Starting this spring I found myself in a pickle. I had some good, old mules that we’d been using for years. Reliable, trustworthy, always ready. The problem was, four of them had gotten a lot older than I realized. So, it was time for some new mules. In the course of my mule hunting I came across some pretty cheap mules near Missoula. They looked good and seemed nice enough, and the guy said they just “needed a little work”. This assessment turned out to be very optimistic. However, at the time I felt like I got a great deal and headed home with 4 shiny new mules. Jenny, Abby, Mack, and Cooper.
When I got them home the first thing I found out is that besides being able to halter them, they’d not have anything else done. Never, saddled, never had shoes on, never nothing. Now, there is a country mile between “catchable” and “packable”. These were full grown mules who really wanted nothing to do with saddles, packs, or anything remotely resembling work. We had a fundamental disconnect between expectations. I soldiered on though, spending many afternoons trying to coax at least the nice one (Jenny) to let me get a saddle on her. The other 3 I couldn’t do anything with at all. No matter what, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. Worse yet, I was getting closer to needing these mules to start working. In despair I cast out to some friends and colleagues looking for advice. I ended up settling on calling a young couple in Augusta who had a little horse breaking business. I described the situation I was in, and what I needed done. Elyssa, the lady, assured me that they could handle my wingnut mules. My wife asked me later that day what my plan was for these wild mules, I told her they were going to “mule camp”. I think her initial reaction was that the mules would be sitting around campfires with other mules, singing songs and eating s’mores. I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to turn out, but I needed some working mules fast. So, in late June Abby and Jenny went off to mule camp.
The first thing they teach at mule camp is respect. They must face you when you get in the corral, they must not kick, no kicking at mule camp, standing still during saddling, and much more. A lot of time is spent working with desensitization and getting used to unexpected events.
The second thing they teach at mule camp is boundaries and rules. Rule #1 is “thou shalt not run away ever”. Mule camp also get a lot of time in a string so they get used to ropes around buttocks, legs, necks, etc. The kinds of things they will experience on the trail. They also get their feet picked up and fiddled with, all in the spirit of desensitization. All of these activities go on for a couple of hours each day, 7 days a week. Mule camp is intense quality time.
Mules are really smart, and it’s fascinating to see them learn so quickly. They only get themselves in sticky situations once, then they remember what got them there and avoid future recurrences. We could tell the things emphasized at mule camp by the way Abby and Jenny reacted to events on our first trip with them. Of course, we had the usual stuff mules do, but they had solid fundamentals. They went on every summer trip as soon as they came home and all the fall hunts. Cooper and Mack went to a later session of mule camp, with similar results. Because they went so late in the year, I was not able to get them as much work after camp. But they seem to have all the requisite fundamentals as well.
I’m not set up for breaking green stock like that, so I’ve not had to bring green mules like this from zero to useful. Usually, our packstock has the basics and we need to get them more acclimated or often work out some bad habits. These 4 mules were much different. I look forward to many good years with us for Jenny, Abby, Cooper and Mack after our first collective experience at mule camp.