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. A mule is more complicated. It is the offspring of a jack — a male donkey — and a filly or mare — a female horse.
A mule lover will tell you that these lovely beasts are smarter than horses and donkeys, and are sure-footed and courageous. Biologically they are hardy with hard hooves, a high tolerance towards long days and heavy lifting. They are often considered members of a family and can live into their fifties.
Mules have always been a part of American culture. They were 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 to go 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. It has been going 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 harnesses. Taking a cue from pet stylists, there was even a horse that had stars in 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 ten feet. It is a graceful dance to pivot the mules and line them up to hitch to the weighted sled. 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 thank them for the hard work.
During the mull pull, people are excitedly talking about their mule friends. Trailers say, “I just arrived in Columbia and boy is my ass tired.” People are braiding manes 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.