Audrey Goldsmith went to the Bishop Mule Days Celebration (Calif.) in 2001 for fun. But what began as an amusing equine-themed diversion for the hunter/jumper professional became a full-fledged obsession after seeing the mules in action.
“I tried to buy a mule there, but it was already sold,” said Goldsmith. “I stole the breeder’s flyer off the bulletin board and tried for two years to get them to sell me a mule. They called me when Porter was born, and I saw a photo of him at three days old, and I called them back and said I would send a check.
“It was one those amateur things professionals aren’t supposed to do,” she added. “It was a totally unprofessional decision.”
But Goldsmith has no regrets. Heart B Porter Creek, her first mule, has opened up a new world of equestrian possibilities and reinvigorated her riding career along the way. In 2011, Porter won the U.S. Dressage Federation All-Breeds award at third level for the American Mule Association—with a median score of 62.13 percent—and took the Performance Horse Registry Silver Stirrup award at third level.
“It’s a total endeavor for Porter and myself, and it’s a blast,” said Goldsmith. “I take it one year at a time. We didn’t think he’d do training level, let alone first, now he’s at third level doing half-pass and flying changes.”
Love At First Smell
When Goldsmith went to pick up her mule from his breeders, Tom and Bonnie Lee at Heart B Ranch in Emmett, Idaho, more than eight years ago, Porter wasn’t sure about his new owner at first.
“I’d pet him, and he was fine, but then Tom handed me the leadline and said, ‘Go ahead and play with him.’ I’m holding the rope, and Porter’s looking at me like, ‘Who are you?’ The first instant was not even that great, but it got better,” said Goldsmith.
The weanling loaded up for his seven-hour drive to Goldsmith’s farm.
“You know how you’re always supposed to take one more trip around the trailer and make sure all the doors are closed? I did that,” she said. “I climbed up on the wheelbase and was looking in there, and I noticed that he smelled my hand. I drove about three hours, and it was awfully quiet back there. I walked to the back and did the same thing—climbed up on the wheel and looked in and put my hands up—and he smelled my hand again, and he brayed at me. From that moment on, whenever I open my truck door, he brays at me.”
When Goldsmith bought Porter (and, the next year, his half brother Heart B Lonesome Tuxedo), she thought she’d compete him in mule classes at Bishop Mule Days. But when Porter was a yearling, he started having some bizarre neurological symptoms. First he started pacing, and then he was tripping and falling down.
“The pacing has gone away, but the tripping comes and goes,” Goldsmith said. “I had a horse in training that I needed to take to some horse trials, and I asked a friend who was an L judge to come help me. She was totally intrigued with the mules. I said, ‘You know, he falls down.’
“I get on Porter, and she gives me this totally adorable dressage lesson at the walk,” Goldsmith continued. “I said, ‘Listen, I don’t need to cross his legs to make him fall down. He’ll fall on his own.’ But having a strong dressage background myself, I understood the benefits of it. As bad as he was at that point, I wasn’t going to jump him, and I was going to stop riding him. The dressage thing has been an amazing experience, and it’s helped him so much.”
Goldsmith, Sisters, Ore., did eventually take Porter (Heart B Lonesome M—Irene’s Star) and his half brother to Bishop Mule Days, with both mules winning World Championship titles. In 2006, Porter also won the in-hand division at the Mountain Trail Championships (Ore.). But the half-Thoroughbred has proved he’s more than just a jack-of-all-trades by finding his niche in the sport of dressage.
A Rideable Border Collie
At first, Goldsmith wasn’t sure the dressage world would welcome her long-eared partner. She got used to seeing a particular expression from judges every time she would trot around the outside of the ring.
“It’s always the same look,” she said. “They ring the bell, and it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get this dog-and-pony show over with. You trot down centerline, but as the test goes on, the judges start sitting up and getting more interested. By the time I trot down centerline the last time, most of them are standing up with big smiles on their faces, giving me a salute. I’ve had judges stop and ask to take photos with their cell phones.”
And Goldsmith quickly found her local dressage community was thrilled to have a new convert in its midst—even if she came mounted on a slightly unusual equine. The USDF approached the American Mule Association, of which Goldsmith was a board member, about joining its all-breeds program in 2008. In 2010, Porter won the Oregon Dressage Society’s President’s Choice Horse Ambassador award.
“I can’t even comprehend that the USDF came to us, and that they’ve been so supportive,” said Goldsmith. “The judges’ comments are always constructive and always positive. They always make me go home and try harder and come back and try again. I’ve never gotten an impression from a judge that he shouldn’t be there. They give him 7s and 8s when he’s correct, and 4s, 5s and 6s when he’s not.”
Even though the people within the dressage community welcomed Porter with open arms, there is still an occasional horse that objects to his presence at shows.
“I think it’s a smell thing, they do smell different, and there are a couple of horses out there that can’t cope,” Goldsmith said. “I watch like a hawk. If I have to go warm-up in a parking lot, I will. If I have to scratch, I’ll scratch. Every show manager, I tell them, ‘If someone is having a true problem, please come tell me.’ ”
Goldsmith has ridden most regularly with dressage trainer Sue Sherry, Powell, Wyo., for the last three years, helping Porter up the ranks from training level to third level. Porter’s won plenty along the way, too, taking six blue ribbons at third level against horses last year.
“I personally thought it was great when I started working with Audrey,” said Sherry. “It made me giggle a lot at first. Audrey’s a very fine rider, and I would have to say she’s completely transformed him. He looks like a horse now, not like a mule, if you cover up the ears. He tries really hard, and he’s very sweet. He’s a very good mover now, but he didn’t start out that way. If dressage can do that for a mule, imagine what it could do for your horse?”
Putting stereotypes about mules to rest, Goldsmith is quick to point out that Porter’s no more stubborn than any horse she’s ridden. But there are still a few differences between him and an average horse.
“He’s further along in his training than any other horse I have, so I get on him, and he feels more broke,” she said. “When a horse gets hard in the mouth, it’s not that big a deal, but when a mule gets hard, it’s like a board. So you learn to ride better, and you learn to keep him supple and not go there. They’re sort of like rideable border collies. They’re brilliant, and they have way more flight instinct. They don’t stick around. They don’t run away fast, they don’t go far, but for a period of time you don’t have a lot of control. My biggest fear showing Porter was that someone would see him do that, and it would prove to people that mules are stubborn and hardheaded. But he really never let me down, which is really, really cool.”
Porter, 9 this year, now goes in a double bridle. Goldsmith plans to keep him at third level for the 2012 show season, and then she’ll continue seeing how far he can go.
“He’s getting specialized enough that he doesn’t have to do too much of the mule stuff anymore,” she said. “He’s become this little celebrity. His brother is a superstar against the mules—he’s rarely been beaten—and it’s Porter that everyone talks about. It’s not about beating expensive horses to make them look otherwise. My point is not to take him to the Olympics, but it’s been something really good for him and something he can do.”