| CHANGING PLANS Or How I Became a Mule Man)
Colonel (Ret.) Craig L. Carlson
It was August of 2007 when retirement plans began to gel and the old dream of owning a fine horse for riding the State Game Lands (SGL) of Pennsylvania began to materialize. My wife and I had purchased a beautiful property adjacent to 6000 acres of SGL and my heart leaped with youthful exuberance at the thought of reverting back to my childhood in Texas spent hunting, fishing, and riding horses with my father. After 27 years of military service and three plus years of work for a government contractor life was looking mighty fine.
I began a search for a Tennessee Walker with a nice gait that would not unduly challenge my existing back problems and not so tall as to strain my old rebuilt knee whilst climbing into the saddle. Yes, I thought, a Tennessee Walker was the right animal for me. Funny how things change… I met with an old friend and discussed my brilliant decision only to find him questioning my judgment. He asked, “What do you want this animal to do?” I stated that I wanted a gentle, bullet-proof-broke, not too tall, sure-footed, and sturdy horse that would be my “wheelchair” for hunting, scouting, and packing out game from the SGL. He smiled and said, “Sounds like what you are looking for is a hunting mule.” I thought he was kidding, I had never heard of a hunting mule nor did I believe I wanted to ride a long eared critter that didn’t have the panache of a Tennessee Walker; however, the more we talked the more sense he made.
It must be stated that my ego had taken several hits due to every injury I have ever had coming back to haunt me and the knowledge that some of my lifelong dreams about retirement activities were slipping away. Now, the thought of riding a mule instead of a fine horse was not just a little bit of a mind bender. So I began a year long study and search for proper mule education before I committed to a Tennessee Walker. I felt like a kid with money and a desire for a hot rod only to get the family station wagon.
The more research I did, including purchasing this magazine and others, the more my eyes were opened to another world of equines that seemed to not have existed in my experience. I went online to discover more and, by God, the more I read the more I learned and the more sense it made to get a test drive. The search for a good trained hunting mule was pretty easy, plenty of fine looking websites with over zealous invitations to purchase ‘the best of the best”. Some phone calls were made to various advertisers without a whole lot of success in finding that elusive perfect mule. A few places did not return calls, which I found strange for folks that want to sell anything but most of the folks were salt of the earth kind of people that would talk your ear off about mules. The love of mules was not just a little puppy love kind of thing; it was a bonfire of affection akin to religious zealotry. I didn’t understand it but found it intriguing all the same and I wondered what kind of madness could be at the bottom of this love of mules?
After stumbling upon a great website, an email to Jim Gamble of “Rancho Santiago” hit pay dirt. The thing that “sold” me on contacting Jim was his “Sold Mules” section, not only had his clients written praise about their mule, they communicated a friendship that oozed trust and a bond with “Rancho Santiago”. Some had written several times and most had sent pictures. That kind of relationship is not created by a bad experience, I immediately decided this was the guy I wanted to deal with. I had explained in my email to Jim that I was a retired Army colonel that was beginning to look into the possibility of purchasing a hunting mule and went on to explain why. Jim responded within a day with a very gracious email and invited me to call him at my convenience. First time we spoke I knew this guy was serious about customer satisfaction. He told me point blank that he did not have the right mule for me but that he would keep his eyes open and contact me when he found the right one. I told him I was in no hurry… figured this was the only one I would ever consider purchasing so I needed to give it a fair shot.
Three months later I got an email from Jim saying he believed he had found the perfect mule for me and sent me pictures of a critter named, “Red River Willie (RRW).” I wrote back that I would work my schedule so that I could visit the ranch and test drive RRW. He said he would reserve him until I could make it to the ranch. Over the next two months I got pictures and more information about RRW and two other mules that I might consider. When I shared my vision with my family they thought I was half crazy, I assured them they were half right. My mother stated, “Your father is rolling over in his grave.” You see, my father was a real cowboy that loved and rode giant quarter horses most of his life. He delighted in his favorite buckskinned horse appropriately named, Buck. I think every member of my family exercised their right to opine about my vision.
