Newbies to the barn: training Grand Canyon's Mules

Mule wranglers Anderson Mann and Simmon Ashley prepare newly arrived mules for shots and vaccinations at the Grand Canyon Mule Barn on the South Rim. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

Mule wranglers Anderson Mann and Simmon Ashley prepare newly arrived mules for shots and vaccinations at the Grand Canyon Mule Barn on the South Rim. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

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Anderson Mann (left) and Livery Manager John Berry (right) help veterinarian, Doc Wood, as he gives Ella her vaccinations. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - With the swing of a creaking gate and the gentle thud of four hooves stepping down from the trailer, 11 mules arrive at their new home - the mule barn at Grand Canyon National Park.

The mules arrival marks the retirement of other mules and the chance for the newbies to become part of the world famous Grand Canyon mules.

Grand Canyon's mules take passengers, packages and supplies to and from Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They traverse miles of trail each trip, memorizing each step and switchback of the Canyon.

The mules are carefully selected and trained for their task, which ensures the safety of their passengers and the hikers they pass on the trail.

The mules come from Gallatin, Tennessee, where Reese Bros. Mules trades, buys and sells top of the line mules. Reese Bros. has supplied mules for the Grand Canyon for over three decades.

John Berry, livery manager at the Grand Canyon Mule Barn, normally purchases two different batches of mules from Reese Bros. every year. Half arrive in the spring and the other half in the fall for a total of around 20 new mules annually.

Reese Bros. selects the mules and ships them the 1,600 miles to Grand Canyon Village.

Berry said Reese Bros. worked so many years with the mule barn that they know exactly what kind of mules will stand up to the physical demands of the Canyon trails.

"They know what kind of mules we're looking for," Berry said. "They've been doing this off and on for 30 years."

On average stout mules weighing between 1,000 to 1,200 pounds hold up best to the rigorous trails. Berry said personality plays a key role in selecting the mules.

"They have to have a good attitude," he said. "They have to be fairly gentle and physically strong and in good shape. They have to endure the heat, the cold, they have to be a good stout mule."

Having the mules delivered in the fall or early winter is a good time of year, according to Berry, because it gives mules and wranglers a chance to know each other and work out any kinks the mules might have.

"It's nice to get them this time of year because we're not that busy," he said. "So our wranglers have time to ride them."

The wranglers work through the winter to acclimate them to the elevation and condition them to the long trips into the Canyon. The mules need to be in good shape to work the Canyon trails and the more they are handled the more trusted they become. Berry said having good wranglers to handle them early on and foster trust goes a long way. There have been zero tourist fatalities on mule rides in the last century. Berry attributes that to the abilities of his mules and wranglers.

"They're the world famous Grand Canyon mules and the best wranglers there are," he said.

With over 145 mules total at the barn, the mules must be old enough to be trusted but young enough to endure the trails. The new arrivals will be worked for some time before a tourist, often called a dude, will ride them.

"They're anywhere from five to eight years old," Berry said. "We can't put dudes on them yet, but not one of them has offered to buck or anything."

The wranglers take turns working the mules until it is determined where they will be used in everyday operations.

Training mules for the Canyon trails

Simmon Ashley has worked as a wrangler at the barn for over six years and helps break in the new mules.

"You can tell which ones will be high strung or a problem," he said. "The ones that will be easy to train you can tell right away."

The wranglers decide where each mule fits in at the barn. Some will be pack mules and other riding mules. This is determined based on their performance and natural temperaments.

"If they're high strung then they'll start packing them," Ashley said. "Just to get them calmed down, that's what we do. Once they calm down, they come back to us and we start riding them."

When training and working the mules, the wranglers take them on rides close to people and close to the Canyon edges - slowly working their way into the Canyon trails.

"We take them across the railroad and the road then to the Abyss Overlook, just to get used to the place," Ashley said. "We'll ride them up here for so long and then we start riding them inside the Canyon to see how they do."

Taking them into the Canyon for the first time can be challenging and can take the mules some time to get accustomed to.

"They're really sketchy because of the drop off," Ashley said. "We have to get them used to it."

The wranglers work with the mules for more than a month before taking them on their first Canyon trip, which is typically to the mile and a half rest area on the Bright Angel Trail.

"We see if they can handle that and then we go a little bit further, maybe two miles and then come back out," Ashley said. "Then a little bit further...when they get to Indian Garden that's when they're ready to go all the way into Phantom Ranch."

Like any athlete, the mules must become acclimated and conditioned to prepare for the strains of the Canyon.

"It's a lot of work out coming out of the Canyon," Ashley said. "Once they get used to it, then they can handle the South Kaibab Trail."

One of the more difficult parts of the training is taking them on the River Trail above the Colorado River.

"That's the scary part," Ashley said. "If there's a cougar that's walked the path, the mules smell that and some of them stand up and turn around and they are looking at the Colorado River down on the other side of them and a drop off."

When that happens the mule has to be turned back around and taken back over the same part of the trail so it will learn not to fear that area of the trail.

"The mules are pretty smart," Ashley said. "If I get off and walk through they'll think, 'oh, I guess it's ok' and they'll walk through."

This part of the training and working with the mules on a daily basis is essential for the mule's success in the Canyon.

"You're never trying to bail out, if you bail out then the mule thinks he can do that to another person or guide," Ashley said. "They know the trail by heart. That's how they are. They're really trusting and that's why they say, 'trust your mule.'"

Ashley said the mule barn uses mules in the Canyon because of their intelligence, surefootedness and ability to traverse any terrain.

"The mules are smarter than the horses," he said. "I owned horses and now I own mules. These guys are a lot more calm (than horses), which is good for the Grand Canyon."

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