Written By Lisa Breslin, Photos by: Phil Grout

College freshmen bring all kinds of memorabilia to connect them to home: prom photos, photos of family members and pets, stuffed animals, their high school yearbooks, an unlimited texting plan, microwave mac and cheese, and music to lift them up when they feel down.

When Maddie Mitchell left Atlanta, Georgia, to come to McDaniel College in the fall of 2012, she, too, brought mementos: 15 stuffed animals, photos, music – and her 14-year-old, 2,000-pound mule, named Butch.

Butch is the yang to Maddie’s yin. As she navigated new roads at college, he was her compass. If she felt lonely or anxious about tests, he welcomed her when she visited him at a neighboring farm.

“There is a lot of work at college; I could never get it all done,” said Maddie. “While I learned to balance everything, Butch offered the perfect getaway. Every time I needed a break from college life, I loved hanging with him.”

Maddie found Butch online three years ago after she lost her childhood horse, Sugar. With a mother that was a Belgian draft horse and a dad that was a donkey, Butch is big (70 inches tall). He once worked as a pack mule and pulled floats in parades in his home state of New Jersey.

Maddie describes Butch as “a really sweet guy” who is very smart and over-thinks everything during training.

Their connection was instant.

In high school, Maddie chose an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle. Her parents, Diana Getz and Carl Mitchell, credit Maddie’s connection to Butch as one of many influences that led her to be substance-free. They suspect that having Butch at college was a positive influence.

“We knew Butch was going to college all along – he is a big part of her life,” said Diana Getz. “When she left, I told her I was not caring for her mule. A mule is not a kitten.”

The family explored several small private colleges. Once Maddie was accepted, the Mitchells visited schools to determine the perfect college for Maddie and a barn nearby for Butch.

Ultimately, Maddie fell in love with McDaniel College and its cinema major. Butch seemed satisfied to leave the big city with its limited grazing opportunities for 240 rolling meadows of the Rockland Equestrian Center in Westminster.

“Butch likes peppermints, pears, mulberries,” said Maddie, “pretty much anything that is not grass.”

Both Butch and Maddie gained weight in their freshman year; actually, Maddie confessed that she gained 20 pounds and Butch gained 100.

Their routine first semester usually included Saturday and Sunday visits. During the spring semester, Maddie’s earliest classes began at 12:40 p.m., so she sneaked out to see Butch once or twice a week as well.

“Some days I go out to the pasture and walk in the meadows,” said Maddie. Other days she found comfort in grooming Butch or practicing their horsemanship routine in the arena.

This August, Maddie will pack fewer stuffed animals in her car. She and her family friend, Bill Ellis, will pack Butch into his horse trailer for the 13-hour commute. With each visit, Butch will calm Maddie when she is stressed. He will happily greet her college friends when they, too, visit the farm, their pockets filled with peppermints or carrots pilfered from the college cafeteria.

“Life without Butch would be like life without enlightenment,” said Maddie. “I just love him so much. It makes me unbelievably happy to see him bring others happiness as well. He has such a good heart. I hope to have plenty of beautiful years with him.”