Tacked up and ready to ride!
South Mountain –CMA Ride By: Donna Taylor (Puylaurens, France)
Whilst leaving Colin in charge of weaning Lottie and Fiona, I went off to enjoy myself on my two-week trip to America. As usual, I gave Colin lots of instructions on what to do and not to do with the three donkeys and Martha, the tortoise. I know Colin is perfectly capable of looking after them all whilst I’m away, but I always feel so much better when I’ve talked through everything with him.
So, off I flew to North Carolina. My plans were to meet up with the three friends that I stayed with last year. Firstly, I was going to stay with Shannon Hoffman, who has two beautiful Belgian mules, Seven and Sadie Mae. Then it was off to Boiling Springs to stay with Charles and Daphne Bridges, a couple that I first met on the Red Rock Ride holiday ten years ago. And finally, I would spend a few days in West Jefferson with Joel and Nicole Robinson whom I also first met on the Red Rock Ride
When I was planning this holiday, I emailed Shannon to let her know I would be coming to North Carolina some time in September and to find out when would be a good time to stay with her. Shannon belongs to the Carolina Mule Association and she said that the club had arranged a weekend riding at South Mountains State Park and could I make it for that date as I would then be able to ride Sadie Mae, one of the kindest and safest mules around. I rode Sadie Mae last year at Leatherwood Mountains, so this idea suited me perfectly.
The riding hat and jodhpurs were in the suitcase even before I started packing. There was going to be one slight problem - I hadn’t ridden for at least ten months and I was sure to be saddle-sore before the end of the weekend.
Shannon met me at Raleigh Airport at about five o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and we headed straight to a saddlery shop. I told Shannon there was absolutely nothing I needed for my trip or to take home with me, but I would love to have a look around. Well, thirty minutes later, we left the shop with a very nice pair of Ariat boots. A girl can never have too many of these!
Dinner was next and then we called into a supermarket to stock up on our lunches and dinners for the weekend. By the time we got to Shannon’s house, it was around two in the morning British time and I was feeling quite tired, But I soon woke up once I saw Shannon’s family of furry friends.
First to greet me was Reuben – Shannon’s gorgeous corgi. I’m not sure if he remembered who I was, but he was certainly happy to see me. Maybe he remembered the accent! Then I met Seven, Sadie Mae, Chester and Navarre. I was so excited to be back with mules again.
So, Friday morning we were up at half-past five putting the mules in the trailer before heading off to South Mountain State Park. We were meeting Shannon’s friend Ron and his mule Jed in a parking area near to where Shannon lives. Ron had recently bought Jed and joined the Carolina Mule Association, He thought it would be good experience to do some trails with the Association and also to get to know a few of the members.
We arrived at the Park a little before midday. We unloaded the mules and put them in their stalls before setting up camp. I know I have said this before, but it still amazes me to see how well set up things are in America for trail rides and camping for rider and equine. I am so impressed.
To say that I was on cloud nine for the duration of the weekend was an understatement. Everywhere I looked there were mules. I knew that the campsite was going to be mostly occupied with mule owners from the Association, so I was so happy to know I would be around these beautiful long eared equines for a whole three days and, of course, riding the best mule in town too.
Not all the mule riders were at the campsite on the Friday, so that afternoon there were only six of us ready for a ride. We went for about seven miles along beautiful tracks with beautiful scenery. Sadie was perfect as usual and it felt so good being on the back of a mule again. I spent a lot of time speaking to Ron, who was riding his handsome mule Jed. I told him that, because of jetlag, I would probably wake up at the crack of dawn, wide-awake and not get back to sleep. Ron said that he is an early riser and if I woke early, I could walk over to his camping area and he would make me a cup of tea. That sounded like a good idea to me.
That evening was spent around the campfire with everyone catching up on each other’s news. We didn’t go to bed late, as we knew we had a long day ahead of us on the Saturday. Before we went to bed, we popped into the stable area to check on Seven and Sadie. The majority of the mules had their heads over their stable doors ready to greet us. I could hear either a little bray or the munching of hay. Wow, I’m back in mule land again.
On the Saturday morning, I was wide-awake at around 05:30am. Unfortunately, I woke Shannon up whilst I was getting dressed, but I said that I could feed, water and clean the stalls and she could stay in bed a little bit longer - a luxury for Shannon.
It was pitch black when I walked out of the trailer. I froze for a few seconds because I have a huge fear of bears and I had this image of one jumping out of the woods and attacking me. So I very swiftly walked over to the stalls, quietly said good morning to Seven and Sadie Mae and headed towards Ron’s trailer.
Ron made me a nice cup of tea and we sat chatting until sunrise, when it was time to feed the mules. Seven and Sadie Mae seemed quite excited to have a new friend give them their breakfast and a few treats. I cleaned out the stalls, which was the least I could do for Shannon and then headed back to the trailer for breakfast.
