In My Boots: Mule-tide carols

This week cowgirl columnist Kristen Kovatch takes her barn’s newest resident–a mule named Sweet Emma–for a spin and discovers that she lives up to her name.

From Kristen:

Finally having a relatively free afternoon—the students were home for the holiday break, my grading was turned in, the team season was wrapped up for the semester—I had some time to try out our latest addition to the barn.

She’s not tall—maybe 14 hands, plain dark brown, unremarkable other than a pair of very sweet, soft eyes, earning her name of Sweet Emma. Oh yeah—there’s also the ears. Those long, long ears. Sweet Emma, after all, is a mule.

Bolstered by well-meant advice from our visiting equine dentist, who trailed me all the way out to the back barn to fetch Emma in, I kept the following bits of information in mind:

  • If mules don’t like someone, they tell them so right away. Emma kindly presented herself to be haltered and touched her muzzle into the crook of my arm.
  • Mules cannot be scared. Whether he meant they’re impossible to spook or they will never trust you if you scare them, I never quite figured out.
  • The most likely problem I’d have with riding a mule is that when they decide to buck you off, you will fall over their heads with the saddle on top. This last bit of advice filled me with a great sense of hope going into our first ride together.

Emma, I assumed, was not like “most mules,” a herd of stereotypes and horsemen’s boasting that, like most stereotypes and boasting, seemed to be founded on the desire to one-up each other. The dentist, whose advice I trust and look up to as a knowledgeable horseman, wished me good luck and retreated to the upstairs viewing room to watch.

Within minutes after saddling, mounting and riding Sweet Emma, I had reached my own conclusions about mules, based on fifteen minutes’ observation:

  • Mules are shaped roughly like cardboard boxes with heads. They have very little withers, not much shoulder, and their croups come to a right angle with the tail stuck right on the back.
  • There is a reason that most mule tack comes with either britchen or a crupper—because of their boxy construction and lack of withers, normal horse saddles tend to really pop up in the back.
  • The lack of withers makes one feel perpetually like one is going downhill quickly. Confession: I grabbed the cantle of the saddle as Emma took her first steps of walk because I really thought I was about to go sledding. One of the last remaining students hanging around before the holiday laughed until she cried at my facial expressions when I picked up the jog.
  • Sweet Emma is gonna teach my kids how to sit up and sit back like a boss.

Otherwise, riding a green mule is a lot like riding a green horse. We worked mostly on turning, moving off of leg, installing a good “whoa.” By the end of the ride, I had to admit it: I was in love. Imagine the nice relaxed lop-ear look you see on a happy horse. Now imagine that, but six or eight inches longer.

Sweet Emma sure lives up to her name.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian, Take the Reins, and most recently Ranch & Reata.

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