Like all dressage competitors, Audrey Goldsmith begins each ride with a customary salute to the judge. But unlike other riders, as she raises her head from the salute, she usually gets ... The Look.
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s get the dog and pony show over with, already,’” she says.
That’s because Goldsmith, an acclaimed hunter-jumper trainer, has joined the regional dressage show circuit — usually home to big, fancy warmbloods — on her mule.
But as she begins the series of precise, choreographed moves, she notices out of the corner of her eye that the judge sits up a little straighter and widens his eyes.
At the end of her ride, she approaches the center of the ring, called X, to end with another salute.
“I trot down the center line, and, I mean, I’m not even at X halting, and they have these huge grins on their faces,” Goldsmith recalls, wearing a grin of her own.
Goldsmith and her mule, Porter, whose full name is Heart B Porter Creek, will compete at the Central Oregon Dressage Classic this weekend at Brasada Ranch.
To train a mule
Forget the stereotype of a stubborn pack animal. Porter, a 6-year-old, is already racking up show ribbons.
A mule is half horse and half donkey. Porter’s mother is a Thoroughbred mare, and his father is a donkey stallion, also called a jack. Some mules, occasionally called hinnies, have donkey mothers and horse fathers.
Porter is all black with a delicate build. From tail to nose, his whole body reflects his Thoroughbred ancestry — except for his ears.
Porter’s ears tower over his head like antennae — long, slender, velvety protrusions that flop with each step.
Goldsmith credits Porter and her other two mules with renewing her enthusiasm for riding. She still owns three horses and teaches regular riding lessons to local horse owners. But her passion lies with the mules.
A mule story
It all started in 2001, when Goldsmith’s partner, Diana Field, took her to Bishop, Calif., for the annual Bishop Mule Days Celebration as a birthday present.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Goldsmith says.
Two years after her first mule show, Goldsmith bought Porter from the Heart B Ranch in Idaho. He was a 6-month-old weanling at the time, but Goldsmith actually paid for him when he was 3 weeks old, and she had only seen his photograph.
“He looked like a little baby moose,” she recalls.
Goldsmith had no experience with mules when she began breaking Porter herself. And although she was a highly accomplished rider and trainer at the time, she had little experience handling baby horses. So she applied techniques she had picked up during puppy obedience classes.
The process worked, and Goldsmith discovered that she felt a deeper connection to Porter than she had to any of her horses. In fact, Porter reminded her of a dog because he was so eager to please her.
“Mules really are like rideable border collies,” she says. “If you don’t like that intensity, then you won’t like a mule.”
According to Goldsmith, the donkey side of a mule is what sets it apart from a horse.
“Until you’ve spent time around donkeys, you really don’t understand mules. Because the horse side is just like a warmblood,” she says, referring to a big, athletic and often high-strung sport horse. “They’ve got that warmblood spook, what I call a quiet hotness.”
Donkeys are less domesticated than horses and rely more on instinct, Goldsmith says. But that doesn’t mean mules are less trainable than horses.
When a horse gets scared and runs away, for example, it runs until it tires or its rider calms it down. When a mule gets scared and runs away, according to Goldsmith, it runs 20 yards and then stops.
“They think, ‘OK, we’re out of danger,’” she says. “They don’t go brainless, like some horses do.”
Of course, no horse — or mule — is perfect. Porter sometimes spooks at the letter E, one of eight letters that mark the sides of any dressage arena.
‘Worse to lose to a mule’
In mule shows, well-trained, well-rounded mules compete in a long list of categories. Each of Goldsmith’s mules, for example, competes in jumping, dressage, English pleasure, driving, reining, cutting and Western pleasure, among others.
Goldsmith focused on dressage training to counteract problems with Porter’s stifles, or knee joints. In dressage, a horse and rider pair is judged on its ability to complete a choreographed series of precise movements.
The training helped improve his flexibility and strength, and, she found, he really enjoyed it.
Unlike hunter and jumper competitions, which explicitly prohibit mules, the U.S. Dressage Federation has no such limits.
“That’s the neat thing about dressage,” Goldsmith says. “The stereotypical dressage person is so non-accepting, and so set in their ways. But here’s this whole group of dressage people who are so totally ... open to having their minds changed.”
In dressage, each rider gets scored on a number of elements, from 1 to 10. Goldsmith says the dressage judges have been fair to Porter. They give him high scores when he earns them and low scores when he doesn’t. Goldsmith says the scoring has made it easy to gauge Porter’s improvement over time.
A small number of horses are so terrified of mules that they can’t be in the same arena. Goldsmith says she has encountered one such horse during a dressage competition, and she made sure to stay far away from the practice arena during that horse’s rides.
“I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s weekend,” she says. “If that’s the case, I’ll leave.”
But most dressage riders have reacted to Porter with a little amusement and a healthy dose of skepticism. Many have come to admire the mule after losing to him repeatedly. Only a few riders have reacted negatively, in most cases after losing to the mule aboard a pricey horse.
“I understand that,” Goldsmith says. “It stings to lose, and it would be worse to lose to a mule. But that’s not why I’m doing it.”
‘In it for the quest’
Goldsmith says it has been rewarding to watch Porter improve and to see how far he can go in dressage competition.
Her experience with Porter has changed Goldsmith’s attitude toward teaching. She has learned to find satisfaction in a rider’s incremental improvements.
“I used to look at a rider and think, ‘She’s never going to make it over eight jumps that are 2 feet high. And she thinks she’s going to make it at 3 feet. And her husband wants her to make it at 3 (feet) 6 (inches),’” she says. “Now I think, ‘No, you know what? When she learns how to walk properly, she’ll be able to trot. And when she learns how to trot properly, she’ll be able to canter.’ ... It really doesn’t matter how long it takes. I’m in it for the quest.”
The USDF has five levels of competition, from lowest to highest: Training, First, Second, Third and Fourth. Though Goldsmith says she never could have imagined it two years ago, Porter is now competing in First level dressage.
Last week, during a successful practice ride on Porter, Goldsmith found herself thinking about whether Porter might someday compete in Second level.
“I thought, ‘OK, just stop. Enough is enough,’” she says. “And then I thought, ‘Well, why not?’”
If you go
What: The Central Oregon Dressage Classic
When: Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Where: The Equestrian Center at Brasada Ranch, 16986 S.W. Brasada Ranch Road, Powell Butte
Cost: Admission is free but spectators are asked to bring nonperishable food items to donate to NeighborImpact, a local nonprofit.
Contact: For more information, visit www.central oregondressage .com.