by Lesley Scott
Mules are getting a bad reputation. Get it straight from the horse's mouth.
|Belling the Mule
The very first donkey and mule show on the Eastern Seaboard, held in 1982 in Summerville, South Carolina, attracted quite a large crowd of spectators and contestants. I happened to be the Founder and President of the South Carolina Donkey and Mule Society (SCDMS) for close to a year and later, ten years. Our group is affiliated with The American Donkey and Mule Society, (ADMS) which is a wonderful source of information about our long eared equines. This show, the first of its kind surprised everyone.
The SCDMS expected a challenge, since not many people seemed to appreciate mules or just knew nothing. One of our goals strives to educate people about the outright fallacies of these thoroughly misunderstood long eared equines. Simply word of mouth helped at the horse shows and lectures to advertise. Animal lovers and horse owners did seem quite interested.
Mary Jane, pretty young lady with blond hair to her waist, was elected Secretary of our local group SCDMS, and big winner at the horse shows, suggested that we have our own show. She suggested that we call it, "The Po' Folks' Playday." The classes were opened to horses, but none showed up. One reason could be that donkeys and mules have different attitudes than horses. These hybrids have the best of both parents and are darn versatile. People wanted to actually see with their own eyes what a donkey or mule show would be like on that special Saturday.
We easily found sponsors, a judge, and a professional announcer. We advertised everywhere and the newspapers and television stations picked up on the unusual show for donkeys and mules. Imagine our surprise and pleasure when about thirty donkeys and mules signed up for our fun classes. I was impressed to see the all of the media coverage. Apparently, we put together quite an event.
Our judge, Shirley, tall, slender girl, had a job exercising race horses, and also cattle roping, said, “I have a lot of judging ahead!” She worked hard to be a Regional Representive for "ADMS" and a judge for horse shows. I eventually earned the same honor. These classes were much the same as an average horse show, but with some fun, rather than fierce completion. Nobody cared who won.
The crowd filled the stands were completely full and the other spectators stood at the rail. What started out, "What if..." seemed to be turning out to be a big deal. I talked to many people and a lot of them had or once had mules of their own. Plenty of others were curious and wanted to see what a mule could do that horses could not.
A mule and a donkey are built differently and the hybrid mules usually have better overall health than some horses. Donkeys and mules certainly require less feed and won't gobble down a large amount of grain, which would cause founder, colic or even death.
Donkeys and mules not only don't eat as much as their fellow equines, they often train more easily. I am not knocking horses. After all a mule’s mother is a horse and a donkey is a mule’s father. The mule inherits his hybrid vigor from both parents. Mules are also sterile, yet the male mule still has to be gelded, because he can be dangerous to handle, like any stallion.
Most of our mules and donkeys in the show behaved beautifully. "The Po' Folks Playday," became a milestone in our cause to promote donkeys and mule shows. What started out as a few lines in a state newspaper seemed to be proof for the many lovers of good of donkeys and mules.
Our "Costume Class" was hilarious. Every donkey and mule had to dress up and walk on a leadline around the showring. "Juan Valdez and his Mule" was a popular contestant because it showed Leora as a hard worker. We even had Dorothy, The Tin Man, Lion, Scarecrow and Toto, too.
The most popular class in any donkey and mule show has to be “Coon Jumping.” The conception originated many years ago when the coon hunters were out searching for coons in the dark, overgrown woods. When a fence or broken log blocked their way the hunters dismounted and sent the mules over first.
No need for a running start like a horse, the little mule simply rears up and leaps over the obstacle. The larger mules don't seem to be able to jump as high as their smaller counterparts. It is believed to be the conformation of a mule. Horses and mules have different body types.
Then, the coon hunters send the dogs across and carefully carry the gun over the obstacle. The mule waits for his owner to mount up and get himself situated and walks on at his rider's cue. These mules are probably the most well treated mules, love their owner/rider/companion dearly and would never do anything to cause any harm to his "partner."
In the Coon Jumping class, a standard hurdle is placed in front of the mule, and each mule is measured. The height of the bar sits two inches below the height of the mule. Each time a mule jumps, the bar moves up two inches. It is set up for each mule to be competing against himself. I included a photo of Mary Jane and Corky, Coon Jumping.
The winner is the last mule left. One famous little mule, Carrie, jumped eleven inches over her own height. Mules can perform amazing feats of very few horses. It may be because a mule inherits a set of genes from the horse and another set from the donkey. A mule has the best of both, and his wheel base is narrower, which is a big plus in running fast, jumping obstacles and cooling down faster than a horse after a sweaty job.
