By Glenda Price: CNJ columnist
Agriculturists have known — and exploited — the phenomenon of hybrid vigor for at least 100 years.
A hybrid is the resultant offspring from the mating of two plants or animals of different breeds, varieties or species. The hybrid outperforms either parent, thus the term hybrid vigor.
Mules, the offspring of a mare and a male donkey (jack), are among the most famous hybrids and, like most hybrids, are sterile. A very few female mules can reproduce, but no males are fertile.
Hybrid vigor gives mules greater height and endurance than either parent, and their human admirers say mules have higher cognitive intelligence than either parent. Their fans also say mules are more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses and are less obstinate, faster and more intelligent than donkeys.
During World War II, these animals, christened “long-eared soldiers,” proved invaluable, especially as pack animals supporting Allied forces fighting in mountainous terrain where mechanized vehicles were useless.
Mules are the unfortunate recipients of disparaging comments like “stubborn as a mule,” but experienced mule trainers point out that a mule will not let his rider put him in harm’s way. That kind of stubborn is … not bad.
The men who handled the mules during the war developed great respect for them. The mules not only survived the heavy loads, heat, humidity, and noise of the battlefields, but were able to detect danger before their soldier handlers.
These intelligent, alert animals saw and heard threats — enemy snipers, booby traps — before their human handlers. The soldiers also learned not to drink water if a mule refused it. The mule could smell it, and know it was contaminated.
There is no question, however, that mules have their own definite personalities. We had one on the ranch when I was young we called Harvey. He was big and — supposedly — broke to ride. My brother and I decided to see if that was true one day. He acted just fine while we bridled and saddled him, but when I mounted up he trotted around the corral once, then ducked his head and kicked up his heels. Me, saddle and all tumbled off over his neck.
After we were properly dumped, Harvey shook himself out of the cinches, stomped the saddle a bit, and then calmly walked over to the water tank.
That’s when we learned about britchen straps. Mules have hardly any withers, so there isn’t anything to keep the saddle from sliding forward. The britchen strap goes from each side of the back of the saddle and around the mule’s rear to keep it from slipping forward. Some people use what’s called a crupper that fastens to the back of the saddle and loops under the mule’s tail.
Some rodeo folks learned about britchens like I did — the uncomfortable way. When they decided to have bareback mule riding as the opening event at the local punkin’ rollin’ show, it turned out more entertaining than they expected.
Every single bareback rider — and rigging — sailed off over his mule’s front end. Heck of a show.