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Howard County

Howard County Fair highlights the mind of the mule

If there was a lesson to be learned at the mule pull and mule jump at the Howard County Fair, it was this: If a mule doesn't want to do something, it won't.

In the dusty ring Saturday morning, farmers called mules, cajoled them and even tried to dizzy them by leading them in circles. Some farmers jumped up in the air to encourage the beasts to leap over a plastic bar; the mules paid them no mind.

"Mules are a lot different than horses," said Mary Streaker, who, along with her husband, Howard, organized the mule pull at the fair for the past five years. "They have more sense."

The Streakers, who own a farm adjacent to the fairgrounds, have been organizing horse pulls for decades. The custom dates to the early 1900s, when farmers would hold contests to see how much weight draft horses could pull.

A horse pull will be held Aug. 9, the final day of the fair. Saturday's mule competition was smaller, and, organizers said, featured beasts with more complex personalities.

The offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, mules are believed to be brighter than donkeys and live longer than horses. They have long, velvety ears and have smaller hooves that can tread between narrowly-planted rows of crops.

"A mule has got all the good qualities of the horse and the donkey," said Bob Shirley, the contest's announcer. "A hinny"— the product of a stallion and a female donkey— "has all the bad qualities."

A century ago, mules did much of the work on farms. These days, mules are used less frequently, although some farmers still prefer them to horses.

Ray and Terry Watson brought their mules, Bea and Flo, down from their Glenville, Pa., farm for the competition.

"A mule is like a big dog," said Ray Watson, a broad-shouldered man who wore a bright orange shirt and overalls. "Once you feed a mule, they'll do you no wrong."

Although Bea and Flo pull wagons and plows on the farm, they were skeptical of the day's contest, which involved pulling a cart laden with weights. They stepped over the ropes which delineated the court and sometimes refused to pull the cart at all, prompting Ray Watson to lead them in circles in an attempt to confuse them. It didn't work.

After, as the mules snuffled through a bale of hay, Terry Watson described their personalities: Flo, a reddish brown sorrel, is steady and laid-back. Bea, a bay with a dark brown coat and white nose, is spunkier.

"If you leave her out on the grass, she's going to kick up her heels," she said.

Nearby, Frank Fleming tended to his mules, Honey and Lucy, who won the top prize of $275 in the light weight category for pulling 2,700 pounds — about 150 pounds more than their combined weight.

"All mules have different personalities," said Fleming, who keeps 11 on his Mount Airy farm, Broken Spoke. "Honey, she's the queen bee. She's in charge of the whole farm."

After the mule pull, a group of slimmer, more graceful animals was led onto the ring for the "Coon Mule Jump."

The name comes from the practice of riding mules to hunt raccoons, said Shirley, 79, who competed in his first horse pull in the 1940s. When hunters would come upon a fence, they would dismount, jump over and encourage the mule to jump over.

For the contest, the mules jumped over a white plastic pipe strung between wooden posts that were raised a couple inches each round.

Julie Thomas, 12, wearing a red blouse, blue jeans and big belt all studded with rhinestones, easily led her mule, Josie, through the first couple of jumps.

Thomas, whose parents own a Woodbine farm called "Down on the Farm," said Josie didn't like to jump any higher than her belly.

"That's the thing with mules," she said. "You kind of know when they want to jump and you kind of know when they don't."

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