Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Arrival of Ellie Mae the Mule, Backward-Dancing Super Star

I have always wanted a long-eared friend, and this weekend Ellie Mae the mule was delivered right to my doorstep! Saint Francis Horse Rescue & Retirement let me adopt her, and I've been grinning like a little kid ever since.

Ellie is 18 years old, a big girl at about 15 hands, and just as sweet as can be. She will sidle right up, demanding scratches, and then lean into you a bit, as if hugging you! There are no problems catching this cuddle-bug, particularly if she hears the sound of a carrot bag crinkling. I just love the way her muzzle fades from light to dark. And of course, those ears. I love those ears. When she shakes her head hard, they clap together!!

 Ellie has pretty good conformation for a mule. Mules that I've seen have always been very butt-high. Ellie is only very slightly so, plus she has a little bit of wither (compared to many totally mutton-withered mules) and a comparatively nice hip. I love her dainty, rock-solid hooves. Interestingly, like a donkey's they are not only upright and boxy, they have very small, shallow frogs.

Ellie settled in very quickly. Mr. Strut acted like a jerk at first, but he doesn't really like anybody, and he backed off pretty quickly. Annie and the pony made instant friends with their new mule buddy. Ellie was soon rolling around in the mud, happily trotting across the field and generally enjoying herself.

Today I took Ellie on our first ride together, and boy was it interesting.

From the start, Ellie was a little hard to lead out of the gate. She was a bit pushy, and lunged after patches of grass like a starving hippo. We had to have a small discussion about that. I quickly found out that Ellie does not like to be pulled. Ellie agreed that I was in charge, but I had to agree not to pull her. Asking with small tugs worked fine-- but pulling resulted in her setting her feet like a stubborn... uh... mule.

We worked on the leading thing, and Ellie got much better within ten minutes. Hah, testing me! Then we moved onto longeing. Or at least, I moved on to longeing, and Ellie stared at me like I'd suddenly grown horns. Was this another test? Nope, I don't think so. Ellie just isn't all that familiar with longeing. I spent the next while teaching Ellie some basics, backing off when she seemed to be getting worked up. Finally, it was time to mount up.

Okay, I confess, I tried to hop on her bareback at first. Yes, I'm an idiot. That experiment ended quickly when Ellie wouldn't stand still for mounting, and when I did finally get on, she instantly moved and I instantly came off the other side. I landed on my feet, but my brain woke up and said, "Hey idiot, it's been a long time since you've ridden bareback, and maybe your first ride ever on this critter shouldn't be bareback." I don't know, it was a moment of spring fever insanity or something. So I went to get a saddle.

She didn't want the saddle. The blanket was fine, but she knew what the saddle meant: work. Even after she'd had time to sniff it and get used to it, she skittered sideways circles when I went to put it on. I don't like to tie a horse the first time I do stuff with them, just in case there's a bad reaction, but I eventually had to tie her to saddle her (using a quick-release knot folks!). She did pull back, but not too alarmingly, and when she'd settled down I got the saddle on. Even though I cinched slowly, she did the balloon imitation trick. Do NOT knee a horse that does this, they will just become  more cinchy! I waited and did other stuff between tightenings... like putting on the bridle.

Ellie didn't want the bridle either and pointed her nose skyward. Hah, smarty pants! The key to foiling this trick is patience. It takes quite a bit of effort for a horse to hold her head up that high. Eventually they will lower their heads, and then you pop the bit in. Of course Ellie did clench her teeth, but what you do then, boys and girls, is hook a thumb in the toothless gum space and press down gently.

She chewed the plain snaffle quite a bit, so I'm thinking I might try a curb next time (I was told that's what she'd been ridden in, I just wanted to try a non-leverage bit first). I had to adjust the bridle quite a bit, which she was pretty patient about.

This time she was ok for mounting. The second I had my right foot in the stirrup, however, she walked off towards her new buddies. Thus, our adventure began in earnest.

I swear to God almighty, we spent more time going backwards than forwards. It was actually totally hilarious. I would pick a direction and ask Ellie to walk that way. If this direction was not back towards her new buddies, one of two things would happen: Ellie would back up, or Ellie would push forward and I'd have to bend her in a circle. Very often, we'd end up backing in a circle. Eventually, we'd get where I'd wanted us to go... just very, very indirectly.

I have to give the girl credit: despite her stubbornness, Ellie did not once offer to buck, rear or even crowhop. Even when I resorted to tapping her butt with a rein, she behaved like a lady. And holy crap can she bend! I have never seen such a sure-footed, flexible animal. Ellie can sidepass to the right while simultaneously backing up and bending her head so far to the left, she can touch my elbow. She might be a mule, but she's all pretzel! After I got over my initial fear that she was going to flip out, I quite enjoyed myself. Riding Annie is lovely... but sometimes it's like bending rebar. Heavy, stiff and slow. Ellie was the opposite; light on her feet, supple, like dancing. Except, you know, a bit more frustrating.

I did eventually get Ellie to walk down the road a bit, and it was then, heading away from home, that I finally got to hear the famous bray for the first time. I will never forget my shock. It was... it was... okay, it was like this:

Imagine a lion, a donkey and a horse are watching television together. You hear a laugh track on the comedy program. Then it suddenly cuts out, to be replaced by loud static and white noise. Angrily, the lion roars at the donkey, the horse whinnies in fright, and the donkey yells. The lion rumbles, and then all the noise stops.

I gasped and bent over in the saddle I was laughing so hard!

I will keep you posted on how Ellie and I progress, but there's other exciting news as well. Diego, the black stallion (now gelding) that I helped rescue last year was adopted by one of my friends, and was kindly delivered to her house by Saint Francis on the same day Ellie arrived at my own farm. Saint Francis gelded him, vetted him, trained him up and now I get to see him again! I'll be over there to take pictures and report on his own settling-in. Next, after entering a MWHF raffle, I won a "Reiki" Distant Healing session with one of those new-age psychic people. I look forward to telling you all about the silliness lol!!

Don't forget to friend North Horse Blog on Facebook for funny pictures, news updates and more. I always celebrate Annie's birthday with a prize drawing or contest of some sort, so stay tuned for that as well!


  1. Oh she's lovely, and I want one....:)

  2. I laughed so hard I am crying. OMG - she IS a pretzel. Adventures with Ellie Mae!

  3. This is great!!! Love the diagram! :)

  4. Mules like a routine, and NEVER EVER hit them with your hand. They do well with a military like precision. I learned that from a muleteer, also you might want to spend a little money for a "Breechum/Britchum" strap, they are all a little butt high and need it if going into hilly areas to keep the saddle from sliding forward.
    You can get fly masks with longer ears especially for mules.

    She is darling and your blog I think makes the Fugly (probably dead) blog seem like apples to oranges..

  5. Looking forward to a new post :)