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BISMARCK, North Dakota (AP) -- Saje Beard's half-hour commute to class is the envy of her four classmates at a one-room schoolhouse just south of here.
Most mornings, the third-grader makes the trek on Ruth the mule.
"She's called many things, but Ruth is what we call her in public," Saje said of the 4-year-old gray mule. "Actually, that's my dad's joke. She's really nice and gentle. And she sure is smart."
Saje, 9, is an old hand at maneuvering mules. She's been doing it since she was in first grade.
"I feel more safe with her riding a mule than having her ride in a car or on a bus," said her father, Marty Beard.
At the Manning School, about 15 miles south of the North Dakota capital, Saje "parks" Ruth by tying her with a bowline to a tree near swing sets and monkey bars. Ruth then gets some leather hobbles attached to her front legs, a routine Saje began after her other mule, Shirley, got loose and ran home from school last year.
Saje's classmates, who are in kindergarten through fourth grade, help take off Ruth's saddle and tack. It's stored in the school's cloakroom, next to basketballs and other playground equipment.
The five children then run to the school's flagpole to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem. The mule, named Ruth, prances and kicks up dirt as the children sing.
"It's cool," Lucas Irving, 10, said of his classmate and her mode of transportation. "She's cool."
Saje would ride Ruth every morning, but her dad won't let her if the temperature is below zero -- "even if she insists."
Saje proved just how much she's willing to endure on a recent trek to school in below-freezing temperatures and strong winds.
"My cheeks are burning," she said, "but that's OK."
Saje gets up at sunup to prepare for school. She brushes Ruth and feeds her grain, then hoists an old saddle that weighs nearly as much as she does over the chubby mule.
"Come on Ruthie, come on mule," she says as she leads her mount to the front yard.
Saje raises her foot above her head to reach a stirrup, pulls herself up and swings the other leg over. She pulls down the coonskin hat her father made and gives Ruth a gentle nudge in the ribs.
"Let's go girl," she says.
Saje has corn and sweet peas stuffed in saddlebags for Ruth's lunch, and for treats during the school's three recesses. Her homework and a tuna fish sandwich are in her backpack, tied to the mule.
Saje and Ruth follow a gravel road and pass dozens of horses from other farms during the two-mile trip. Ruth is fitted with special carbide-studded shoes to make the already sure-footed animal even more so, especially on ice.
Mules are known for protecting themselves and their riders. Marty Beard said the mule would likely attack anyone who hassled Saje along the route.
"She would probably implant those special shoes on their forehead," he said.
The trip home always is a little faster: Ruth knows she'll have some grain waiting, so she picks up the pace without prodding, Saje said.
Kris Beard, Saje's mother, said even some of their rural neighbors find her daughter's mule commute unusual.
"It's not strange for us, but for other people it is quite different," she said. "We're very fortunate to live here."
-------------------- "To get what you've never had, You must do what you've never done."