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October 31, 2004

Ernest's Special Christmas

by Laura T. Barnes,
Barnesyard Books

2004 Silver Ben Franklin Award Winner – Best Children’s Book Published by an Independent Press
Story Overview/Background

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Who would have thought that the adoption of a little miniature donkey would lead to a monumental shift in my life.

Nine years ago my husband and I purchased a barn that had been converted into a home in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. We were soon made aware that the previous owner had a miniature donkey named Ernest, and, Chester, a draft horse, who lived downstairs on the first level of the barn. The woman who sold us our home was moving into a small residence and could no longer care for the animals. We agreed to let them stay.

The adoption of Ernest and Chester has lead to the adoption of numerous additional horses and donkeys over the years. Yes, they all live on the first level of the barn. Life is quite special hearing all of the unique noises that float up through the floor boards.

Although we now have many sweet animals, Ernest is special. At only 29”, he is much smaller than all of the other donkeys.

Like all of the titles in the series, Ernest’s Special Christmas is based on an actual event that took place at our farm. The book focuses on Ernest and his barnyard friends as they prepare to celebrate Christmas. They soon realized Chester, the draft horse, is missing. Determined Ernest takes off in the snow in search of his friend. He finds the big, white horse lying in the white snow. Ernest tries to help Chester up but soon discovers that the task is much too difficult for him alone. He struggles back to the barn to enlist his bigger friends for help. Even with the strength of his large barnyard friends, they are unable to help Chester. Slowly other smaller animals begin to help. To their joy they discover that with everyone, large and small, working together, they are able to rescue their dear friend. Through love and determination, Ernest and his friends discover that being together with loved ones is the most special Christmas gift of all.

The actual event that was the inspiration for the story is even more touching. The day before Christmas Eve, a neighbor had called me at work to alert us that Chester had been lying in the pasture for several hours and she was beginning to get concerned. I quickly returned home. Upon seeing Chester I knew he was in trouble and called both my husband and our local Vet. The three of us, plus several neighbors, struggled to get Chester to his feet but to no avail. Ernest, who had been standing beside Chester when I arrived, never left his side. He kept nudging Chester as we tried to pull him up.

Because it was close to Christmas, a variety of friends and neighbors stopped by to drop off Christmas gifts. They soon joined in the effort. Unfortunately, because we were in the middle of the pasture we did not have the ability to hoist Chester up in any way. After struggling for hours, the Vet soon explained that perhaps the kindest thing would be to put Chester down. I simply could not accept this. Someone suggested that we contact a neighbor, Mr. Copeland, who owned a front-end loader. I had never met Mr. Copeland but immediately called him and implored him to bring his front-end loader to assist us. Naturally, he thought I was crazy to ask such a strange request – especially on a cold, dark, December night. Never-the-less he came to help.

It took us hours to maneuver the sling under Chester’s large body. We then worked to secure it to the bucket of the front-end loader. Slowly we managed to raise Chester up. Much to our disappointment however, Chester immediately collapsed back to the ground when Mr. Copeland attempted to lower him into a standing position. Not to be deterred, everyone started to massage Chester’s legs which we determined had become numb after lying down for such a prolonged period of time. We must have spent a half-hour trying to get his circulation moving. Ernest never left Chester’s side during the entire ordeal.

Once again, Mr. Copeland raised the bucket of the front-end loader raising Chester right along with it. Very gently he lowered Chester until his hooves touched the ground. He wobbled a bit but then managed to stand on his own. A huge cheer rang out from our little group of helpers. Mr. Copeland jumped to a standing position with his arms raised cheering louder than all of us. Ernest was so excited he kept trotting in little circles around his friend Chester. There was not a dry eye in the pasture that night. It was our little Christmas miracle. We had all worked together on that freezing December night to save our large, gentle giant Chester. It was without a doubt the best Christmas gift of all and an inspiration for a very special edition in the Ernest Series.

Posted by Guest Contributor at 03:25 PM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2004

Sitting On The Neck of My Mule

by Steve Edwards
Queen Valley Mule Ranch

When I first started riding mules, I would put the saddle on just like a horse, high on the wither with my chinch close to the front legs. Down the trail we went.

