ANVIL Interview with Frank Smith

© Rob Edwards

published in ANVIL Magazine, January 1998

ANVIL: Frank, you just finished in 7th place in the Tevis Cup race, also known as the Western States Trail Ride, the most grueling 100-mile, one-day ride in the world. The unusual part is that you ran the race on a mule! Mules are noted for their stamina but not generally for their speed in an event like the Tevis. Do you work the mules differently in a pack trip versus riding one in a ride like the Tevis?

FRANK: Packing is totally different. The conditioning aspect of an endurance race is the most important part of this type of competition. The bottom line is if the animals participating in the endurance event are not conditioned, you're just not going to do well. Conditioning a horse versus condition- ing a mule has to be done differently because the horse and the mule think so differently. The horse, if he's mentally over-conditioned, call be forced to complete the ride quickly. However, if a mule is over-conditioned mentally and doesn't like what he's doing, you're not going to compete well. So the trick with the mule is to condition him in such a way that he's always happy and he never knows that he's being worked hard. The old saying, 'No pain no gain,' applies to horses and mules, but from my experience you've got to be real careful when you apply it to a mule. If there's too much pain, the mule is going to just stop, or, he's not going to give you everything you need for him to be competitive He may just decide he doesn't like this anymore. So in my opinion, the trick with a mule is that if he never knows he's being conditioned and he enjoys doing what he's doing and you keep it varied, the mule will do well. There are many ways to build strength and endurance other than just pretend- ing you're out there racing.

ANVIL: What are some of these other ways of conditioning?

FRANK: Packing has been real I successful for me because it's slow, and it it requires carrying a lot of weight. Along with a lot of uphill work, that builds the animal's muscular and cardiovascular systems. At the same time, it's not a destructive type of conditioning like pounding the ground at a trot. If a per- son can condition a mule slowly at a walk, they're going to save their animal and add to its longevity. I believe, and I've heard from a lot of the best riders in endurance riders, that an animal only has so many downhill miles in him. So save those downhill miles for the race. If you call condition slowly, you're going to save many years in your animal.

ANVIL: Most people who ride the Tevis condition at a lower altitude and go 'up' to the Tevis. In your case, you probably conditioned at a higher altitude and actually came 'down' to participate in the Tevis.

FRANK: That just depends upon where I'm working - where I'm packing - at that particular time. For the Tevis I had to do all my conditioning at home in Grass Valley, California, which is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That helped me a little bit, because it is close to the Western States trail, which gives you a bit of a home court advantage because the mule does know where home is. I conditioned on the trail for two months prior to the Tevis. At the same time, I was working for Bishop Pack Outfitters in Bishop, California. I helped them with their cattle and horses and other everyday work associated with the pack outfit. In the valley just below that area, I also lead cattle and horse drives. I don't just pound the ground at a trot; instead, I focus mostly on slow uphill-type work.

ANVIL: You rode your mule, Buckaroo, almost every day?

FRANK: Around the ranch and in leading pack strings, probably more like four times a week - maybe only an hour one day, then four or five hours another day. So it was varied. Everything was varied - it was never the same thing. And that variation keeps the mule happy. He's always excited about going out and riding. So the Tevis was no big deal to him. It seems like a big deal to us, but for an animal to go 100 miles if he's in good shape is really not all that much. It's the attitude that is the most important factor.

ANVIL: How long have you been a professional farrier?

FRANK: I've been a farrier for 12 years; I started in 1985 apprenticing under Wayne Bair.

ANVIL: Wayne has been one of the official shoers of the Tevis for the last 12 years. Then what did you do?

FRANK: I kept shoeing as an apprentice with no official schooling, but with Wayne's advice I decided to go to school and get my credentials. That same year I met Bob Barrett at a riding clinic. He teaches horseshoeing and horsemanship classes at Merced College. I knew this is where I wanted to go to school. Bob emphasizes horsemanship as well as horseshoeing knowledge. He teaches you how to get along with the horse and how important that is. He believes if you can get along with the horse, it's easy to get underneath him and to drive nails. It's very easy to use your tools if you're not struggling with the horse. At the school I got a chance to meet and work a bit with Tom Dorrance, as well. Tom and Bob are very good friends and Tom would be at the school to help horses and students and anybody who asked.

ANVIL: So you studied equine behavior as well as how to apply shoes?

FRANK: Yes; those things I already learned from Wayne, Bob and Tom. But I needed the schooling part - the physiology of the horse, and the scholastic part - the structure of the leg, for example.

ANVIL: So yours was a six-month course?

FRANK: toFrom January to mid-May. School ended right before the Mule Days annual celebration in Bishop, California.

