In preparation for this week’s U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, Laura Hermanson did what most dressage competitors do: she worked on her own and in sessions with her trainer, Renee Johnson, on maintaining suppleness, relaxation and engagement. But she also did a little cross training—competing in reining, cutting and cow working while doing a little jumping on the side. You could say Hermanson’s mount is no ordinary horse, and you’d be right. Heart B Dyna is a 16-hand, 12-year-old mule. Hermanson and Dyna were originally long listed for the Training Level Championship when the Madera, California-based dressage trainer got an invitation to the finals. Though mules have been allowed in USEF dressage shows since 2004, this will be the first time one will compete at the championships.
Mules, for those whose knowledge is a bit rusty, are the offspring of a male donkey (or jack) and a female horse. With the exception of their long ears, they look much like horses. Prized for their endurance and strength, they also have less tangible qualities. “They’ve got personality and a real soulfulness,” says Hermanson. “At every show we’ve gone to, they’ve won over someone.”
She first fell in love with mules while working summers as a wrangler at pack stations in the Sierras. “I’d watch how they’d interact and how smart and hard working they are. I was fascinated.”
Their versatility is impressive. “They do things they shouldn’t be able to do. In the same day, I can jump in hunter classes, do cow working and then compete in dressage.” In May, she and Dyna, whose mother was an APHA Paint mare, were open high point champions at the Dressage at the Gaits show in Gilroy, California, where they earned scores of 73, 74 and 75%.
Riding a mule requires patience, humility and consistency, Hermanson says. “You have to be really clear about what you want, and have a sense of humor. They can be very humbling, but you can’t get frustrated. It takes them a long time to build their trust in you, but when they do, they give their heart like no other equine I know.”
In addition to Dyna (Heart B Lonesome Me–CCR Full of Style), Hermanson rides two other mules: CR Moxie J and BB Magee, who both compete at First Level. All three qualified for the California Dressage Society Championships in September, where they scored in the mid- to high 60s. Dyna is the introvert of the group. “She nickers quietly and brays quietly.” Moxie, who’s out of a Thoroughbred mare, stands 17 hands and is “the Liberace” of the three of them, Hermanson says with a laugh.
Getting to Kentucky for the finals was a financial hurdle she hadn’t anticipated. But after posting her story on GoFundMe, she raised more than $10,000 in less than a month. Hermanson was blown away. “The majority of these people are strangers; I was overwhelmed by their generosity. People all over the world have contacted me.”
Heading into Friday’s Training Level Championship, Hermanson is determined not to be a footnote at the finals. She points to other riders, like Oregon-based Audrey Goldsmith, who now competes at Fourth Level with her mule, Heart B Porter Creek. Says Hermanson, “I just want to ride my best and show that there is a place for mules in dressage.”