I always rode with a loose cinch because I wanted my horse to have all the breathing power possible. I know how heavy I breathe when I go up those mountains on foot. (Walking hurts the price of good saddle mules.)

Guess what happened on the first down hill? Yep, you guessed it, over the head I went. The saddle went over the shoulders and on up the neck. I stayed on going over grabbing halters and ears, landing in front of the mule but on my feet.

I decided to tighten up the cinch and down the next hill I went. This time I turned sideways on the trail to keep from going over the neck.

One of my old cowboy buddies suggested I center-fire the saddle. That worked better, but not great. I fought that saddle the whole trip. It was miserable. I even made a crupper, put the saddle on and put the crupper under the tail. That mule went nuts! He was determined to buck me off. He didn't like that thing rubbing on the softest part of his body.

That night I decided to talk to a saddle maker and get a britchen. The saddle maker and old friend suggested I use a britchen off one of my old harness. Now that started my quest for what makes Mr. Mule comfortable. I know what it's like to have a sore back and a belt that's too tight. I decided that's how a mule feels when he is saddled up poorly. Horse saddles are not made to fit mules, and it does make a difference.

When I first started out I was not only using a britchen but I was using a horse saddle. The mule protested but I thought it was the mule's fault. You know the mule has a bad reputation so everything he does is his fault right? Nope it's our fault.

Now first I want to say the best you can do for your mule is to have a good fitting tree! Notice I didn't say a good fitting saddle. You CANNOT TELL IF A SADDLE FITS UNTIL YOU SEE THE BARE TREE FIT. The tree is the Skeleton.

Next in importance is the britchen, which is what I want to talk about today. First let’s talk about what a britchen does not do. You do not use it to keep your saddle or cinch back ALL THE TIME you are in the saddle. The britchen is for stops and going down hills. This is when the saddle moves the most. This is what the britchen is designed to help with. When the britchen is tight all the time, it will rub hair off the hip in a short time. I have seen mules scalded in as little as half an hour. Do not adjust your britchen straight. This may look good but will pull hair quick because it does not fit the hip flush.

Lets look at different ways of fitting the britchen

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This picture shows how I see a lot of britchens fit. See the area at the top of the britchen strap? The hair is pushed up. This will start cutting hair just like a razor. Notice the space under the bottom of the britchen strap. This further confirms the pushing up of the hair at the top of britchen you see in the picture.

What should a good fit look like?

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This picture shows the angle I prefer. Notice the angle of the strap. The whole strap is flush with the hip




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Here I am pointing out the area where it you can position the britchen. Where to place the britchen depends on the size of your mule’s hips. You may have from three to as much as ten inches of adjustment.

The wide strap that all the adjusting straps attach to at the top of the hip is called the hip safe. Set the hip safe just behind the croup at the top of the hip. Placing it there will help the hip safe to stay in place and not slide towards the saddle.

Adjustments – I may move my britchen up and down the hip sometimes twice in a three-hour time frame. This will help prevent wearing hair off the hip. Do consider the temperature. If your mule is hot and sweaty, hair will rub off much easier.

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As you can see in this picture, you should be able to place both of your hands between the britchen and the hip. The hair of the hip should just touch the back of your hand.

Reasons to use a britchen rather than a crupper

I can ride with a loose cinch. This will help the mule to have better lung capacity and to be a whole lot more comfortable. Each strap on the britchen will do its job to help keep the saddle in place.

The britchen will help keep your saddle from going forward. When adjusted properly, it will also help limit side-to-side movement.

The hip has more mass to help distribute the weight from the rider and saddle. This is an extra bonus when getting on and off.

You can adjust a britchen up and down the hip several inches where you can’t adjust a crupper at all. A crupper will wear the soft skin of the tail and sore it. (You would never use a crupper along with a packsaddle.)

I could go on and on, and at my clinics I address lots of questions on this subject. We hope to see you at one sometime soon!

Steve Edwards


Steve Edwards trains mules and donkeys and educates humans about how to communicate with them by offering clinics, apprenticeships and specialized training programs. Queen Valley Mule Ranch is a college for mules and their human companions owned and operated by long-time Arizona residents, Steve and Susan Edwards.