ANVIL: Were you enamored with mules, even at that point?

FRANK: Oh, yes, after being with Wayne and his donkeys and mules. I always got to trim Wayne's customers' burros and he would sit back and just laugh! Wayne always had the proper approach with stock - rough or gentle, he knew how to handle them. He would always get very serious whenever I'd approach some of the nasty mules because someone could get hurt quite easily. Wayne has a great attitude and he really enjoys his job. In that aspect, for him it's not a job. So Wayne probably was the one who instilled the right attitude in me towards mules. Many other shoers have sore backs and they strike their horses - they're just not happy shoers. They start out happy and are happy getting paid, but their attitude is off. But Wayne can smile all day, and always has a good attitude. Of course, being there with Bob and occasionally with Tom, as well and the others, there was always a good feeling going around. If you enjoy it, you're going to get along with the horse; the horse is going to get along with you. It's going to be a lot less sweat than getting under that horse with a bad attitude - in fact, it's going to be easy.

ANVIL: Do you think a lot of horseshoers develop a bad attitude because of back pain and that maybe they're beginning to get burned out? FRANK: Yes, and some customers help them burn out, too.

ANVIL: Do you think that mules are a lot more intelligent and sensitive than horses?

FRANK: I don't know how to compare the intelligence. Tom Dorrance said: 'A mule is exactly like a horse, but more so.' You can relate to that when you have a bad or unruly mule to shoe. Boy, they're wicked! When you have a good mule to shoe, it's easy. They're just more extreme in both directions.

ANVIL: A horse thinks he has to cock before he fires and a mule knows he doesn't have to! I went on a pack trip a few years ago with mules. Up to that point, I had never ridden one. I was amazed at the mule's ability to know where each foot was all the time, whereas many horses even forget they have a back end! I was impressed at how intelligent they were and how much dexterity they displayed.

FRANK: They're unbelievable. I got my first mule in 1985. Today, 12 years later, I am amazed at their ability every day of my life. I'm amazed at how competent and surefooted mules are, and at their ability over the horse in rough backcountry.

ANVIL: A horse has the ability to regenerate a hoof when it has been badly damaged. Are mules the same way?

FRANK: It's the same. Their foot won't break down as fast, of course, because they've got a bit more donkey in them. Probably the only downside to the mule is that often they're pretty straight in the hoof and pastern and consequently take a lot more concussion. They've got somewhat less angle in their lower pastern joints and they've got less shock absorption in the joints themselves because they are so straight. That might be the only downside to their conformation. But their actual hoof is far superior to that of a horse.

ANVIL: How do you shoe a mule differently than a horse, particularly for endurance?

FRANK: I think you shoe a mule pretty much the same way. The shape of the shoe is different, however. I like to shoe all the way to the end of the bulbs because that's really where the end of the foot is. We do that traditionally in the packing industry because they have a chance to really place their feet. In the rough country they're so coordinated, they don't get their feet lodged or get their shoe trapped. They don't step on their shoe. And you can shoe quite liberally at that slow pace. But in the endurance world I find that you'd better shoe rather conservatively because you can't afford to lose a shoe in a competition.

ANVIL: So how much expansion are you giving them for endurance riding?

FRANK: A dime's worth.

ANVIL: All the around?

FRANK: Only rear quarters. I just go right to the back of the hoof itself.

ANVIL: So you basically don't have anything hanging out for them to pull off, then.

FRANK: Nothing's hanging out. For me, it's just a one-race shoeing job, usually - especially if I'm using aluminum, although those aluminum shoes I did use on the Tevis still have more life in them, even now.

ANVIL: It's unusual that you used aluminum shoes in a Tevis 100-mile endurance race.

FRANK: Well, I've been wanting to go with something with very good traction and a real wide web for protection. They're going to get some absorption of shock because of the nature of the metal - they're lightweight, making the horse closer to a barefoot animal, so to speak - it's got to help somewhat. I don't know exactly how much it helps and that may be impossible to determine. The other benefit is the fact that those shoes are going to wear the way they want to wear, as if the horse were barefoot.
Before the race, and after.

ANVIL: Well, they'll certainly roll the toe a lot easier.

FRANK: They're going to have a rolled toe within the first part of the race. And once it rolls over, they're going to travel more the way they seem to want to travel, with an easier breakover.

ANVIL: So the only drawback, then, would be wearability?

FRANK: The Tevis encompasses extreme conditions, but the shoes Could have gone probably another 25 to 50 miles if the conditions were relatively easy. Up here in this granite, of course, they wouldn't have, but in the dirt they would easily last longer. I hope to have a sport-type shoe on the ground being tested by the winter of 1998 that has all the benefits of an aluminum shoe, but wears longer.

