Blair Hebert, Schultz, Bruce | 7/21/2007 2:58:11 AM
NEW IBERIA – Don’t bother telling Bethany Edler of Iberia Parish that mules are ornery, stubborn and kick hard. She’s heard it all before – and she can prove you wrong.
The 18-year-old convinced judges at the state 4-H and FFA Horse Show in West Monroe this year that she knows what she’s talking about, winning first place in the Premier Exhibitor competition with her mule, Alabama.
The Gerry Lane Premier Exhibitor category is not based solely on a student’s skill in the saddle. In addition to demonstrating their abilities with their animals, competitors are judged in interviews, tests of their knowledge and public speaking.
"This year I thought I hadn’t done well. I couldn’t even bring myself to go to the banquet," said Edler, who had placed third in the competition last year.
Dressed in a grubby T-shirt and jeans, she was working with Alabama in the show ring while the banquet was being held next door. When she heard her name announced as a finalist, she hurried over to the banquet room.
"As soon as I came around the corner I heard that I had won," Edler said.
In addition to a whopper of a belt buckle, she won a $1,000 savings bond.
But Edler’s abilities go far beyond her equestrian skills. She graduated this year from New Iberia Senior High School with a 3.9 average, and she will start LSU this fall as a pre-veterinary school major. She said she’s known she wanted to be a veterinarian "probably since I started walking."
"I have a stronger bond with animals than with humans," Edler said.
Bethany said as a vet, she would like to return to the area to treat large and small animals.
In addition to those goals and achievements, Edler also has earned several scholarships. At the Houston Livestock Show, she won a laptop computer in the versatility competition. She won the J.P Thibodeaux - Chris Dailey Award for community service, the Scott Tractor Co. 4-H Scholarship and the Regions Independent Scholarship, which pays $7,000 a year for four years.
Of course, she has received the expected snickers and teasing for riding a mule. "Most of the time when we first get to a show, they say, ‘Oh look, a donkey.’ But by the time the show is over they’re calling him by his name."
Alabama was the hybrid offspring of a male donkey and a thoroughbred mare. As a mule, he is sterile.
Edler competed with Alabama in the 2006 Southern Regional 4-H Championship event in Raleigh. One of the events included steeplechase, and Bethany and Alabama cleared every hurdle.
Now 18 now, Edler climbed onto a horse at age 5. "My first mount was a mule," she said, adding that she rides horses but prefers mules. "Alabama is my Cadillac – or as close as I’ll ever have to a Cadillac."
Contrary to popular belief, Edler said mules aren’t stubborn, just smart, and they are more aware of their surroundings as their ears constantly twitch and turn.
"Actually, I find him to be smarter than most horses," she said. "If he’s afraid of something, he’s not going by it until you prove to him it’s not going to hurt him."
Because he is so gentle, Edler uses Alabama to give riding lessons to adults and small children.
Family friends Jimmy Smith and Casey Erikson have taken her under their wings to teach her about horses and mules. Smith bought Alabama five years ago, and Edler has become the mule’s constant companion.
"She’s the closest to a daughter I’ve ever had," Smith said.
Blair Hebert, an LSU AgCenter 4-H agent who works with Edler in his Iberia Parish assignment, said she displayed maturity and focus early in high school.
"She’s the true definition of a person who joined 4-H, got involved in a project and succeeded. It not only made her a better horse enthusiast, it made her a better person," Hebert said.
Hebert said Edler often will take time at a show to help younger competitors with their horses. And she agrees that 4-H helped shape her into young woman. Edler is a counselor at 4-H Summer Camp, and she also has competed on livestock and dairy judging teams.
"I think 4-H affected me a lot," she said. "It helped teach me a lot of life skills. In 4-H, you do more than just show animals.
"Like with this (riding a mule), 4-H teaches you to dare to be different."
In a corral, Edler stands in the center to put Alabama through his paces, and he runs enthusiastically around the perimeter. With just a flick of a whip into her other hand, the mule pivots and trots in the opposite direction. "He likes to play. He thinks this is a game," she explained.
Edler has taught Alabama to stretch out, making it easier for children to get on a saddle. "At the end of a long day, when he wants you off him, he stretches," she said.
After his saddle is removed, Alabama sniffs the ground for just the right spot for a good roll in the dirt. Scratch him inside his ears, and you have an instant friend.
Edler can control Alabama with just a little body English to make him move his hindquarters while keeping his front legs stationary. "I can maneuver any part of him I need," she said.
With a voice command, Alabama will lope or trot.
But at some point, a mule has got to let out its unique hee-haw bray. Edler said that usually happens at the end of a show.
"When you get off him, he’s going to let one go – and it’s loud. It’s built up all day," she said.