How to Pet a Mule (or a burro or a horse) | Bishop Visitor Information Center
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Drive just about any backroad near Bishop, California during the winter months and you’ll see herds of horses and mules out in pasture. Drive that same backroad during the summer and those pastures are likely to be empty, raising the question, “Where did they go?”

image of mules in pasture

The answer is to be found up in the high Sierra. Aside from the privately owned mules and horses, the vast majority of equines you’ll see in the Owens Valley belong to the eastern Sierra Pack Outfits – locally owned businesses specializing in getting people and their gear into the backcountry for fishing and camping. Come summer time, those cute and friendly mules and horses you stopped to photograph are back at work. It isn’t a bad gig; the typical pack station equine “employee” works about 4 – 5 months out of the year. They work for room and board – but that room and board extends year-round, which is why you see them down in the valley after October.

Horses and mules will be pastured together. You may be more familiar with horses but mules will quickly win you over, even if you are a little leery of their size and power at first. Mules have large gorgeous eyes with long lashes, and super soft big ears. Their muzzles are about the silkiest thing you’ll every lay a hand on, and you’ll soon learn they are playful, inquisitive, and intelligent. Mules have a very distinctive vocal call, and once you’ve heard a plaintive bray you’ll never forget it. Mules look a lot like horses, but there are some key differences, including their big ears. After a while you’ll be able to impress your friends with your ability to distinguish one from the other at a glance but for a primer to get you started, check out this blog post.

image of a woman standing next to a mule

Photo: Vickie Taton

Spend a little time watching them out in pasture and you’ll be able to pick out the clown or prankster of the herd – the one who’s always in everyone else’s hay or hair. Mules are quite curious by nature, and will likely wander over to check you out. It’s fun to test your identification skills – how many horses and how many mules? Girls or boys? Any burros or donkeys? Equines are fed once or twice a day, and when they aren’t eating they do a stellar job of hanging out and lounging. Mid-day you’re likely to see several laying down soaking up the sun and snoozing while others stand watch.

image of curious horses with a photographer

Photo: Katherine Belarmino

Good equine etiquette is to avoid feeding other people’s animals unless you are invited to. Despite their size and hardiness, mules and horses have fairly limited diets, and offering the wrong treats could result in illness. Additionally, your own fingers might be at risk! If an owner or wrangler is around don’t hesitate to ask for permission, especially if you have a stash of carrots or apples on hand, but also be prepared for a polite “no, thanks”. If you do get the okay, here’s a general rule to follow for safe feeding. Keep your fingers together, place the treat on the palm of your hand, stretch your hand tight, and offer your outstretched palm, letting the horse or mule take the treat from you. Be prepared for a tickle as their whiskers touch your skin!

If you get the go-ahead to touch, a great place to start is on the neck. Rub firmly but gently. Some animals will move away, but some will stay and enjoy your touch. Just like people, some mules are more touchy-feely than others. A friendly mule might move in a little closer for a little more petting – just watch your feet and fingers. Remember, mules weigh any where from 1000 pounds or more – getting a toe stepped on is going to hurt. Another good rule to follow is to never walk behind a mule or horse; they have a blind spot directly behind them and may accidentally kick or startle.

Image of a Sierra lake through the ears of a mule being ridden

Photo: Jennifer Roeser

Another treat is to drive out 20 miles east of Big Pine on Hwy 168 to the Piper Mountain Herd Management Area to look for burros. Burros are another equine species – smaller than mules and horses, with big ears and a short mane. Burros were used extensively by early prospectors, as they are hardy, strong, and sure-footed. Read more about the BLM wild horse and burro program here:

image of a burro looking in a vehicle window.

