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Stories from Bernie's current trip - a mule voyage from Canada to Mexico

Toughen up Those Mules Shoulders With Bluegrass and Vinegar
January 23, 2008

The Plan was this. In 2007, I was to:
Step 1) Hitch mule Polly to the Lost Sea Expedition
Wagon in Canada
Step 2) Drive from Canada to Mexico


The Plan

We completed Step 1. In fact, we got about 600 miles through Step 2. Precisely, we made Hill City, South Dakota. Then winter struck.

In the interest of mule Polly’s welfare (okay, freezing your mule’s ears off sure dings your image) I returned home to North Carolina for the release of the “Too Proud to Ride a Cow” book.

Now Polly’s neck has gone soft.

Really, that’s what happens to mules, rednecks and roughnecks when they’re unemployed. The part of their body that bears the brunt of their lifestyle goes soft while they’re loafing.

Seriously. Think of the callouses on your hands. Spend lots of time shoveling ditches and you get thick pads of skin on your palms where the shovel handle goes. Same with a working mule. Lots of time in the harness thickens the skin under the collar, preventing the hide from chafing under load.

Here it is in pictures.

Here’s what Polly looks like in her harness. The black leather thing around her neck is the collar. She pulls into this and it spreads the load of the wagon across the front of her shoulder. The red circle marks where the load is applied.


Collar with red oval showing the load is applied

The next photo shows Polly’s shoulder without the collar on.


Smooth, uncalloused skin
Plentywood, Montana

The red oval marks where the load of pulling. I took this photograph of Polly’s neck in Plentywood, Montana, in the early days of our trip – before she had time to build up a callous. See how smooth the hair on her shoulder looks? Her skin is unrippled.

Now check this out. Look at the skin in Polly’s shoulder in Hill City, South Dakota, after she pulled her wagon through 4 states.


Calloused skin
Outside Hill City, SD

See the vertical wrinkles inside the red oval? That’s the protective callous that formed under the load of her collar.

Neat, huh?

Then we came home and hit the “Too Proud” book tour. Trouble is, when the routine shifted from pulling the wagon to attending book signings, Polly’s hard won callouses went away.


Polly cadging a book signing cookie – and losing her shoulder callous

No biggie. Polly has a second chance.

Remember how I said I didn’t quite finish Polly’s Canada to Mexico journey? Well, in March 2008, we plan to return to Hill City, SD to resume our journey.

One small problem. Polly needs to get her harness callous back.

There are two schools of thought on how to do this.
1)Apply Old Timey potions
2)Do Nothing

Here’s the Old Timey school of thought.

This is where Tash comes in.


Tash checking in with the Lost Sea wagon

Tash is Polly’s old owner. A hard core mule skinner of the Old School (he’d drive his mule team a week just to GET to a wagon train…) he swears by his own Tough Mule Neck recipe.

Secret ingredient? Vinegar

“It don’t matter what brand,” he says, “as long as it’s apple cider vinegar. The cheap stuff works fine.”


Cheap “Our Family” vinegar.
About 2 bucks at the grocery store

“What you want to do is rub some on your mule’s shoulder each morning before you harness him. Last time we drove to Benson Mule Days from my house (over 60 miles), we didn’t have a lick of trouble and some of the mules we took sure were green.”


Tash’s team

The acetic acid in vinegar supposedly toughens the skin faster than just work alone.

Another home remedy involves, well, let’s just say you can brew your own by drinking lots of water, waiting two hours then applying the resulting concoction instead of vinegar.

I’ve never tried this method. Nor will I.

For I am a man of the Do Nothing school of thought. Well, sort of. I’ll admit to carrying a bottle of secret Shoulder Toughening Sauce in my ditty bag.

Instead of marinating Polly’s shoulders in vinegar (or worse) to toughen the skin, I believe in just steadily increasing her work load. To prepare her for March 2008’s Lost Sea Expedition Part 2, I’ll just hitch her to the wagon and drive her a bit farther each day.

In three weeks’ time, she’ll be ready for the bluegrass jam scheduled for February 22 in Rockingham, NC. Given decent weather, Tash and a few of our friends are planning to attend – by wagon. A round trip of about 70 miles, we’ll break it down into 4 days on the road – enough to continue toughening the hide under Polly’s collar but not enough to rub her raw.


We’ll be bluegrass bound
High Falls, NC

I doubt Tash will be stashing a bottle of cider vinegar aboard his wagon, though. Unlike my mules, his don’t go soft and lazy during book signing season.

And that secret Shoulder Toughening Sauce I carry in my catch all bag? Don’t tell Tash but it’s just plain old silicone mane and tail detangler. Yep, that sissy stuff you spray into a horse’s mane to make combing easier. Before harnessing Polly, I just squirt some on her shoulder, where the collar goes. The silicone lets the collar slide smoothly over the hair. This keeps the collar from rubbing the hair away.

No, it doesn’t toughen the skin. Yes, it makes Tash think I listened to him. He thinks it’s clear vinegar.

You see, for thicker skin, time and traveling with friends is the only way to go.

Sure hope you can join Tash and the rest of us at the bluegrass pickin’.


Pickin’ bound hound

(Thanks Tash, Kenny, Ken Lee, Billie, Liz and Miss Teri for helping Polly and me get Lost Sea-worthy.)

Posted Wednesday January 23, 2008 by Bernie


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