They are not stubborn, and they are certainly not dumb.
That is the message that comes through loud and clear when speaking with the donkey and mule owners who are continuing their competitions at the Stock Show Sunday.
“You can force a horse to do pretty much everything, but you can’t force a mule to do anything,” said John Wood, of Longview, who is showing his mare mule Esther Sue at the Stock Show. “You have to gain their confidence and trust, and convince them it is OK to do something.”
Wood said mules are not difficult, they are just smart enough to know when something is not a good idea, like putting a hoof down on unstable ground.
“They have a stronger self-preservation system built into them. It comes from the donkey,” said Wood, who competes in barrel racing and pole bending, two of speed events in which mules compete. “Mules are more sure footed because they can see where they are putting their feet down. They can see their feet and the horse can’t.”
Wood, who also uses his mules for hunting and working cattle, said that he is drawn to mules primary because of their intelligence.
“I like their minds. They are thinking animals. The way mules look at things and process things is what attracts me to them,” said Wood, who has been showing mules for four years.
And sometimes, their intelligence can be lifesaving.
“She has warned me about snakes,” Wood said. “And I used to put GPS collars on my hunting dogs to keep track of them when I am hunting. But I’ve found that she is so smart and has such a great sense of smell that I don’t have to use those collars.”
‘They’re very smart’
Becca Garrett, who shows both mules and donkeys, is more blunt when addressing the myths about the personalities and brains of her favored animals.
“The reason that most people think mules and donkeys are stubborn is because they are not smart enough to know how to train them,” said Garrett, 20, who has been riding mules and donkeys since she was 3 years old. “They’re very smart and they are not going to do anything they don’t have to. But they are capable of doing most anything.”
Garrett is one of those exhibitors who is a living demonstration of the versatility of the mules and donkeys — stock that most people think of as only beasts of burdens.
“I really love showing what mules and donkeys can do,” says Garrett, of Stillwater, Oklahoma, before reeling off a long list of classes in which she regularly competes on mules and donkeys. They include halter classes, speed events, skill events (such as trail classes that require the animals to work through a specific pattern in the arena), Western riding, English riding and, Garrett’s favorite, jumping.
And that is the most surprising thing to learn about mules and donkeys at the Stock Show: they are shown in many of the same demanding competitions as horses. Mules are sometimes even used in cattle cutting competitions, which are the equivalent of equine ballet (and about as far removed from pulling a plow as you can image.)
But while Garrett, who is studying nursing at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College on a full equestrian scholarship, admires the incredible range of skills her mules and donkeys display, they have another gift she cherishes.
“They’re my best friends. Whenever I’m stressed, I just go hop on my mule or donkey and go out in the pasture and ride. They are great companions.”
‘Just like a dog’
Debbie Miller, of Mulvane, Kansas, is also showing at the Stock Show even though, frankly, her animals don’t measure up.
“I am a senior citizen and they’re so easy to handle and they take virtually nothing to care for them. There is very little danger with them,” said Miller about her cuter-than-cute miniature donkeys.
The adorable, diminutive critters (they are, by definition, 36 inches tall or shorter) look like they could have earned their places with their larger cousins at the Stock Show based on their appearance alone. But it turns out that these little guys are also work animals who can do a great deal more.
“They used to use them in coal mines,” Miller said. The donkeys originated on the islands of Sicily and Sardina (they are sometimes called Mediterranean Miniatures), and were introduced in this country in 1929.
But at the Stock Show, instead of pulling a tram full of coal, these sturdy little equines will be pulling their owners in carts.
“They can carry two and half times their weight, and they can carry up to an 80 or 90 pound child on their back,” Miller said about her miniatures, which usually weigh about 250 pounds when full grown.
The miniature donkeys do many of the same type of classes as the mules, including jumping.
In addition to their impressive and diverse skill sets, Miller added that her miniatures are practically pets.
“They are just like a dog. They are very smart. They are easily trained. And they want your affection and attention,” Miller said. “If they could come into your house and sit on your lap, they would do that.”