Chapter Eighteen: Ornery Samson
July was very un-Indiana-like. Bob and I had just returned from our Bryce Canyon vacation in Utah, and our present weather seemed more like that of the southwest. Indiana is corn growing country with humid, hot days and nights. In such weather it seemed you could see and hear the green corn stalks getting taller inch by inch. This summer we were in a drought.
If you didn’t need to worry about farm crops—hay, corn, or pastures staying green and growing—the weather was actually wonderful. The sunny days with low humidity and cool evenings were delightful; it was the perfect horse or mule riding weather. One of the times I rode Samson past Linda, my sister, I mentioned I was doing my yoga. She does yoga for real, but I preferred my version.
I claim the early mornings for myself. At 7:30 all is tranquil, still cool, and since I am a “morning person,” my energy level is high. I disliked Indiana’s finally joining most of the rest of the country in changing to daylight saving time. Before last year, we stayed on the same time all year around. However, it had been confusing trying to remember that just fifteen minutes away from home into Michigan, my friends were an hour ahead of me. I didn’t want to go to bed and have it still daylight. But finally Indiana joined the rest of the eastern United States. The one very good thing it provided for me was one extra hour of morning coolness. 7:30 was really 6:30 in sun time. It was a splendid time to ride.
We had lost forty acres of our land by eminent domain in 2003. Thirty acres was woodland and ten acres was a hayfield. It was akin to losing a friend. Our once peaceful, idyllic, and secluded one hundred and fifteen acres had become seventy-five very un-secluded acres. Now a busy four lane highway rumbled at the end of the property. No longer could we look out the back of the barn or our house and see the peaceful hay field melting into dark green woodland. Neighbors commiserated with one another.
One man who had experienced the law of eminent domain on his property for another, even busier four-lane road, told us, “You can look forward to hearing trucks, sirens and the noise of traffic all day and even at night.” Our peace was shattered.
Bob had made trails through the woodland and it was a serene and cool place to enjoy nature. Now it was gone. Jake, our neighbor to the south, lost part of his woodland, but part remained on this side of the big road. He graciously allowed me and my boarders to ride on that property. Bob again made trails that wound around trees, crisscrossed each other, up and down slight inclines and across the meandering little stream that although it only flowed after rains, made the terrain interesting. This was my meditation place—where I found my peace to start the new day.
Because of the exceptional summer weather, my morning riding was even more treasured. Hal had insisted that I get a cell phone and actually remember to take it with me when I went riding. Horseback riding is a contact sport. If you are lucky, the contact will be with your behind on your horse’s back, if not, then some part of your anatomy will contact the ground, and likely none too gently. Over the last few years, I’d had more than my share of falls off my horses. The first improvement I made was to get and wear a riding helmet, buy stirrups that allowed your foot to quickly spill out if you fell off. One of a horseman’s biggest fears is being dragged to death. Next, I bought an Australian saddle with “poleys,” a kind of thigh support that is supposed to keep you in the saddle better. The fourth was to buy mules.
For my early private morning rides, I had two horses and two mules to choose from. Nugget was fourteen, a great show mare and just as great trail horse. She enjoyed a fast gait, and that ride was more like driving a Ferrari. She was not spooky. Sunday was another younger show mare, and she also was splendid on the trails. Sunday was built like a “full figured woman.” Not fat, but lots of body. She tended to be a tad spooky, but she was built close to the ground. I think perhaps her center of gravity made it more difficult for her to spook and spin. It is the spins that are the worst. Her little spooks didn’t frighten me.
Susie Q, the little Quarter Horse mule that gaited up a storm, was very safe. She only “startled”—jumped a heartbeat to the side or stopped an instant, then she was on her way again. Little Miss Perfect was my pet name for her.
Then there was Samson, my favorite buddy, the new equine love of my life, my true and trusted friend. I loved riding Samson on these early morning jaunts more than any other animal. I had to make myself take the others. I enjoyed them all, but Samson was special. We seemed to be on the same wave length. Mary Long, my animal communicator friend, had said of Samson when she first talked to him, “He is so serene.” And that was what I took pleasure in—Samson’s tranquility.
Soon after I had purchased him—and was reveling in the safe feeling that riding a mule was giving me—I heard him tell me in my mind, “I will take care of you, Missus.” I was nearly giddy with happiness. Finally, in the golden years of my life, I had an equine that I could trust not to dump me as we rode.
“Give Samson some hay at chore time tonight, I am going to take him out for an early evening ride,” I told Erica. The second year I owned him, my mule had begun doing some naughty horse-like acts, such as spooking. Some extra riding would be good for him. Bob was on a trip, so tonight I would be riding alone.
The week before Bob left, he and I had been coming back toward the barn after a perfectly delightful ride in Jake’s woods and the fields. I was in the lead; we were gaiting, the speed of a slow trot, not just a slow walk. Unexpectedly, Samson put on the brakes, dug his front toes in the ground, spun quickly around, and ran in the other direction.