Finally, I was scheduled to make a business trip to Houston, Texas and decided to take some vacation time to travel to Lubbock, Texas to meet Jim Gamble and evaluate the three mules he had waiting for me. Jim was to meet me at the airport and take me out to the ranch where I would spend the next three days learning from the saddle about mule behavior and their capabilities. As my bag appeared on the conveyor, the man that I had never met before also appeared and we needed no introduction. We loaded my bag in his truck and drove sixty miles to the ranch. It was after ten o’clock in the evening when we arrived and we talked till three in the morning about anything and everything, smoked a good cigar, and drank a little Scotch. I had not laid eyes on RRW but Jim Gamble was already a friend.
The next morning, we made a hearty breakfast and had a couple cups of coffee and were joined by a real life character, gentleman, professional hunter, guide, and cowboy named Mike Dillard. After brief introductions we went out to meet the mules. It didn’t take long for me to realize that two of the critters were so tall that getting me on and off with my bad knee would be pretty exciting. RRW was the obvious choice at 14.5 hands. I walked into the corral and stood facing that long eared equine. After about 15 seconds he walked to me and I began rubbing his face, neck and scratching his ears, no ear problems, that was good news. The next ten minutes were spent rubbing his back, sides and working my way around him. When I got back to his nose I walked away and stood motionless, Willie came to me and nuzzled me. I repeated the process several times and soon Willie was following me around the corral about one step behind, when I stopped, he would stop. Jim appeared with a halter and lead rope which Willie accepted without any hesitation. I led him to the hitching post outside the corral and saddled him up.
Now Mike and Jim are no dummies, they had me take RRW to a round pin to warm him up and assess my riding skills. Of course, they didn’t tell me that but I figured they had had experience with novice riders and didn’t want to assume anything. After ten minutes we departed the pens and rode the fence line for a couple of hours. I must say, it was great!
As we were approaching the stable Jim asked, “Well Colonel, what do you think?” I said that I wouldn’t make a decision until I knew his limitations and capabilities; we needed to find a more challenging place to ride. We loaded the mules in a trailer and drove twenty minutes from the Ranch and unloaded the mules, tapped spur and were off to a canyon that would have fit any John Wayne western perfectly. They had me riding up and down inclines navigating thin trails connecting red earth outcroppings above the canyon floor within a few minutes. Then, as we rode along the canyon top Mike Dillard, mounted on one of the mules I was to evaluate, looked at me and Jim and said, “We are going down.” He wheeled his mule around, spurred him and they disappeared off a forty foot shear drop into the canyon. I looked at Jim and he said, “You know he’s certifiable.” As I rode to the edge of the cliff Mike had just reached the bottom and was coming to a stop, he wheeled back around and to my amazement said, “We’re coming back up.” At that moment, I realized that Mike was really crazy and mules were phenomenal. The mule climbed that cliff, hit the rim rock busting through it with his knees creating a red dust cloud, and came to a rest with half his body hanging off the cliff, the other half on his knees atop the cliff. Mike, nonplused by the situation, spurred him lightly once and that mule climbed the rest of the way and stood up. After closing my mouth, I looked at Jim and he said with a wink, “Colonel, you want to try that?” I just said, “Not today.” By the end of the day in that spectacular canyon I was climbing and descending terrain that I would have never dared to take a horse. To say I was sold is an understatement. RRW was mine by nightfall.
Transporting a mule from Texas to Pennsylvania might seem to be a real challenge but it’s not difficult when you deal with professionals. Willie arrived in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania in perfect health, rested for two days and we went on our first excursion, about a five mile ride. I have owned Willie for about 18 months and must say he has proven to be a great deal in about every way you can evaluate an equine… and yes, I get ribbed all the time about playing with my Willie. I don’t mind and if you want to talk about mules, just ask me and I’ll talk your ear off.