By Linda Scherer
Sometimes a man can be as stubborn as his mule.
A good example is Greg Gehrman, owner of Winsted Hardware, who rides his mule, Kate, with a group of horsemen called the Caballeros Del Norte (Riders of the North).
He has taken a lot of razzing and there was some disapproval from a few of the club members about Kate, but it hasn’t made Gehrman change his mind. He feels his mule is better equipped to handle the trails and gives an easier ride than any horse.
The Caballeros is an all-male group, with headquarters in Hinckley, Minn. It was started in 1953 by 23 Minnesota horsemen, and has grown to its limited membership of 150 active riders.
Gehrman enjoys the club’s diversity, the group’s camaraderie, and its history. He began bringing Kate to the annual spring and fall rides when he became a member in 1997.
Gehrman learned about the mule and its capabilities from his dad, Chuck, a veterinarian in Minnetonka, who really began the horse/mule controversy as a Caballero club member back in 1985, when he first brought his mule out for the annual rides.
Chuck had always owned a horse growing up on a family farm in Red Wing. He became a member of the Caballeros in 1976 when he was encouraged to join by a veterinarian classmate of his.
In 1985, because a back injury seemed to get worse from the jolting on horseback, Chuck got his first mule.
“Mules have a steady gate. They are great walkers and can walk all day long. They are a lot more comfortable to ride,” Greg said.
Chuck actually enjoys flaunting his mule, Earl, around other horse groups making sure they are aware he feels his mule is every bit as good as any horse.
“He would show up in these social situations with Earl. He would bring him to fox hunt with the Long Lake Hounds. Earl is phenomenal at hunting hounds,” Greg said “He can jump and clear gates and fences.”
A mule is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. It seems to possess the endurance and sure-footedness of the donkey and the strength of the horse.
A mule without a rider will jump like a deer, according to Gehrman. It will shift the weight to the back and lunge off of its back feet. In mule competitions, mules will jump from a standstill and clear eight to 10 feet.
“Mules are so much better for packing, and they have more endurance,” Greg said. “You don’t need to worry about injuring them if they are overworked. The hooves are smaller and they are not as prone to stumble. Anywhere a person can go on two feet without your hands, a mule will make it. We have proven it a few times.”
As Greg points out, mules are labeled stubborn for a reason.
“I guess they are a little more intelligent and make up their own mind. They will fight you. A horse is far more obedient. That is one of the hardest things about riding the mule. You will have a battle of wills.”
What Greg calls a “deficiency” in the animal is the way it wants to lead the pack of horses on the rides.
“They are the fastest walkers of the hundred horses out there. They get a little competitive until they are leading the horses. They will go crashing through the brush. They just get crazy until they are in front.”
Gehrmans’ mules have also shown their independence on family camping trips in the western Dakotas and in Montana, stranding the campers when the animals just decide to leave camp during the night, leaving the campers no means of travel except their own two legs.
“You wake up and the animals are gone and you are two or three days ride from your truck and you are sure that your animals have walked all of the way back to the trailer.”
“That is the thing about horses or mules. They are so gifted with direction. You can be looking at maps for three days and they will walk right back to the trailer.”
Today, the Gehrmans are not the only members of the Caballeros with mules. Greg estimates another 15 mules have become part of the ride.
“We took a lot of criticism for quite a few years and got a lot of fines. It was all done in a joking way. We were frequently brought up for poor-looking tack or just the fact we were on mules and scaring some of the horses,” Greg said.
The joking, along with the laughter, singing, and the stories around an evening campfire, are all part of being a Caballero Del Norte member.
A little background on the Caballero Del Norte
“It is a whole range of people that have a liking for horses or mules,” Greg said.
The annual rides are in the spring and in the fall. The group leaves Thursday, returning Sunday. It is a social function, and riders range in age from 21 to as old as 90.
“There were plenty of 80-year-olds riding with us last spring,” Greg said. “One of the founding members came along for a day in camp. That is another nice thing about the club people continue to come back. It is such a diverse group that you find you can get plenty of advice and help from one another.”
It is worth joining the club, just for the food served on the rides. Steak, lobster, prime rib, and roasted pig are on the menu. In the morning, everyone gets made-to-order omelettes, and for lunch the chuck wagon comes out with soup and sandwiches.
Members of the group are men having made at least three rides and elected to membership by the board of directors. They can miss a few rides without losing membership, but cannot miss four consecutive rides.
“It is a fun ride, being with my dad and all of the friends you get to make,” Greg said. “Some of these friends on the ride now are a couple of guys I grew up with that I rarely get to see until we can actually put our work down and spend that time together.”