'"He's a lovely donkey'' is not a phrase one expects to hear at the vetting gate of the Royal Dublin Society during horse show week. A reply of ''he's an even lovelier mule'' raised a few eyebrows swiftly followed by a raft of mule/hinny related questions from the vets. This seems to set the tone for the rest of the day as myself and the mule maestro Eugene Butler displayed Sanctuary mules Bohea Lad and Kendon on a showery Sunday at the prestigious venue.
It's always an honour to represent The Donkey Sanctuary at a public event and even more so when it's our wonderful mules on display. We discovered that once we were in the company of the Donkey Breed Society members, who kindly issued us with our invitation, and their beautiful donkeys, the public catchphrase quickly became ''that's not a donkey!''. We heard it so often we thought we should wear it on a t-shirt next time! We answered so many questions that day about mules and the role we play in mule welfare in Ireland and worldwide. What a great opportunity to dispel the myths and negativity so often associated with our overlooked equid.
Both mules were so well behaved, took everything in their stride and really did themselves and The Donkey Sanctuary proud during what was a long and tiring day in a strange environment. Eugene has gone to great lengths to prepare these two lads mentally and physically for the event . This really proved itself during the hour long wait for our class due to a delay in the arena. We had to share a small sand arena with donkeys, carriages, farm equipment, people dressed as soldiers and showjumpers warming up over fences. Our mules took in all in and waited calmly. They drew a multitude of compliments from spectators and competitors alike for their appearance and behaviour.
The only blip of the day was during the main event when Bohea lad spooked badly at a child with a squeaky toy and then took exception to a loud snort from a horse clearing a warm up fence beside him. That legendary mule speed and athleticism combined with a sense of self preservation worked against me and in a heartbeat I found myself watching in horror as my mule tore off up the arena without me! I can still feel that awful burning sensation that I thought was my ego going up in flames but turned out to just be rope burn ( wear your gloves next time!!)
At first glance it was a disaster of biblical proportions (or was that just the expression on Eugene's face) but actually once the heat of embarrassment had faded what really happened was this. Boher Lad got a fright,a big one, and then reacted perfectly normally for a mule. My reaction was too little too late and he got loose. After trotting the length of the arena with an extension a dressage horse would be proud of he circled and dropped to a walk before parking up beside the donkeys in the corner and allowing Eugene to catch him up. All of that in about 60 seconds. We learned that despite the very best preparations things can go wrong but when they do go wrong that initial preparation of training and building a trusting relationship prevents a minor incident developing into the train wreck we so often witness when a frightened animal finds itself loose in an alien environment.
Hats off to Eugene for his great work with these mules. Although the jury is still out as to how he managed to keep a straight face when he told me '' you lead up the brown one, he's quieter..'' All joking aside what a wonderful opportunity this was to showcase our mules. They really did make an impact with the public and definitely stole the show from their assine cousins. The prize giving in the arena was accompanied by some gentle humour at my expense. The steward said with a grin '' I thought you would know how to handle a donkey?''
''Indeed Sir'' I replied '' but that's not a donkey!''. It was rosettes and red faces around.