by Lesley Scott
Top Hat is a mule eager for adventure!
|Top Hat ‘n Tails Hits the Trails
by lesley Scott
I didn’t confess to anyone that this was Top Hat’s first trail ride and third time under saddle. I treated him like he was well trained. He had good sense as a typical mule as long as all twelve of our other mules behaved. Today two of our coon hunters, Larry and Barry, on their small mules, planned to navigate the group through the dense woods in the Manchester State Forest, where they hunted coons at night. I felt it shouldn't be too tough. After all, the two coon hunters could ride all night in the dense forest.
Top Hat always stood out in a crowd because of his unusual color. "Lesley, I've never seen a mule, or a horse, with such odd markings. He has spotches and spots and stripped hooves. What color do you call that?" Fred Funderburk asked, "He has spots on his hocks, big spots on his sides and it looks like somebody waved a paint brush over his body. He doesn't look like a regular pinto, and he looks sort of like an appaloosa, but he's not."
"Yeah," Harold Funderburk chimed in, "I don't believe there is another one like him anywhere. He has a wide stipe down his back that is running down his sides. I love his head with those black spots around his eyes! You know, if he was 'bald faced, or a white face which may signal hearing problems, he would have blue eyes."
"The color pattern is mostly 'overo.' It means his base color is dark, but it's hard to tell. You see where his ears and the top of his head are dark colored? That's the "Medicine Hat.' To the Native Americans, it means he is blessed by the 'Great Spirit.' He's special. He also has that dark liver stripe running
down his back and the multicolored mane and tail, not typical in any equine I've ever seen," I told him as I gave Top Hat a smooch on his soft nose.
Before long, our group stopped on the top of a hill, all covered with fallen leaves and a few scraggly tree saplings, the view looked beautiful and impressive. I could smell the rich soil as we left hoof prints on the ground. The air smelled of ozone and damp bark, pine trees and leather saddles.
The red, yellow, brown, and green trees of the deep woods and the variegated leaves, showed a picture so breath taking, I almost forgot the steep hill until we looked down. It appeared steep and a few medium sized pine trees made the hill look like one of our trail classes at our popular donkey and mule shows.
The coon hunting mules carefully stepped easily down the incline as they had done many times before in the dark. We all told each other, “It’s not too bad.” However, we each wanted somebody else to go first. I felt sorry for Harold's brother, Fred. He invited his date, Alice, along for the ride.
Alice had never been on a horse in her life. I considered her a brave lady to travel with such a silly bunch as we. Alice wore a nice pantsuit and white sandals. Luckily, she rode on the smoothest riding horse in the world, the Cadillac of Horses, a wonderfully gaited Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) mare.
At least she wouldn't be bouncing around.With a lateral gait, it felt like sitting on a rocking chair. Most horses move in a diagonal gait which turns into an up and down trot. A TWH is smooth because of her natural gait, both legs on the same side moving. Riding one will surely spoil you for trotting horses.
We decided Virginia, Beverly's daughter, and her Marsh Tacky mare, Susie, would take the hill first. Suzie would go anywhere asked with no trouble. She was one of the few of the Marsh Tacky breed left down south, originally from Spanish Barbs, brought here from Spain; of course, the smaller head, dished on the front of her face, showed her breeding. The Marsh Tacky horses are slender and rangy and with uncanny coordination.
The once large herds of the Marsh Tacky horses running wild have practically disappeared because of eager horse traders, wanting to exploit these horses for a buck. The now registered breed is making a comeback. The numbers are going up, thanks to the actions of "Tacky" owners and breeders. The horses, themselves, are as tough as a knot and easy keepers to feed.
Susie took her time, her rear end sliding along the steepest part, as a Marsh Tacky would do naturally. Harold Funderburk’s Saddlebred mule, Huldy, a real pistol, waited her turn. Spirited from her hot Saddlebred mother, taffy colored, and her size came from a large red, or sorrel, Mammoth Jack, Huldy showed her good coordination, and made it down the steep hill with no problem.
The embankment; very steep, became a true obstacle. Gus,Top Hat’s half- brother, all white and silly, always looked for something to spook him so he could act up. We nicknamed him "Controlled Chaos." He took a step and surprised us when he tumbled head over heels down the embankment; Beverly, the most experienced rider and my best friend, tumbled with him, rolling, as well. I felt like I was watching a movie.
They both seemed to be laughing and showed no fear. Beverly, who had been riding all of her life, bounced from sapling to sapling, like a ping pong ball, and Gus, behind her, kept on bouncing and rolling. I was wondering how we could move Beverly to the hospital if she needed medical attention. She must have broken something. Beverly, tough and not afraid of anything, laughed out loud. She remounted Gus, who didn't act silly, and said, “What are you waiting for? Let’s get moving!”
