My Personal Recollections of A Brad Cameron Mulemanship Clinic

by Rita Bowman

Brad and Shari Cameron in front of their "big as life" rig

Last year I bought myself a yearling Arab mule. About a week after I brought him home, I thought to myself "What have I done? What am I going to do with him when he's old enough to ride?" Well, I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind for awhile. But, you know, time has a way of sneaking up on you and the next thing I knew, that little yearling was a two-year old and it was time to seriously think about what direction his future should take. It had been over ...., well, let's just say it had been a long time since I'd been involved in the "breaking" of an equine and that particular equine was all horse.

Brad introducing one of the colts to a saddle for the first time.

So, here I am with a two-year old mule and I think we have pretty well established a good relationship between us. One of the main reasons I wanted a youngster was so that we could develop a trusting relationship and that any bad habits he developed were of my own doing and not someone else's that I inherited by buying an older mule. (Been there, done that.) I became interested in natural horsemanship, read numerous books written by horse "gurus", subscribed to a natural horsemanship magazine, attended some demonstrations and my older molly mule and I participated in two clinics. With horse handling halter in one hand (attached to my mule, of course) and book in other hand, Half-Fast Robbie and I set out to teach each other the finer points of natural horse . rather, mulemulemanship. Now, mules are half horse, and horse handling methods generally work pretty well with a mule, but the other half of a mule is a donkey and that half just throws a little twist into the whole scope of things. Since all I knew about were horse handling ideas, that is what I used and I was fairly well pleased with the results I had obtained for the amount of time I had invested. We went around my square round pen, all 15' x 20' of it, until we were both dizzy. I threw ropes at him, shook plastic bags in his face, hit him with saddle pads and just generally made a nuisance of myself. I felt we were making some progress when I could send him in a figure eight around two water buckets with just my body language. However, I knew that we were a long way from that first trail ride. I needed help with a capital "H".

Brad working with Robbie on the first day

Way out there in Montana, Brad Cameron must have known that there were some folks here on the East Coast who had found the better way but were looking for the best way. He packed up his mules, dogs and his lovely wife, Shari, and headed east. Luckily for me, he stopped at Shale Knoll Farm in Annville, Pennsylvania. Robbie, Millie and I were all going to get educated. Plans were for Millie and I to attend the mulemanship sessions so that when Robbie and I graduated from the colt starting session, which included the first saddling and riding, I knew a little bit about how to make our future together pleasant and enjoyable for both of us.

Hey, that's me and Robbie on our first ride! Note the other colts and riders in the round pen with us; Robbie is still snubbed to Brad's mule.

I enrolled the three of us in February and the clinic wasn't until July. The weeks slowly went by and the closer it got to clinic time the more anxious I got. Brad was coming from his ranch in Montana to do the clinic here in Pennsylvania and then was turning around and driving back to Iowa to do his next clinic. My mind began playing nasty tricks on me and started me thinking, "What if he decided Pennsylvania was too far off the rest of his clinic route to come?" I really started to panic and almost hyperventilated when my husband gave me a message a few days before the clinic was scheduled to begin that the clinic host had called and I was to call her back. "Oh, no", I thought. "My worst nightmare has come true! He's not coming!!!!" Anita Flick, the clinic host, just called to remind me to bring along the video series of Brad's that she had loaned me several months ago. (Rats! I was hoping she forgot about them.) You can barely imagine my relief when I pulled into the grounds the night before the clinic started and there, big as life, was Brad's rig sitting right next to the arena.

Participants in the mulemanship class watching Brad and his mule demonstrating some smooth moves

Let me tell you a little bit about Colt Starting. Day One - Three colts and their owners were about to have their lives changed. Two of the colts, an almost 17 hand Standardbred and a leopard Appaloosa, were three years old. Robbie was the youngster of the group at only 2-1/3 years old. Brad had us bring each colt into the round pen individually and he worked with the colt from his mule in order to get a feel for the colt's personality and attitude. After awhile, he spent some time with the colt on the ground and introduced him to his first saddling. After being saddled and going through some transitions from walk/trot/walk/canter the colt was turned out of the round pen and into the arena. Wasn't too long 'til there were three colts merrily trotting around the arena, getting to know one another, and completely ignoring the strange apparatus strapped to their back, when what should appear but Brad on his mule, complete with flag, trotting after those colts and waving that flag at them. Now, who would ever think that you would intentionally spook youngsters to teach them to become fine saddle mules?! The purpose of this exercise was to teach the colts to find the easy way out and to pay attention and focus on Brad. Being that I was one of the folks who was gonna climb on one of those colts in a couple of days, I was highly sensitive to the comments made by the spectators. Comments such as "that bay colt sure is quick" and "who ever rides the Arab mule is gonna have to stay awake" didn't do much to build my confidence.

Bud Wills, Brad, and me enjoying the ice cream break. Mmmm.

