October 22, 2013 Updated: October 22, 2013 at 6:11 pm
It begins with a very deep, rumbling horse whinny - the James Earl Jones of horse whinnies - and then slips into a donkey bray.
That's the cry of the latest addition to the Radford menagerie: Molly the mule. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that her sound is the blend of a horse and a donkey, because that's what a mule is - the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.
We got Molly when her previous owner fell ill and was unable to care for her. I knew very little about mules, not even the fact that Molly is not a very creative name for a mule since a female mule is generally called a molly. So I went online looking for information and found lots of interesting history.
Did you know that when Hannibal crossed the Alps in 216 B.C., he had mules as well as elephants? Or that George Washington was the first American mule breeder? And there's this fascinating fact: According to the website of the American Mule Museum, mules helped in the creation of the U.S. space program by pulling a rocket engine to the top of Pikes Peak for testing.
But I wanted to go beyond trivia and learn more about what mules are like, how they behave. For that, I paid a visit to the home of the Al Kaly Shrine Mule Train on the south side of Colorado Springs.
The mule train has been around for more than 50 years. After Fort Carson ended its use of mules in the 1950s, three members of the Al Kaly Shrine who were also Army Reserve members bought 28 of the mules for $25 each to start a mounted mule unit. The mule train, which has been used to promote and raise funds for the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children, has traveled coast to coast and took part in John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural parade. Since the 1970s, a former dairy farm along I-25 has been the mule train's home.
Though the unit still travels, "we were far more active when we were larger and younger," said Jim Johnson, mule train president. The original mules, of course, are long gone; there are now 13 mules in the unit.
"Mules are going to be far more like a pet than a horse," Johnson says. "They're smarter. They're more connected to you."
Debbie Dupont, the mule train's caretaker for more than a decade, also cites intelligence and loyalty to their owner as defining traits for mules. And then there's that famed stubborness.
"Yes, they can be as stubborn as a mule," she says. "If they think something's going to harm them, it's hard for you to convince them that it's OK."
Dupont says she's been a horse person all her life, but knew nothing about mules when she took the caretaker job.
"They tend to be, I think, healthier, a little tougher," she says.
Our horse, Nikki, has not been particularly cordial to Molly, who is in an adjoining pen; Nikki at first her pinned ears back - horse talk for "back off!" - and at one point reached over the fence to try to bite the mule. That's not unusual when horse and mule are getting to know each other, Dupont says.
"Mules like horses a lot, usually. After all, their mother was a horse. Horses, on the other hand, if they haven't been exposed to mules, can be a little skittish at first. Some horses are scared to death of them."
While Dupont says mules tend to be skeptical of new people, she has learned at least one way to their hearts.
"They like you to feed them the horse cookies, that's one of their ways. They say, maybe you're not so bad, you're feeding me."
One mule, Scoot, wanted nothing to do with her at first; getting a halter on him was an ordeal. "Now," Dupont says, "he's a pest to everybody. He comes up and says, if you give me a cookie, I'll be a nice boy."
I've tried horse treats with Molly, but so far she's not too interested in taking them from my hand. The good news is that our horse and Molly have spent a bit of time in the pasture together without much fuss. So hopefully they're on the way to becoming best buds.
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/