saw exactly what happened.
The woman leading her was walking directly in front of her, her long dress dragging behind. About halfway through the scene, Billie Jean accidentally stepped on the dress. The woman took a step forward and the dress stretched tight. Well, Billie Jean felt the earth
trying to pull out from under her foot and stopped. The woman stopped as well when her dress got tight. Rather than try to back the
mule off of her dress, she started trying to get Billie Jean to come forward by pulling on her. The director yelled, Cut. Between trying to pull an eleven hundred pound mule statue forward with her dress underneath said statue, the woman received her just rewards and fell on her face, towards Billie Jean. At this point, Billie Jean took exactly one step back and waited for the woman to get up.
Several people, including one self-proclaimed equine expert, insisted they not use the mule because she was too dangerous.
Once I got my laughter under control, I tried explaining what had happened. The expert (who was an extra for the scene) had almost convinced the director how dangerous this mule was. I let them know that I was the one who had originally started her under saddle
and that I had been closely watching her. The next take, the woman leading Billie Jean did as I advised and kept her dress from
dragging in back of her and Ol Billie Jean was as perfect as ever. If I ever start any more mules, I hope they are as good as she was.
This story is an excerpt from my book A Million to One Odds (times five) available on Amazon.