The other day I betook myself up a canyon to look at some petroglyphs left by Native American Indians about a thousand years ago (about which more in another post one day). On the trail I was overtaken by three riders, one walker and a dog who were among the many people making the same hike that day.
Later I was able to have a nice chat with this gentleman, who is wearing the traditional desert-riding attire: heavy leather chaps to protect him from a brush with a cactus. His mount is a mule. The mule, for those who have forgotten their biology, is a cross between a female horse and a male, or ‘jack,’ donkey. They are hybrids and cannot breed one with another.
The three mules, Cocoa Muffin, Rusty and IRS (born on April 15) were each about 15-17 years old and still kids at heart. Unlike horses, who reach their prime at 3-5 years, and frequently die in their 20’s, mules reach their prime at about 20, and live to be 40-50 years old. While they look more petite than horses, they are actually the size of an average horse, between 16 and 17 hands high (a ‘hand’ is 4 inches, and horses are measured from the ground to the withers – shoulders to you and me). Which means that they seem very large indeed.
My new acquaintance, who is a mounted volunteer ranger, told me that mules are much more intelligent and sure-footed than horses. That is why they are the preferred means of transport up and down the Grand Canyon. All three of these mules have made that journey, as well as having explored a lot of the Superstition Wilderness here.
They were friendly critters – I think. At least they let me pat them, and Rusty ate the treat Ranger gave me to give him. All mules are determined. Ranger said they could be hard to train for that reason – they are smart, cautious and careful, and won’t do something stupid just because a human tells them to. The word ‘stubborn’ came up, but Ranger prefers ‘intelligent,’ and he should know.
And what does a Ranger do when he’s not out riding his mules? He installs high-tension power lines wherever they’re needed, these days in Canada, using helicopters and ships to get the equipment where it’s required.
It was certainly an American West experience, a meeting with independent, strong, and smart beasts and man. I know many ‘spaghetti westerns‘ were filmed with Italians in the cast, but were (or are) there actual Italian cowboys? I’ve not seen them… yet.