At Kimmy Risser’s breeding and training farm, Hickory Manor in Paris, Kentucky, leggy Thoroughbred and warmblood mares graze beside sport horse babies with reasonably sized ears—notable, because the breeder is the voice behind a recent rule change proposal to admit mules into U.S. Hunter Jumper Association hunter and hunter equitation divisions.
Risser isn’t planning to breed mules, although she would “own one in 5 seconds.” She is, however, advocating for the equids to be included in hunter classes, in part, because they aren’t really newcomers at all. In 2021, after a hard fought two-year campaign, the USHJA voted to admit mules into the jumper divisions in U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated competitions.
Risser has proposed a new rule to also include mules in hunter and equitation divisions, citing their recent integration into jumpers, as well as their longtime participation in dressage competitions, where mules have been permitted for more than 20 years.
“With mules having the same capabilities as horses over fences as well as on the flat, there is little reason not to allow them to compete equally against one another in the hunter and equitation rings just as they do in the jumper and dressage rings,” Risser wrote in proposal GR 127.3. “Not to mention that expanding participation for mules encourages growth within the sport, especially at the lower levels.”
Risser was inaugurated into mule advocacy by witnessing her friend Whitney Barnard’s partnership with her mule Alan A Day’s Work. Barnard regularly schools the 13.3-hand Appaloosa mule on Risser’s property, and they trailer together to nearby horse shows with Risser’s young sport horses.
Barnard, who is the USHJA’s assistant managing director of education, competes “Alan” in jumper divisions. The versatile duo has also participated in dressage and event competitions, showed off his scope in jump chute clinics and braved spooky trail obstacles in-hand.
“But the thing is, he has really nice hunter knees,” Barnard said.
The rider has been able to bring Alan to a few small, unrated hunter shows, but would like to be able to show off her mule’s snappy style over fences in rated competitions. For all the talk about whether mules can hold their own against horses, she’d prefer that question go to the judges of individual classes, rather than have mules be excluded outright.
“I ride him exactly the same as any of the hunters in the ring,” Barnard said. “There’s no reason not to mark him just as well as another horse doing the same thing, or mark me less because you don’t like a mule over a horse—that’s fine.”
Barnard acknowledges the concerns of those who might oppose the rule change. She’s heard hunter riders repeat the worry that some voiced before mules were admitted into the jumper ring: Won’t the presence of strange looking, long-eared mules distract and worry the horses?
“I think there’s people who get worried about the unknown,” Barnard said. “Or they’ve had their horse have one negative experience with a miniature, or with spooking in general. Then, as a result, they assume there’s going to be an issue with Alan, and very rarely is there. I just showed two days this week, and not a single horse batted an eye at me.”
Since mules have been admitted into jumpers, Barnard shares the warm-up ring with hunter riders and horses. She says she has rarely seen a horse react negatively to Alan’s presence. Risser, who has a young horse program herself, believes that the inclusion of mules could be viewed as an opportunity for the horses.
“I think my job is to show that the horses don’t mind,” Risser said. “If I can have a barn full of anything from foals to 27-year-olds—and horses that have never left the property are exposed to this and literally do not even think twice about him—then your show horse that travels the country should also not think twice about him.”
The rule change also isn’t likely to drastically change the landscape at competitions: Only a handful of mules have been registered with the USHJA, and Alan is the only one of those actively competing.
The mule proposal and 32 other proposed rule changes are now open for online comments and feedback from USHJA members. The comment period continues through Oct. 31. At the USHJA Annual Meeting in December, the board will consider the proposals and take a vote to determine their stance. If they vote in favor of the change, the proposal will then be submitted to the USEF board of directors for possible inclusion in the USEF Rulebook.
Risser is excited about the potential to make this change, not just as a fierce supporter of her good friend, but because of what this step could mean in terms of making the entire sport more inviting.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this sport,” Risser said. “I breed horses with the intention of trying to improve our sport. And to me, this is right up that alley of wanting to make this inclusive for anyone to come do it.
“We keep saying this over and over again, that the grassroots is the foundation of the sport, but I think it’s about time that we acknowledge that,” Risser said.
To comment on this or other USHJA rule change proposals, members must log into their accounts and then can enter their comments here. All comments must be received by Oct. 31.