Day Two - Now, it's time for us to work with our own colts. We brought them into the round pen, saddled them, and did some halter driving. Did you ever try to get your horse/mule, let alone a colt, sidle over to a fence while you were sitting on top of it? Well, let me assure you that it is no easy feat! The idea was for us to allow the colt to become familiar with the idea of seeing us above them. From the fence, we could introduce them to movement such as a leg swinging over their back and, hopefully, we might even be able to put a little weight into the saddle. Heck, I would have been glad just to get Robbie to stand beside me at the fence. Once again, the youngsters were turned out into the arena and Brad rode his mule around waving that darn flag.

Day Three - This is it -- the DAY. All of my so-called "friends" are providing comforting and encouraging comments. Robbie and I are the odds on favorite for "most likely to bite the dust." We review the stuff from the first two days and try to sack out the colts while we are perched on top of the round pen fence. Well, anyway, two of the three participants are doing it. Then there's me and Robbie. I was feeling as though I was making substantial progress when I finally got his neck along side of me and I was able to reach down and stroke it. Then, I looked over and saw both of the other colts standing there quietly while their owners are putting weight in the saddle while they still had one leg hooked over the round pen! I wonder what kind of expression was on my face that prompted Brad to ask if I would like him to ride my colt. Tempting as it was, I knew that it was just going to be me and Robbie once I got him home. I sure hoped he was kidding when he asked how good a rider I was. I wasn't kidding when I replied that I could sit about two bucks. "Well," he says, "we'll give him a try." Who did he think he was kidding with that "we'll" stuff? I knew it was my life on the line! Brad did take a little pity on me, though, and he worked with Robbie for about ten minutes since there were still a few rough edges that needed some smoothing. Yup, that flag was involved. Afterwards, Robbie and I stood there and watched while Brad snubbed one colt, and then the other, to his mule while the soon-to-be riders carefully put a foot in the stirrup, then pulled themselves up and over the colt's back. They balanced themselves before quietly stepping back down and repeating the whole process several times until Brad felt it was time to throw the right leg clean over and sit in the saddle.

Half-Fast Robbie

As the rider sat there, Brad assessed the situation and slowly handed the rope (oh, I forgot to tell you... we were riding these colts in their natural mule handling halter and lead rope) to the rider. Off went the colt and his rider to wander around the round pen while the next colt was snubbed and mounted. Hey, nothing to it! Yeah, you just hand your colt's lead rope to Brad and have him tell you to put your foot in the stirrup and quietly lift yourself up and balance over the colt's back. I know how important it is to stay calm and my aim was to be real relaxed and have nice deep breaths to show the colt that everything is cool! Right! How can you even breathe when your heart is pounding at 300 beats per minute! Let me tell you right now, it ain't easy!

So, up I go. Robbie moved around a little bit because my mount was a little sloppy. Back down and up again. Better this time. The colt is moving but I'm hanging right in there with him. Up and down a couple of times and then I heard, "Put your leg over." I did and there I was. Instructions were to rub, rub, rub that colt to let him know I was up there. If you just sit up there, the colt's mind might wander and then after awhile he'll catch sight of you up there and who knows what would happen next! Chances are it might not be pleasant. Rubbing lets him know that you're still there. Well, pretty soon my heart started slowing down and I was able to control my breathing. Hey, this ain't so bad after all. Then, Brad hands me the lead rope. I'm almost certain he had a little smile on his face when he did it. I can't be certain because there I am with a lead rope in hand and I'm mounted on a marginal colt who is afraid of ropes. After awhile Brad says, "Throw your rope around their head so it's on the other side of their neck." What's he trying to do, get me killed! But I do it anyway. What do you know? Even though I manage to toss the rope between Robbie's ears instead of around his head, we are still connected via the saddle. Hey, this is cool.

We meander around the round pen for awhile, tossing the rope around his head periodically so that I can practice our halter driving techniques from the saddle (ground work has a purpose after all!) and then Brad picks up that d--- flag and rides around the round pen waving it at us! Next thing you know, Robbie trots a few steps and we manage to survive that. Brad wanted to encourage the other colts to trot a little bit. I don't know what went through Robbie's mind but I proved to the crowd that I was good at my word - I could stick on for two bucks! The next time your mount starts airs above the ground, try rubbing their neck to calm them instead of pulling on the one rein (don't forget, I'm riding with a halter) you have in your hand. Not so funny, is it! Afterwards, I'm told that he didn't do more than scoot across the round pen but from where I was sitting, I was sure he was trying to leap tall buildings at a single bound.

Anyway, we were still together. I was feeling pretty sure of myself after awhile when I remembered that I'd be needing to get off eventually. I was just so sure that Brad would come over and I'd hand him the rope and he'd snub the colt to his mule and we'd just reverse the mounting process. Wrong! He expects us to stop our colts, throw our right leg over their rump and dismount. Just like we're riding old reliable. Brad said do it and I did it. Imagine my surprise when Robbie just stood there, like old reliable. Even though my experience was a positive one and the colt and I both shared a positive learning experience, it sure felt good to get both feet back on terra firma again. Mission accomplished!

