April 01,2015


“Tales From Outside The Underbrush” is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside “The Underbrush” of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This “outside world” is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.

This month’s entry continues the tale.


"Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are."

Old English Saying

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

variously attributed to Sir Winston Churchilll and Will Rodgers

And so it was that I was introduced to a life that geology aside, was to extensively revolve around horses and mules for the next three years. It was also the occasion in which I was to learn the essential differences between horses and mules. A mule is the sterile offspring of some fun between a male donkey and a female horse. It is thought that mules inherit the intelligence, ease of maintenance, sure-footedness and longevity from the donkey sire while the mare horse determines its size, length of stride and confirmation. Accordingly, with the size of a mule being principally determined by the size of the mare, mules are normally much larger than a donkey and often approach if not equal the size of a horse.

As one one of the alleged big cheeses in this operation, if not in my own mind then embarrassingly in the minds of my indigenous assistants, it was my role, even duty if you can believe that, to bestride a horse and not a mule. I soon found out that this “honour” was not necessarily to my advantage. It is here where the difference between horses and mules might be analogized with dogs and cats. Even smart dogs appear dumb compared with cats. A dog will eat himself stupid and nearly to the point of death if the food is there. A cat eats what it wants and needs and no more. Similarly, you can work a dog to death (see Paean To A Price) whereas a cat will bloody well do what it pleases. Also similarly you can work a horse until it drops but not a mule. After considerable labour and to a point where further endeavour becomes inefficient, if not outright unproductive, a mule will stop performing for you when it feels you are too stupid to work that condition out for yourself; in doing so it makes decisions to protect both itself and the safety of its rider. A mule’s so-called stubbornness is therefore really a myth, and is more of a mule’s protest and reaction to a human’s unreasonable demands and stupidity. While it is said that a mule has a smoother gait and is more comfortable to ride than a horse, I did not necessarily find that so. Unarguable however in my opinion, is the superior intelligence of a mule, as is its endurance, sure-footedness, and ability to pack heavier loads than can a horse. Mules can function as work animals to a much older age than can horses.

While much of my riding on our Ecuadorian concession was on a horse, logistical considerations sometimes meant the substitution by a mule. Riding along in the dark on a rubble-strewn one foot wide trail with a cliff face rubbing one shoulder and the cool breath of evening air brushing my other which hung over a one thousand foot or more straight, unhindered drop to a valley floor, I was less nervous on a sure-footed mule than I was on a stumbling thirst-ridden horse.

One of the souvenirs of my time in Ecuador and in particular reflection of my time in the saddle which at times might be twelve hours or so a day, was an Ecuadorian saddle which I brought back to Canada with me. Decorative in nature, being black leathered and studded with silvered steel rivets, with a seat too small for me but reflective of the small size of the indigenous riders who might normally use it, it is distinguished by one feature distinctive of its origins, namely carved, hooded wooden stirrups. Each carved out of a solid block of wood these stirrups were in part purely decorative and partly meant to protect a boot from excessive wear and tear from passing undergrowth. Together with a bit, spurs, a long bull whip, a machete and other mementos then used, the saddle remains retired in a prominent place on a shelf at home. With its comparatively heavy weight and too small seat, I have not used it in any of my riding adventures in Canada. Readers who will follow the tales of my Ecuadorian sojourn will come to know that in many of the stories, horses and mules play a predominant role. “The Watchers Pipe” in particular attempts to express some of the almost surreal experiences of horseback riding in the Andes.

Another aspect to my Ecuadorian riding adventures was my introduction to bareback riding. If you really want to be one with a horse, then bareback riding will do the trick. True bareback riding without anything between your behind and the horse’s back has in fact more romance attached to it than comfort. The fact of the matter is that horses have a prominent spine that when sat on without any barrier whatsoever between you and it, tends to find its way sufficiently up the space that separates your buttocks as to produce, not to put it lightly, discomfort! I suppose that a sufficiently obese rider astride an equally obese horse, of which I have never seen one, might provide the correct set of physical combinations to contradict the set of uncomfortable circumstances described above. Even native North American Indians, supreme riders though they may have been, generally had a blanket between their behind and that of the horse. With such a blanket, of the saddle kind or otherwise serving to comfort the interface between rider and horse, “bareback” riding does indeed offer the height of a horseback riding experience. With no stirrups for the feet, one’s legs are tight on the horse’s side and at one with the latter’s movement being trot or gallop. Somehow the sensation of riding, of being not just one with the horse but an integral part of the animal is enhanced to its fullest, and, as a result one truly shares the power and freedom that a full gallop brings to both horse and rider, and without doing the work that produces it! It is indeed the peak of a riding experience.

To be continued

Copyright © 2015 Ian de W. Semple. All rights reserved

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