Forget what you think you know about a mule being an obstinate creature, given to sitting down with a frustrated rider on its back if the impulse strikes.
Madison and Miranda Iager of Woodbine say they will be working to debunk the "stubborn as a mule" myth when they compete Thursday on Gato and Misdemeanor at the Howard County Fair in the Maryland High School Rodeo Association's first appearance since forming in November.
"Gato is super funny, always trying to make you laugh," said Madison, 15. "And he's very, very personable."
But myth-busting is far from all the sisters will be doing.
Madison is the reigning Maryland High School Rodeo Queen, having won the title May 31 in New Kent, Va. Aside from her job promoting rodeo, she is entered in goat tying at the 69th annual fair, which opened Saturday in West Friendship and runs through Saturday.
Miranda, who is about to turn 14, will compete in goat tying and breakaway roping. Their younger brother, Harrison, 12, will compete in target shooting.
Maryland is the latest of 42 states that have joined the national association, which held its first championship finals in 1949 in Texas. Now headquartered in Colorado, the nonprofit has 10,000 members in the United States, five Canadian provinces and Australia, according to the group's website.
The MDHSRA focuses on the development of sportsmanship, horsemanship and character through the sport of rodeo by promoting family involvement, a commitment to animal welfare and a sense of community. There also are elementary and junior high divisions.
Thursday's event — the first of the fledgling group's second season — will be a rodeo in every sense of the word, with timed events, a cowboy church service and more.
"Rodeo is not that well known on the East Coast," said state secretary Sherri Trenary, whose family operates the Patapsco Horse Center on Frederick Road in Catonsville. "But it's addicting, and we are growing very rapidly here in Maryland. We have 31 members already. That's huge."
During its second season, which runs from August through July with a break for clinics and seminars from November through February, the Maryland chapter's goal is to hold 15 rodeos across the state, she said.
That will provide the Iagers plenty of opportunities to demonstrate what their mules can do. Though the teenage sisters say "everyone [else] was on a horse" at the National High School Rodeo Association finals in Wyoming the week of July 13, they believe young riders are starting to look at mules differently.
"Mules have always had a bad reputation, and our goal is to change people's outlook," said Madison, who took home a sash and a shield-like crown that adorns the brim of her cowboy hat. "Most people think mules are stubborn, but they're smart."
Elisha Iager — whose husband, Mark, grew up on his family's Maple Lawn Farm in Fulton and still manages the dairy and crop operations there — said her daughters could have ridden horses but chose to ride mules.
"The bond you get with a mule is stronger than anything you'd never get with a horse," said Iager, who grew up riding horses and met her husband in 4-H.
At the family's Lady Longears Ranch, an 88-acre farm that lies a quarter-mile across the Howard County border into Carroll County, the teens practice daily in the 13,000-square-foot covered riding arena that their parents had built for them last summer. The girls also regularly compete on their mules in barrel racing and pole bending.
As she watched Miranda practicing breakaway roping on a hay bale fitted with a plastic steer's head, Iager said that as parents, they appreciate the high school rodeo association's emphasis on accountability and trustworthiness.
"This is what's missing today," she said. "Kids don't learn their actions will have consequences."
The siblings' chores include taking care of all the animals on the farm as a condition for being allowed to rodeo, for instance, and there are plenty: 32 goats, 30 rabbits, nine pigs, seven mules, four sheep, two donkeys, a horse, a peacock, three dogs and a cat.
"They know that if they don't follow the rules, they don't play," she said.
But Iager says she's just as thrilled that rodeo is an interest they all can share, along with other kids who belong to the rodeo association who were raised with like values.
"We are so blessed that they have something that they love so much and that they're not hanging out at the mall," she said. "Rodeo is their prime thing right now."
Trenary said she wants students to know that anyone can join the rodeo association, even those who don't have experience or own a horse.
"If you have a passion for rodeo, we will find a way to make it work for you," she said.
If you go
The Maryland High School Rodeo Association's first rodeo at the Howard County Fair will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday in the contest arena. Events include bull riding, barrel racing, goat tying, breakaway roping, pole bending and target shooting. For more information, go to mdhsra.org.
Latest Carroll County
Admission to the Howard County Fair, which runs through Saturday, is $5 for adults, $2 for seniors; children under 10 are free. For a complete schedule of events, go to howardcountyfair.com or call 410-442-1022.