It Behooves Students to Follow Mule Lover

Times Staff Writer

Two acres and a mule. That’s all Will Green thought he would need to lead a life of packing and hunting in California’s backcountry. He bought the two acres on a windblown patch of the western Mojave. And he bought a doe-eyed mule initially so sweet that he named her Sugar, only to discover that she had a personality that grazed in sour pastures.

Quickly showing who was boss, Sugar bit the 43-year-old warehouseman, kicked him and dragged him around his corral. She bristled at having to wear a halter, balked at every command. In short, she did everything possible to live up to the animal’s reputation for being stubborn -- and to bring his blood to a boil.

That’s how Green found himself hauling the ornery creature this summer to what is billed as the nation’s only “mule school,” a training program at Pierce College in Woodland Hills taught by an old cowboy with a reputation for being able to sweet-talk even the most belligerent beast of burden.


Sure enough, within an hour on the first day of class, Steve Edwards was easily stroking Sugar’s mane and scratching her ears, gestures that before had made her cut and run. By noon, he was waltzing with Sugar around a pipe corral at the Woodland Hills campus, directing her movements with a length of rope, the pair kicking up clouds of dust as they learned to work as one.

“The biggest problem with mules is that most people aren’t smart enough to be around them,” Edwards, 56, told nine students on hand to learn about mule driving. “People say they’re stubborn, but they’re just very smart. You have to be able to outthink them.”

Mule lovers from all over the country come to learn from the Arizona mule charmer, point man for the Pierce College program, launched in 2002. Founded in 1947 as an agriculture school, Pierce is believed to be the only college in the country to offer a certificate in mule training.

Classes have been offered several times a year in weeklong clinics at the college’s Equestrian Education Center. But starting today, the program is set to hold its first semester-long course, a session on mule riding.

Students pay $42 per class, half the cost of a day of private lessons. More than 100 people have enrolled in the courses, with many going on to land coveted jobs at pack stations or opening their own training centers.

“Frankly, it was a little bit of a stunt when it first started,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Mark Drummond, who proposed the idea years ago when he was head of the Los Angeles Community College District.

A lifelong mule lover, Drummond believed that the much-maligned beast could help restore prominence to an equestrian program that had fallen on hard times. Now the mule program is the mainstay of Pierce’s equine science curriculum.

“I couldn’t think of any college anywhere teaching anything to do with mules,” Drummond said. “If played right, there wasn’t any reason it couldn’t draw a nationwide audience.”

The program has done just that, capitalizing on the growing popularity of an animal prized for its intelligence and sure-footedness. Once considered work stock, the long-eared equines have become a favorite of baby boomers and active retirees, a status symbol for empty-nesters enamored with the Old West and eager to explore the rugged country up close.

“A lot of these folks never owned a dog, let alone a mule,” said Edwards, a bona fide cowpuncher who wears a big-brimmed hat and calls everyone “pardner.”

“What a lot of them find is they’ve bought a mule and it’s supposed to be trained, so they climb on, and now they’re not able to get it to do what they want it to do,” he said. “The problem is generally not with the mule, it’s with the rider. I’ve never found a stubborn mule, just one that’s asking questions.”

There are plenty of answers at Mule College, USA. The 16-unit program consists of seven courses, covering basic mule packing and the treatment of injuries and disease. Students are required to keep logs and take exams.

But mostly, the program teaches greenhorns how to communicate with an animal whose hard work is chronicled in the Bible and in history books, from their role pulling ore-laden carts during the California Gold Rush to hauling pipe for construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In an almost Zen-like approach, owners and their four-legged friends learn to think as one.

“You learn what makes them tick,” said Ken Hoyle, 52, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who a few years ago traded his high-powered motorcycle for a pair of powerful pack mules named Salley and Sadie.

Hoyle initially was matched with a mule named Radar, a good omen for a CHP officer but a bad fit from the start.

Through Edwards, he found Salley and Sadie a year and a half ago. They were former world champion wagon drivers who once belonged to country singer Loretta Lynn.

“It’s kind of like a marriage in a way,” the Santa Ynez resident said. “I got real lucky with my girls.”

The girls were among the stars of the summer session, providing many of the students their first opportunity to board a wagon and lead a mule team. But first they had to practice. Edwards had the students pair up -- one holding the reins, the other clutching a bridle and bit.

The teams took turns “driving” each other around the parking lot of the college’s historic red barn, which sits within view of the Valley’s busy streets and gleaming high-rise buildings.

Half a dozen mules looked on in amusement, occasionally letting loose an ear-splitting bawl.

At first, Kay Elder of Canoga Park refused to move. Playing the part of the mule, the retired receptionist didn’t feel that her driver was properly communicating his intent.

“You didn’t smooch me,” she told Joel Carlisle, 61, of Anza. Edwards had explained that a smooch is the noise a driver makes to get a mule to giddy up.

A veteran of the program, Elder brought her mule, a caramel-colored beauty named Bodie with a case of the “terrible twos,” to the driving course. “He has a mind of his own; he’s not doing what he’s supposed to do,” Elder said. “There are so many things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.”

Edwards hears that a lot. When he’s not teaching at Pierce College, he holds private clinics at his Queen Valley Mule Ranch in Arizona and at other venues across the country.

The Pierce College program is steadily developing a national reputation, drawing students from Washington, Colorado and New Mexico. And it has turned out a handful of professionals who make their living working with the animals.

But Edwards said he was most pleased to teach those trying to forge better relationships with their mules, people like him who take pleasure in communing with an animal that is often misunderstood. “They’ve gotten a bad rap over the years,” he said. “But they’ll teach you a lot. And they’ll give their lives for you if you’re nice enough to them.”

Will Green has tried being nice, and mean. He has tried coaxing his mule, then muscling her. But still, after two years, Sugar continued to push his buttons.

“I wasn’t aware I was in such trouble until quite a ways into it,” explained Green, the first of the students to climb into the Pierce College corral to learn from Edwards during the summer session. “At first I could do things with her, but she slowly turned on me. It’s these animals; they’re very smart. When you don’t know, it gives them a window of opportunity to take over.”

Realization of that simple truth is a good first step, Edwards counseled as he worked his magic. He showed the students how to control the animals with a squeeze of the nose, and how to calm them with kind words and a gentle hand.

“This isn’t Burger King. The mule doesn’t get things her way,” the old cowboy said. “But I want to be fair. As long as my mule is paying attention, I’m going to use a light hand.”

Just then, Sugar flinched and raced away. “We need some respect, sweetheart,” Edwards told her. “We’ve got to work on that.”