ANVIL: In the Tevis, out of 230-plus riders, there are probably only 50 who are actually racing. And far less than that intend to race. But once they get into the race, the horses perk up and then they have a tendency at that point to go for it. Those people probably have a far greater percentage of not finishing the ride than those who plan ahead and stick to the plan. What kind of strategy did you use?

FRANK: My strategy was basically to ride a bit fast when it was cool, to get off on all the uphills as much as I possibly could and save the mule. The mule, I was thinking, was pretty much the underdog. At this point in time, I'm now reevaluating that and thinking that the Tevis endurance ride could be a mule's race. The mule is not going to be able to do as well on the uphills because he just doesn't have the hind quarters to push uphill. And Buckaroo is not a large mule to begin with. He's going on a lot of heart and a lot of good attitude. And he's giving a lot because he really wants to do it. So I want to take care of that attitude and I want to make sure that his ears are forward and that he's happy all the time. He did get into a low point at one spot. There was about an hour there where he had me a little worried - and it was all him - he had gotten a little tired at one point, and there were no other animals around.

ANVIL: Where was this?

FRANK: We were leaving Foresthill and going back down into those canyons. He slowed down a bit on me. Instead of pushing him, I just went slower. As it turned out, he was resting. Within an hour, he perked up and 1 could feel his strength come back and he went for it, just like when he'd started out. I let him stop to eat some grass and he drank some water. You can tell him that he's running in the top ten, but he doesn't hear you! So you can't let your own competitive nature interfere with his attitude. That is my main strategy to maintain that good attitude in the animal. There are a lot of other competition strategies - racer's edges, so to speak - that I use in dealing with the other horses and other riders: how to psychologically get in front of them and stay there, how to wear them down, and how to put them out of the race, actually, if you want to. That's not that difficult to do if you read the rider well. It doesn't sound too nice, but there is a lot of it that does go on in a race.

ANVIL: When you're in the top ten, you're essentially competing for two different prestigious trophies, the Tevis Cup and the Haggin Cup - and a horse race is a horse race.

FRANK: Yes, it is, and probably a lot of the fun of it is pushing riders and horses right out of the race, as reluctant as I am to acknowledge that. And you can do it if you read the animal and read the rider. You see how the rider is riding that animal, see what they're doing wrong, and build on their mistakes. When you do build on their mistakes, usually they get pulled at the next vet check. When you're riding against a fast horse that you know is faster, sometimes you might have to put yourself in the right position so that the other rider makes a mistake. It's not necessarily beating that other horse, but rather making that rider make a mistake. And that's not hard to do riding a mule because a mule is so handy in certain places, especially on downhill rough terrain.

ANVIL: So you pick up a lot of places going downhill in the rocks.

FRANK: It's an easy place to push a fast rider. There were some real fast riders in that race who never finished. Maybe it was because they were worried about that mule on their butt in some real rough country. There were some that got pulled because they felt they could compete against the mule in his prime country, where he shines.

ANVIL: Probably the best thing would have been to pull over and let the mule pass.

FRANK: It's not just the horse that doesn't want the mule to be in front; it's the rider who can't stand to be beaten by a mule! I also wanted to mention that I used a Western saddle for this race, so I can carry extra horseshoes and nails in my saddle bags during the race.

ANVIL: Wouldn't it be lighter to carry an EasyBoot?

FRANK: I guess so, but it's just as fast for me to carry shoes. It's also difficult to get an EasyBoot to fit a mule, because the EasyBoot is so round. I can nail a shoe on quite fast, anyway. If my mule loses his shoe, I do have to hobble him to shoe him, though, because he'll tear me up trying to put that shoe on! He does not want to wait to be shod.

ANVIL: You're about ready to take a photographer on a two-month pack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, covering the John Muir Trail. Will you be using your own stock, and is this an independent job?

FRANK: I packed for Bishop Pack Outfitters last year and prior to that I did a lot of independent packing. I had a permit up out of Tahoe in the Castle Peak area just north of Desolation Valley where I packed extensively, also. I did a lot of lesson work and seminar work instructing in packing. I love the eastern Sierra and for the last year I've been packing for Bishop Pack Outfitters. I use my own stock. This particular job is actually an independent job. We've already been out for one week; we're back in now, just getting resupplied and reorganized. Then we'll be going back out again.

ANVIL: Will you be on the move, for the most part, for five weeks?

