This week, 3 weeks before we set off on our mule ramble, Julia and I are fitting our mules with boots. No, not the lace up kind or the rubber kind you might imagine. No, not the ones I made out of inner tubes 15 years ago. Rather, these are boots built just for horses and mules.
This used to be hard. Now it’s easy. My mind goes back to stinky dumpsters, whizzing trucks and California.
How it all started
Back when I did my first cross country mule trip (North Carolina to California), in 2004/5, I set out from Oriental, NC with steel shoes on my mule Woody’s feet.
A few weeks later, I bought a pony from my friend Mel Wyatt in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I named her Maggie. She would become my pack pony. I nailed a set of front shoes on her, figuring a I’d add the back shoes when she needed them.
While Woody’s shoes initially held up okay, I soon ran in to trouble.
Obstacle One: I wasn’t a great horse shoer. Sure, I could nail the shoes on Woody’s feet. But a few days after I got them hammered in place, I’d hear the tell tale “clink, clink, clink” of a loose shoe. And so I’d pull over to the side of the road. Dig my shoeing kit out of my saddle bag; “Kit” just being some shoeing tools wrapped in the remnants of a canvas raincoat.
I’d beat the nail clinches tight and set off again until, a few miles up the road “clink, clink, clink”. Mule Woody was very patient.
Obstacle Two: carrying shoeing gear is heavy. Sure, if you’re a farrier, you’ve got a honkin’ big truck to haul your gear around in. But when your sole transportation is an old saddle mule and small pack pony, those 15 pounds of spare shoes, nails, hammer, clincher, rasp and hoof knife weigh as much as the rest of your possessions: tent, clothes, notebook and camera.
Enter hoof boots
In Star, North Carolina, 2 months after heading out from Oriental, Maggie’s back feet started getting sore. I was so sick of messing with steel shoes I decided I would try hoof boots.
Trouble is, this was before the Buy-Anything-Anywhere-on-Your-Smartphone Era. Oh, and my funds were as slim as a worn steel shoe. Instead of ordering a set of hoof boots I decided to make a pair.
I dumpster-dived some inner tubes out of a tire store dumpster. With my multi-tool and a set of borrowed tin snips, I cut the inner tubes in to star shapes.
The next day I duct taped one of these pieces of inner tube to Maggie’s feet. With Maggie wearing what looked like a cross between a mummy and bed room slippers on her feet, we struck out anew. The boots were clunky. They impaired her gate. Woody, Maggie and I shuffled toward western North Carolina with our DIY boots.
Progress was slow. I had to replace the duct tape every few miles, the inner tubes every few days. In Asheville, 2 months later, it was clear I needed something more permanent. I bought my first pair of Easy Boots, a “real” pair of hoof boots.
As my steel shoes wore out, I replaced them with hoof boots. By Oklahoma, Woody and Maggie were walking with nothing but hoof boots on their feet.
I haven’t nailed a steel shoe to a horse or mule’s hoof since.
Flash forward to now.
Looking back on it now, I’m glad I wasn’t able to just go out and buy the hoof boots I needed. This is a marvelous era. We can order, download and receive almost anything we want. Hoof boots, farrier tools and saddle gear are easy and relatively inexpensive to acquire.
In shorter supply are patience, creativity and endurance. I miss how my brain, faced with something I needed but didn’t have, would flash, “hey, we could use an inner tube for a hoof boot and we can strap it on with duct tape and then to make it last longer we can strap mud flaps to the bottom.”
Or do I?
Actually I don’t. If I’m honest, what I miss are the fun memories and funny visions of my imperfect solutions. What I don’t miss, and conveniently forget, are the weeks spent gimping up the road shedding boots and pieces of rubber on the side of the road as I headed to California. The hours on the side of the road, with cars and trucks whizzing by, taping boots to my mount’s feet. That stank.
I need 4 more boots so that every hoof on our mules has a boot on it. Forget the duct tape and inner tubes. I’m ordering some more hoof boots. I need to save up my patience, creativity and duct tape for the trip ahead.
Additional reading and viewing
-“Too Proud to Ride a Cow”, the travel book about my voyage across American with Woody and Maggie
-“Woody and Maggie Walk Across America” – the kid’s book about my voyage across America with Woody and Maggie
“Too Proud to Ride a Cow” available on Kindle
Both books are available at the RiverEarth.com General Store.