I have been informed many times in my life I’m as stubborn as a mule. Thank you. I take that as a complement.
I like mules. They are extremely intelligent, strong, protective, and gentle. It’s much easier to ride a mule than a horse, and the mule is always looking to make that ride as enjoyable as possible. A horse will try to scrape off a rider with a low hanging tree branch, while a mule will make room for you. A pig or a snake can easily spook a horse, whereas a mule will just acknowledge its presence and continue about its business.
I grew up with mules, and I even rode one to school for most of the third grade. I was about six or seven years old when I was braiding a bridle for the owner of the farm next to ours, and Curly came into the barn to watch me for a while. Curly was the smallest of our four plow mules, but at over seventeen hands high, he wasn’t exactly small. He, and Moe, Larry, and Shemp, were bred from a Mammoth Jack and Percheron crossing, so small is a bit relative. But Curly was always the most curious of the four.
After looking over my shoulder for a few minutes, Curly walked over to the wall where an ancient McClellan saddle was hanging on a peg, grabbed it with his teeth, and dropped it beside me. Then he knelt down and nudged the saddle a little closer to me. I couldn’t believe it. He was telling me he wanted to go for a ride. He was a plow mule and had never been ridden in his life. I had him stand back up while I went in search of a saddle blanket, bridle, and anything else I might need to make this work.
I couldn’t find much of anything I needed to take Curly out for a ride, but I did find an old piece of rug that would serve as a saddle blanket. Trial and error finally succeeded in saddling Curly, and he knelt back down so I could climb on. I didn’t have a bridle and reins, but I could grab onto his mane, and he knew all the plowing commands for right, left, go, and stop (Gee, Haw, Giddup, Whoa), so I thought I could make this work.
There was a learning curve for both of us. The first time I said “Giddup,” Curly lurched forward like he was in the plow harness, and I discovered the barn floor wasn’t very soft. But we tried again and again until we understood how the process would work for us. It was a great summer riding Curly around whenever he wasn’t pulling the plow, but when school started, our fun was quickly curtailed and confined to the weekends.
It took a while for me to find out just how Curly got the idea of being ridden. After I completed the bridle for farm owner next to ours, Levi (the owner) told me Curly had spent a lot of time watching him ride his horses. Each time he would saddle up, Curly would come over to the fence to study the process.
School was a few miles away, and usually I walked both directions, although on occasion someone would take pity on the little kid walking along the dirt road and give him a ride. But it was a long walk (10 miles uphill both directions and always snowing). I left home about 5:30 each morning and usually returned about 5:30 in the evening. Then there was the homework.
I don’t know why I didn’t notice the hitchin’ rails in front of the school until the year was almost over, but the next year, I decided to ride Curly to school one morning. Curly wasn’t really needed until spring plowing began again, so, Why Not? When I arrived, I tied him to the rail and went into the classroom.
My school was a 4-room building. Grades 1 and 2 were together. 3 and 4, 5 and 6, 7 and 8. Two grades per room. This was my first time in the 3rd and 4th grade room, and my first time with this teacher. About two hours into the morning, she called me aside to ask about my mule. “Does he have food and water?” I hadn’t thought about these things.
Mrs. Stephenson (I don’t remember her name, but this one works) brought me out to her truck where she peeled a flake from a bail of hay she had. We brought it along with Curly to the old barn in back of the school where she placed him in a stall, gave him the hay, and filled a bucket with water for his thirst.
“David, every two hours I want you to check on him. It doesn’t matter what we are doing in class, just make sure your mule is happy. I’ll bring a couple of hay bails tomorrow, but after that, you will need to provide something for him to eat.”
Wow. I thought I was going to be in trouble for riding my mule to school, but it turned out everyone was jealous of me, including the teacher. I never did need to bring food for him to eat. Someone, and I never found out who it was, always brought hay and feed for Curly.
When my third grade ended, so did my time with Curly. We sold the mules and bought a tractor. My parents moved into the city and I changed schools. My grandfather still had the farm, and I would visit on weekends and summers, but it was never the same after the mules were sold.