The celebrated jumping mule competition of Howell County
By Jo Schaper
What was I doing, sitting high on the third tier of portable bleachers, next to the West Plains Civic Center at 3 p.m. in the blazing sun, with about 250 other people, string music in the background, the air smelling of kettle corn, road apples, root beer and politicians, around a temporary corral with about a dozen mules of various shapes, sizes and colors, and waiting for the competition to begin?
Why, waiting for the celebrated jumping mule competition of Howell County, of course.
Although the West Plains Old-Time Music and Ozark Heritage Festival, just held on June 15 and 16, is primarily about string, hill, traditional, native, Ozark or bluegrass music, well, it wouldn’t be the Festival without the jumping mules. The music’s been going for 18 years, and the mules have been part of the proceedings for the last five years.
Why jumping mules? Most people understand the affection of Missourians for their mules, that cantankerous, useful, loyal, patient and hard-working draft animal. A few more understand the mystique of the Missouri riding mule, a creature of even temperament, generally more gentle and sure-footed than many horses. Ozark poverty may have made draft animals into saddle mounts out of sheer necessity, but their endurance on the rocky hill slopes won kudos for their abilities far beyond that of a thoroughbred.
Almost all mules will jump, as we found out from the competition’s master of ceremonies Matt Meacham, but it takes training to get the animal to jump on encouragement or command. The competition has its roots in a very practical consideration, and is almost exclusively* practiced in the raccoon-hunting hills of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks.(*See Matt Meacham’s comment below. Hey, he’s the expert. – Jo)
In former days, coonhunters preferred riding their surefooted mules out into the night with hounds baying at the chase of the sniffed-out raccoon — raccoons being considered more sporting than red foxes, and perhaps a cultural leftover from when only royalty were allowed to chase foxes.
Gray foxes will occasionally “tree;” red foxes, almost never. A raccoon will take whatever path there is of least resistance: underground, over ground, or through the treetops. It’s considered “treed” when the hounds circle the tree below, and no escape route presents itself above.
In any event, to avoid the delay of finding a gate when a fence appears and the path is free to coon and hound but blocked to a rider, the Ozarkers would put a coat over the fence to give a solid target, and “bunny-hop” their mounts over.
That’s right. You don’t steeplechase a mule at a fence, unless you want to be the one flying over solo. Mules are canny that way. But if you dismount, lead the animal back 10-15 feet, and add some encouragement, the critter will literally leap over the fence, assuming the fence is short enough and the mule tall enough.
For the competition, removable boards are set to increasing heights. The top board is balanced on pencils. The mule has to entirely clear the board, and neither break nor dislodge the pencils for the score to count. For the easier heights, two attempts were allowed. As the fence got to mule-eye height, three tries were permitted. The higher the barrier, the balkier the mules became.
Howell County sheriff Mike Shannon helped set all the bars to ensure that no cheating occurred.
And that was the name of the game on Saturday. Paul Ruehling of Pocahontas, near Cape Girardeau, and his daughter brought mules in both height classes: under and over 52 inches. Also competing in both classes was Richie Dement, a life-long miner and Assembly of God minister from Centerville in Reynolds County, who also coordinates this event for its sponsor, Hirsh Feed and Farm Supply in West Plains and Thayer.
(”You know where Centerville is, ma’am? It’s near Johnson’s Shut-Ins.” “Yes, sir, Y’all had a cougar down there in January.” And then he grinned.)
Other competitors in the over 52 inch class were Radar, the state fair champion mule of Mike Call of Henley, near Jefferson City, and Luke, the dark mule of Les Clancy of Ozark, who puts on Ozark Mule Days (www.ozarkmuledays.org) over Labor Day. 23-year-old Clyde, who had given a mule-jumping demonstration earlier in the day, a large brown speckled mule named Sadie, and the shortest competitor, the medium brown and extremely graceful Hiney, rounded out the field.
Although there were prizes ($100, $75 and $50 for first three places) the competition was as much a friendly rivalry and a demonstration for people who might not had even heard of mule-jumping before they arrived as serious business. Kids from the crowd picked their favorites and cheered them on.
A few prayers for success were said. When a mule started to balk, Meacham encouraged the crowd to clap to encourage the animal. Only light touches of encouragement are permitted from the trainer, no whips or goads. In short, the mule has to want to jump, or no one goes anywhere.
Three mules, Fritz, Polly and Romeo competed amongst the shorter class, with the tallest mule, Fritz, owned by Dement, taking first, clearing a bar of 55 inches, three inches over his own height. Polly balked at that height to take second, while Romeo, the shortest of the mules, cleared 48,” still two inches over his stature.
In the large mule category, six competitors ages 3 to 23 graced the field; at the end of the afternoon, Radar had cleared 60.5″, Luke 59″ and Hiney, 58″. In a showoff round, Radar easily cleared 62″, still a foot short of his record holding 74″ jump.
Other mule-jumping competitions are held later this year at the State Fair, the Ozark Mule Days at Ozark, the Clark County Mule Festival at Kahoka and the East Perry County Fair at Altenburg.
You just have to see it to believe it.