FRANK: Yes; there will be a few layover days. The John Muir Trail is 211 miles, but we plan to cover about 270 miles in all. It's not that far, but it is very slow going. We're averaging only one to two miles an hour some of the time, in rough country with a pack string. Between my work tending to the stock and grazing them and Londie's designing and capturing landscapes, as well as interpreting the trip with journals and photography, our days are long and busy.

ANVIL: Is this a specific route you take in order to capture the best photo opportunities?

FRANK: Yes. Londie Padelsky is a landscape photographer. Her current project is a pictorial journal that is going to cover the John Muir Trail. The trail starts at the valley floor in Yosemite and follows the Sierra south to Mt. Whitney, which is in the eastern Sierra.

ANVIL: I notice that Londie has her photographs in calendars and books on the Sierra backcountry, so she knows the area quite well.

FRANK: Yes, she has traveled the Sierra extensively for at least 15 years. She's had the opportunity to photograph a lot of that backcountry already - but in sections. This is going to be a photographic expedition covering the John Muir Trail on horseback for an upcoming project. My job is to care for the six pack mules and two lead horses and to get us where we need to be for great photographic possibilities.

ANVIL: Why is there usually a horse on a pack trip to lead the mules?

FRANK: I actually prefer leading with Buckaroo. The horse is necessary strictly for keeping the mules together during grazing. When you turn out the animals, the mules stay focused on where the horse is. And if you have control of the horse, then you've got control of the mules.

ANVIL: Does it matter if it's a mare or a gelding?

FRANK: A mare is better. And this is mostly important when you're turning them out for grazing purposes. Because you can't possibly carry enough feed for them, so you have to turn them out.

ANVIL: So after grazing in the morning, you catch the horse or horses, preferably a mare, and lead her in; and then you get all the mules following?

FRANK: Yes, they'll all be right with her.

ANVIL: Why do you think that is?

FRANK: I don't know, but I'm glad it is that way. It makes it easier. The mares do have control, especially one that's been living with the mules for awhile. The poor old mules get herdbound. They just want to be with that mare; they watch her and stay close by. You can be out grazing in a meadow or even on a wooded hillside with rocks and boulders and gullies, and you won't even see half the mules. You'll hear the bell the mare wears and from that sound, you can tell where your whole herd is. You can tell in what direction the mare and the herd are walking and how fast she is moving the herd. And you can tell if she's getting full by the movement of the bell. You can tell if she's going for water or not and you can tell where the water is. You can get an idea of the present situation even though you're not right there. She is usually hobbled; many of these mares are not easy to catch. I go out there with a handful of grain and give it to her. I remove the hobbles, hop on her bare back and ride on into camp and the mules will all follow. Even if you don't see half the mules, they come right along with you. Then you go to your picket line and picket your mare. Mules will stay right close by because they're full and they're content. Then you can catch each one and tie them up to a picket line. I give them all a bite of grain to let them know that this area is the so-called 'barn,' so they'll think it's a good spot.

ANVIL: Do mules like to go in any particular order or do they just like to go single file behind the mare?

FRANK: They follow the mare right in order. They're good followers. They usually stay on the trail. They'll get off the trail a bit when they start getting hungry and begin looking for grass. They can't go too far, though, because they're tied together.

ANVIL: How many mules are in a string when you're packing?

FRANK: A normal string is five or six animals.

ANVIL: I would think mules would be a lot less panicky than horses; is that the case?

FRANK: Yes. It probably goes back to the donkey heritage. The donkey is handicapped in his ability to flee danger just because they're a smaller, slower moving animal. He can't always get away from a predator because he can't run as fast. The donkey knows he can figure the situation out, because he can't get away. So that filters down to the pack animal. The mule will stand and think about the danger. Some of them do spook more than others. The old saying that a mule will not jump off a cliff, however, is not true. They will jump off a cliff - because I've been on them when they have! There are those that do not have quite as much donkey and a bit more horse in them. And more horse, in that particular instance, is a handicap. You want a lot of donkey in them when you're in that rough, dangerous country.

ANVIL: Did you have anything to do with Buckaroo's breeding?

FRANK: Yes, I raised him.

ANVIL: So you had the donkey and bred the donkey to the mare? Was it also your mare?

FRANK: Yes, it was. ANVIL: When you bred them, did you have endurance in mind for the result?

FRANK: Actually at that particular time in the mid '80s when I got my first mules, I was mainly interested in packing and pleasure riding.

ANVIL: How many mules have you gotten out of this mare and donkey pair?

FRANK: I went into this with the idea back then in 1985 of creating a business out of it in time, and I am at that stage right now. I bought four mares and a jack and began to raise baby mules. So my entire packing business is basically from mules that I've raised out of my own mares and jack.

ANVIL: How many mules do you have now?