Me and my loudly colored Top Hat, still at the top of the trail, were the last to tackle the steep hill. We started out carefully. He put each foot on the ground, He acted like he was thinking, and sniffed the embankment. He looked down at the slick leaves at the edge of the top of the steep hill, deciding what to do. He slowing picked his way down without a stumble.
Everyone watched Top Hat and noticed his calm attitude as he tip toed down the steep incline. I felt silly, thinking he would refuse. Determined to keep up with everybody he picked up his pace. Also, being a typical mule, he knew where to put each foot. Being careful comes easy to a mule. He behaved because he loved meeting all of the new horses and mules, and the riders gave him compliments. He didn't waste any time keeping up with everyone.
Fred and his date seemed okay. She rode the quiet, smooth mare, a blue roan, a solid color with a white top coat. Though on the smoothest ride in our group, Alice's feet, swinging, caused blisters on her ankles, and that must have really hurt. “How much further?” she asked several times. No one dared tell her we had ridden a long away from the farm and still had to ride back. I'm sure she wanted Scotty to beam her up!
With the excitement over, we all chatted about silly things our animals have done, times we fell or were hurt. We discussed what we did to train our animals and how smart mules are when it comes to danger. They just seemed to know what to do. Mules are remarkable creatures, too smart for some folks. We started planning the next trail ride, and thought of charging admission.
Other plans included parades, community events, the "Hell Hole Swamp Festival," hosting donkey and mule shows, and things of that nature. We charged one dollar from the kids at "The Hell Hole Swamp Festival" for a chance to sit on my other mini-mule, Corky, for five minutes. I never saw so many children clutching dollar bills! We brought in a pile of money for the SPCA.
All heads snapped around when we all heard Harold calling for help. Hidden by dense underbrush and trees, no one could see him, but he hollered loudly. We could hear him calling Huldy's name. I had never heard him scream, and we all started to panic. After making it around the bend, we all hurried to help. Apparently, Huldly strayed from the trail and had gotten stuck in a deep mud hole. Right away, we all thought it could be quick sand. Huldy tried hard to leap out of the sticky mud, but it wasn't possible.
The more Huldy tried to climb out, the more she seemed to sink down deeper. Beverly, strong as an ox, Virginia and me tried to help her out by pulling on her reins, but that made the mule sink deeper in the sticky mud hole. It didn't look good. Huldy had a clean line down her back that wasn't muddy like the rest of her body.This type of situation can mean permanent vascular damage and would make her unsound forever. Harold, beside himself with worry, started to pray. Huldy became the love of his life ever since his wife passed away twenty years earlier.
Luckily, the coon hunters knew how to solve the problem. They each pulled out ropes they always kept for such mishaps. Three of us somehow looped the rope under Huldy’s tail, girth, and around her rump. We all worked hard to pull Huldy from the mud, holding onto the rope tied across her rear end. Small mules have been known to pull three times their own weight. The two little coon hunting mules threw down their shoulders and pulled hard. Huldy seemed to be moving forward slowly.
The little mules, Penny and Gypsy, finally pulled a shaky Huldy out of the mud hole. Beverly, not the coon hunters, was covered with mud, and looked like Al Jolson. Harold held Huldy and let her calm down a bit. We all mounted, mud or not. Huldy, tired for the first time I've ever seen her, kept up with everybody. We rode on, following the coon hunters, an eye out for more mudholes. When we mounted up, I noticed Harold wiping his eyes. His life revolved around his spirited Saddlebred mule.
This happened to be on a trail only our hosts knew where they were headed, and it felt like following a goat path. Barry, a stout man, looked over his shoulder and loudly announced, “We usually do this in the dark.” The trail, thick with underbrush, had plenty of low tree limbs and vines everywhere. "The mules take care of us," he explained. We calmly continued our ride, enjoying the feel and the smell of the woods.
Virginia, and Susie, cruised along, relaxing in the shade. Virginia paid attention in front, but she didn't see the large vine that caught the back of her saddle. One minute she sat on her horse, riding and the next minute,She ended up sitting on the ground still in her saddle. After that, we all paid closer attention to the limbs and vines.
Top Hat didn't know what exhaustion felt like and even the other mules wanted to keep riding. They don’t tire easily and have a great love for adventure. We all headed to Harold Funderburk’s farm, a couple of miles away. I felt sorry for Alice, a pathetic sight, blistered on her ankles, sore, and sunburned. I admired her stick-to-it-ness.
On the way back, we almost stumbled into a wide irrigation ditch, with water the appeared to be fairly deep. In the dark woods the sunlight grew scarce. A little bit of sun filtered through the trees, dappling the trail. I hung back, watching the other riders carefully walk their animals across the ditch, up past their bellies in some spots it crept up to the girths and stirrups of the big western saddles most riders use. Even the seats of the saddles were soaked. Everyone had wet feet at the very least.