We also sell all the basic equipment used on mules for riding, packing and driving along with instructional videos on various mule training topics created by our own Steve Edwards. Queen Valley Mule Ranch is a great facility, located southeast of Phoenix, Arizona in the Sonoran desert, with a fantastic view of the Superstition Mountains.

Steve can be reached at steve@muleranch.com or (602)-999-6853.

Posted by Guest Contributor at 05:30 PM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2004

Brad Cameron Clinic Photos

by Jan Williams, Dorton Creek Ranch

Here are some pictures from our clinic held this weekend. We had a GREAT time, and can't wait 'til next year!!!!

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Jan @ Dorton Creek Ranch


Dorton Creek Ranch, founded in 1994, is dedicated to raising fine saddle mules, and also offer trail mule training services. Jan Williams can be contacted at jan@buddyscompanies.com or 706-846-2060.

Posted by Guest Contributor at 09:59 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2004

What happens when you leave your kids home alone to play in the yard?

by Jehnet Carlson,
DJ Bar Ranch

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It is fall and I'm thinking “Well I will turn all the mules out in the yard to mow it a bit before winter sets in.” We were getting ready to leave for Sandpoint Idaho Draft and Mule Show, so we had to run to town to fuel the rig up, drop a mule off at it's owners house that was here for training and take one mare down to the state section.

Fernando is a young veterinarian from Brazil who is staying with me learning about mules in the United States. When Fernando and I got back, we ran the mules back to the corrals to pen them up for the night. He immediately noticed that Ebony a young 3 year old Tennessee Walking Mule was missing.

We looked around the yard and were scanning the distant hill for her. Now, I have really good fences all around so I just couldn't imagine where just one mule would be by herself. It was getting late so I decided to go into the house to get a pair of binoculars to scan the hills.

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Well I found her in the house! Not sure how she got in except possibly one of the dogs slipped out the screen door and she must have slipped in behind them with the door closing behind her. I am really fortunate that she didn't panic and try to jump out one of the big picture glass windows.

The only damage was a deposit on the floor, a knocked over chair and knocking a flat of tomatoes onto the floor maybe eating some and squishing a whole lot. So be careful leaving your kids home alone out in the yard to play! <GRIN>

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Jehnet Carlson lives at DJ Bar Ranch in Belgrade, Montana and can be reached at info@djbarranch.com or (406) 388-7463. Her website is http://www.djbarranch.com.

Posted by Guest Contributor at 08:18 PM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2004

Strange Artisan

By JoAnn Szabo

In the pecan bottom along the Brazos River, if you hear noises other than frog and coyote songs at night, you’d better get up to check it out. One night I awoke to banging. Donning my robe and grabbling my flashlight, I jumped out of bed and opened the back door to listen. Bang, bang, there it was again. Cautiously I made my way down the dark trail to the barn toward the noise. The equines were turned out to pasture in the relative cool of the starry mid-summer evening. Had they gotten into the feed room? I was planning an emergency trip to the vet as I stumbled down the path. Bang, bang. It sounded louder now. Gathering courage, I turned on the barn lights. The feed room was securely locked and quiet. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Suddenly, BUMP, BUMP, BANG!

Part of the barn had been converted to a pottery studio. The studio door was closed. It wasn’t usually. BUMP! “Who is there?” I called, feeling scared and silly, remembering nearby prison farms and possible dangerous escapees. BUMP, BANG! I tried to push the door, but it wouldn’t open. Heart pounding, nightgown flowing, I raced around the corner, half-afraid to peer in the open window. The screen was down.

There was curly brown Donkey-O-Tee with his patent leather-like little round front hooves on the sill, considering an impossible squeeze through the tiny space. With a big loud honky-honk-hee-honk or two he said, “I sure am glad to see you. Can you get me out of here?”

“Oh my! What have you done?” The potter’s wheel with its 200 lb flywheel was knocked over and wedged against the only door. The heavy-duty slab press was tumbled against the potter’s wheel. Equipment had been chewed, wet upon, and manured. The air inside reeked. A discouraging hand on the animal’s halter through the window was at best a temporary measure. There had to be a convincing barrier over the window before I could scurry around to try the door again. Donkey was determined to stretch that little window to get his fat body through if I would just stand back right now, please. Fortunately, there was a big steel plate and a pry-bar to prop against it to block the window opening. Through the cracks I could see that the barrier had worked. The little animal stood with his ears at half-mast, pondering like a cartoon figure with a cloud over his head. I couldn’t help but laugh in spite of my heart pounding.

