Forty Acres and a Mule

Andy with the baby donkey.A real jackass is a monument of asinine masculinity, and a testament to will, virility, and intelligence. A jenny is a female donkey. A stallion plus a jenny equals a mule. A jackass plus a mare equals a hinny. There are more mules in the world than there are hinnies because it’s easier to get a jack to breed a mare than it is to mate a stallion with a jenny. Why this should be so is a matter of conjecture. I figure that the inequality in numbers stems from performance anxiety on the part of the male horses, who, in the presence of equine ladies with such lovely long ears, such dulcet voices, such soulful eyes and such independent manners, simply feel inadequate. Hinny foals and mule foals come out the womb equal though, with 63 chromosomes apiece, and they’re all valued by their owners for the unique hybrid mix they have of a donkey’s good looks and endurance and a horse’s gullible nature and athletic temperament. I’m a donkey fancier, but over the Memorial Day weekend I went to the Bishop Mule Days Celebration on the eastern side of the Sierras to see what the fuss was all about.

The Mule Days Celebration is a week long event dedicated to the premise that anything a horse can do a mule can do better. As a kid I worked on a horse ranch mucking out stalls and feeding the horses. I got jaded by the self-important manner that some horse owners pass on to their steeds. I hoped that Mule Days might be a corrective experience, and I was right. For me, the visit started with a mule race. Five mules lined up on the starting line with their jockeys all dressed in silks of different colors. The mule with the jockey in yellow jumped the gun and had to reined back. Then she jumped the gun again. At a horse race a spirited animal like this would be disqualified for its enthusiasm but the judge at Mule Days had a donkey’s patience in his soul; he simply asked the jockey in yellow to turn his mule around so that the animal’s ass, not its nose, was on the starting line. Bang went the starting gun, and the mules shot off like bullets. The mule with the yellow silks had to spin around on her haunches before she could start the race, but she wanted victory so badly that she laid her big ears back and flew. When she won by a length everybody in the stands cheered.

Then there was a donkey race. It was invigorating to see the philosophic nature of the ass on display. The racing donkeys seemed all too aware that enjoyment of the journey of life comes from the trip, not from the finish line. Three of the five donkeys set off at the starting gun and scampered down the track with alacrity, but they didn’t obsess on the event the way a mule or horse would. A fourth donkey loped along casually and looked at the crowds of spectators with curiosity. And it is curious how thousands of donkeys never gather to watch five humans run in circles. Left to their own devices donkeys are happy to just savor mouthfuls of grass and feel the warm sun on their backs. The last donkey was the most thoughtful of all. She halted halfway down the track before turning and strolling back towards the starting line. Everybody smiled. What a generous donkey she was to make such an ass of her jockey. If the gambling industry wanted to inject an element of suspense into parimutuel racing they’ll open the racetracks to donkeys. It’ll never happen, though, because when it comes to a donkey race “all bets are off.”

I enjoyed the “donkey in hand” obstacle course too. This event was open to donkeys of all breeds and sizes, from the miniature Sicilian donkeys that stand no taller than dogs all the way up to Mammoth Donkeys whose ears can shade an average horse from the sun. Here the goal of every contestant was to lead their donkey over, through, into, and around a series of obstacles that challenged the animal to demonstrate its training and its faith in its owner. I appreciate the donkey obstacle course because I can see the time and energy that the donkey trainers have dedicated to their animals. I’m humbled when I compare the compliant behavior of the show animals with the saucy attitude that my donkeys display
when I try to make them do something that they didn’t think of. “Donkey in hand” obstacle shows will never make for good tv, because patience, trust and discipline are on display, not speed, flash, and violence. There was one made-for-tv moment though. A miniature donkey grew bored with the “keyhole” obstacle and left the arena suddenly to give a nuzzle kiss to another donkey on the other side of the corral fence, forcing the judge to announce over the public address system that “contestant 312 has lost her ass.”

