Happiness is Mind-numbing Routine
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Amy has her two mules here at OAS. She's been here for years and we love her. Ronnie
Happiness is Mind-numbing Routine
Happiness is Mind-numbing Routine
My daily riding routine is streamlined, every motion repeated exactly as the day before. I already know which saddle I will use, which pad, girth, and bridle—down to the exact hole that every buckle prong belongs in.
My biggest decision is mule selection and in my way to the tack room I’m thinking it over: one mule or two? Which to ride and which to pony?
After I’ve made my choice I head to the corral with a halter and lead. I yell “MULE!” and as I reach the gate usually I am rewarded by a double-barrel bray. The hardest part inside of the gate is fighting off the errant mule who doesn’t get to go.
As I emphasize each time I introduce a new recruit to the back of a mule, equine safety is built around detailed habits and routines. All of these rules and procedures seem inane to the uninitiated. There is a “near side” and an “off side,” I proclaim, and we mount and dismount from the near side. Yes, it matters that the girth is attached before the breast collar. No, you should never tie a mule by the reins. And so on.
My saddling routine, which only takes two or three minutes if I’m motivated to maximize my riding time, goes as follows:
I run a brush quickly over where the saddle and girth will go. Next I peek at each hoof, clean out stones if I see any, and run my hand down each leg to check for any bump or hot spot hidden under the thick coat of hair. If all is well I can do this from the near side, saving an extra trip around the mule. Next I set a thick felt pad on the chosen mule’s withers. I set my saddle on the pad then slide them both back with my left hand until I can feel my right hand fit between the mule’s shoulder bump and the front line of the saddle. Then buckle the girth and move back to the crupper. It is polite to take time and generously scratch a mule’s tail base before slapping a cold crupper under it. It is also polite to carefully guide the bit around his teeth and gently tuck his ears between the crown and the browband, giving them each a scratch as well.
Once my mule is tacked up I tack myself up—a helmet and chaps, a reflective vest if I think I’ll be heading back to the barn on the road after dark. In the summer I put a water bottle in my saddlebag and in the fall I don a tasteful amount of blaze orange. During our glorious nine-month winter I add an ear band, balaclava, thin and thick gloves, a silk neck scarf, and, if it is exceptionally wild out, ski goggles. This is Wyoming, after all. We have the lowest population density in the lower forty-eight for a reason.
On my way out of the barn I pocket some mule treats, an emergency cell phone, and a collar-controller for my enthusiastic canine companion. Before I hop on I loop the lead line twice around my mule’s neck, tie the end off, and snug up the girth. I hold a dressage whip in my right hand if I’m riding solo or a cotton lead attached to mule #2 if I’m taking a buddy along.
I can get from the driver’s seat of my truck to the driver’s seat of my mule in less than 10 minutes. This is no haphazard procedure, however. Each element has been carefully chosen, modified, and maintained. I have made the mistake of leaving off the crupper on flat rides, for example, only to find that working mule tails, like hard working hands, need to callus up. After a precipitous ride last spring in the Nebraska sand hills my poor mule, Max, had a nasty raw spot under his tail for a week. Now I buckle on the cupper for every ride. The girth I use has a similar chronicle—it was preceded by a series of girths, not all necessarily inexpensive, that rubbed, pinched, and prematurely wore out. The girth I use now is field-tested to the max. It may not be the girth for everyone but it is the girth for me.
Our kitchen is commonly strewn with an accretion of mule attire and an arsenal of hot water, murphy’s oil soap, sponges, rags, and saddle butter. There is nothing so comforting to me as the smell of freshly oiled leather and nothing more pleasing to my eye as a clean, shiny bridle. But more importantly, all of this fussing and polishing is another essential part of my equine routine.
After high school I worked a few seasons grooming race horses. As a groom at the horse track I was the fall guy for every dirty, repetitive chore imaginable. The one thing I was never asked to do, however, was to clean riding tack. Saddles, girths, bits, and bridles are the sole responsibility of those who depend on them. At the racetrack jockeys and exercise riders, who would never deign to touch a halter, are nonetheless seen after their morning rides oiling up a row of bridles. This is the equine equivalent of “always pack your own parachute.”
Cleaning tack serves the same purpose as running a hand down every mule leg before every ride. It not only makes your expensive treasure trove of tack last longer and look better, it makes you slow down and inspect every little strap. Chances are that little loose screw that attaches your cheekpiece to the bit is going to pop apart when you are most counting on it being there.
Good daily habits; clean, serviceable tack: these are necessary but not sufficient. Between your mule’s ears is the most important item you will need to maintain in order to ride safely and have fun. Training and maintaining mule brains, especially for those of us who are not natural-born mule whisperers, can be a tedious process. Progress comes in tiny increments. It is easy to get fired up sitting on the couch watching do-it-yourself training videos. I visualize myself—the next Buck Brannaman or Brad Cameron—subtlety indicating which way my studious mule should turn with a shift in my position, reacting perfectly to every glint in his attentive eye. Out in the round pen, though, I am very glad that no one is watching me as I fumble around trying to get my act together. I whisper mostly under my breath and often measure my progress in not losing ground.
Eventually, though, matched with the right mule, and not too proud to acquire some professional help from time to time, I have made progress. My mules and I have agreed on some ground rules—no pushing or shoving, move nicely away from pressure, stand still as I mount. We practice our one-rein stop until it is second nature. Nothing too highflalutin here, just polite hard-won good habits.
A few years ago watched a fellow boarder jump bareback onto his prancing horse and ride off across the sunlit prairie, blithely holding just the end of a lead rope. Such a lovely sight, I thought; horse and rider, casual, unencumbered, and free. I envied him as I tacked up and headed to the arena to work my mule through a lesson. The same repetitive, seemingly-simple lesson we had been working on for what felt like a very long, boring time. How unsexy, I thought.
As I was walking back to the corral a riderless horse flashed by, leadline flying as he careened around the corner of the barn. I drove my old Toyota Camry out onto the prairie and eventually found our Xenophon lying among the sage. I scraped his unencumbered butt off the ground and drove him to the E.R. Like me, he probably watched too many Pat Parelli videos on Youtube—he just missed the golden rule of “proper prior preparation.”
Good riders make cantering off into the sunset look effortless. But behind every happy, fun, safe ride is an accumulation of mind-numbing routine.