If it weren't for horses, Dennis Brennan wouldn't have any mules.
It's not that he doesn't like horses - quite the contrary. Horses have been his bread and butter for the past 30 years since he started his career as a farrier.
"I shoe horses to pay for my mules," said Brennan, who also works for Valley Bronze during the day.
Brennan has been training mules for several years. His efforts were recently rewarded when he and his 8-year-old john mule, Moses, claimed the all-around award at Hells Canyon Mule Days. To win that award they had to participate in at least seven events, from barrel racing and pole bending to barnyard jumping. It was a nice payoff for seven years of work with the well-mannered mule that Brennan purchased when the animal was only 1.
"He is kind of a project with me," Brennan explained. "I've never gotten as far as I want with him but as long as you're patient and keep working with them they will continue to progress." The joy of training a mule is seeing them catch on to a signal or command. "Once they've got it they've got it," he said.
Mules require a little more patience than horses, according to Brennan, not because they are stubborn, as the old stereotype goes, but because they are apprehensive and have a stronger self-preservation instinct than horses.
"In the mountains you can beat a horse across a creek," he said, adding, "You can't do that with a mule. You have to show them the way."
Part of the challenge of training a mule is figuring out its personality. "Each mule is an individual," said Brennan. "You have to work out that individual's specific problems. Brennan says when he is looking for a mule to buy, the trait he considers most important is personality.
"Are they friendly and curious or are they standoffish?" he said.
"That's the first thing I look for."
Brennan also likes mules with short ears, a good straight face, straight legs, and not too tall - 15 hands or so. "If they're too tall that's just that much higher that you have to lift your saddle to get on," he remarked. These are qualities that make good working mules.
"Our mules don't know about arena life," Brennan's wife Peggy explained. "All they know about is chasing cows." She uses Moses as a backup to her saddle horse for that purpose and for riding into the mountains.
The Brennans are glad to see Mule Days making a comeback. Dennis is a former director and vice president of the Mule Days committee and says the event spurred his original interest in mules. Next year he hopes to be riding another project mule - "Ben" - while Peggy takes the reins of Moses.
2003 Hells Canyon Mule Days Results
Wild Cow Milking - 1) Steve King, 2) Charles Biederman, 3) Justin King;
Cowhide Race - 1) Steve & Brett King, 2) Oly Olearain & partner, 3) Levi & Justin King;
Team Branding - 1) Warren Mathews, Scott Englund, and Derek Vasquez 2) Steve, Brett & Levi King 3) Bob Cain, Bob McFadden and Tony Ball;
Breakaway Roping - 1) Bob Cain, 2) Tony Gillin;
Steer Undecorating - 1) Steve King, 2) Justin King, 3) Tony Gillin; Pylon Race - 1) Steve King, 2) Todd Adler, 3) Kelsie Woodworth;
Flag Race - 1) Kelsie Woodworth, 2) Katie Lynn Hidy, 3) Ray Belmore;
Coon Jumping - 1) Bobbi Jo Gardner, 2) Sammi Jo Stohler;
Barrels 13 & Under - 1) Sheridan Cain, 2) Jamie Berghammer, 3) Sam Powell;
Barrels 14-17 - 1) Tyanne Jacklin, 2) Kelsey Woodworth, 3) Derek Vasquez;
Barrels 18 & Older - 1) Warren Mathews, 2) Todd Adler, 3) David Zollman;
Barrel Racing Donkeys - 1) Sammi Jo Stohler;
Pole Bending - 1) Katie Lynn Hidy, 2) Dustin Bogar, 3) Sheridan Cain;
Pole Bending - 1) Tyanne Jacklin, 2) Charles Biederman, 3) John Davis;
Pole Bending 18 & Older - 1) Levi King, 2) David Zollman, 3) Warren Mathews;
Keyhole 13 & Under - 1) Sam Powell, 2) Katie Lynn Hydy, 3) Dustin Bogar;
Keyhole Donkeys - 1) Sammi Jo Stohler; Keyhole 14-17 - 1) Justin King, Tyanne Jacklin, 3) Jess Mitchell;
Keyhole 18 & Older - 1) Steve King, 2) Warren Mathews, 3) Bob McFadden;
Mystery Race #1 - 1) Warren Mathews, 2) Levi King, 3) Derek Vasquez;
Mystery Race #2 - 1) Derek Vasquez, 2) Scott Englund, 3) Charles Biederman;
Mystery Race #3 - 1) Scott Englund, 2) Warren Mathews/Steve King (tie), 3) Wes LeClair;
Mystery Race Donkeys - 1) Sammi Jo Stohler;
Flapjack Race - 1) Curt Willson, 2) Levi King, 3) Todd Adler;
Barnyard Jumping - 1) Todd Adler, 2) Charlie Biederman, 3) Warren Mathews;
Team Roping Friday - 1) Levi King/Brian Temple, 2) Fred Steen/Charlie Johnson, 3) Tony Gillin/Brian Temple;
Team Roping Saturday - 1) Charlie Johnson/Randy Warner, 2) Brian Temple/Levi King, 3) Tony Gillin/Brian Temple;
High Point Gaming - 13 & Under: Katy Lynn Hidy, 14-17: Tyanne Jacklin,
High Point Gaming - 18 & Over: Warren Mathews;
High Point Performance - 13 & Under: Travis Sherman, 14-17: Sarah Leonard,
High Point Performance - 18 & Over: Laurel Sherman;
High Point Mule - Bonnie Clarke, owner Warren Mathews, Burns, Ore.;
High Point Donkey - Sadie, owner Sammigo Stohler, Unity, Ore.;
High Point Lead Line - Sidney King, 7, Payette, Idaho;
All Around Wallowa County Award - Dennis Brennan, Enterprise, Ore.