J ohnny was a mule man. That is a statement of fact and also the name of a poem I once wrote.

To me, there are two sides to mule people, the brainy side and the stubborn side.

They are deep thinkers mostly because they always feel the need to explain why they ride mules. This creates a natural stubbornness because mules are smarter than horses and mule people are indignant that everyone doesn't know that!

Johnny liked mules because he wasn't comfortable with horses. He liked to look at them, but I think they were too frivolous, too "fragile" for him. He didn't have time for nuance ? with animals or employees. I suspect, though he's long dead, he would lump the modern gentle horse training techniques in with "time outs" for undisciplined children, and investing in miniature cattle.

"It's great to become one with your horse, but do it on your own time!"

He liked to buy mules for the sheep camp. They were not always well-broke. That didn't faze him. He counted on the Basque sheepherders to be tougher than the mules, not more clever, or stronger, or even smarter, just tougher. He was Basque himself and knew how tough they were. Mentally tough, confident, stubborn, belligerent, hard headed, mulish ? you get the idea.

But he also had a genius for seeing through the smoke and obstacles of a problem. One year we needed a large number of cows for newly acquired ranches. In spring the feedlots were full of cattle. He told me to breed ALL the light feeder heifers in the feedlot. He didn't tell me how, he just said, "Do it!"

I did. 60 rented Angus bulls, plus 30 days, plus 1250 heifers, plus 62 percent conception equals ? the longest six weeks I ever spent calving heifers!

Johnny didn't visualize the process but he could see the goal. He left the "how to" and the "details" up to those of us who worked for him. It was an excellent training ground for someone who would someday be trying to make a living as a cowboy poet. Particularly since it is illegal to publish poetry in the United States.

The life lessons I learned from Johnny the Mule Man were: 1) How to win the game when you don't know the rules. 2) How to find your way when you don't have a map. And, 3) When someone tells you it can't be done, what they mean is "they can't do it."

Baxter Black, author, cowboy poet and former large animal veterinarian, lives in Benson, Ariz.

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