We were being "law abiding." Camped in a wilderness valley, our horses secured to a high line, the tent pitched, the cooking area covered by a tarp, Billy and I lacked only one thing to hold the drizzle at bay. We had no campfire.
Now, in mid-September, the dry season had finally ended, but the Forest Service lagged a couple of days behind the change in weather, so campfire bans were still in effect, and we had been reminded of that by three cheerful female Forest Rangers we met on the trail. Then the cold drizzle had set in, soaking the forest, and at this altitude threatening, if it turned colder, to become snow.
Marooned under the tarp we'd rigged over our kitchen area some distance from the tent (we were in grizzly country), with no desire to crawl so early into our sleeping bags, the gas lantern a poor substitute for a campfire, we cracked peanuts, washed them down with our favorite beverage, and talked about mules.
Mules had been on our minds. Like most mountain horsemen, we'd always been fascinated by them. Not that either of us needed a mule. Billy owns three superb gray Tennessee Walking Horses of my breeding, heavy boned, fast walking, surefooted mountain horses.
For nearly 30 years, I've been enjoying horses of the sort we'd brought on this trip, breeding them better each year. They've carried me over mountain passes in extreme conditions, brought me through snowstorms, herded my cattle, and carried my children. I couldn't ask for more.
But an old outfitter friend who also has outstanding horses had told us of a torturous off-trail route he often took to a favorite hunting spot, a route over deadfall on a mountainside, how he often parked his horses and took only his mules when he attempted to ride there.
Billy and I had heard such stories from others as well, and we knew the reputation of mules as the ultimate backcountry machines. And for us, mules became really interesting when you threw in what for us is an absolute requirement, a fast, four-beat gait, such as a running walk, amble, or foxtrot.
For me, as owner of a band of gaited broodmares I'd selected during three decades, the jump was a logical one. So over the sound of raindrops pelting the tarp above us and the pines creaking in the wind I said, "Billy, we ought to go in together and buy a gaited jack."
"Let's do it!" came the resounding reply. And so the idea of Bubba was born.
In spite of the growing popularity of mules and the publicity furnished by well-known trainers, such as Meredith Hodges (800/816-7566; www.luckythreeranch.com), many of our ranch customers still show confusion about mules.
To reiterate, mules are the sterile offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. (The less common reverse, offspring of a male horse and female donkey, is called a hinny.) An intact male donkey is called a "jack," a female a "jenny." Among mules, males are often called "johns," females "mollies."
Mules are sterile, because horses have 64 chromosomes (32 pairs), donkeys 62 (31 pairs). Mules end up with 63, a number that can't evenly divide into pairs as required for reproduction. But sterility shouldn't be confused with reproductive drive. Mules have that drive, so males, as with horses, must be gelded. Mollies (female mules) experience reproductive cycles, though they're normally relatively quiet ones.
In conformation and disposition, mules show traits of both their parents. Although it's currently popular for many mule breeders to say that their goal is to produce animals that look like "horses with long ears" - that is, leaning strongly toward the horse in conformation - others strongly disagree, saying it's the donkey features we want to preserve in mules.
And what are those? In disposition, when frightened, horses are 90 percent flight. Donkeys will react one of three ways (or sometimes, with a combination of all three) when confronted with a strange and scary situation. They'll study the situation, flee, or fight.
Mules are somewhere between donkeys and horses in this respect. Yes, they can flee when frightened, but rarely with the blind abandonment of senses occasionally found in horses. Sometimes, they'll take just a step or two after spooking, then study whatever is spooking them.
In the case of an unwanted four-legged intruder, mules will often fight. Beware, those who insist on taking their dogs on the trail. A mule train won't tolerate strange dogs, and no dog is a match for an angry mule.
Additionally, donkeys, having evolved in rocky, mountainous regions (rather than on the plains, like horses) tend to have feet hard as flint, and mules often inherit this advantage. Surefootedness is in the genes.
Donkeys are longer lived than horses, and they seem to possess a dense, hard muscling that's deceptively strong. My farrier trims donkeys at a nearby nature center and finds the friendly little creatures strong out of all proportion with their size. Lastly, few who've worked with both horses and donkeys fail to concede that donkeys are more intelligent.