COTTONWOOD — In Hollywood movies, the hero never rides off into the sunset on a mule. For mule lovers this is yet another blow to the history of a unique animal often treated like a second-class citizen in the world of equines.“I ride mules. I know about bigotry,” says mule enthusiast Bobbi Jo Chambers, 41, of Cottonwood.
Chambers and her husband, Barney, are the founders of Mule Mania, one of the largest mule shows in the Northwest. Taking place the third weekend of each July at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Dayton, some 200 mules and donkeys are expected for this, its third year. They’ll contend in daily competitions starting July 18 and march in a Main Street parade July 20.
The Chambers started the event as a way to help educate people about the beast that shaped the American West.
The Chambers own the Coyote Mule Company in Cottonwood, which she describes as a “car dealership” for mules they buy and sell from around the country, including Hawaii. Among the 40 or so mules on the ranch are mules bred from draft horses and mini horses and donkeys. There are many champion racing and jumping mules, including one named Top Secret whose grandfather was Secretariat, the Triple Crown-winning racehorse featured in a 2010 Disney movie. The name denotes the fact that some might not approve of the famed racehorse’s genes being used to make a mule, she says.
A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Horses and donkeys are different species with different numbers of chromosomes; because of this, a mule is born sterile and cannot breed. For mule lovers, the cross is a match made in heaven. Mules need less food and water, are heartier, don’t require shoes and live a third longer than horses.
In pioneer times, rich people had mules and poor people had horses, Chambers says.
The reputation mules have for being stubborn is because they will refuse to do anything that is unsafe or risky, Chambers says. They will stop and carefully study a situation to determine a course of action. This is why mules and not horses are used in the Grand Canyon, Chambers explains. They have a well-developed instinct for self-preservation. This extends to their owners, with whom they can develop dog-like bonds.
As she walks into the corral, mules gather close around her. Except for their massive ears and a ridgeline of hair instead of a mane, they look like horses. Her 5-year-old son Jack can often be found on his mule, Peaches, who shoos other mules and dogs away from the boy.
“They require respect. You can’t be mean. You can’t be abusive because they’ll out-think you and then they’ll really screw with you,” says Chambers, who was raised with mules in Chewelah, Wash., and started riding them when she was 3.
George Washington understood the value of a mule. He wrote to the king of Spain to purchase good breeding stock and began a program to develop a larger, stronger mule to work American farms. Later mules proved invaluable for wagon trains crossing the country. A mule could cover 30 miles a day whereas wagons drawn by horses and oxen averaged only five, according to the website of the American Mule Museum in Bishop, Calif. In modern times, U.S. Marines have been trained to use mules on combat missions in Afghanistan and other high-altitude regions.
Mule Mania starts with professional workshops this weekend. Main events start next Thursday. The festival draws more than 6,000 people each year, Chambers says.
To encourage families to come, admission is free for the Mule Riding and Driving show. A chuck wagon cook-off features six restored chuck wagons run by Old West enthusiasts. Starting with the same ingredients they use their own recipes to make dinner for 350 people. Tickets for dinners on July 19 and 20 should be purchased in advance.
if you go
WHAT: Mule Mania!
WHEN: July 18–21
WHERE: Columbia County Fairgrounds – Dayton
MULE MANIA HIGHLIGHTS
MULE RIDING AND DRIVING SHOW
The Fast Ass Express Relay Race is one of the competitions in Mule Mania’s main event, the Mule Riding and Driving Show next Thursday through July 20 at the fairgrounds. Performance classes include western pleasure, English dressage, barrel racing and more. Admission is free. There will be a beer garden. Western trapping and collectible vendors will sell their wares.
CHUCK WAGON COOK-OFF
Chuck wagon dinners are served at 5:30 p.m. July 19 and 20. Tickets are $15 and should be reserved in advance at mulemaniadayton.com and can be picked up at the chuck wagons starting July 19. Chuck Wagon breakfasts at 7:30 a.m. July 19-21 are first-come, first-served for $8 a person.
A main street parade with some 200 mules starts at 10 a.m. July 20 in Dayton. It’s Dayton Alumni Weekend for locals so go early for a seat.
OLD COWBOY AUCTION AND TACK SALE
New and used tack, antique farm and ranch equipment, collectables, carts, wagons and more will be for sale at 1 p.m. July 21.