Call Chuck Peterson “mule-headed” and, unlike most folks, he’ll thank you for the compliment.
Peterson, 66, has worked more than 29 years as an instructor at Colorado State University’s Equine Center, where he now teaches packing, outfitting and an introduction to trail riding. Although he adeptly works with horses, he’s admittedly more smitten by mules.
The Livermore resident’s resume includes six years as Facility Manager and Event Coordinator at CSU Equine Teaching & Research Center. He serves as club advisor for Mountain Riders Horse Club, a CSU social group of equestrians who go on off-campus rides and benefit from instruction from visiting equine professionals. Peterson also conducts outside clinics in locales as diverse as Durango, Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs; Rapid City, S.D.; Santa Fe; and Jackson, Wyo.
CSU students’ glowing term for their amiable instructor’s frequent humorous remarks or nuggets of wisdom is “Chuck-isms”. One such Chuck-ism (that he owns up to) is always secure your pack picture-pretty because you never know when someone might take, and publish, your photo! No sloppy packs allowed.
Better not be sloppy training mules, either, because they’re quick to learn things — good or bad — and smarter than most handlers, decreed Peterson. He begins serious training with a pack saddle, an empty set of panniers, and sometimes a small load when a mule is 18-months-old. Mules generally take a little longer to develop a gentle work ethic than do horses, maturing around age 10.
Peterson cautions students to always handle mules gently. If manhandled, the intelligent burro/horse hybrids will remember and purposefully plot revenge with an eye-for-an-eye philosophy. He quoted an old adage: “Horses will kick, mules will aim!”
Driving home his point, he recalled a co-worker who beat a mule one day. Whether the snarly fellow acted out of rage, pent-up frustration or misguided training techniques, the poor mule stoically took the thrashing, but bided its time. Two weeks after the cruel incident, that same man casually walked past the mule, apparently at just the correct angle and trajectory, and… Kapow! Retaliation was dealt out to Mr. Mule Abuser in the form of a badly shattered leg. Mules aim.
Peterson no longer trains other people’s mules, which he did for 30 years. He does, however, still buy and train for himself. He previously sought mules with draft blood exclusively in Missouri, but now buys stock everywhere.
Peterson’s working knowledge of the clever critters began at the tender age of 15, when he signed on with a packing outfit in North Park to pack sheep camps near the Medicine Bow Mountain Range. Every Monday morning he hauled supplies from camp to camp with mules. That boy’s long-ago experience kindled a fire, flames fanned ever larger by time.
“Mules are traditionally more sure-footed and dependable than horses,” praised Peterson. “Good ones are a lot of fun!”
He listed longevity as a particularly stellar trait in mules’ plus column. They don’t merely tick off years, but can work hard when as old as 25-30. Different food requirements and fewer vet bills than for horses increase mules’ appeal, Peterson said. Given all they have to offer, he stated that, curiously, only about 50 percent of packers use them.
“Good mule people are just not normal,” he said, tongue squarely planted in his cheek, “because they like mules!”
For those who do like them, Peterson offers clinics and purposeful adventures. On Aug. 4 he will lead five female CSU students using four mules and four pack horses into Rocky Mountain National Park for a week-long excursion funded by Roundup Riders of the Rockies, a philanthropic equestrian group that began in the late 1940s. Peterson and his students will donate their time.
Each morning at 6 a.m., before their own breakfast, the group will begin the day by feeding hay and grain to the animals. Saddle up at 7:30 a.m. includes loading panniers with tools, equipment and 1,000 pounds of shingles which they’ll haul to a line-shack cabin used by National Park Service maintenance crews.
Peterson annually offers 20, one-day packing clinics; 15 students are accepted for each. He usually provides the mules, although attendees are allowed to bring their own, if gentle. Peterson explained his clinics aren’t designed to train green, or re-train rank, mules but rather to advance humans’ skills. His method of broadening that knowledge is sort of a backdoor approach.
“Anybody can grasp easy-to-learn skills,” Peterson quipped. “My clinics focus on all the things you shouldn’t do!”
His advice on one of those taboos: “When packing, pack the good, gentle, solid, experienced horses and mules. Ride the dinks. You’re asking for trouble packing a green animal!”
Peterson recently hosted a fundraiser trail ride to benefit Livermore Community Hall. On June 7, 25 riders enjoyed the pristine beauty of 17,000 Lone Pine Wilderness Unit acres. Limited spots for the popular trek filled up in just two days, proving Peterson is adept at packing more than mules.
The knowledgeable trainer who eagerly talks about his vocation teaches students, human and equine, through wit, wisdom and easy-going instruction.
For information about upcoming summer clinics, call Chuck Peterson at 970-498-0123.