I knew this was going to be a long day, but in my mind, it turned out to be an epic. We all had to be ready to ride at 09:00 so that we could have our group photo taken. I think I counted around 25 mules with their riders. After the photos, about 18 of us headed one way and six took another trail.
At lunchtime we stopped, tied up the mules and some of us took a short walk down to see a beautiful waterfall. I was quite glad of the rest as I was already starting to get a little sore. When we resumed the ride, the afternoon seemed to go on and on and on. We had a little stop mid-afternoon just to stretch our legs. I think I almost fell off Sadie Mae.
Shannon could see I was getting a little uncomfortable and suggested that we take a shorter route back. ‘Oh, what a great idea!’ I thought. ‘Maybe it’s going to be one or two miles back to camp.’ Then Shannon told me that we were much further away than that, even by the shorter route.
Five of us took the shorter ride. The trails were quite steep and rocky in places, which normally don’t bother me at all, but on this particular day, I could feel every one of Sadie’s muscles when she walked.
Shannon was telling me at one point that we had about three miles to go, however, I must have mistook what she said because we saw a sign that said 4.6 miles to camp. I nearly cried. I think Shannon must have found it quite funny, because I didn’t stop complaining the whole 4.6 miles back to camp.
I even had to get off Sadie Mae about three times that afternoon as my backside and legs were so numb. Sadie loved me as her rider as we would walk side by side along the trails together and I had plenty of treats for her too. At least I wasn’t the only one to walk. Ron, Marty and Shannon all led their mules a little way too, but none of them complained like I did.
When we finally arrived back at camp, we had been nearly ten hours in the saddle. I noticed that the other group were already home, and had already untacked their mules and were looking at us as if to say: ‘Well, what happened to you lot?’
After managing to dismount and collapse in a heap, I helped Shannon untack Sadie Mae and put her in her stall. I then took a very long shower, drank a cold beer and started to feel a little better, before I remembered that we were off on another ride the next morning.
Sunday morning, I was up at the crack of dawn again and headed straight over to have my cup of tea with Ron. His gorgeous dog, Tripp was waiting for me by the trailer and Ron had the water nice and hot for my tea. We sat and talked until sunrise, when we headed over to feed and water the mules before cleaning the stalls.
Ron and I were both very sore from the previous two days’ riding, but were determined to ride out with the group again. We knew it wasn’t going to be as long as Saturday’s ride as everyone was going to be leaving that afternoon to head home. I thought we would only have time for two or three hours – that was certainly wishful thinking!
My friends Charles Bridges and his son in law Ezra joined us on the ride. I was going to be staying with Charles and his wife Daphne when I left South Mountain and as Charles only lives 45 minutes from the Park, they were invited to ride with us on their mules.
We set off again at nine o’clock. I felt so battered and bruised from the last two days that I really didn’t know how I was going to cope. There were only ten of us in the group that morning, and Teddy Royal was our leader. Everyone knew how sore I was, but I told them that they wouldn’t hear me complain once. I was also determined not to get off and walk which didn’t please Sadie Mae at all.
Teddy would stop for a break every few miles and pretend that he needed to get off his mule for a rest. He knew just how uncomfortable I was and I can’t thank him enough for giving me those five-minute breaks. Trying to get back on Sadie Mae was getting harder and harder and on one occasion Max gave me a leg up and I nearly went right over the other side.
The group that morning were so much fun. Teddy got me talking with an American accent and when I said, "I'm gonna bust you with a stick," they all laughed so much. At least it took my mind off the pain!
The ‘morning’ ride finished 12 miles later at half-past-two in the afternoon. I slid off Sadie Mae and drew a sigh of relief: no more riding for a few days. Luckily, Charles could see I needed a few days’ rest.
We hosed the mules down, cleaned the stalls and put everything in the trailer. I said my goodbyes to Teddy, LuAnn and all the other lovely people I had ridden with before helping Shannon load Sadie Mae and Seven into the trailer.
To have the opportunity to ride the beautiful Sadie Mae is very special and I’m so grateful to Shannon for arranging for me to enjoy a wonderful weekend in the South Mountains State Park with the Carolina Mule Association. You are extremely kind, thank you.
It was so very nice to meet such wonderful members of the Carolina Mule Association and I hope, one day, I will be able to ride with you again. You all made me feel so welcome and I have made new friends too. Thanks to the Saturday riders for putting up with my moaning for the last 4.6 miles and thanks to Teddy for giving me a breather every few miles on the Sunday. Lastly, thanks to Ron for his company and those lovely cups of tea.
To all the Mule and More readers. I wish you a very Happy Christmas and a very safe, healthy and prosperous New Year. With all my love, Donna xxx