I began developing a better understanding of mules at Leatherwood Mountain Resort in Wilkes County, the location of the annual multi-day event, “Mule Days”.
Mule Days is a gathering of mules and donkeys and the people who give great attention to their care and well-being.
Although my grandpaw had mules he worked with, I did not know much about mules. He had a unique language with them. When he was directing them he never said go left or right; he would say "gee" for left and "haw" for right. He had some other interesting words as well.
I remember helping plant potatoes one year. The labor was all done by man and mule; no tractors were used. My grandma was churning buttermilk that day. I don’t know if it is right to say it was a simpler time, but from my observation there is a certain kind of balance when man and animal work together.
I learned a lot during Mule Days from Shannon Hoffman, who is the event leader. I learned that a mule is the product of a male donkey (a Jack) and a female horse (a Mare). A male mule is a John and a female mule is a Molly. I also learned that mules have the ability to jump flat footed. This was demonstrated during the jumping contest.
Some people think that mules are stubborn. However, as it turns out they are quite smart, and they don’t want to do things that will put them in danger. A mule is more patient, sure footed and lives longer than its mother, the horse. The mule is faster, more intelligent and less obstinate than its father, the donkey. Mule breeder Caroline Glenn told me that mules are much smarter than horses, and some people.
Alfred Tyson, publisher of Carolina Trail Rider Magazine told me that he has been riding a mule since 1978, when it was not cool to ride a mule. He said they would laugh you off the trail back then, but if you ride a mule now you are the cream of the crop. People know you take your trail riding serious when you have a good mule.
I met Bernie Harberts, who wrote the book Too Proud to Ride a Cow. This book chronicles his remarkable cross county adventure with a mule.
As Bernie and I stood beside the mule wagon that had traveled so many miles, he shared stories about the people he met on his journey, which had started in Oriental NC and ended up in San Diego, California. His stories of challenge and people who were helpful along the way were intriguing.
This was not the first monumental journey for Bernie. Prior to this adventure, he had spent almost five years sailing around the world alone on a thirty-five foot cutter he called Sea Bird.
I have met a lot of interesting people in the world of mules. I don’t know if it’s the people who bring out the best in the mules or if the mules attract interesting people; maybe it’s a bit of both. One thing is for certain, if you are willing to take some unrushed time and get to know the mules and the people who care so much for them; you will become a curator with an abundance of colorful stories and the feeling that you have connected with a mule. I did.