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2012-01-05

Mules Only Trail Ride at HCSNA reflects trend of saddle mule riding

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

The words of the old song have it right - "the old grey mule, she ain't what she used to be." In fact, she's better and more popular than ever.

Witness the fact that around 40-45 head of mules and their enthusiastic owners participated in the Annual Mule Gathering held last week at Hill Country State Natural Area (HCSNA).

Mule fans came from all over the country to enjoy swapping mule stories, fellowship over pot-luck suppers, and ride their beautiful animals across the trails of HCSNA.

Rick Bousfield, owner of Huckleberry Stables in Pineville, Missouri, headed up the trail ride and gathering along with Lois Carroll, manager of MulesOnly, a Yahoo interest group. Participants included mule devotees from Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, New Mexico and Kentucky.

"We have a gathering every winter," said Bousfield. "It's a 4-5 day ride that starts the day after Christmas."

This was the group's first gathering at HCSNA, but they have had several in Texas. "Many of us come from up north, so we like coming down here for the warmth," said Bousfield, who is also a Winter Texan, staying at the Twin Elm Ranch RV park for the season.

This group of mule lovers started small, said Bousfield, with only four or five trailers, but word has spread through the internet and the group keeps growing.

Both Bousfield and Carroll reported that everyone has enjoyed the Bandera ride and they may schedule future trail rides in the future. "We like Bandera," said Bousfield, "because the people are just small town people like us." The riders particularly liked the variety and ruggedness of the trails in the equine-centric state park.

Carroll got started with mules when "my horses got old and died, and I was old and decrepit, so I needed something safer to ride."

Bousfield used mules for coon hunting in the Ozarks and then began breeding them.

"Mules are safe, sure-footed animals," said Carroll. "They will look after you, because they look after themselves!"

"They also don't eat as much as a horse and are not as susceptible to disease," added Bousfield.

Due to the growing popularity of riding, or pleasure, mules, prices have gone up, but "a good mule will probably not cost as much as a good horse."

Most mule sales today are for riding mules, but there are areas of the country and the world where mules are the pack animal of choice. The Amish still use mule teams to pull plows, but most American farmers switched over to tractors by the mid-20th century. Bandera's own Kelly Scott is one of the few who still use mules as draft animals to pull wagons or stagecoaches.

Robert Hollis, from Texas, came home from Afghanistan, loaded up his mules and headed to Bandera for the gathering.

Mary Rose Randall had mules since the 80s. She and husband, Steve, worked for the California state park service for over 20 years. "I took my mule to volunteer in the park, and that was the first mule used in the park service," she said. "I took some ribbing at first. People would say, 'Can't afford a horse?' and stuff. At that time few people had seen mules or knew anything about them."

It's not at all unusual for a mule to be useful for 30 to 35 years, said Randall. And they can live for well over 40 years.

Steve has a mule, Ebony, that he has owned for 22 years. "Mules bond with their owners," Mary Rose explained. "If we go for a walk, Ebony will come up behind and stick her head between us to push us apart.
Then she gives me dirty looks and gives Steve these adoring looks!"

Today, the Randalls call New Mexico home, where they operate Randall Leather, producing horse and mule related tack items and repairs. They can be found at randal-leather.com.

The mule fanciers are also convinced that mules recognize people, other mules and horses after being separated from them.

The Randalls admire mules for their common sense, "which they get from their donkey daddies," and their toughness. "They're survivalists. You can trust them to take care of you, because they take care of themselves."

Mules are the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. All male mules and most female mules are infertile. They come in all sizes, from mini to maxi, and a variety of colors.

They are tough animals with harder skin and hooves than horses and show a natural resistance to disease and insects. Besides being intelligent, mules tend to be curious by nature.

They can defend themselves by striking out with their hooves, even sideways if needed.

Today's American mule breeding practices descend from the American Mammoth Jacks started by George Washington with the gift of two Catalan donkeys from the King of Spain. Saddle mules now compete in Western and English pleasure riding, dressage and show jumping.

In rugged areas of the world, mules still serve as pack animals. The United States military uses mules to transport weapons and supplies over Afghanistan's rugged terrain.

The internet is an excellent source of information about mules and mule trail rides. Western Mule Magazine is a good print source. Or go to MulesOnly@yahoogroups.com for information about upcoming rides and mule information from mule lovers like Lois Carroll.

Pictured:
Top: Bcc Staff Photo by Carolyn B Edwards

Mary Bloodsworth's three mules, Blue, Fran and Frog enjoy supper and visiting after a day of trailriding. Frog got his name after being startled by a frog while going through a gate. "It was just funny," said Bloodsworth, "to see a hog-hunting mule scared of a frog!"

Middle: Lois Carroll and Rick Bousfield love to tell people
about their favorite animals - those handsome, tough, gentle, smart and loving mules.

Bottom: This grey mule relaxing at the Chapa's House barn after a day of trail riding at Hill Country State Natural Area is an example of the growing trend in pleasure, or riding, mules.