Nightgown flying and flashlight beam bobbing, I ran around to try the studio door again, knowing the window barrier could come down any minute. At last there was a small crack in the door—enough to snake a hand in and turn on the studio light. Inside, the bulky long eared critter tried to turn around to face the door. He stuck mid turn, spilling and crunching stacks of round bats and jars stuffed with pottery tools until he could turn no more. The damage in the studio was even worse than what had appeared under the flashlight--chunks of wood gnawed out of the worktable, glaze chemicals spilled, mashed clay chunks. There definitely was a donkey in the china shop--no doubt about it.

There was a hopeless tangle of steel legs from the slab roller. The concrete flywheel from the potter’s wheel was up against the door. The clock was ticking on legendary long-ear patience, stuck as the little equine was, half turned around and tangled in the mess. I found a big crowbar and began prying and rocking the steel to free the door. Inch by inch the door crack widened. Another big steaming poop plopped from the pretzel-like body entwined in the mess. Little yellow rivers of warm pee began to flow out the widening door opening and under my slippers. The door creaked and groaned under the stress of prying and rocking against the steel and concrete behind it.

Finally the equipment shifted and the door could open just enough for an exit. Fortunately, Donkey was not afraid of the clanging tangle of steel legs and scraping concrete. Nimbly and with a big grunt of effort, he leapt his bulky body sideways over the obstacles and clambered through the door unscathed.

“That was fun. What’s next?” he breathed, a little sweat dampening his curly brown fur.

“I’m so glad you’re ok!” He looked loveable with his jaunty attitude, and got a big hug. My heart sank at the thought of the clean up to come, but I was oh, so happy to have my little buddy back sound and healthy.

In the dark, I had to sleuth the equine escape route checking to see if the other pastured animal was safe. Reluctantly Donkey dragged his brown curly self on his lead behind me as we traversed the fence line in the dark to find the break. He would have liked to try the feed room door just one more time and said so with his roll-y eyes, mobile velvet ears, snorty nose and horrible lead line manners. I would have none of it and marched him up and down the fence searching for holes with the flashlight and a fist full of fence repair tools.

A sigh of relief came as Hanes’ four white horsy sox and big white blaze appeared in the flashlight beam. He was happily munching grass in the lush pasture and barely said “hi”. Donkey tossed his head, wrinkled his nose and waved his ears around in disgust at Hanes.

Suddenly the escape route appeared in the dimming flashlight beam. A heavy Pecan branch had snapped and fallen in the night, depressing the smooth fence wire enough for an easy step-over. A big heave-ho took care of the branch, but the wire didn’t spring back enough to hold an adventuring equine in. The fallen branch had loosened some fence staples.

Hanes looked up from his grazing and saw the hole. “Oh no,” thought I with visions of Hanes escaping, as he had been known to do, at a mad gallop, Donkey pulling free, and the two of them out on the neighborhood cavorting all night. Hanes shook his heavy mane and went back to grazing, ignoring his friend’s bad manners, cranking tail, tap dancing feet, and raucous attitude. I held the lead rope tight as I could and blocked the hole with my body just in case. Hanes kept on eating.

Ignored, Donkey jumped back into to the pasture through the hole nice as you please and began to graze as though nothing had happened. With a quick hammer or two, the fence gap disappeared. I made my way up the path to the house and back to bed. I slept soundly with a smile in my heart. The incredible aftermath would still be in the studio the next day. The neighbors would come help clean and gewgaw about what a mess it was. There would be tales told around the rocking chairs on porches for years to come about a strange artisan trying to make pottery down in the pecan bottom, little brown Donkey-O-Tee who went bump in the night.

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JoAnn Szabo along with her husband Richard Waybright are the rangers at the ArtPark of Far East Texas, an eclectic seven acre east Texas art environment, wildscape, and private home with an oriental flare, among other things. We have Donkey-O-Tee, a draft mule Sunshine, and two draft ponies, Hunky and Dory. All the equines ride and drive. All the rangers muck and feed.

Posted by Guest Contributor at 12:10 PM | Comments (1)