Two acres and a mule. That is all Will Green thought he would need to lead a life of packing and hunting in California's backcountry. He bought the two acres on a windblown patch of the western Mojave. And he bought a doe-eyed mule initially so sweet that he named her Sugar, only to discover that she had a personality that grazed in sour pastures.
Quickly showing who was boss, Sugar bit the warehouseman, kicked him and dragged him around his corral. She bristled at having to wear a halter, balked at every command. In short, she did everything possible to live up to the animal's reputation for being stubborn -- and to bring Green's blood to a boil.
That is how Green, 43, found himself hauling the ornery creature this summer to what is billed as the nation's only "mule school," a training program in Los Angeles taught by an old cowboy with a reputation for being able to sweet-talk even the most belligerent beast of burden.
Sure enough, within an hour on the first day of class, Steve Edwards was easily stroking Sugar's mane and scratching her ears, gestures that before had made her cut and run. By noon, he was waltzing with Sugar around a pipe corral, directing her movements with a length of rope, the pair kicking up clouds of dust as they learned to work as one.
"The biggest problem with mules is that most people aren't smart enough to be around them," Edwards, 56, told nine students on hand to learn about mule driving. "People say they're stubborn, but they're just very smart. You have to be able to outthink them."
Mule lovers from all over the country come to learn from the Arizona mule charmer, point man for the program at Pierce College, a two-year school in the San Fernando Valley community of Woodland Hills. Founded in 1947 as an agriculture school, Pierce is believed to be the only college in the country offering a certificate in mule training.
Classes have been offered several times a year in week-long clinics at the college's Equestrian Education Center. But now the program is holding its first semester-long course, a session on mule riding.
Students pay $42 per class, half the cost of a day of private lessons. More than 100 people have enrolled in the courses, with many going on to land coveted jobs at pack stations or opening their own training centers.
"Frankly, it was a little bit of a stunt when it first started" in 2002, said California Community Colleges Chancellor Marshall Drummond, who proposed the idea years ago when he was head of the Los Angeles Community College District.
A lifelong mule lover, Drummond believed that the much-maligned beast could help restore prominence to an equestrian program that had fallen on hard times. Now the mule program is the mainstay of Pierce's equine science curriculum.
"I couldn't think of any college anywhere teaching anything to do with mules," Drummond said. "If played right, there wasn't any reason it couldn't draw a nationwide audience."
The program has done just that, capitalizing on the growing popularity of an animal prized for its intelligence and sure-footedness. Once considered work stock, the long-eared equines have become a favorite of baby boomers and active retirees, a status symbol for empty-nesters enamored with the Old West and eager to explore the rugged country up close.
"A lot of these folks never owned a dog, let alone a mule," said Edwards, a bona fide cowpuncher who wears a big-brimmed hat and calls everyone "pardner."
"What a lot of them find is they've bought a mule and it's supposed to be trained, so they climb on, and now they're not able to get it to do what they want it to do," he said. "The problem is generally not with the mule, it's with the rider. I've never found a stubborn mule, just one that's asking questions."
There are plenty of answers at Mule College, U.S.A. The 16-unit program consists of seven courses, covering basic mule packing and the treatment of injuries and disease. Students are required to keep logs and take exams.
But mostly, the program teaches greenhorns how to communicate with an animal whose hard work is chronicled in the Bible and in history books, from their role pulling ore-laden carts during the California Gold Rush to hauling pipe for construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In an almost Zen-like approach, owners and their four-legged friends learn to think as one.
At the summer session, before introducing the mules into the equation, Edwards had the students pair up -- one holding the reins, the other clutching a bridle and bit.
The teams took turns "driving" each other around the parking lot of the college's historic red barn, which sits within view of busy streets and gleaming high-rise buildings.
Half a dozen mules looked on in amusement, occasionally letting loose an ear-splitting bawl.
When he is not teaching at Pierce College, Edwards holds private clinics at his Queen Valley Mule Ranch in Arizona and at other venues across the country.
The Pierce College program is steadily developing a national reputation, drawing students from Washington state, Colorado and New Mexico. And it has turned out a handful of professionals who make their living working with the animals.
But Edwards said he is most pleased to teach those trying to forge better relationships with their mules, people like him who take pleasure in communing with an animal that is often misunderstood. "They've gotten a bad rap over the years," he said. "But they'll teach you a lot. And they'll give their lives for you if you're nice enough to them."