Fairgoers perk up ears for Whistlin’ Dixie

The Royal Manitoba Winter Fair is pitched as one of the top horse events in Canada.

So what was old Long Ears doing there?

Whistlin’ Dixie, a thoroughbred-cross molly mule, was there to compete in the dressage and jumping events.

But after a minor leg injury left her on the sidelines, owner Katherine Cook of Camrose, Alta., took her to the Learning Stage to educate the public about the wonderful world of mules.

“People are very interested, and for the most part very polite and pleasant,” said Cook.

Although mules are more popular in the hot, humid regions of the southern United States and in the mountains of Western Canada, the quirky — some would say exasperating — equines are catching on with riding and driving enthusiasts in areas where they previously were relatively unknown.

Cook, an avid jumper, became a reluctant convert after volunteering with an organization that used mules for equine-assisted psychotherapy. When the group’s equestrian team wanted to add a jumping mule to their program, she baulked at first.

“I laughed and said, ‘What kind of an idiot jumps a mule?’” Cook said with a wide grin.

“But I tried it and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

She hasn’t completely changed sides and still has three horses at home. But her previous prejudices have been dispelled by the unique charm of the animals.

The fact mules exist at all is a miracle of sorts, given they’re sterile hybrids created by breeding two different species — a male donkey and a female horse. Switch those genders around and you get a hinny.

Biologically, the difference between all three can be explained by their number of chromosomes — donkeys have 62 pairs, horses have 64, and breeding the two together somehow gives you 63. But the combination has also given mules some special qualities, notably extraordinary hardiness and endurance, and keen intelligence accompanied by a legendary, but little-loved, disposition.

Colleen Campbell, also from Camrose, rides and drives horses, mules and donkeys.

“What seems to be stubbornness, is actually a keen sense of self-preservation,” said Campbell.

“They say if your mule doesn’t want to go somewhere, you probably shouldn’t either.”

That makes mules more wreck-proof than horses. In the Grand Canyon, Cook noted, sure-footed mules are used to negotiate the narrow paths where a single misstep can send both animal and rider plunging to their doom.

“In 100 years, they say there’s never been an accident,” she said.

They learn fast, so excessive repetition must be avoided or the mule might get bored. Trying to squeeze a bit of compliance out of a mule in a bad mood, say with a whip, is “playing with fire,” she added.

For example, Dixie once had an inexplicable issue with a certain gate at home.

“We tried all of the things that you would with a horse: walk her by it, lunge her near it, or push her over it. It was bizarre,” said Cook. “Finally six months later, she decided that the gate wasn’t a threat.”

Training is best undertaken in baby steps leading up to the eventual desired behaviour, much like modern styles of horse training. Mule owners, however, must accept they are in a battle of wits, not wills, and that mules resist all attempts to program them.

Other things to remember with mules is that they have a tendency to become herd bound, hate being alone, and need to have a “dust bowl” for rolling in. Also, they are annoyed by small animals such as dogs, cats, and even children, so caution is needed when they are around mules due to the risk of trampling.

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