I grew up in Kentucky with a pair of mules, used to pull a grass cutter. I didn’t have a personal relationship with them; mostly, their big heads loomed over me as they looked at me from their stalls in the old rickety barn. But for some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by them, perhaps because Kentucky and Tennessee were said to breed the best mules in the country because they were part thoroughbred.
So when I saw that Saturday was to be “Meet A Mule Day,” I headed out to the rodeo grounds where the heat and the dust didn’t blunt my enthusiasm for the mule, and donkeys and burros who were showing what they were made of in the ring.
Each owner led, or rode, his or her mule, or donkey, over a course marked out with low jumps and special hazards: a broken bridge, a tilting wooden platform, water standing in pools, a mess of tires. Some of the mules wanted no part of it; others seemed to enjoy performing, especially one pretty little Jenny who set her hooves delicately inside each tire and delicately lifted them out again. These larger mules were certainly part saddle horse, perhaps even part thoroughbred, and some of them hardly looked like mules at all.
In case you are new to mule terminology, a Jenny is a female, a Jack is a male, and each is the offspring of mating between a donkey and a horse. The result is a sterile mule who can’t reproduce and so is the end of his/her line. Mules pulled farm machinery all over the South and the Midwest and hauled cannon during the Civil War.
Most of the course at the rodeo grounds was designed to show how these animals would deal with the challenges they might meet on a farm or a trail. The broken bridge reminded me of a story I heard Saturday morning at the Farmers’ Market from a rancher who remembered how, when he was a boy, a mule crossing a broken bridge slipped and broke his leg off. Grandfather and father without a moment’s hesitation “bled him”—slit his throat so he bled to death—and without a pause, skinned, quartered him, and sliced him up to make jerky.
“Was it good?” I asked.
“Well, it was Jacob,” he told me.
I was most impressed by the way these creatures tolerated having a dummy of a dead man draped across their backs. Putting up with that—and they all did, without rearing or bucking—would be useful in the case of an accident in the back woods.
I left knowing I want a mule. If they are as sure footed as they are said to be, they would be able to negotiate the rough jeep trail, full of boulders, that leads to the lower mesa at Apache Ranch.
Or maybe I’ll settle for a little black donkey.