Haven Reninger says the "girls" that work for him demand gratitude and plenty of coddling for their prize-winning performances. They can get downright mule-headed if they don't get it, he says.
"If you're going to beat the hell out of them, they're going to balk. But if you're nice to them, they'll do anything for you," Reninger says of his charges, the 24 hard-working, high-hoofing members of the Smiser Freight Mule Train.
With its metal barns nestled between a mobile home park and the Golden State Freeway in Newhall, Smiser Mule Ranch is one of the last rural hold-outs along a rapidly developing corridor of the Santa Clarita Valley. The ranch is home to Reninger, his wife and children, and the all-female team of mules, which travels throughout the United States and Canada each year to pull floats in parades and haul weights in competitions to publicize Smiser Freight Service.
Reninger says the team of competition draft mules, which won enough ribbons and trophies just last year to fill two walls of the ranch's main office, is the trucking company's answer to the Budweiser Clydesdales. He should know. He helped manage the brewery's famous team several years ago.
"But they had only one traveling team of men to go around with the horses, and we were on the road nine and ten months of the year," says Reninger, who has worked on farms for all but a few of his 65 years. "We seen days where our pay was starting on Sunday morning, and we worked our 40 hours by Tuesday afternoon, and then the rest of it was overtime. It just got to where I never got to see my wife and family."
So Reninger, a Pennsylvania native who speaks with a drawl that is a curious blend of the many Midwestern and Southern states he has called home, left the Budweiser team and took up dairy farming on Long Island, New York--until he met trucking company president Sam Smiser, who has an affinity for the balky creatures that can haul 2 1/2 times their 1,400-pound weight.
"That was in 1979, and he wanted me out here right away to train and manage his mule team," Reninger says. "So I figured, why not? I knew darn well mules were a different story than the Budweiser horses, but it sounded like a good deal."
The match has been anything but mulish ever since.
"I just love 'em. They're my girls," Reninger says, reaching up with a work-hardened hand to scratch his lead mule, Janie, behind one of her huge ears. The team employs only female mules because they have milder temperaments, "just like young ladies."
"I'm a horseman from birth and I can tell you, they're just like horses, only better," he said. "You've got to think a lot more with mules because they're plenty smarter. A mule won't run into a fence like a horse will. They've got good enough sense to stop."
Reninger says mules also have good enough sense not to do anything without a full explanation, which contributes to their legendary stubbornness.
"They appreciate knowing what's going on. They're just like people that way," he explains. "If they understand why you're asking them to do something, they're more inclined to do their best for you."
Reninger is a mulish man himself, preferring the company of his team to the bustle of town. When errands demand that he visit the local shopping center and bank, he hitches up a cart and a pair of "my girls" to haul him there.
Besides spending his working week shuttling his charges to parades and competitions to strut their stuff, Reninger occasionally shucks his dusty overalls and baseball cap to deck himself out in his Sunday best for weddings, where the mules and their old-fashioned carriage make for a stylish limousine ride to the reception.
"I like it here because I'm in the city but yet it's country, and I'm country boy through and through, no question," he says.