Western Mule Riders
I bet you have heard it before that old saying “Stubborn as a mule!” My grandparents often used it when speaking about someone who wasn’t cooperative. This common conception that mules are stubborn is just not true. They are the opposite. Mules are smart and very trainable, but they have an instinct for self-preservation which makes them very careful and leads to the misconception of stubbornness.
I discovered this and much more when visiting Middlebourne, WV resident, Ronnie Fletcher. Ronnie has a unique hobby, or should I say passion. He belongs to the “Western Mule Riders.” This is a group of like minded riders from across the United States that believes mules, the offspring of a male donkey and female horse, are the perfect mounts. Ronnie and his mule “Podre” have been riding for six years, and they look forward each fall to a trip out west with other club members.
The group of 35 riders meets every year in September in Colorado Springs, CO and looks forward to riding between 50 and 100 miles a week. Accommodations for the group are at a different dude ranch each year. A dude ranch is a working cattle ranch that has been converted to a guest resort for tourists at the conclusion of the cattle season. Four days a week from 8 am to 6 pm, Ronnie and Podre, along with other mule riders of the group, take to the trails for a new adventure ride. One day of the week is set aside for games of skill and competition. Riders eagerly anticipate events like the obstacle course, calf pinning, and the traditional “Pantyhose Race.” This race requires a team of 3 riders. Two riders hold the feet with the middle rider holding the waist band. Each team must complete the course without falling off or tearing the pantyhose. It’s a test of rider speed and control as well as the strength of the undergarment. At night, back at the ranch, content but tired riders are met with delicious meals prepared by the dude ranch staff.
Mouth watering offerings of Buffalo meat, BBQ sandwiches and Elk meat are just a few of the fabulous selections.
Evenings are passed playing games of Corn Hole and pool. Ronnie told me the best steak he has ever eaten was on one of his yearly trips and was a Buffalo Steak.
Ronnie confided some trails are very dangerous, and the trail width is small. Most of the routes they travel are old gold mining trails dating back to the 1800s.
What’s the reason they ride mules instead horses? Ronnie explained, “A mule can see all four feet as they walk and a horse can only see the two front feet.” This difference allows for sure footing on the tough terrain. Also, a mule can go farther on less food than a horse. The danger comes in traversing the trails through steep mountains with drops of over 300 feet. The riders have to be extremely careful not to spook the mule, which requires experienced riders.
The group is restricted to 35 riders a year due to the terrain and capacity the dude ranch can accommodate. The wait list to go on the ride can be as long as two years. At 71 years old, Ronnie is one of the younger riders. There are some riders in their 90’s. Mule riders come from all over the US with states like Arkansas, Colorado, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all claiming participating members as riders.
Ronnie’s picture is on the cover of the December issue of the magazine “Western Mule” published in Springfield, MO. Sue Murphy, the photographer that took his picture, described him as “Santa Riding a Mule” due to the long flowing white beard for which Ronnie is famous. The magazine is a monthly publication owned by Ben and Neta Tennison of Colorado Springs and covers many stories about mules, mule lovers, their different rides and the places they stay each year.
Ronnie shared the most memorable part of the trip comes at 12,000 feet altitude when they pay respect to trail members lost in the previous year. A time capsule is buried containing the names of those departed riders and the names of club members participating on the current ride. In addition, a prayer is said along with the Pledge of Allegiance during the ceremony. “It is a highlight of the trip,” explained Ronnie. The cost of the trip when Ronnie began riding was $800 and is now up to $1400, but as Ronnie says, “It is worth every penny.”
Ronnie and his wife Connie have been married for 50 years and have two children, Jeremy and Sarah. Ronnie is owner of the Farmers Exchange which is also located in Middlebourne.