Throwback Thursday: Long Ears And A Big Heart

Feb 6, 2014 - 1:58 AM
Kit the mule was an eventing celebrity in the '80s, eventing up to preliminary level with Cathy Wieschhoff. Photo courtesy of the USEA

She was admired by eventing legends like Neil Ayer, Col. Paul Wimert and General Jack Burton. Olympic gold medalist Tad Coffin even took a spin on her. She was featured on the cover of the Wall Street Journal and was known throughout the country for her cross-country prowess. So, who was this famous eventer?

Kit the mule!

When a cover photo of the August 1983 magazine of the U.S. Combined Training Association (now the U.S. Eventing Association) featuring Kit and top rider Cathy Wieschhoff was featured on Eventing Nation recently, the Chronicle decided to get the full story for this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday.

Wieschhoff laughed when she’d heard that Kit’s story had “been resurrected,” and she recalled that the hearty mare caused quite a stir in her day.

“It was just a special time in my life,” she said. “I think it was mostly kind of funny. I know that people did not like getting beat by the mule.”

Kit, who was out of a Thoroughbred mare, was born and bred in the mountains of Kentucky in the late 1970s.

Edith Conyers, former executive director of the Rolex Kentucky CCI from 1976 to 1985 and well-known producer of hunt horses, bought Kit from a horse dealer friend. A longtime member of the Iroquois Hunt (Ky.), Conyers jokingly denied that she wanted to “shake things up” at the traditional hunt, but she was ready for a change.

Conyers went to try Kit, then 4 years old and trained to ride and drive. There was nothing to jump at the farm, so she jumped her on and off a loading dock and decided she’d be a good match.

After some initial hunt training, Conyers took Kit out with Iroquois, but didn’t tell anyone she was bringing a mule.

“I did it secretly,” she said. “I didn’t ask. I just brought her out one day and as the hunt left, I unloaded the mule and got on and followed right behind. Nobody really had time to study her. I kind of rode up from the back and mingled. The field master turned around about an hour later and I was sort of standing off to the side. She said, ‘Oh my Edith, that horse has very large ears.’ I don’t think it clicked that they were too large, so I said, ‘Well, the better to hear hounds with.’”

After Kit had hunted successfully for a few seasons, Wieschhoff, who was working for Conyers at the time, brought up the idea of eventing Kit. Conyers was all for it and the mare made her debut at the Mumford Farms Horse Trials in Indiana in 1983.

“At the time, Neil Ayer was there as a technical delegate and Col. Wimert was a judge and Nigel Casserly was the announcer,” Wieschhoff recalled. “I pulled that mule out of the trailer and started warming up and they’re going through the rulebook going, ‘Cathy’s riding a mule! Where does it say you can ride a mule?’”

Several riders protested, but since there was no rule prohibiting a mule from competing, Wieschhoff was allowed to continue.

She admitted that her first priority was keeping Kit in the dressage ring, but after that, the jumping phases were smooth sailing. “People were just like, ‘Keep that thing away from me,’ or ‘Cathy, only you would do this!’” she said.

“Col. Wimert was just infatuated,” she continued. “Neil Ayer thought she was the greatest thing. I started competing her a bit more and they invited me up to Ledyard [Mass.]”

Conyers recalled that on the way to Ledyard, they stopped at Denny Emerson’s farm and Tad Coffin, who’d heard of the famous mule, hopped on Kit. “She got around!” she joked.

Kit placed second in a big novice division at Ledyard and Wieschhoff went on to compete her at that level for about two seasons. They completed one event at preliminary while Wieschhoff was based with Torrance Watkins in Virginia before Conyers’ daughters Sarah and Elizabeth took over the ride. They competed her in show jumping and eventing and went to several Pony Club national rallies with her.

According to Wieschhoff, the 16.1 hand Kit had a great jump, moved well and felt just like a horse when galloping across country.

“She didn’t really like lateral work and that was when the leg yields had just been introduced to the preliminary tests, so she kind of wandered to the side,” she said. “You could never really see a long distance on her. If you thought she was going to go long, you better just wait because she’d always chip in, but she was a really clean jumper. You certainly knew she was listening to you, whether the ears were back or forward. You didn’t miss that!”

In her heyday, Kit was featured on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, published in the Smithsonian magazine and was featured on the nightly news with Dan Rather.

When Conyers’ daughters outgrew her, Kit was sold to a man in Missouri who competed her in mule classes, then she was sold to a ranger station in Cave Creek, Ariz., where she was used to help carry supplies into the mountains and inspect trails.

Both Wieschhoff and Conyers kept tabs on Kit’s whereabouts, and the last Conyers has heard, she was retired to Jennifer Miller DVM’s farm in Cave Creek.

Wieschhoff didn’t hesitate to say yes when asked if she would event another mule. “I was second at the Atlanta Cup CCI*** [Ga.] in 1995, the year before the Olympics. I’m at a press conference and in the back, some guy said, ‘Didn’t you used to ride a mule?’ I’ve jumped around Burghley and Badminton a few times, but the guy asked me about riding this mule! It was a lot of fun.”

Conyers currently hunts another mule, but she remembered Kit fondly. “She had quite a diverse life and just did a little bit of everything very well,” she said. “I enjoyed her and my kids enjoyed her.”

Mules currently aren’t allowed to compete in U.S. Eventing Association-recognized events, but a rule was passed in 2004 that allows them to compete in U.S. Equestrian Federation dressage shows. The Chronicle wrote about a mule competing at third level dressage in “Long Ear Love Takes This Equine Pro In A New Direction.”


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