Earlier, during another of his little tantrums when he decided he didn’t want Miss Ellie to go first, and determined that if he couldn’t be in the lead, he would just go sideways down a hill, I realized that my mule was getting naughty.
When I got Samson under control and returned to Bob and Miss Ellie, still standing in the same spot, I tried again to get him to move forward, and the second time he spun around, but this time didn’t run.
“The cows are lying close to the fence. I think that is what has him spooked,” Bob remarked.
Contented Red Angus
Okay, the darn cows again. I hadn’t seen them, or I would have approached more carefully. Well, it made sense, but I sure hated it. According to my research on mules before buying one, I was told: “Mules, taking after their donkey side of the family, stop and assess the situation, deciding whether to stay, fight or run. There had been no time to assess anything. Samson had reacted—a horse trait.
Another symptom of his growing lack of calmness and concern for me occurred one morning when I was putting him and Praise Hallelujah in the barn. As I opened the pasture gate, Hallelujah let out a big “woof” alarm sound. I have only heard it from my horses when they are frightened of something—real or imagined. It is the monstrous snort that tells the rest of the herd to flee, danger is here. The horse snorted three more times looking toward the creek. I could see nothing. By now Samson was upset. He reacted by refusing to move his feet. Eventually, I got him into the first stall right inside the barn door, where he acted like he might jump over the side.
Samson didn’t like cows, but over the year of living in a pasture beside them, he had become quite accepting, which made this encore of naughty behavior very odd. Another time, I was taking him from the pasture into the barn and a cow was standing in the general area. The cow didn’t move a muscle, but Samson turned and ran away, pulling the lead rope through my hands and giving me a rope burn. I was flabbergasted. What was happening to my Sammy Boy?
I talked to two mule trainers, asking if Samson was getting too much grass to eat; I knew he wasn’t getting too much grain; he got a few grains a day with his daily wormer. They both said it was possible. Loyd told me a story about a mule he had sold. The new owner called him back about a year later and said, “I want you to take this mule back and sell him. I can’t ride him, he bucks me off.”
Upon investigation, it was determined that the owner had been feeding the mule a gallon of sweet grain each day. Goodness, that was enough to make a horse crazy, let alone a mule that neither needs nor can handle all those carbs. For the mule’s retraining, Loyd told me he put him in a dry lot—no green grass and fed him only a small amount of hay. “Then I tied him up for hours a day,” he continued.
Loyd explained, “Tying up a mule is like a child’s “time out.” It gives them time to think about the fact they are a mule. I’d suggest you tie yours up and leave him there.”
I called Mary Long. The first thing she said was, “Gracious, he is very tense. He’s acting like a horse.” She had hit the nail on the head. Yes, indeed, he was acting just like Praise Hallelujah, his pasture mate! We explained to Samson that he was not to act like a horse, he was a mule. Neither Mary nor I thought we had really gotten through to Samson.
My next ride alone was in the morning and it was a pleasant, uneventful, and relaxing outing. My surprise came when I had finished untacking Samson and started to lead him back into his stall. He wouldn’t budge. It made sense not to want to leave his stall to be ridden, but not to refuse to re-enter it. Then I had an illumination. He was “tying himself up.” My mule was asking for his “time out.”
“All right, we will give you that time, but in your stall,” I said to him.
Four hours later he was still standing contentedly in his corner. I turned him loose. Next day, I again tied him again for several hours and again he was tranquil. Great, I thought, I’ve got the solution to my naughty mule’s conduct.
Monday evening, as I saddled Samson, I was looking forward to another ride like we’d had the day before. He had been absolutely perfect. Starting into the neighbor’s woods, Samson stopped gently and gazed off to his right. Standing only ten feet from me was a big doe. Her dark luminous eyes stared back at us. She twitched an ear, flicked her white tail and stamped a foot. Giving her the idea that she had frightened us off, I turned and took another path. I loved these deer meetings. It was Mother Nature at her best.
As we rode home in the dry creek bed, one of a neighbor’s peacocks squawked at us as we walked by. The creek bed was deep, so the peacock was almost at head level. Samson barely looked. A few steps further, I felt his hind foot snag something. Stopping and looking down, I saw his foot caught in an old wild grape vine. He hadn’t reacted in the slightest. Backing him up a couple steps untangled his foot, and we continued home. It was idyllic—just the perfect ride for my old bones.
Up to a point, my next evening ride was going just as well. Bob had made several sloping paths into the dry creek bed. Close to home I turned Samson into one. I was in my “zone,” relaxing and thinking about nothing in particular, just enjoying the evening; I held the reins loosely in my hands. As I leaned slightly back to go down the rather steep but very short bank, Samson stopped like he had hit a brick wall and spun around to the right. I knew I was going to fall. As I lost my balance and crashed to the ground I kept repeating, “No, no, noooo.”
