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Stubborn As A Mule's Knot: Massaging Ornery Beasts

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The famous pack mules that carry supplies and people in and out of the Grand Canyon have back pain, as you might imagine. One man is on a mission to make the lives of these beasts of burden a little less painful.

When Rene Noriega retired a few years ago after a long career as a Border Patrol agent, he took what, for him, was the next natural step.

"I learned to do massage," he says. And chiropractic work, too, but not on humans. Noriega is a licensed equine physiotherapist. His specialty is high-performance horses, but through a chance meeting with a cowboy from the Grand Canyon, Noriega is now in the business of massaging mules — really famous mules.

For more than a century, mules have been one of the crown jewels of Grand Canyon National Park. Tens of thousands of people ride them each year at close to $500 a pop for an overnight trip.

"I had no idea what a mule was built like, so I had to go back and educate myself on the mule before I came up here so that they wouldn't eat me alive," Noriega says.

Just because the animals are built for packing doesn't mean they don't get sore. That's why Xanterra livery manager Max Johnson recruited Noriega to work on them.

"We knew we had mules that were sore," Johnson says, "and [Noriega] said he could work on them, and he didn't lie. He darn sure can."

Inside a warm barn on a very cold day at the Grand Canyon, Noriega works on a 9-year-old mule named Maude, stretching her muscles.

Maude does not bray or kick as Noriega works his hands down her fuzzy back. She holds perfectly still, breathes deeply and shuts her eyes. This serene environment is pretty similar to what humans experience during a massage, minus, of course, scented candles and Enya playing in the background.

"Now that we've released that, those muscles are going to be just a little bit sore," Noriega says as he works. "I think she's ready to go back into service. She feels pretty good right here."

Johnson and his wife, Sue, are watching nearby. She's been keeping detailed notes on each mule's progress.

"Truman needs to rest for a week, Berta had a tight front end, and her right knee was out. She had sore shoulders, a sore hip," she says.

This might sound like a lot of pampering for a bunch of dusty mules, but Max Johnson believes their hard work warrants the attention.

"Yeah, we're in the business for tourists, but they're not my top priority. These mules are my top priority. That's what I'm here for, and it's been working so far," he says.

The mules' reputation for being ornery might be undeserved; maybe all they really need is a good massage.

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