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home : sports & recreation : sports & recreation June 24, 2016

6/25/2013 12:05:00 PM
Young rider soars on a mule
Mallory Johnson and Heart B Oliver have a special provided
+ click to enlarge
Mallory Johnson and Heart B Oliver have a special provided

By Kathryn Godsiff

Audrey Goldsmith has high expectations of her mules. Much higher than the usual pack animal, Grand Canyon people-toter perception most folks have. Her mules do perfect canter-departs, cattle sorting, and one of them jumps over cross-country and show jumping courses at one-day event competitions.

Her 9-year-old mule, Heart B Oliver, recently paired up with 13-year-old Mallory Johnson to compete at beginner novice level in two one-day events. Mallory outgrew the lesson horse she was using at Goldsmith's Sequel Farms, and she and her sister, Briley, had used Oliver for Pony Club. It was Oliver and Mallory's first eventing competition, and they brought home first and second placings.

This made for lots of smiles and a sense of satisfaction that once again, a mule proved he could compete with horses.

There's a perception in some circles that mules and horses can't coexist in the same show ring. The United States Equestrian Federation, the governing body for most horse sport in this country, allows mules to compete at sanctioned shows only in the disciplines of endurance riding, combined driving and dressage. Otherwise they must stick to local or non-sanctioned shows.

Some horse people feel that horses are at risk of getting freaked out by the proximity of a mule. It's a controversial ruling, but Goldsmith and Mallory are sensitive to the reasoning behind it. If it appears that any horses are uncomfortable and just can't cope, they'll remove the mule from the area. Goldsmith adds that it's very rare for that to happen.

Oliver is no stranger to the show ring. Goldsmith has shown him at the Mecca of mule shows, Bishop Mule Days in Bishop, California. Trophies stand on her shelves from hunter/jumper and mountain trail classes. The move to eventing wasn't difficult for him, she says. "I think he thought we put the two together and sped it up a bit," she said with a laugh.

Oliver is an equine that thrives on attention, and while Goldsmith loves all her three mules, she just didn't have the same connection with Oliver that she enjoys with Heart B Porter and Heart B Tux. Oliver seemed more like a kid's mount to Goldsmith. According to her, and Mallory, he's super smart and quickly learned his job.

"He loves Mallory; it's really evident watching them ride," said Goldsmith.

Mallory concurs, saying that if she shows him what to do, and lets him think about it, he'll eventually do what he's supposed to. If he spooks at a jump or a rock or whatever, he'll veer off, with his ears at that angle mule ears go when they're uncertain about something. He always goes over or by it the second time around. Mallory laughs it off.

"He's really emotional," she said.

She gets him through those situations by her ability to ride in the moment and be aware of a potential problem without anticipating it.

He's taught her many things, as mules often do with their riders. For example, he was the pilot of the partnership when they first paired up, but now that she's dialed into him, Oliver lets her do the leading. But, "he doesn't let me get by with things. He makes sure I'm paying attention and being clear," said Mallory. As the mule's level of expectation rises, he wants her to be more refined in her riding.

Goldsmith says it's fascinating to watch, from a trainer's point of view. Especially since she knows the mule so well, having had him from a very young age. She claims that success with mules is a total unknown. The relationship with the rider is what makes it possible.

Taking mules to competitions isn't about winning, but demonstrating that mules can hold their own with horses. It appears Oliver and Mallory are well on their way. The winning is a sweet bonus.

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