Two outstanding yearly events are the Memphis Cotton Carnival with its Mardi-Gras revelry and Mule Day at Columbia, an all-day celebration in honor of the “orneriest and workingest work-critter living.”
—Tennessee: A Guide to the State (WPA, 1939)
Horse is a horse, of course, of course. And then there are donkeys, a member of the horse family: females are called jennys and males are called jacks. A mule is the offspring of a jack and a filly/mare (a female horse, a filly is under four years old and and mare is over 4).
A mule lover will tell you that these great beasts are smarter than both horses and donkeys, sure-footed, and courageous. Biologically they are hardy with very hard hooves, a high tolerance towards long and heavy work, and thicker skin for being in the elements all day. They are often considered members of a family and can live into their fifties.
Mules have always been a part of American culture, having been brought over with Christopher Columbus. Our first president was also gifted a mule from the King of Spain in 1785. Mules from Columbia, Tennessee, are particularly notable: the British Army purchased these famed mules for work on the Western Front in WWI and are serving in the military today in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The people of Columbia, Tennessee, are happy to tell you all about them and will throw in a great personal story about their beloved beasts. Mule Day, once known as Breeder’s Day, is now several days worth of events and has been happening every spring for over 170 years and now boasts attendances of about 200,000 people and lots and lots of mules (horses and donkeys are welcome, but mules are the life of the party).
The highlights of Mule Day, besides great food and community, are the parade and mule pull contest. The parade shows lovingly prepared mules decked out in their finest custom harnesses. Taking a cue from pet stylists, there was even a horse that had stars shaped in the entirety of her coat. There is an awesome variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
The other popular event is the mule pull contest. Teams consisting of two mules and three men work in perfect unison to see which team can haul the heaviest weight over ten feet. It is a graceful dance to pivot the mules and line them up to hitch to the weighted sled. Then the mules pull with all their might. There are knowing looks back and forth between the men and the mules, silently communicating as they take off and do their best. The crowd cheers on big pulls and claps appreciatively as teams are eliminated. The men, winners and losers alike, pat down their mules and often chat with the animals afterwards.
Walking around the rest of the grounds during the mull pull, people are just as excited to talk about their mule friends. You can pass trailers that say, “I just arrived in Columbia and boy is my ass tired.” You see people braiding manes, always with an appreciative audience. And in the spirit of Breeder’s Day, you can even browse the barns with bellowing beasts for sale. Plan on attending next year’s Mule Day to learn more about these fascinating perceptive animals.
Originally published in The American Guide. 2014.