Uncle Gilbert and the Flying Mules

Po Lin Buddha

In April of 2004, Gilbert got a call from a company called Instone Air Services in Durango, Colorado.  The company was responsible for the transport of six mules purchased from Terry Aris of Tired Ass Ranch in Alberta, and destined for a cable car construction project in Hong Kong.  The mules were to be used to carry construction materials and supplies up the mountain to the Buddhist monastery where the upper cable car towers were located, because the company was unable to build a road through the environmentally sensitive area and had to use either helicopters or pack animals.  The cable car would bring visitors to see the Po Lin Buddha.

The mules were being held at a quarantine farm in Surrey, awaiting their departure by air to Hong Kong.  The farm was used to dealing with thoroughbred race horses, not mules, and the mules were used to being turned out in a field, not confined to stalls.  This led to a very difficult situation: the government veterinarian charged with examining the mules had been kicked by one of the mules, and so had the farm’s manager, Danny.  No one at the farm was able to handle their new guests, and in fact, the farm employees were afraid to even enter the stalls.

Instone had received Gilbert’s name from Jim McCrae, a well known “mule man” from Aldergrove.  Gilbert had lived at Jim’s farm for a couple of years, and in that time had learned a lot about mules to add to his wealth of experience with horses.

Chris at Instone asked Gilbert if he would be willing to help get the mules ready for their flight.  It was important that the mules be safely examined by the veterinarian and blood taken for testing prior to their departure, and it was also necessary that the mules could be safely handled to load them on the aircraft.  In fact, the mules’ lives depended on them being well behaved in their stalls on board the aircraft, as the Instone employee had been instructed to administer a lethal injection should any mule become uncontrollable during the flight.

Of course, Gilbert was up to the challenge!  At his first visit to the quarantine farm, he had a good laugh over how the barn staff was managing to clean the mules’ stalls.  The mules were in a set of stalls on one side of the barn aisle (shedrow) and the stalls on the opposite side were empty.  The barn staff would lay out a trail of feed from a mule’s stall, across the shedrow into the empty stall on the opposite side.  Then by opening the stall doors on either side, they would create a “chute” between the stalls and let the mule follow the trail of feed.  Once the mule was inside the fresh stall, the employee would slam the door behind it.

Gilbert’s first job was to meet each mule inside its stall so he could get them haltered and on a lead rope.  Each mule had a numbered halter, and a loop around its neck that held a tag with its name and sex.  The mules’ names were Larry, Katie, Oscar, Chappy, Denny and Duffy.  Katie and Duffy were molly mules (females) and the others were all, I believe, johns (males).  (Most mules are the progeny of a donkey stallion and a female horse.) Haltering was easier said than done, because the mules would turn their butts to anyone entering the stall, and threaten to kick.  A mule’s kick is swift and hard!

First of all, Gilbert had to make the mule stand quietly and face forward.  His quick reflexes, skill at reading and communicating through body language, and unshakeable confidence as a leader were critical in getting the mule to face him and let him approach.  He would enter each stall with a lariat, and use it to keep the mule moving away from him until it was ready to stand and face him.  One by one, he worked with each mule in its stall until it would trust him and allow him to approach.

The next step was to get each mule to follow quietly on a lead rope.  This wasn’t new to the mules, but the handler and the environment were, so some of the mules were a challenge.  One of the mules, possibly Chappy or Larry, had Gilbert “skiing” down the shedrow on the end of the lead rope when he first took it out of its stall!  But he did soon have all of the mules willing to follow him quietly up and down the shedrow on the lead rope.

Duffy following Gilbert

Gilbert had to work with the mules six days a week for over two weeks in order to get them ready to travel.  Teaching them to lead quietly was only part of the job.  The mules were used to running freely in a large field, and standing in a 12 by 12 stall all day left them with no way to release their pent up energy.  They all had to be exercised daily to help keep them fit, as well as use up some of their excess energy, but they couldn’t be turned loose in a field while in quarantine.  That meant that Gilbert had to take them out, singly or in twos, to lunge them in the quarantine farm’s hog fuel corral.

So that the mules could be safely confined when the veterinarian came to draw blood, the farm built a chute behind the barn.  Gilbert also made it part of the mules’ program to get used to entering into the chute and standing quietly while someone worked beside them.  The photo shows Gilbert and Danny, the farm manager, with Katie in the chute.

Finally the day came when the mules were scheduled to fly to Hong Kong.  Gilbert accompanied the mules to the airport.  He’d become very fond of them, as he does with all the equines he works with, and was especially fond of Duffy, the big molly mule.  At the airport, he helped to settle his six charges in the “stalls” that were specially designed to load in the belly of the aircraft.  He said a sad goodbye and away they flew!

The mules became minor celebrities in Hong Kong.  Soon after, we even came across a photo of a t-shirt that was being sold in Hong Kong with Duffy’s picture on it.  You can still find dozens of references to the mules on the internet, when they talk about the Ngong Ping 360 cable car to the Po Lin monastery.  The trail they used is still in use by hikers and referred to as the “mule trail”.

The mules at work in Hong Kong

Soon after, Gilbert received a postcard from Chris at Instone Air Services that read: “I want to personally let you know how grateful I am for your work with the mules.  You were informative all the way through and clearly relayed your intent as to how you were planning out their handling.  Your assistance on this project and your humble, generous, honest work attitude was a pleasure.  The work you did made for a safe situation for the mules and anyone with hands on involvement.  Thank you, Gilbert.”

I’m sure the mules would thank him, too.

Katie and Larry

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