Never Wrap The Reins.
Photos and Story by Gary "Arizona" Johnson
Her name was Dixie. I miss her soft brown eyes I’ll never forget her as long as I live. She was the toughest pack mule I ever met. Several days into an eight-day horseback adventure riding headlong into the infamous Superstition Mountains, I saw one of my guests wrap the reins of his horse around his hand and his arm as he led him to water. I yelled, “Never wrap the reins!” “Whudja say, Hoss?” He replies as he walks over and sits next to me on a big granite boulder. “Never wrap the reins around your hand or wrist,” I said quietly. Why is that? What difference does it make?” He asks with a smile. “Because a horse or mule is about a hundred times stronger than you or me.” I said. Let me tell you about my trail bride Dixie the mule.”
“We were driving a herd of horses from summer to winter pasture from Flagstaff to Scottsdale. We’d ride down every year, wrangling for a man who owned a dude string in Apache Junction.” It took us nine days to ride one hundred and thirty five miles through the Sierra Ancha and Mazatal Wilderness Areas. We were following the Verde River down off the Tonto Rim following General Crook’s trail and the Old Sheperd’s trail to Bartlett Lake. We saddled before dawn and rode all day until after dark for nine days. I was riding a big appaloosa gelding named Socks, a big and gentle horse, and easy to ride. What I didn’t know was the man that owned socks didn’t reveal; socks was just recovering from a back injury and it was probably not a good idea to ride him that far, that hard, and that soon. Sure 'nuff Socks went sore and I was forced to change mounts. The only ride available was a cantankerous rangy looking Missouri pack mule named Dixie. “What kind of pedigree does Dixie have?” I asked. He replied. “She’s kind of a cross between a barbed wire fence and a son-of-a-bitch, she ain’t use to being rode and she sure don’t cotton to a bit in her mouth, but she’s strong and sure footed.” After half of a day of fighting, the steel bit, Dixie finally broke it in two with her mouth.
The ramrod fashioned a “war-bridle” which is no more than a sturdy piece of rope wrapped around Dixie’s lower jaw. It looked very uncomfortable but mules have tough mouths and Dixie’s looked tougher than most. She fought that war bridle all afternoon and she didn’t like being rode… not one bit …and as I suspected she was a card carrying member of the American Cantankerous Pack Mule Association, she wasn’t going to take it from me or anybody else!
I decided to take a rest and make nice with Dixie. Attempting to get on her good side by showing how much I appreciate her. I gave her a peace offering; a Granola Bar, she ate the bar and then unceremoniously she kicked me right in the shin just below my knee. The pain was excruciating and I went down on my other knee. Then I made a green horn mistake. I got mad., I came up off the ground and I wrapped the reins around my arm several times ( you can see where I’m going with this) I was going to haul off and kick that knot headed mule as hard as I could. But this weren’t Dixie’s first rodeo, she’d been down this rocky trail a few times. Before I knew it she lifted me up off the ground by my left arm and charged forward going at a full lope with me hanging on facing backwards. She took us both through the canopy of a big mesquite tree. I got loose and went down hard like tumbleweeds rolling backwards and finally stopped. I pulled my head out of my sombrero, which had been forced over my eyes and down past my lower lip. It took both hands and about fifteen seconds to pry that lid off my pointed head.
When I finally saw daylight all of my compadre’s were on the ground laughing so hard they couldn’t breathe. Then I saw it. The canopy of the tree looked like something out of a cartoon. The hole I came through had a silhouette in the shape of a mule and a cowboy cut perfectly into the low hanging branches. There was enough lumber lying on the ground to build a house.
I got off the ground and limped toward my saddlebags lying in the dirt about sixty feet behind the tree. The Ramrod sensed my fury and rode right up to me, jumping off his mount he stood right in front of me and said softly. “Whatcha gonna do now, Hoss?”
I said. “I’m gonna get my gun and kill that knot headed excuse for a mule! I’m gonna shoot that hard-headed abomination right between the eyes and then I ‘m gonna skin her and cook her for dinner!” “That sounds great!” exclaims the Ramrod. “Lord knows we ain’t had any meat for three days. But after you shoot that mule you ‘re gonna have to walk about eighty miles back to Phoenix in them expensive riding boots and spurs carryin’ your saddle and pack all that way. You’re gonna be mighty upset with yourself when the boss wants $2500 for that $20 mule. So why don’t you just calm down and make up with Dixie and me and the boys will just forget about this little love spat you’re having with your trail bride!”
Dixie and me made up and I gave her another granola bar and a carrot. She was fine the rest of the trip and I probably would not have liked the taste of mule anyway. This is the reason you never wrap the reins around your arm. The dude looked at me with a funny smile on his face. In his minds eye he could see Dixie n’ me goin’ through that tree. Then he nudged me and said, “Thanks for the advice, Hoss.”
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