It all started when a schooling show in central Texas told Katie Wetteland “no.”
After learning about mules while attending Virginia Military Institute, Wetteland got one of her own, named Mjolnir The Longear, and trained him to jump. She let show management know she planned to bring him to the Texas show, but they informed her of a U.S. Hunter Jumper Association rule that forbade mules from competing.
That “no” sparked a fire and sent Wetteland on a two-year campaign to allow mules to show in the jumper divisions at U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated jumper competitions.
“I decided, well, if I’m going to be banned from local shows, then I’m going to change what everyone thinks of these animals and show them what they’re really capable of,” Wetteland said. “[I wanted to] do my best to change everyone’s minds that this isn’t just a pack animal, [and] that horses in competition are generally not affected by mules.”
Wetteland, who now lives in Penrose, Colorado, put together a petition advocating for mules to be allowed to compete. That petition caught the attention of Whitney Barnard, USHJA’s assistant managing director of education. Barnard competes her own mule Alan A Day’s Work in unrecognized events, and while she stays away from USHJA rule change proposals to avoid any perception of bias, Barnard offered to show Wetteland the proper channels for submitting one.
Wetteland took the proposal to the USHJA Jumper Working Group and worked alongside that committee and USHJA President Mary Knowlton, who submitted the rule on Wetteland’s behalf.
Wetteland took an educational approach when she presented her proposal to the USHJA. Her pitch included a 23-slide PowerPoint presentation explaining the differences and similarities between mules and horses. After moving to Colorado, she started competing in some of that area’s local jumper shows, and she gathered statements from other competitors regarding their positive experiences with Mjolnir.
During the 2020 USHJA Annual Meeting, held virtually Nov. 30-Dec. 11, 2021, the rule change garnered little discussion, although there were concerns raised that mules may be frightening or distracting to horses, and was approved.
“I think some people are going to have a negative perception of mules because maybe they’ve had a negative experience in the past where their horse was afraid of it,” said Barnard. “But I can count on one, maybe two, hands the number of times I’ve been to a place whether boarding, schooling or trailering in, where horses were actually afraid of my mule. I think it’s about educating riders about how similar mules really are, but also educating our horses to see something that’s maybe a little bit different. They usually eventually get over it.
“As a mule owner, if I go to a show, and a horse is worried for any reason, I try to keep my distance, or if the rider is really willing then we may introduce the horse and mule in a safe way,” she continued. “Generally I try to be very careful and not affect somebody else’s ride because their horse was uncertain about my mule. I think mule people will be willing to do that. The more often that you see a mule in competition or at an event somewhere, the better horses will be. I really don’t think it’s going to be a problem in the long run.”
After the proposal passed at the USHJA level, it moved to the USEF where it passed at the committee level and then, on June 28 during the USEF Mid-Year Meeting, it was approved by the USEF Board. Mules will be allowed to compete in jumper classes starting Dec. 1. Mules already are allowed to compete in USEF-recognized combined driving, dressage and endurance competitions.
Wetteland hopes the rule change will encourage other mule owners to try English disciplines, and that increased demand will increase the number of purpose-bred mules.
“[Mules are] immensely intelligent and emotional and physically adaptable equines,” said Wetteland. “I love that they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve and not as this less than pack animal. They are athletes.”