Not too stubborn to rack
Gaited mules make debut at World Celebration
By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily
PRICEVILLE — You’ll never see one racing in the Kentucky Derby, but the sure-footed mule has made steady strides in becoming a popular breed in the show ring.
The offspring of female horses and male donkeys made their Racking Horse World Celebration debut Thursday night, and based on success in other show circles, it could become a more common competitor.
“Most of us think of a mule as pulling a plow or a wagon, maybe a little trail riding,” said Jamie Lawrence, a racking horse trainer from Cullman County who will bring two racking mules to Celebration. “But saddle mules, I’d say they have become more popular for showing in the last four, five years or so.”
Like racking horses, racking mules perform the same smooth, four-beat gait where only one hoof hits the ground at a time, but the mules don’t compete against horses. They have their own show classes, and Celebration will feature two more. The open style racking mule class will compete Friday night, and the open Tennessee walking mules competition will be Saturday night.
Gaited mules are new to Celebration, but they have circled show rings for nearly 20 years. Shelbyville, Tenn., home to the Tennessee walking horse, has held the Great Celebration Mule Show for 18 years. The three-day show in July had 455 mules and donkeys this year from four separate national associations.
In 1995, the upstart American Gaited Association joined the event and featured one show class with 22 mules. This past July, the association had more than 30 gaited mule classes with some classes featuring more than 30 entries.
“It’s just been unbelievable how it has grown,” said Bill Moore, president and one of the founding members of AGMA. “We had 17 or 18 states represented this year.”
He attributed the growth to several factors: A small reason is gaited mules are novelties, and many equine enthusiasts simply like to be involved with something new. A big reason would be the mules are excellent for trail riding.
“It’s a real sure-footed animal. It doesn’t fall or slip,” Moore said, noting the Grand Canyon uses them for tours that take park visitors along narrow, rim trails.
Mules also are intelligent, which has led to the mistaken belief they’re stubborn, he said.
“They’re just too smart to do some things people want them to do,” Moore said. “Basically, anything dangerous or something where the animal is unsure of its footing.”
Mules also live longer, have fewer medical problems and eat and drink less than horses, he said.
Kenneth Neely, a Clarkrange, Tenn., resident who will bring a couple of gaited mules to Celebration, said his main interest for getting gaited mules was trail riding. Besides having more stamina than horses and more awareness of their surroundings, he said, mules take better care of themselves than horses.
“They’ll back off when they get tired,” Neely said, and noted that’s also a reason they’re labeled as stubborn.
As for their performance in the show ring, Neely said, mules don’t display “the big lick” with a long stride and front legs reaching high. The leg action more closely resembles the pleasure horse classes, he said.
Lawrence said a mule’s sure-footedness and smooth-riding gait are a profitable combination, and trainers will do selective breeding with a male donkey with a high-pedigreed racking or walking mare in hopes of producing an outstanding mount.
“They’ll bring good money because they’re real rare,” he said. “A sale price could range from $7,500 to $15,000 for top ones.”
Gaited mules likely will continue to grow in numbers at World Celebration, Lawrence said, because they already made a strong showing at small, local horse shows, sometimes with more than a dozen in a class.
“There are a lot of them in this area, North Alabama, so we felt the need to add them in Celebration,” he said. “Number one, just for fun, and also to generate revenue and interest with the crowd.”
A mule is a cross between a male donkey, called a jack, and female horse, called a mare. A hinny is the opposite, a cross between a female donkey, called a jenny, and male horse, called a stallion. The neck and croup of mules are shaped like horses. The head, ears, tail and short mane all resemble donkeys.
Between 1850 and 1860, the number of mules in America increased 100 percent. More than 150,000 mules were foaled in 1889; by then mules had almost entirely replaced horses for farm work.
Carefully loaded, a mule can carry 300 to 350 pounds, and it can normally cover 20 to 25 miles in a day’s march.
While there are extremely rare cases where a female mule produces a foal offspring, all mules are considered sterile. Mules have 63 chromosomes, compared to 64 and 62 for horses and donkeys respectively. The odd number in mules prevents the chromosomes from properly pairing and creating successful embryos.