FRANK: I have four strings of five each. I've got two strings that are real solid; the other strings are young mules that are being worked into these other strings just to get them going. So I've probably got 10 to 15 that are good working stock and then five more that are getting going right now.

ANVIL: What do you generally do for shoes for your mules?

FRANK: I usually shape a horseshoe to fit my mules. I was lucky enough to buy some good Diamond shoes some years ago at a salvage yard, believe it or not. I bought a pallet of horseshoes and nails. They all have toes and heels on them so if I don't want heels, I grind them off. For my kind of work, usually toes and heels are just fine - I've used the heck out of them. I bought quite a few thousand pounds of shoes at that time and I'm still working those down.

ANVIL: You mentioned that you had used titanium as well as aluminum on the endurance riding. How did the titanium hold up?

FRANK: Titanium held up no better than aluminum; actually, I wore them out in less than a week in Yosemite. They're supposed to be a high-wearing, high-absorbing, lightweight material. I found them to be as fast-wearing as aluminum. With the mules, I'll end up nailing with just four nails. It's a smaller foot, anyway, so in order to allow for expansion, I'll nail just the front from the stable part of the hoof forward, instead of back into the flexible part of the foot where you get all the expansion.

ANVIL: Do you usually use toe clips?

FRANK: Actually, I use side clips all around, rather than quarter clips. I put them where the expansion of the hoof begins. Basically you're just trying to prevent shear pressure on those nails and if you've got a pad in there you get a lot of flexible movement in between the hoof and the shoe. You just try to stabilize the hoof and the shoe - that's the only reason for clips.

ANVIL: I used to shoe endurance horses with toe clips in the front and quarter clips in the back. Because most of them are Arabs and they didn't have a tendency to wear the toe out as much as a mule would. But in the hind feet, they twist a lot and so without clips, they would shear the nails. I don't see how you could possibly, in good conscience, nail a pad on a horse without applying clips because without them, they're most likely going to lose that shoe. There's that old superstition about mules being real sensitive in the heels and just stopping dead in their tracks if their heels hurt; is there validity to that?

FRANK: Yes, I think any time a mule is getting hurt, regardless of where he is, he's going to stop if he's in pain. Of course, they're all individuals, just like horses are. You'll get mules that will endure pain and are more prone to taking care of themselves. Any time a mule is feeling pain anywhere he's definitely going to slow down, and he's going to give you less.

ANVIL: In a horse you generally try to trim it so that the anterior hoof wall is parallel to the pastern; is that the same with a mule?

FRANK: Pretty much so, yes.

ANVIL: Because there is a steeper pastern in the mule, you're going to have a steeper and longer heel, usually.

FRANK: I find that the slighter the angle - or the less steep the angle - the longer the hoof-bearing surface. The steeper the angle is, the smaller the hoof-bearing surface. As far as the balance goes, I try to plumb-bob their foot, similar to the way I was taught, making sure the foot strikes the ground perpendicular to the direction of his bones. In theory, that's how I've always trimmed. But I've been using the Finnegan Gauge, since Danny Finnegan gave me one. Actually, I've used his gauges ever since he came up with one. I've especially enjoyed using this newest gauge, and I've found that the way my animals were traveling, they're working up to performance You can trim that horse or that mule and then put the gauge on the hoof and the gauge tells you if the hoof surface of the foot is perpendicular to the strength-bearing components of the hoof wall. It tells you if that surface that you've trimmed is perpendicular to those tubules - plain and simple. The tubules are an extension of the limb. And if a person wants to believe that those tubules are what gives the hoof its strength, it's only common sense that the tubule needs to strike the ground exactly perpendicular to get the most strength. That's the theory. It makes sense and it has worked for me. If I can't see the tubules, then I'll scratch with my hoof knife or rasp a little bit so I can see them. But using the gauge and using a pencil, you can get it completely straight. You just run that pencil down the front of the hoof and then there's no doubt in your mind that you're doing it right.

ANVIL: Say a journeyman farrier wanted to increase his or her mule clientele. How would you advise going about doing that?

FRANK: Most shoers don't care about increasing their mule clientele. And it's because there are fewer mules around nowadays and they don't really know the mule, they've just heard stories. Or maybe they've had a bad experience with a mule. The shoers who are in this area, in packing country, have no choice but to shoe mules because so many are used here. They realize how easy it is to shoe a mule. I hope shoers remember that a good mule is a great mule to shoe, and those are the ones we want to shoe. Any other mule is a good mule to train to be a good mule - and then he will be a great mule to shoe!

ANVIL: Thanks so much, Frank, for expanding our knowledge on packing and shoeing mules.

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