My favorite event at Mule Days was the Pack Scramble. With the snowy crags of the Sierras crashing down to the desert floor to the west and the high peaks of the Whites looming over the Owens Valley from the east, Bishop is a natural spot for wilderness pack stations to show off the mules that can match the mountains. For the scramble contest wranglers from each Pack Station lead strings of fully loaded mules into the arena. Each animal is unloaded, and all the tack and gear removed. When every mule is nude a cannon is shot off, and for a minute the arena is a swirl of dust as sixty or seventy mules run around in chaos. Then the wranglers get busy. The first team to pack their mules and lead the train around the quarter mile racetrack without losing so much as a frying pan wins. My favorite packers were the Powder Puff Girls, an all-girl crew from the McGee Creek Pack Station, who dolled their mules up with packs and tack that sizzled in Breast Cancer Awareness Month Pink.

As I sat in the bleachers in the sun on Memorial Day, watching the beautiful mules and donkeys, the Civil War came to mind. When General Sherman marched through Georgia he promised the newly emancipated slaves forty acres of confiscated Confederate land apiece along with a government surplus mule. A mule used to be considered the optimum “horsepower” for farmwork. Forty acres was thought to be land enough for a hard working man to wrest a living from nature. The Federal Government soon reneged on its offer of reparations for slavery and returned the farmlands to
the plantation owners, so “forty acres and a mule” came to be understood as shorthand for broken promises. I thought about this longeared 19th century formula for emancipation and took measure of my own dependence on diesel fuel. Yes, I’m a self-employed farmer, but like almost everyone in America I live in thrall to Big Oil.

When I was seventeen I worked on a farm in Oregon with teams of Percheron horses. You better eat your Wheaties before you spend a day working with a draft team. Even the leather harness is hard work to put on the horses’ backs, and then there’s the strain of holding up the reins all day long and convincing the horses to pull. Now, at age forty eight years I’m developing a curiosity about the path I didn’t pursue. Do I have the stuff it takes to farm the way my grandfather did? Am I too old to learn? So I read and I seek out the company of people who can drive a team or lead a pack train. My farm buys me the freedom to take a day off now and then so next weekend I’ll attend the Coastal Oaks Miniature Donkey Show in King City. But at home I’ve got two tractors, four trucks, and two cars to fill with fuel. I’m ad-d-d-d-d-d-d-dicted to oil. I’d love to be freed from this karmic burden. Is emancipation possible? Who knows? But I’ve taken a half step I already own twenty acres and a donkey.

Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Photos of Mule Days that Andy and Lena took

5 Responses to “Forty Acres and a Mule”

  1. 1 Jenny

    Sigh. I’m too old for Friendster (you too, sounds like) but posts like these make me wish I had a buddy like you, and a front porch for our whole gang to kick back on. Kiss your donkey for me.

  2. 2 Tim Bray

    stallion plus a jenny equals a mule. A jackass plus a mare equals a hinny.”

    I think that’s reversed.

    Fun reading! Love your descriptions of Mule days, and the derivation of “40 acres and a mule.” Wasn’t that same program the origin of the phrase “beaten like a Government mule?”

    My father farmed with horses, and bred them for other farmers. He and his dad saw WWII coming and thought there would be fuel shortages and all the farmers would have to park their tractors and go back to horses. So they got a couple of studs (Percheron and a Belgian), and built up a good herd of brood mares, and got all set to corner the NW CA market on draft horses. Then the gummint exempted farmers from the fuel rationing.

    They had a jack, and bred mules, too. Dad has some great stories about that.

    Today there is a resurgence of interest in horse-farming, and Dad’s intimate knowledge of every aspect of working with horses would be invaluable to a lot of younger people.

  3. 3 Linda

    Andy, Yes, emancipation is possible. I belong to a CSA that raises certified organic produce in the old way. It is comprised of three farms in the Mennonite community in my area - no tractors or motored machinery, no rubber on the wheels of the equipment or their personal buggies. It is so fascinating to watch my friend control those huge horses and get them to work. I usually pick my order up at the farm each week to get a taste (pun intended) of the “simple life”. Linda

  4. 4 Susie Bright

    That is the cutest photo i have seen all year.

  5. 5 Susan Blew

    After reading this, I decided to do a little searching on the web to see what I might learn. I cracked up to find! Donkey and mule people have a wonderful and whacky sense of humor. I’m sure their events must be a real hoot. Thanks for the great article, Andy! Susan

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