Steve Edwards - Mule Trainer
by Bethany Caskey
Steve Edwards is well known as an equine trainer specializing in mules. Steve has 33 years of experience educating and training equines, riders and the general public about mule and horsemanship, mule and horse training and mule packing. He believes that the love for working with equines is "in the blood," and, for people that have it, it's an essential part of their life.
Steve Edwards harnesses a young mule before a driving lesson.
Steve's earliest memory of mules came from his cattle ranch experience with the Dana Cattle Company at age 12. The cowboys packed block salt on mules to the cattle in the fields. Back then, Steve thought that mules were dumb and were only to be used for mundane chores like this, when a decent horse should not be used. Over the years, a lot of old cowboys told him that the best thing to ride, especially in rough country, was a mule. He finally decided to take the old timers' advice and bought his first mule.
Steve spent time studying his mule and others and discovered there are significant differences between horses and mules: Maintaining a mule is less expensive. You can feed two mules for what it takes to feed one horse. Mules are more tolerant of the heat, and they rarely develop colic. Mules are very intelligent. Once a particular training technique has been used on a mule three times, the mule understands what it is he is supposed to do. Mules get their natural abilities from the donkey. A mule is very sure-footed. When he puts his foot down, it is right where he wants it. Where water is scarce, a mule is preferable to a horse because a mule can go all day without water.
Steve was born in Erwin, Tenn., the eldest of three sons, and was raised in Mesa, Arizona. Married to his wife, Susan, since July 1968, together they ranch-raised two children. During his first year of marriage, Steve quickly realized that earning $25 a day punching cows was not going to put his kids through college, so he began working in the automotive collision business. In 1991, Steve returned to "cowboying," but this time his focus was on training equines for the public.
Steve was listed as a John Lyons recommended trainer for two years. (A formal John Lyons list no longer exists.)
He also learned a great deal from fellow cowboys Tom Dorrance, Delos Burke, Nick West and Bud Brown. Steve says most of his mule education was from the school of hard knocks. He says the methods he uses came, for the most part, from the mules and donkeys themselves and that is what makes his methods different from a horse trainer. For example, he teaches disengaging the shoulders instead of the hindquarters and a straight stop by bumping the shoulders instead of circling to a stop.
Steve focuses first on foundation training including long line driving. Steve teaches that the mule or horse is looking for a consistent leader. The person needs to think deeper and find why the animal responds as it does. Steve always recommends a minimum of three steps for the animal to understand. A lead mare in a herd will pin her ears (ask), swish her tail (tell) and then kick (demand) to deliver her message.
Steve coaches a student during mule
Bonnie's first ride.
Training for the person includes four basic skills: voice, hand, legs and seat.
Voice use should be minimal. The less said, the better. Mules and horses understand body language, not words. Teaching begins on the ground for both the person and the equine. For example: squaring the shoulders toward the animal is perceived as aggressive and angling away is a passive stance.
Use of hands should be subtle, quiet and refined. Movement should be from the wrist with the arm from the wrist to the elbow rarely moving. The hand with the rein will be tipped gently and the animal should follow the pressure away. Steve has observed that most people pull and the mule or horse will respond by stiffening the neck muscles.
Leg use is broken into three actions. Use the calf to ask, the side of the stirrup to tell and the spurs to demand.
Lifting their weight a bit off the seat will convey forward motion, while sitting deep requests a stop. The ultimate goal is to be more like a fly than an elephant to the mule. "Most people are more like an elephant," stated Steve.
Steve tells a story of a woman who came for help with her mule. She said the mule was stubborn. "Stubborn. Just like my husband," she proclaimed.
When questioned as to the main problem she was having, she told Steve the mule would only ride out so far and then turn around and come back. Steve asked her to ride the mule and demonstrate. Sure enough, the mule sauntered out a few hundred yards and then brought the rider back. "See! Stubborn, just like my husband."
With the woman's permission, Steve mounted and rode the mule. The mule went everywhere Steve pointed him and did not return to the starting point until asked. The woman was excited, "You've fixed my mule!" she crowed.
Eager to ride her newly "fixed" mule, the woman remounted and headed out. At the appropriate distance, the mule reversed and returned her in short order to where she had begun. "This mule can't be fixed. It's stubborn, just like my husband."
Steve explained to her that what she had was "a failure to communicate" with her mule. Subsequent training of the rider taught her the proper language to communicate with her mule. Steve says he has never seen a stubborn mule. He did not mention if the woman was able to apply her new knowledge to her husband.
Steve has logged countless hours packing throughout Arizona and many other Southwestern states. He has packed for the park services in Yosemite National Park, the National Forest Services in Arizona and the Grand Canyon. He utilizes his packing experiences to instruct for his apprenticeship program.
|Steve conducts many clinics across the nation. Look for a listing on his website www.muleranch.com and his ad in Rural Heritage magazine. New events are always being added. He also produces training videos and is often featured on the Rural Heritage Hour on RFD-TV. To date, Edwards has 26 videos available covering multiple facets of mule training. A new video will soon be released featuring a 36-year-old woman from France who is hiking from New Mexico to Canada with one mule. She spent a month with Edwards in preparation for her trek.
Steve trains his mules to cope
with a variety of stimuli
Steve uses mules on his ranch to maintain his herd of cattle. The terrain is too rough for four-wheelers or trucks and he says, "It takes 100 acres to feed one mama cow." His cattle work is all from the saddle and all on a mule, from rounding up, to vaccinating and branding the 250 head on 2,500 acres. This real world, real work experience led Steve to design his own saddles and tack. He has learned what works and what doesn't. Steve said, "Most saddles are designed for an arena and not the side of a mountain." Every piece of equipment Edwards sells comes with a training DVD that explains the proper use and proper adjustment of the equipment. Steve is always willing to answer any questions and his specially designed tack can only be ordered directly from him.
Steve's wife, Susan, is also very involved in the business. As the bookkeeper, she prepares for and helps with the pack trips and various outings and runs all of the behind-the-scenes work at their 20-acre ranch in Queen Valley, Arizona.
A multi-faceted and busy man, Steve Edwards is on a mission for the mule.
He says, "Many people have the same misconceptions about mules that I once had. My dream is to be able to teach man and mules to work together in one accord."
Steve works with donkeys as well as mules.
Steve Edwards conducts clinics, apprenticeships, produces videos and sells custom saddles. His ranch is located in Queen Valley, Arizona. For further information go to www.muleranch.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bethany Caskey lives in Albia, Iowa. This article appeared in The June/July 2012 issue of Rural Heritage.