Beverly and I rode English and our saddles are small, the stirrups hung on leathers. The Western saddles are big and have fenders on the side, making their stirrups impossible to move. As Gus waded across, Beverly’s feet propped up on Gus's rump and the sides of her saddle and her backside were only a bit wet from the water splashing. We sure didn't want anyone falling into the murky water. Top Hat, next and last, acted like he had a plan, as usual. I swear that mule seems like he is always thinking. I could almost hear the wheels in his head turning.
The small Spotted Wonder walked up to the edge of the water and decided he was not getting wet. I pushed my hands forward, climbed far up on his short neck and raised my feet, still in the stirrups behind my rear, resting on his back, not his rump. I leaned forward, and he took a couple of seconds to prepare himself. We all expected him to wade and stumble across, getting wet like everyone else. To our surprise, he jumped from a stand still across that wide canal. The saddle, stirrups, his body, and mine stayed dry.
Amazed that such a small spotted pony mule could jump as he did from a stand still, everyone cheered. Top Hat leapt like a true "Coon Jumping Mule," and I somehow managed to hang on to his neck. In our "Coon Jumping" contests, he was the unbeatable champion in all of our shows. Mules can jump higher than their own height without taking a running start. Horses are not built the same and need to take a running start to jump.
No one could believe that my little spotted Top Hat reached the other side of the canal and remained dry. His back hooves barely touched the water on the other side when he landed. Beverly, Virginia, Harold, and the rest of our fun loving group, laughed uncontrollably and someone squeaked out,“I can’t believe that the little pony mule thought he could jump something that wide. And he did it!” We all had to laugh again.
Busy dodging a forest of pine saplings, I didn't say much, but I was laughing. At that time, I came close to being knocked off as we missed a tree or two. I prayed not to smash my head. Top Hat made it through the small forest with ease. He knew where each tree and stump was located. Of course, he wasn't foolish enough to run into a tree.
"What a lot of fun!” I said when I missed the last of the saplings, ”Let's do it again!” We all laughed hard and made some rather funny jokes about Top Hat's high and wide jump. I heard a small voice begging us not to do it again. I looked over and saw the expression of the poor lady on the TWH mare. Her face showed pure misery. Alice said she couldn’t last much longer.
Soon we had to end our exciting ride. The sunlight, by this time, getting scarce and dark in the deep woods, gave us no choice. We could see Harold's silo and some of Harold's barns. The horses stepped up, in a hurry to be unsaddled. The mules, who love adventure, kept turning around like they weren't finished.
Over or not, Fred's date probably hadn't gone well. Alice refused to ride any further though we were not even a mile away. The farm, close and within sight, didn't matter to Alice. We tried to talk her into the short ride back, but she was adamant, “I’ve had enough!” She said through her tears. We left her sitting on a log, waiting to be picked up by the truck, probably getting infested by chiggers. I felt sorry for the poor woman.
Though our SC Donkey and Mule Society, we sponsored trail rides, shows, meetings, parades to promote donkeys and mules. I makes me wonder just how little those who ride and show horses know about donkeys and mules. It is up to our many mule and donkey fans to spread the word about mules and where they come from. How simple can that be? Maybe we can convince these individuals through stories, articles, shows, trail rides, care and maintenance, reward and true flattery will bring about a new appreciation for donkeys and mules.
Top Hat continued to win shows, loved trail riding, and still managed to relax once in a while. I enjoyed brushing his colorful coat, trim his mane and "bell" his tail. His tail had three bells and most mules have two bells. Belling came from the cavalry when the soldiers needed to find a riding mule or a driving mule. In the dark, the bells, or tail trimmed at the dock of the tail, soldiers could tell what a mule did for a living by the number of bells.
Finally, Top Hat won his first American Donkey and Mule Society Versatility Hall of Fame Award. We both worked hard to win, but had fun, too. To this date, according to ADMS, no other mule has ever been marked so boldly. We were together for 15 years, and due to a divorce, I gave Top Hat to another best friend, Mary Jane. Her son, Jake, grew up riding Top Hat. He is still around, though he was born in 1983. Mules can live up to 40 years, believe it or not.
Top Hat is retired with several other senior citizen equines. He will live and die after a full life of love and attention. One day, Mary Jane and I plan to write a book about Top Hat and his adventures. We both have lots of material collected over the years. Top Hat's life has been full of joy and excitement. The next story I write will be about the first time he bucked me off.
Top Hat didn't usually buck. He loved to carry me anywhere, and wanted me to be on his back most of the time. But occasionally, his high spirits expressed themselves at certain times because he felt to darn good. I feel privileged to have Top Hat in my life.