Rita and Robbie

Millie and I, along with sixteen other mule and human partnerships, also participated in the mulemanship sessions of the clinic. We were introduced to the finer points of having our mules turn on the forehand and haunches, develop a soft release when the reins were picked up, back in a straight line and around in half-circles, lateral and straight stops, side passing, becoming lighter on the forehand, and all kinds of useful moves to make our saddle mules more responsive and pleasurable to ride. Actually, the mules can do all of this stuff naturally. Brad was actually educating the riders so that we can ask our mules for these movements in a way that they can understand. Can you tell when your mule's left hind foot is in action? By the end of the clinic, we all could.

The difference in the mules and their riders from the first to the second day was amazing. It was as though it started to soak in overnight. By the end of the third day, we were all able to see improvement in our mounts and ourselves. We certainly didn't leave the arena at the end of that last day with finished pleasure mules, but we did leave with a knowledge of what can be accomplished and the basic tools to begin the process. If nothing else, I learned that it is important to make it difficult for the mule to do the wrong thing and easy to do the right. Let them figure it out for themselves. It's also important to spend lots of time on your groundwork 'cause if you ain't got it on the ground you won't have it in the saddle.

The mercury in the thermometer was right up around 100 degrees all three days and the humidity in Pennsylvania can get so thick you can cut it with a knife. Little wonder that the clinic came to a stand still on two of the days when the announcement was made that an ice cream truck was pulled up in front of the arena. I did take notice that Brad is partial to vanilla/chocolate mixed ice cream.

On the last day, Brad and his mule gave a demonstration of bridleless riding that took your breath away. It was so beautiful, I think I had tears in my eyes.

The one comment that I heard over and over again from both the clinic auditors and participants was the patience that Brad had in working with every rider and mule combination. His thorough knowledge of the mule and mulemanship, and his ability to effectively communicate that knowledge to the participants, enabled him to make sure that each team had the opportunity to successfully complete each movement at least once. The other oft repeated comment was that he wasn't bound by a time schedule. It took as long as it took to get the job done. Nothing was cut short or eliminated just because the hands on the clock were on certain numbers. The whole weekend was definitely an inspiration to all of us to improve our mulemanship. I came home with a promise to myself, and to my mules, that we will apply the principles that Brad and his mules demonstrated that definitely work. His clinic is definitely a "must" for anyone out there with a mule who has the desire to "ride with pride".

I'd really like to ride my colt again. I wonder what Brad is doing next Tuesday?

P.S. - A few days after the clinic Robbie and I resumed our groundwork exercises. What a difference a weekend made!! Prior to the clinic, I was only able to work with him in the paddock because he would not focus or pay attention to me if we were in the pasture but now he responds very well when we work in the pasture. This stuff really works! We need to spend some more time halter driving and working on the ground (you can bet that a flag will be involved) before we start the saddle work again. Besides, I have to convince my husband that I need a round pen!

About Rita Bowman

I've had a love of horses for all of my 40+ years and was involved with them off and on for the first 20 or so. In 1975 I acquired my first horse, a weanling Quarter Horse, that my Dad helped me "break". My Quarter Horse and I taught each other lots of valuable lessons during our seventeen years together until he was traded for my second mule. At the time I purchased my first mule, I was riding an Arabian and always admired the way people riding mules seemed to be able to relax. About six months after the mule arrived, the Arabian left. At the present time I own three mules - Skinner (17 year old john mule), Half-Fast Millie (10 year old molly mule) and Half-Fast Robbie, the baby of the bunch. Skinner, Millie and I have almost 2,000 miles logged in competitive trail riding and endurance racing. Two years ago we retired from that activity and since then have become avid pleasure trail riders and enjoy traveling, camping and riding. Robbie was purchased as a future endurance prospect so I may come out of retirement in a few years. About the same time I acquired Robbie, I developed an interest in natural horsemanship because I was impressed with the idea of teaching the animal in a language they can understand as opposed to teaching them in "human". Hopefully, Robbie will never be "broke" but he and I need to learn to communicate in a manner we can both be comfortable with.

Mules have really changed my life. I've learned to have a lot of patience (this has also carried over into the non-mule portion of my life) and have also learned to respect them. Best results are obtained when you "train" them with your brain power instead of your muscle power. They are extremely intelligent and have wonderful personalities. Once you have earned their trust and respect, they form a bond with you and seem to enjoy human companionship. This past summer I became involved in the formation of a mule club in southeastern Pennsylvania. Anyone wishing more information about mules or the mule club can contact me:

Rita Bowman

1090 K-ville Road

Stevens, PA 17578

717-738-1414

Be careful, once you get me talking about mules you can't get me to shut up!

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