“Why a mule?” my mother asked incredulously after I’d told her I was leasing one.
So I told my mother the story I’d been telling everyone else late last year; that I’d started horseback riding lessons again after a long hiatus, at a large outdoor arena above Skyline Stables in Oakland. One day I’d asked my instructor, whose pretty Arabian she made available for English riding lessons, if she knew anyone who had a horse I could lease; I wanted to ride more often. She didn’t, not exactly, but she did know a woman named Michelle who was looking for someone to lease her beloved 4-year-old strawberry roan mule, named Pippi Longstockings. Pippi is boarded along with approximately 80 horses (she’s the only mule!) at the beautiful Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center on Skyline Boulevard, about five miles south of two smaller stables, Skyline and Piedmont. With its rolling hills, three barns, two large outdoor arenas, and an indoor one, Chabot’s beauty to me far surpasses that of the smaller stables.
Chabot Equestrian Center is part of the East Bay Regional Parks District and is a public facility with access to more than 5,000 acres of park land, including gorgeous trails as well-suited for hiking, dog walking, or mountain biking, as they are for equestrian activities.
As many people may know, the bond between equines and their humans can be intense and nurturing (albeit with a disproportionate number of women as the beneficiaries of this connection). After I made the decision to lease Pippi, I decided to educate myself about mules. From Wikipedia I learned that mules, a cross between a donkey and a horse, are smarter and live longer than horses. They trot and canter just like horses, though Pippi is unique. Since she’d been bred to do a fast smooth gait somewhere between a walk and trot, she’s a “Gaited Mule.” Mules’ notoriously stubborn reputation—which indeed Pippi does live up to—is more instinctive self-preservation than strong-willfulness. For the most part Pippi is a dream to ride, and in the three months I leased her, I felt my body growing stronger and my self-confidence increasing in myriad ways, not only as an improving rider.
Despite my affection for Pippi, I soon felt an urge to ride horses as well. During the time I had leased her, I’d gotten to know the horses whose stalls adjoin hers. I remain eternally grateful to their owners, who are kind enough to let me ride them still.
Even if you’re not a rider or a horse owner, or ever hope to become one, Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center, open to the public daily until 10 p.m., is a delightful place to visit. Pack a lunch or supper and sit at one of the picnic tables that overlook the oval upper arena. Watch experienced riders jumping their horses, young children taking lessons, or advanced-beginner riders like me trying not to fall off while trotting bareback!
Find Pippi’s stall—she’s easy to spot with her long reddish ears and sweet face—and stroke her big head. Say “hey” to Bailey, one of the horses I ride, who has remarkable stamina for a 28-year-old (even if he rumbles and grumbles much like an old grandpa sometimes)! Ask someone to show you the Tennessee Walker with the amusing name of “Couch” because of his comfortable ride. Look for the only Friesian horse at the stable, Max, and marvel at his tail so long it nearly sweeps the ground. Or see if you can spot the biggest horse there, Eli, whose tall owner seems like his perfect match.
Hike the trails, take in the sunset over the eucalyptus-dotted hills, or watch horses when they get “turned out” in the arenas to run and gallop freely, muscles rippling. It’s a sight that never fails to take my breath away.
At this time there are no horses available to rent for trail rides at Chabot, but there are people who give lessons. Their numbers are posted on a dry erase board in the tack area of the uppermost barn.
Also, on the first and third Sundays of every month between 1 and 3 p.m., Pippi’s owner, Michelle Burrill, leads free barn tours (no reservations required, just show up), in case you want to learn more about horses and, of course, mules.
Freelance writer Annie Kassof lives in Berkeley.