Photo: Julie Faber

A great place to get close to mules & burros, and to learn much more about these amazing animals is Bishop Mule Days. Every Memorial Day weekend, Bishop is filled with mules, donkeys, and burros. There are mules jumping, doing dressage, cutting cows, reining, pulling, and racing. There is an incredible parade of mules right down Main Street, Bishop. For ten days you can learn, touch, hear, and smell mules. It really isn’t to be missed – there’s something for everyone from the youngest wrangler wannabe to the senior citizen reminiscing about the good ole days of mining and logging. Find out more about Bishop Mule Days and get your tickets here:

image of a burro with hat on its head.

Photo: David Calvert

After Mule Days, the pack stations begin preparing for their summer seasons, and you can actually ride a mule or horse into the backcountry. Whether you are looking for an hour ride or to spend a few days in the wilderness, the pack stations are your gateway into the mountains via saddle. Watch “A Day in the Life of a Pack Mule”

to get an insider’s glimpse into what you can expect to experience. The backcountry normally starts to open up in June, and pack trips generally are scheduled through September and even later, depending on the weather. Some pack stations offer rides in the off-season, such as this one in the Alabama Hills led by McGee Creek Pack Outfit.

image of a rider on a horse in the Alabama Hills

Photo: Jennifer Roeser

You can find a list of local pack stations here: 

And once you’ve fallen in love with that special mule, consider supporting the American Mule Museum here in Bishop, California. You can find out much more about mules and their history in the Sierra, enjoy historic photos and recollections from local mule packers, and understand some of the lingo tossed around the pack stations and Mule Days. Check out their website here:


About the Author: Vickie Taton

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Since taking a chance summer job in 1980, I've lived in and loved the eastern Sierra. Sometimes home is a place you've never been before, and that is how I felt driving north into Inyo and Mono Counties so many years ago. It really doesn't matter the activity; fishing, hiking, skiing, riding my horse or mountain biking, I love the clean air, the cobalt blue sky, the constantly changing weather. Welcome! I'm happy to share a little piece of this place with you.

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16 hours ago

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Our last share of the night regarding the Moffat fire burning north of Lone Pine... we will try to post an update in the morning as soon as we learn of one.The Moffat Fire continues to burn into the night. We hope and pray the weather calms and fire crews will get an upper hand on it soon! ... See MoreSee Less

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20 hours ago

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U.S. 395 is open again... and here are some photos of the fire posted by CHP - Bishop.Here's a few more pics of the Moffat Fire and it's aftermath. Photo courtesy: Officer Jeff Pelham. ... See MoreSee Less

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23 hours ago

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U.S. 395 closed Lone Pine to Manzanar due to a wildfire.... please be careful!***UPDATE*** (5:06 PM)

Both northbound and southbound lanes along US-395 have been re-opened.

***UPDATE*** (4:45 PM)

CHP is now escorting south bound traffic along US-395 through the closure.


U.S. Hwy 395 is closed from Manzanar (just south of the town of Independence) to Lone Pine due to a wildfire that began next to the Owens River near Manzanar this afternoon.

Presently there is no detour available to negotiate this closure and no estimated time for reopening the highway.

For the latest highway information please visit the Caltrans QuickMap site at or call the Road Condition Hotline at 1-800-427-ROAD (7623).
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1 day ago

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Interesting history of how the age of the bristlecone came to light and how the protection came about. Have you visited Schulman Grove?Al Noren, White Mountain District Ranger in the 1940s-1950s, helped lead to bristlecones being known as the oldest trees. He harvested some bristlecone wood to use for cabinets, since it was locally known for being good for woodworking and firewood. He noted the close rings, started counting, and realized that there was something very special about the trees. He initially protected an area in the Patriarch Grove and the Patriarch Tree, which he named, because it was the largest tree. Nickolas Mirov, a friend of Noren’s and researcher of pine trees, suggested to Edmund Schulman that he take a look at the trees in the White Mountains of California. Schulman’s research was on old trees and the Whites became a focus for him in the early 1950s. This research by Edmund Schulman determined that the oldest bristlecones were not the largest, most striking, or most picturesque. Patriarch Tree is not the oldest bristlecone; in fact is rather young for bristlecones. ... See MoreSee Less

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