Over the past few years we haven’t had too many opportunities to wander far from the farm and with spring nearly upon us the likelihood of that chance remains slim to none. Last weekend though we took advantage of a quiet, yet beautiful Sunday afternoon to haul the horses out to the Sandhills Game Lands with friends.
Despite this amazing public land resource being right here in our home county we often forget that it is such a gem. The Sandhills Game Land is a one of many large natural reserves set aside for public land hunting opportunities. Horseback riding is allowed within certain regulations on designated game lands throughout North Carolina though not all. We are lucky in that the Sandhills allows horseback riding year round except for one small block that is restricted during the months of October and March which leaves vast amount of land to be explored on horseback. The terrain is soft with wide cut roads and paths making riding easy and enjoyable for even the most novice of trail riders.
While at first glance it is easy to say there is nothing to be seen here except pines and sand. While it is home to the largest stand of old growth long leaf pine that just isn’t true. The lands are dotted with streams and ponds that give rise to multiple varieties of wildlife including deer, squirrels, reptiles, song birds, birds of prey, fish, and even bears (though I have yet to have my first sighting).
The United States Army is also active on the Sandhills using the game lands for military exercises including parachute jumps which can be a whole new experience in your horsemanship when you encounter them. It usually takes a horse or mule a little bit to figure out those figures dressed in camouflage are actually people and not horse eating monsters. Folks who know the game lands well can lead to special spots that include old military equipment such as tanks and burned out helicopters as well as churches and houses that date back to years when this land was rarely visited by outsiders. Camping is primitive so come prepared if you plan to spend the night.
Maps of the Sandhills can be found online, but don’t expect to find specific trail maps. I enjoy the rides here most when I have an experienced Sandhills native such as Neal or other long time trail riders with me, but you can navigate the lands with a GPS and compass just fine if you are savvy in that department.
That short evening ride just a few weeks ago was just the thing I needed to relax as well as be mentally ready for the up coming spring and work that comes along with it. Hopefully, we are able to manage our tasks and time in such a way that we can return more often than we have in the past as these are the moments that remind us why we live here and do what we do to stay.
I am of the opinion that the world is just a better place when viewed through a set of equine ears. I’m not picky as to exactly what kind of ears, but there is indeed something special when they are mule ears or LONG EARS as the mule skinners call them. Does this sound like a foreign language to you already? You aren’t alone! Mules and mule people can be a very unique set of individuals with terms all their own. My life has been enriched by mules and their people since 2009 so it is often easy for me to forget that not everyone knows about these amazing creators and the folks that love them. Let me introduce you to just a little bit of mule know-how to help you see what I’m talking about.
One of the first questions I get from non-equine people is “what is it”? Some think mule is just another word for donkey or possibly a breed of horse. The truth is that a mule is the result of the mating of a mare (female horse) to a jack (male donkey). If the match is reversed with the female being a donkey (jenny) and the horse being male (stallion) then you get a hinny which may be difficult to tell apart from a mule unless you are an experienced mule enthusiast. Mules have been a part of the equine world since the domestication of horses and donkeys. They combine the best of both worlds with the calm and quiet demeanor of the donkey, but the size and athleticism of the horse. They are known for being very sure footed, hardy, and smart (or stubborn depending on if you are talking to someone they have recently out smarted). Just like any other animal though, they each have their own personalities, talents, and dispositions so generalizing them so broadly can be misleading. I have had horses that I liked more so than some mules and I have had mules that I liked more than some horses.
Another question I get is “what do you do with a mule”? My answer is anything you do with a horse. My mules ride both on the trail and in the show ring, are trained to pull a wagon or carriage, and one is even trained in tricks. Just like horses mules can be trained in all different styles of riding and which ones they excel in is often determined by the talents of their horse mother. Mules that are born of draft horse mares are commonly used for driving and pulling or as riding mounts for larger adults. Mules out of stock horse breeds (Quarter Horses, Paints, Appaloosas, etc.) are common on the trail and in competitive western riding events. The breed doesn’t necessarily have to limit them in the events they parttake in though. Below is a picture of Lucky Number Seven owned by Shannon Hoffman of St. Claire Mule Farm and ridden by Dr. Jock Tate after winning the 2013 Quest for the Best Challenge at Reflection Farms in Vass, NC. Seven is a Belgian draft mule.
The reason I remain attracted to these special animals is the challenge they present to my horsemanship (or more correctly mulemanship). I find that training and building a relationship with a mule is different than doing the same with a horse. Mules require more of me and make me really think about what I am asking, how I am asking it, and how I can improve my communication with them as an animal. When I “get it right” they reward me with a long standing trust that opens so many doors as a mount on the trail, in the ring, or around the farm. I am blessed to be in possession of an amazing mule named Sally who was trained by the mule skinner James Lamm then later purchased by the late Buddy McCarter whose widow (also named Sally) left her in my care upon his death. Sally was already an exceptional mule when she came into my life. She was well-trained and mannerly, but she still required me to get to know her and bond with her before we really became a team and tapped into all the great things we could do together. I trust Sally with my life and the life of those around me because of this bond. I have never had that with a horse even Max who I have known and cared for twelve of his thirteen years.
I have had several other mules come into my life since Sally and each is as unique as can be. Some were introverted and laid back (Katie – below left) while others have been social butterflies that require constant stimulation and companionship (Woody – below right). Very different, but each special.
Katie and Jenn
My absolute favorite thing about mules though is their people. The mule community has a type of comradery that is hard to come by in other circles. The equine world in general has been known to be a tight-knit and sometimes even exclusive group that can be difficult to find a place within. Mule people are different. They are a down to earth, fun-loving group that is passionate about their long ears. Years ago I was connected with the Carolina Mule Association and have been able to participate in a handful of their events though not nearly as many as I would like. It is through this group that I came to truly appreciate everything that is the mule community – passionate, caring, and fun. Even without a mule, membership with this group is amazing. Below are pictures of the group during a 2012 ride at South Mountain State Park in North Carolina. There were a total of 12 mules and one horse on that ride.
CMA at South Mountain State Park, NC
CMA at South Mountain State Park, NC
CMA at South Mountain State Park, NC
If you are in the area come visit the mules of The Pony Draw someday. Maybe even take a lesson on the great Sally. I promise you will not be disappointed with the experience and may even be ready to start your own journey to becoming a mule skinner.