By Mary McCashin
It’s a foggy, summer morning at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Tryon, North Carolina. Water buckets being filled, grain being poured into buckets, stalls being mucked and riders tacking up horses. The quiet sounds of morning routines fill the air. The warm-up arena begins to fill with horses: Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds all quietly beginning their warm-up routines.
Suddenly an enthusiastic braying cuts through the air. Ears perk, and both riders and horses turn to look at where such a noise has come from.
Look no further than Buckeye, a spotted leopard Appaloosa mule making his way to the arena with his rider, 23-year-old Sammi Majors. Buckeye’s ears flop back and forth, a picture of total relaxation. Sammi has to shake her head and laugh. “He’s so social, he loves meeting people and other horses — almost to a detriment because he loses focus in the warm-up arena by trying to look at everyone,” Sammi said. Much to Buckeye’s dismay, his fellow competitors are often not as eager to make friends.
Buckeye was purchased at the Dixie Draft Horse and Mule Sale in Troutman, North Carolina, in November 2014 by a Majors family client, Christina Gregory. The 2008 mule caught everyone’s eyes, but he needed a lot of work. “When we first got him, he wouldn’t even track up,” Sammi said. “Developing his trot to just a normal working trot took lots of time and suppling. So to get proper lengthenings has been equally hard. Now that those are easier for him, we’re working toward getting nice medium gaits.” Originally from the Ohio Amish country, Buckeye was trained to drive, but had limited under-saddle experience. Still, Christina and Sammi saw potential.
Working with Mules
Sammi didn’t just stumble onto working with mules; her mom and dad were involved with mules before she was even born. “My parents met because of a pair of mules that my dad had bred and he needed them to be trained,” she said. “He was recommended to my mom for training, and the rest is history. They bred and showed mules for quite some time, and consequently I grew up with some mules around on the farm. They sold the last mules when I was young, but after some time, we all missed having those adorable long ears around. I had a terrible itch to get a mule again, and luckily we found Buckeye!”
Buckeye’s natural talent landed him in the dressage arena, but he also drives, jumps, rides Western and will be dipping his hooves in the ranch horse and reining classes at mule shows in 2017.
Buckeye earned himself a vacation in 2016. Following her graduation from North Carolina State University with a degree in agricultural business management, Sammi headed overseas to the Netherlands for six months to work and ride under some of Europe’s finest. “Before I even went over there, Buckeye had quite a following of Dutch fans because several of the larger horse publications had picked up on his story and written short articles about him,” she said. “The Dutch fell in love with his story and many were following his Facebook page. Fast forward to when I was over there, people would find out that I was the rider/trainer of Buckeye and immediately go crazy. They have very few mules over there, and the ones they do have are mostly mini and pony mules, so the concept of dressage mules is very foreign to them. But everyone thought it was very cool.”
Social Media Sensation
Today Buckeye is currently competing in dressage at First Level with hopes of moving up to Second Level in fall 2017. He’s also made quite the statement on the intercollegiate circuit. In 2015, Sammi took four horses to North Carolina State for their intercollegiate dressage show. At the end of each year, the members vote for Horse of the Year and Buckeye the dressage mule won. He’s also become a social media sensation with over 14,000 likes on his Facebook page, Buckeye the Dressage Mule.
While Sammi also regularly rides Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds and Friesians, it’s Buckeye’s floppy ears that make her smile the most. “I don’t think it’s terribly weird to go from the mules to the more traditional breeds,” Sammi said. “I’ve grown up riding such a variety of horses that switching isn’t difficult. All of the basics are the same, so riding is no different. Some just have longer ears than others! Granted, some of the Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods I ride could almost pass as a mule with as big as their ears are!
“Beyond his color and simply being a mule, his personality makes him very special,” Sammi added. “He’s incredibly smart and is always willing to do and learn new things. Along with that, he loves to work and finds a lot of enjoyment in it. He has a very happy personality, and all of those things combined make him a pleasure to have in the barn and very special.”
Buckeye is special both in the arena and out of it, his affinity for rolling in the dirt as well as eating strawberries and sour apples adding to his adorable quirks. “One day I counted he rolled over from side to side eight times. He tolerates being in a stall, but loves when it’s time to go outside and get dirty.”
Buckeye and Sammi hope to continue advancing their partnership, hopefully moving up the dressage levels. Sammi makes sure that Buckeye doesn’t get bored, continuing to dabble in other disciplines and often taking Buckeye out for bareback trail rides. Sammi would really like to be able to do a demonstration with Buckeye at the 2018 World Equestrian Games at Tryon International Equestrian Center to help promote mules as athletes.
Not only has Buckeye discovered a whole new world both in and out of the arena, he’s also changed Sammi’s life. “I’ve gotten to meet and talk to so many different people because of Buckeye,” she said. “People always want to come see and meet him at shows, so in turn, we meet so many more people than we normally would. He has taught me so much patience as a rider and a trainer, which all carries into my work with other horses and mules. And he brings me so much joy and happiness. I smile every time I get to the barn and see him, and I’m constantly laughing at the silly things he’s always doing around the barn. He’s just such a cool guy, and I’m so appreciative and thankful that I get to work with him on a daily basis!”