It was a "little renegade" of a mule that got Linda Geist hooked on mules.
Her first love was horses: "I've always been a horse person, since I was a little girl," Geist said. After her husband got a mule, the Geists were invited to the inaugural meeting of the Pikes Peak Long Ears Association - a group of people with a passion for mules and donkeys - in 1995. But even then Geist ignored the siren call of the mule; she rode her horse on the mule club's trail rides that summer.
Then she got her own mule, a 2-year-old named Scoot.
"He was rotten," Geist said - a bucker and a runner who had no regard for the fate of the rider on him.
"He'd hurt me, I'd heal up and get back on," Geist said. This went on for some time until, finally, "we just sort of clicked."
Nearly 20 years later, Scoot is still around and "100 percent trustworthy."
"He's the best animal I've ever owned," Geist said, "and I've owned a bunch of them."
She said her experience with Scoot - "trying to figure him out" - is what made her the mule person she is today. She's now president of the Pikes Peak Long Ears Association (pikespeaklongears.com) and has a passion for working with mules and helping people understand them. She and her husband used to breed mules and have about 15 of them on their property in eastern El Paso County.
I visited their ranch, where a sign at the entrance reads "Caution: You Are Entering Mule Country," last week. Mule country it is: mules scattered across the property in barns, corrals and pastures. Geist introduced me to most of the mules; many gave her a welcoming nuzzle.
"People have this misconception of mules that you have to use harsh treatment on them, and you don't," Geist said. You can train a mule to do pretty much anything a horse can do, she says; it just might take a little longer.
"They're so smart. They're misunderstood as being stubborn, because they think, and you sort of have to make things in their language so they understand it. You can talk a horse into about anything, but you can't talk a mule into it. You have to kind of give them a reason for doing things."
I took the opportunity to ask about a behavior our mule, Molly, displayed recently. Molly usually meanders about, moving at a much slower pace than our horse. But when my wife accidentally left the gate to the pasture open, Molly immediately raced through like a rocket. She then began to explore the back and side yards, with no interest in returning to her barn or the pasture.
Geist smiled when I told her of Molly's great escape. Mules are notorious, she said, for spotting - and slipping through - open gates, perhaps in a quest to see if the grass truly is greener on the other side.
One of the missions of the Pikes Peak Long Ears Association is to expose people to mules and their behaviors - the group typically rides in the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Parade - and "change the old-time outlook on mules where they were just stubborn and rotten and you just used them to plow," Geist said. The club, which meets monthly and has fun gatherings such as group rides, is on the hunt for new members; the group peaked to a membership of 40 to 50, Geist says, but is down to about half that.
"We've lost a lot of members," she says. "Quite a few of our members were elderly when they joined the club."
One way to expose more people to mules and donkeys - a mule, if you don't know your equines, is a cross between a horse and a donkey - and perhaps drive up membership is Colorado Classic Mule & Donkey Days, scheduled for April 25-27 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Castle Rock. The Pikes Peak Long Ears Association works with the Rocky Mountain Long Ears Association in Denver to put on the annual event, billed as "the largest long ears exhibition in Colorado."
"It's just grown and grown," Geist says. While there is a competition aspect, the focus is on having a good time and educating people about mules and donkeys. Events and classes include "Egg & Spoon," in which riders are given a spoon and an egg to balance while riding, and soccer games with mules vs. donkeys.
"It's just a fun, fun show," Geist says.
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes, in addition to Molly the mule, a horse, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots.
Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford
on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.