This was a hard fall; it was a long way down. My sacrum hit the ground first, then my shoulders and finally, my head. Thank goodness for the helmet.
I rolled over in somewhat of an angry daze, and discovered I could stand, but my lower back and left hamstring muscle hurt like blazes. My head didn’t hurt at all, no double vision or dizziness. Those ugly looking riding helmets are worth their weight in gold. I looked for Samson, and saw him moseying slowly toward home, snatching a bite of grass now and then, leaving me alone. How dare he?
I could see Erica riding Joe, with her current boyfriend standing close by. I called her on my cell phone, but it went to voice mail. When she rides Joe, she understandably doesn’t answer the phone. I was hoping for a ride home on the golf cart. Rats. I would have to get back under my own steam.
It was torture, but I could walk. I was almost glad Samson had left. There was no way I could remount and ride, I hurt too much. He had to go the long way around on the path. I could cut across the pasture after climbing over a gate, in excruciating pain. Walking uphill was hard on my hamstring muscle, the large muscle group that lay between my knee and seat bone. Every time I lifted my leg, I thought I’d be sick. It was agony.
Erica saw Samson coming toward the barn, and went to get him. Then she saw me struggling up the pasture hill toward her. Her friend got the golf cart and came to me, but by then I had made it back. I decided to ride the last few yards to the barn, and that’s when I discovered that I couldn’t walk without pain—and I couldn’t sit either. The pressure on the injured hamstring muscle was agonizing. Going to the potty was going to be heck.
The physical pain was nothing compared to the emotional pain I felt at the betrayal by my favorite mule. That was hell. I went over and over the scenario in my mind, trying to find a bona fide reason for his action. Again, that was horse, not mule behavior. I could have positively understood it if Praise Hallelujah had dumped me.
As I hauled myself out of the golf cart, I said to Erica, who was holding Samson, “Please unsaddle him for me”—an unneeded request, she was going to do that anyway—“and then tie him up and leave him tied all night.” He had already eaten his supper, and a long timeout would be a fitting punishment.
I almost hoped he had faulty vision and saw a “hole” in the ground where there was none, but Dr. Hammond shot down that idea. “His eyes look fine to me. I don’t think you can blame his actions on his eyesight.”
I went back in the golf cart several days later and at the same time of evening to see if a spot of bright sunlight shining through the trees had made him think the footing was unsafe. I do think that had been the issue, but now I had two problems: what to do with Samson and how was I going to be able to feel safe riding him again—at least alone—my favorite way of enjoying him?
I emailed Mary Long a SOS. Many thoughts jumbled through my mind about my big mule. What he had done was exceptionally dangerous because it was so unexpected. How can you trust a mule that is absolutely perfect virtually all the time, and then unexpectedly does something like dumping me off his back?
When Mary called she said Samson was too full of himself. “He is cocky. He thinks he is the head honcho in the barn area, and unfortunately, that includes you.” Clearly, my mule had forgotten that I was “his missus.”
Sadly, tying him up hadn’t solved the problem after all. My new plan was to separate him from Hallelujah. They were sharing a small pasture, and on the surface it seemed idyllic. They had their squabbles, and some rough play, but if push came to shove, Samson won by sheer size. Perhaps that had given him a swelled head and a superior attitude.
When I gelded Hallelujah eighteen months ago, my plan was to turn him out with his group of mares, but with Samson’s arrival, I had changed my mind. Now, I again decided to put Hallelujah with the mares and keep Samson alone. I knew I couldn’t turn them all together. Talking to other mule men had satisfied me that the big mule was too pushy and dominate to put with a herd. Someone was sure to get hurt. I once more recollected why I had wanted molly mules—they get along in a herd situation better, and as a rule are not always trying to be boss. At least with a couple of exceptions, that had been my thirty year experiences with my mares.
Samson was given a one acre pasture with a run-in-and-out stall in the barn. He could see the horses, but if they went to the far end of their pasture, they were some distance away. He stood at his fence looking forlorn, and occasionally giving a sad sounding “heee heee haaaaw.” It was true, he was not happy. But then, neither was I.
Still trying to figure out why Samson had become spooky and reactive, I wondered if he didn’t run enough in his other pasture to burn off energy I didn’t use in riding him.
“Erica, how would you like to canter Samson for me? Perhaps you can make him work harder than I have been.”
She was more than up for it; I knew she would take no attitude from him. I was so sore and somewhat fearful from my fall that it would be awhile before I felt mentally and physically like riding again. There was no way he should enjoy a vacation while I recuperated. It was going to take me some time to forgive him. I really didn’t want anything to do with him.
I think the feeling was mutual. He didn’t want anything to do with me either. When I went down the barn aisle where my horses and mules stood with their heads hanging over their doors, he pulled his in and turned away when I went by him. Moreover, I didn’t care much for the look in his eye—it was anything but adoring. I emailed Mary Long again.
“Help, I think my mule hates me.”