The Bold and the Brayful, a column by Fenway Barthlomule
How to Spook like a Mule
If you spend enough time around humans, you'll find that there are two sorts: there are the humans who think mules are stupid, and there are the humans who think mules are smart. Put differently, there are those who see wisdom in the solid stance and investigative gaze of a curious longear, and there are those who see stubborness in the planted feet and wide-eyed stare of the very same animal.
My FarmWife knows what's up, and she loves the way I spook. Sure, riders dream of the spook-proof beast, but would you really want to ride an animal who marches nonchalantly into the bear's den or off the crumbling cliffside trail? Do you want to go along on the back of a beast with no sense of self-preservation, no knowledge of his own mortality? I think not! Nor, though, should you enjoy the whirl-and-bolt mania of a flighty mount, the sideways-sproing of an edgy saddle animal. No, what you want is a sensible spooker—a critter like me, Fenway Barthomule, who will have a look at something without losing his head.
When I feel threatened—and it happens fairly often, for while I am sensible I am not particularly brave—I execute what I call the F.E.A.R.R. response: my Five Point Strategy for the Preservation of Life and Limb. My FarmWife indulges me in it whenever we're out in the presence of something foreboding. It goes like this: Freeze. Ears fore. Analyze. Rearrange Hoofies. Retreat.
Freeze—this is key. This is where mules get their reputation for stubbornness, but it's also how a good many mules have survived to see another day. Where our horse ancestors survived on the open plains by fleetness of foot and quick evasion, our donkey heritage teaches us to hold still and blend in. The same relatives that gave us our rock-hard, ledge-gripping, cylindrical hooves and our sensitive, magnificent ears gave us this instinct, which serves us as well on the dappled and meandering trails of rural North America as it did on the craggy desert slopes of our ancestral lands. Freezing allows us to blend in, turn invisible, and remain safe while we examine our surroundings.
Ears fore. Our ears are the most important sensory organ of our bodies, next to our eyes and nostrils which are also very useful. (Actually, we mules are just tremendously good at sensing in general.) Not only do our ears allow us to understand a great deal of what goes on around us, they also allow us to look regal and stupendous while we do so. Win-win!
Analyze. We use our marvelous liquid eyes, our sensitive flaring nostrils, our graceful curving ears, and our tender silken hide to understand all that there is to know about the world around us. Whether we're threatened by a mountain lion, a landslide, or a misplaced grocery bag, these senses will help us determine a safe course of action. A thorough analysis is the key to positive action.
Rearrange hoofies. This is not an "AAAAAAHHHHHHH!"" sort of an action, and should involve no indelicate or clumsy activity. The rider, should the mule be under saddle at this point, should remain comfortably seated throughout the rearrangement. This is a delicate, careful and precise examination of the trail surface with the hooves, designed to establish a safe foundation from which to retreat, and should look a little like a slo-mo Fred Astaire number. To the human rider, it will feel a little bit like a gentle hula.
Retreat. We retreat, not in the manner of the runaway coach team or the panicked jack-rabbit but in the manner of a mule—with good sense and clear intent. The retreat should look more like a bold step in the direction of new adventure than like a frightened extrication from danger. To the human, the retreat will look simply like a resumption of the trail-ride, as planned, but to the mule, it will be a move towards safety based on his analysis of the threat and the likeliest direction and manner of safe travel.
I have survived many things with my F.E.A.R.R. response—bear encounters, freshly tarred roads, ruffed grouse-attacks, ATV encounters, deadly garden hoses—and my human thanks me for my calm response to danger. She, thank goodness, falls into the camp of humans who say mules are brilliant, clever, and wise. Here's hoping that you, dear reader, do too.
Ears to You,