Arlene was my all-time favorite saddle mule. In my 7 years as a hunting guide and packer in Montana and New Mexico, working around Mules, I noticed 3 things they don’t like. 1. Dogs. 2. Strangers. And # 3. Rookies - they can spot a rookie pretty quick. When I met her Arlene was a well-seasoned trail mule, broke to pack and ride. I was by that time rather trail savvy myself, so Arlene and me had nary a problem. We shared many miles of trail and she brought me home day and night in all types of weather.
There is an old frontier saw that you can never know a man until you take to the trail with him in bad weather well, the same can be said of mules and horses. Ol’ Arlene never let me down and always kept her calm disposition no matter the situation.
There are some words from Mr. Thomas Moore, who was the chief packer for the U.S. Army during the Indian wars of the American west. His words express how I feel about Mules and animals in general;
“The mule has never been done justice. It is popular to disparage him, and people do so without knowing anything about the subject. God made the mule on purpose. The horse has that in his nature which shows what he was made for more than a servant of man. God saw that man needed a straight out servant, so he built the mule. And a true servant he is. Almost as soon as he is able to walk, he begins to be used; and his tireless service ends only when the last breath leaves his worn-out carcass. You might also say that he is useful every day of his life. He is always faithful and always reliable. He understands his work, and does it as few men do theirs. The idea that he needs to be cursed and clubbed to work is pure idiocy. He does his best with kind treatment. Kick? Yes, he has a bad reputation as a kicker, but that arises mostly from faulty handling. I am in less danger of being kicked when among mules than when among horses. A greenhorn unused to handling horses or mules will be in less danger among mules than horses.”
Personally I think his words ring true with 90% of the mules I have worked with. I have met a few dangerous ones also. But, those animals were the direct result of poor handling, they can with patients be retrained.
On my last trip to New Mexico to visit my friend Alan I wanted to see Arlene. Al told me she had gone blind in one eye so he retired her to pasture.
We saddled up and rode out to check the livestock. As we rode along, Alan’s other horses and Mules came up, and I saw Arlene out in the field. I gave her a whistle - the one I always used to call her in the past. Her head shot up, she looked my way, and began to trot towards me. I dismounted, and threw my arms around the old girls neck, and gave her a hug. It was good to see her. She was a savvy old gal, and brought me through some tough country, day and night on her own, with me as baggage. I will admit, I had a tear in my eye....
She nudged my pocket, because she knew I had them, her favorite - peanut butter flavored granola bars. I took one out of my pocket and peeled back the wrapper, and let her munch away.
It was good to see her again, I’ll never forget her. I was told my old compadre Alan that Arlene died the following winter, after 26 years of faithful service and thousands of miles of trail. People who think animals don’t remember, of have feelings for people (or vice versa) are just wrong, very wrong.