Equestrian Lauren Dutton wasn’t looking to break barriers in western dressage, but she did anyway when her rising 14-year-old mule Daisy took home three United States Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year Awards last year.

Daisy (show name Ooops See Daisy) is the first mule to win a Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) World Championship. The pair earned four World Championship titles and five reserve World Championship titles which helped Daisy also become the first mule to be awarded the WDAA Horse Lifetime Points and Awards Program Register of Merit, Register of Excellence, and Register of Achievement. She also became the first mule to win a USEF/SmarkPak Horse of the Year Award.

All to say that 2023 was a heck of a show season for Dutton and Daisy! However, when Dutton first bought the mule, showing her was the farthest thing on her mind.

Their journey together started in August 2021 when Dutton began scouring Facebook for a pasture buddy for her AQHA gelding, but didn’t have a lot of money to spend. She found a post listing Daisy for sale and reached out.

“It turned out the owner previously lived in my town, and we hit it off. She sent me long posts about Daisy and all of her quirks and a few videos,” explains Dutton. After a phone call to make sure she felt a good vibe, she bought Daisy without a trial ride. “I think my husband and most of my friends thought that I was crazy for taking a chance on buying a mule without trying her out – there are a lot of scams out there these days!”

Dutton, who works full time in Knoxville, Tennessee, lives on an 11-acre farm with her husband and young daughter, who is also horse-crazy. Given that the mule was initially purchased as a turn-out companion, what made Dutton decide riding Daisy was in the cards?

“In the pre-purchase videos it was clear that Daisy was a lovely trotter, so once she was at my house, I wanted to try riding her, too,” says Dutton.

But it wasn’t love or even “ride” at first sight, especially not for Daisy. “In the beginning, she would take hold of the bit and steer me back to the gate or not move forward for me. She didn’t love me and greatly missed her old owners, home, and pasture mates,” Dutton explains. “I moved on to ponying her from my Quarter Horse gelding and eventually decided to bribe her with treats from the saddle whenever she did something I liked.”

Dutton says that the reward system for good behaviour was a big change for her, as she had not been a huge treat giver before Daisy. But it seemed to work a small miracle. “It took a long while before she would willingly work for me, but that’s when I took her a local schooling show. I think being away from home and only having me to rely on helped build our trust. She wanted to do whatever I wanted so she could get back on that trailer to go home!” says Dutton.

Working with a mule taught Dutton new skills when it comes to horse care and riding, including making her a kinder and more patient rider and person. It wasn’t until Daisy that Dutton realized she wasn’t patient to begin with. “I expected to ask her to do something and have her comply. Mules tend to think long and hard about stuff and they really have to trust you and think that you have their best interest in mind,” she says.

“I’ve always heard you could ask a horse to jump off a cliff and they would willingly, but you could never even drag a mule off. I think that’s true. I’ve had to prove that I am worthy for Daisy, that I will not rush her, that I won’t force her, and that I have her best interests in my heart.”

Sometimes this means Dutton must be okay with Daisy pacing the fence line or taking it slow getting onto the trailer. Or Daisy’s seeming inability (or lack of desire) to canter, something the pair are working on currently.

To learn to work more effectively with Daisy, she decided to go to a classical dressage training clinic with Cody Harrison of CH Equine, who is based outside Denver, Colorado. It proved to be a game-changer. “Cody had me do some groundwork, focus on flexing and getting some lateral steps, sort of going back to the basics and starting over for both her and me. We’ve now attended seven clinics with him and the growth I’ve seen in Daisy is incredible.”

That growth is what contributed to the pair’s incredible show season last year, which came as a surprise to Dutton, who arrived at the WDAA World Championships in Oklahoma with less lofty goals. “I entered quite a few classes because I had told Daisy that this would be her first and last time to show in the Introductory level – she was being forced to canter in 2024, like it or not.”

Once there, the pair showed in the Introductory Western Dressage Open and Amateur classes, which are walk-trot classes, but also in the Suitability and Horsemanship and did extremely well, accumulating a lot of points to help secure those three HOTY titles. “I was totally shocked to have such success at the World Show. It showed we had put in a lot of effort through the year,” she says. “In the end, I’m very proud to have owned the first mule to win a WDAA World Championship and a USEF National Championship.”

Dressage, be it western or English, is highly competitive and sometimes even snobby. What did her fellow competitors make of long-eared Daisy? “Our first big Western Dressage show was at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, where the Arabian breed show added Open Breed Western Dressage,” Dutton says. “I was absolutely terrified to trot that mule into the warm-up pen full of Arabians with all the stares, but because she is such a good girl (and a pretty mover to boot), I had so many of the Arabian folks swing by our stalls to say hello, to scratch her ears, or stop us to chat with us in the hallways.”

The welcoming response from the Arabian contingent set the tone for the rest of the shows Dutton and Daisy attended, including Tryon, NC, Perry, GA, and lots of shows in their native Tennessee. “Daisy has been a great ambassador for the mules and I’m also very thankful that WDAA is so inclusive of the breeds, even allowing donkeys to show,” says Dutton. “After all, we are being judged on a dressage test and the harmony with our equines, not what breed we are showing. It’s been really refreshing having R level judges give us feedback that is meaningful, positive, and open-minded.”

This year Dutton had planned to show at the World Show in the Basic level, but since she’s ridden in more clinics with Harrison, she’s decided to use this year as a growth year. “I’m planning to haul her to Colorado to train with him [Harrison] for a few weeks over the summer and my ultimate goal is showing in Level 1 classes in the fall or in 2025,” she explains. “I never thought I’d be out there doing leg yields, haunches-in, and extended canters, but Daisy has really stepped up her game and blossomed with the training she’s had so far.”

Another goal is to earn a bronze medal in Level 1 from the WDAA as well as the North American Saddle Mule Association NASMDA Mule/Donkey National Championships which are held near her home. She hopes her daughter will also be able to show Daisy in the 10 & Under classes.

As for the stereotype that mules are stubborn, Dutton has a different opinion, thanks to Daisy. “I don’t know if it’s being stubborn, more like being smart and cautious,” she says. “I’ve learned to just be patient and not rush her to do things on my timeline, and to listen to her more when she’s worried or not feeling confident. I think being a better partner to her and my other horses has paid off in dividends.”