The current mule mania is largely due to the discovery that well-bred mules have the ability to perform well in equine sports and that they also have the temperament for pleasure riding. And mules' affinity for humans and their muscular strength are especially suited to dressage, the equine discipline that's half ballet and half aerobics and demands superior conditioning and coordination from both the mount and its rider. Even at the five training levels in which mount and rider concentrate on moving in straight lines and large circles, on gait changes and novice lateral work—in which the animal moves sideways by crossing its legs—strength and control are essential. The intermediate and Grand Prix levels (which include trotting and cantering sideways, trotting in place and doing pirouettes at a canter) require the mount to have extraordinary athleticism and sensitivity to the rider.
Hodges is doing some of the most advanced mule dressage work in the country. Bea and three other Lucky Three mules are at the second level of dressage, and Lucky Three Sundowner was the third-level world-champion dressage mule in 1992. All perform a choreographed dressage program as part of Hodges's eight-mule quadrille team.
Mules now compete in more than 200 all-mule shows around the U.S., a fourfold increase in a decade. Some meets include races—usually 100-yard to three-furlong distances (a mule runs a quarter of a mile about two seconds slower than a quarter horse)—and Western classes, including reining (the animal docs figures in the center of a ring and is judged on its responses to rein pressure), barrel-racing and pole-bending (the animals run a slalom course) classes. Mule meets also often include English classes such as pleasure riding, jumping and dressage. The biggest show in the country is Mule Days, held each May in Bishop, Calif. The four-day event draws 50,000 people and determines world champions in a number of classes, including dressage, races, gymkhana and jumping. In 1992 Spots Illustrated, a white Appaloosa mule, won top all-around mule in the English classes.
Mules are also beating horses at their own games. In the open novice division, Mac Bea C.T placed second out of 72 entries in combined training events at the Abbe Ranch Horse Trials in Larkspur, Colo., in 1992 and was second in a combined driving event in 1992. Sue Sally Hale, one of the first women admitted to the U.S. Polo Association, had a polo-playing mule. Garon Stutzman of Clifton, Va., rides his thoroughbred mule, Hillary Clinton, in the Bull Run Hunt Club's fox hunt and the Howard County Iron Bridge Hunt in Virginia. In fact, Stutzman is the whipper-in of the hunt, the man who keeps the hounds together. He says Hillary is perfect as a whipper-in mount because she has tremendous stamina and is not afraid of the sound of a whip or a pistol. She jumps anything, including barbed wire and fallen trees, and her thick hide makes it easier for her to crash through brambles. "She may not be as fast as the horses, but she's a doggone good animal for this sport," he says.
Not everyone is thrilled by mules. The U.S. Combined Training Association allows them to compete in nonrecognized events, and the U.S. Dressage Federation allows them in schooling, regional and nonrecognized events. It isn't likely, though, that mules will be competing any time soon in national events. These have to be approved by the American Horse Show Association, and the AHSA doesn't approve of mules' competing in its events. "They're not horses," says Liz Hoskinson, communications director for the AHSA. "They're half-horses."
Most mule fanciers think the real hurdle is that modern mules are now capable of winning equine events. "Mules are just so athletic," says Glenn. "They can beat the high-dollar horses. That irritates the horse owners."
Mules in the old days were often bred from poor mares and neighborhood donkeys. Today's mule is usually carefully engineered. "The quality of mules is just growing by leaps and bounds," says Loyd Hawley, whose farm in Prairie Grove, Ark., is one of the biggest mule-breeding operations in the country. "The breeding's getting to be an art and a science." The most popular jack stock sizes are the Mammoth Jack, a large donkey that can be traced back to George Washington's herd, and the Large Standard size, which is slightly smaller and more refined than the Mammoth. The most popular mares are quarter horses and thoroughbreds. But breeders are also using gaited horses such as Tennessee walking horses and Missouri Fox Trotters, to produce gaited mules; Belgian, Shire and Percheron mares, to produce draft mules; and Shetland ponies, to create miniature mules.
Hodges is trying to create Olympic-caliber dressage mules by crossing her prize Large Standard, Little Jack Horner, with quarter-horse and thoroughbred marcs. "I think we're finally getting there," she says. "I think we're getting the right mule." Hodges has also been working on her jack stock to breed a Mammoth-sized donkey with a more refined bone structure.
These mules aren't cheap. A pair of Hawley's Belgian draft mules can go for $6,000. Tennessee walking mules bring between $3,000 and $5,000, fox-hunting mules up to $10,000. Hodges has been offered $25,000 apiece for Bea and Sundowner and expects to get $50,000 for Calypso, a quarter-horse mule in dressage training.
Hawley says that these days, most good mules are bought by horse people, though some potential buyers are unable to hide their prejudices. "They have trouble believing that a man in Arkansas can breed a good mule," he says. "Sometimes they act like all mules are plow mules and I'm riding them bareback and barefoot, in my overalls."