A lot of time goes into the grooming of a mule, or donkey, for a show. Some mules are dressed up for English riding and others sport Western saddles. English riding uses a smaller saddle with no fenders where the rider's legs are held in position. An English saddle has stirrup leathers, unlike Western saddles, and is flexible. English riders know that with a small saddle the nonverbal communication by the legs is one of the big pluses for this type of riding. It has worked well for me for at least fifty years.
Belling is also a popular part of grooming your mule for the show. My favorite mule, Top Hat, had three bells and he looked so good. Some mules wore one bell, or two bells, and more, or some had none, and others trimmed the mule’s tail straight across the bottom like a hunter-jumper. We have a wide variety of mules and bells with a historical background.
Belling the tail is another practice unique to mules. It involves cutting the tail in different lengths starting at the dock or the top of the tail. Belling originated from the United States Calvary. Certain mules had a different number of bells on their tails. The bells are simple and each bell is trimmed below the top bell. When mules were used in the military, it could be dark when the soldiers needed to find their mules, so the number of bells signified that mule’s job. You would not want to saddle up a mule that pulls the wagons full of ammunition.
Donkeys and mules really are sure footed. They instinctively know exactly every foot is placed, unlike some horses, that may tend to stumble on occasion in the woods and hills. The cup of the narrow hooves of a mule are deep, so he can handle rough terrain. In the deep south a mule can carry a load through the dark and murky swamps with ease.
This well known story is about a mule who saved his owner’s life is said to be true. I can believe it just from my own experience. A man riding his mule felt surprised when his mare mule stopped at a bridge they had crossed many times. After some nudging the mule kept turning around. The man trusted his mule. If the mule refused to step on the bridge, then it must not be safe. He patted his best friend, his black mule named Sassy, and dismounted to share a drink from his canteen.
Along came a cowboy on his lovely quarter horse mare, and asked the mule man, “What is the problem? Is your mule being stubborn?” A mule is anything but stubborn. However, he or she has a very keen sense of protection. A number of mule tales show the mule has a keen sense of loyalty and a talent for knowing where to put each foot. It is said, "A horse will kick at you, but a mule will kick you." It is also said a mule may wait years for his revenge. luckily, I've never had a mule take revenge on me.
The mule rider told the cowboy, “I think something is wrong with that bridge. I am going into the gully and find a place to ford the river.” He started down a goat path on the slope and looked behind to see if the cowboy would follow. “I really think this is the best idea,” he said,” I’d hate for you to get hurt way out in the middle of nowhere.”
The cowboy insisted on taking the bridge. The mule man muttered under his breath and started down the incline. As he watched, the cowboy whipped his horse hard and when that did not work, he raked her with his spurs. The horse also sensed the danger, as they are one half of a mule. Longeared lovers don't sell horses short.
Finally, the poor horse with welts on her sides and bloody marks on her flanks, half-heartedly took a tender step. Then she took another small, tentative step. The third step came loose and fell into the canyon. “That could have been me and Bella!" Exclaimed the cowboy. He did love and respect his mare. He had raised her from a wobbly legged filly.
“It could have been you both," said the mule man, “If my mule won't cross, I know it is not safe. I have been riding mules, especially this one, for many years and they will not do anything that will cause them or their rider, pain or harm. Your horse tried to tell, you, but you insisted on ignoring her. You should have paid attention to her and my mule.” On the way down to the bottom of the canyon, the man on horseback decided to either buy a nice mule or breed this nice mare to a nice jack. His mind, already opening up, showed him how impressive these long eared animals can be.
Sheep and goat herders especially appreciate the good quality of donkeys. Raised with the flock, they share the same diet and basic habits as the sheep or goats. Donkeys are more aggressive and protective than other species of equines, and very effective. A donkey will stomp any animal that is a threat, such as coyotes and even wolves. No kidding. One of the owners submitted pictures of two large wolves stomped to death by his two donkeys.
Mules also will stomp other animals, too. Gus, a small white pony mule, guards a herd of goats and will kill any dog that ventures into the pasture. He even runs along the fence line when he sees a dog and makes ugly faces and snorts at the potential threat. I can recall a few times when we would have to dispose of deceased canines thanks to Gus being on duty.
These long eared animals, both donkeys and mules, are friendly, curious, and thrive on attention. Most don't even seem to dislike a bath. My fancy mule enjoys his braided mane and belled tail. Mules and donkeys like to show off some, as well. They understand how people feel and what they mean.
Therefore, it is best not to lie to a mule because he can read people easily. That is why the flattery really has to be sincere.