Mule Dragger
June 13, 2015 6:45 AM   Subscribe

he held her right hind leg on a metal stand and trimmed her hoof with a pair of nippers, scattering horseshoe-shaped chunks of gray cartilage to the ground.
That's a ... pretty intense trimming. Cartilage is a flexible sort of connective tissue that (e.g.) makes the bendy bits of your ear and nose. Perhaps he meant keratin, which is the same stuff your fingernails are made from?
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:19 AM on June 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

And perhaps I meant "she", grr.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:17 AM on June 13, 2015

I used to know a guy who had boarded mules on his property. He vastly preferred them to horses. He said that mules weren't stubborn so much as smart enough to know what they wanted, while horses could always be coerced into doing what you wanted.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:10 AM on June 13, 2015

Portuguese artist João Pedro Marnoto has "faith in donkeys" (fé nos burros).
posted by chavenet at 9:19 AM on June 13, 2015

My friend John Scane built an art career on the backs of burros.
posted by notyou at 9:42 AM on June 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have witnessed more than one thing about mules that defy a straight-ahead explanation. My mules have defended my small herd from cattle in public pastures, making sure the cattle didn't get anywhere near our horses. I could go on for pages about why mules are the quintessential equine.

Also, I have noticed that mules tend to focus on a target when they kick, rather than simply kicking out in annoyance. They will wait to make sure they can hit you. Mules are not as likely to kick you as a horse. They prefer to negotiate. Mules that kick have a history of unsuccessfully having tried to tell various knotheaded humans about something. One difference between mules and horses is that mules understand about language (no, they don't speak English, but, after a fashion, they can read your mind), and they figure if they told one human not to do something, that human will have told everyone else. They can't seem to grasp the depth of our stupidity. If you demonstrate that you know what you are doing they will let you be the field boss. When they tell you it's time for a break they are not blowing smoke up your butt; it means that you haven't been paying attention.

Mules have an exquisite sense of humor. They smell warm, their breath is sweet. Other than due respect, they ask little more than a bit of ear scratching now and then, as they can't get their hooves very far inside those big, beautiful ears.

BTW...I am pretty sure the author did not mean cartilage, but keratin. A hoof trim also usually involves a bit of scraping on the sole of the hoof and a little trimming of the frog. You might think of it as a pedicure combined with a foot rub.

Thanks for the post. I'll be out on fugue for the rest of the afternoon.
posted by mule98J at 11:11 AM on June 13, 2015 [12 favorites]

My friend John Scane built an art career on the backs of burros.

This one is marvelous.
posted by chavenet at 12:47 AM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Among nineteenth-century Navajo traders, the horse-to-mule exchange rate was two to one.

This is a wonderful little bit of information. I work as a hiking guide in Grand Canyon, and the mule trains on the park's corridor trails sometimes start conversations about the animals. One of my favorite stories to tell is about white settlers' insistence on using horses. Horses are poorly suited to the canyon: They're easily injured, and they react poorly to the terrain here. "Tendency to freak out and fall to their death" is not a desirable attribute among pack animals.

So, why use horses at all? A mix of romanticism and racism. Burros and mules were not thought becoming of a proper Western pioneer. In the eyes of white settlers, burros were tainted by their association with Mexican vaqueros. Lessons had to be learned the hard way, repeatedly, before pride was swallowed and horses were phased out.

Prospectors who lived in the canyon for long periods of time were the first resident outsiders who preferred burros, at least that I'm aware of. The animals were more successful than the humans. Most prospectors left the canyon, but abandoned burros went on to live happy inner-canyon lives.

One testament to the merits of burros over horses: Feral horses never thrived in Grand Canyon. Wild burros (descended from those abandoned by prospectors) ranged extensively throughout the canyon until their removal by airlift in 1983.

The horse-to-mule exchange rate is interesting to me because it reflects both the economic and cultural realities of the time. Economically, mules are a much better fit for many use cases than horses, and their sterility may have made them a relatively scarce commodity. And the cultural preferences of white outsiders is going to lead them to think that they got a screaming deal on two! whole! horses!

By the early 1900s, tour guides living at the canyon had largely given up on horses, but bizarro-world Western romanticism persisted among others. My favorite story of this has to do with wildlife management policies on the Kaibab Plateau north of Grand Canyon. Conservation at the time was seen as a matter of protecting "cute" species from predators like mountain lions. The end result was a population explosion of mule deer on the north side of the canyon.

(Fun side note: Mule deer are named for their enormous, mule-like ears.)

The crazy solution was a "deer drive" — cowboys would round up between five and ten thousand mule deer on the North Kaibab, drive them across the canyon, and lead them to their new home on the South Rim. Imagine the absurdity of trying to force 10,000 mule deer to swim across the Colorado River, and you'll begin to understand just how insane this idea actually was. Of course, horses were the pack animal of choice for this fever dream. Two horses died trying to cross the canyon before the drive even began, and things went downhill from there. Zane Grey was present for the event, which supposedly inspired his later novel The Deer Stalker.

That was in 1924, and it was probably one of the last truly idiotic uses of horses in Grand Canyon. In the 1930s, mules were put to good use by the CCC on trail-building projects. In the era before helicopters, mules were the evac vehicle of choice. This was accomplished by means of a "mule ambulance" designed by a CCC worker. Passengers rode facing backwards, laying on a stretcher that was strapped to the mule and bent in the middle to accommodate the animal's neck.

In Grand Canyon's version of the "guillotine inventor guillotined" story, the mule ambulance inventor was the first person to earn a ride on one. You can see a picture of the contraption here. There are lots of other cool pictures, including a bunch of mules standing alongside a biplane that has somehow landed on a flat spot within the canyon. I have no idea what the back story is on that one.
posted by compartment at 11:52 AM on June 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

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