Ozark Mule Days and the Missouri Mule Makeover

by Cori Daniels, Bland, Mo.

The Grand Entry at Ozark Mule Days

The Grand Entry at Ozark Mule Days

“You know what’s crazy? Five months ago I paid $600 for this mule and it just sold for $10,300.” Les Clancy said this about the winning mule sold at auction at the end of the Missouri Mule Makeover Challenge, held during Ozark Mule Days in Springfield, Mo., over Labor Day weekend. 

I don’t know if I would use the word ‘crazy,’ but I would definitely use the word ‘impressive.’ The amount of work that went into that $600 mule to make it bring that amount deserved recognition, which the winning trainer definitely received. 

It wasn’t only the winner’s hard work that was on display, but all seven of the trainers who participated in the inaugural Missouri Mule Makeover. They put literal blood, sweat and tears into these animals, and after spending all summer with them, they seemed sad to see them go. 

To recap the challenge, seven trainers met in April at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds. Seven mules stood tied to the fence. Though this event was inspired by the mustang makeover challenges that take untouched, wild mustangs and pair them with trainers to train and later compete with, these mules had not been “untouched.” Though they were not broke to lead or ride, these mules had been handled, but by what means were unclear. The seven trainers drew for the seven mules, loaded them into their trailers, and headed home to begin the long process of building a foundation of communication and trust with their mules. Some posted about their journey almost daily on the shared Facebook page, keeping the public up to date on daily success and setbacks. Others kept their journey quiet. In then end, they were all brought back to Ozark Mule Days held in the same arena they met in April. They showcased their animals in four special events on Friday and Saturday, and were auctioned off Saturday night. 

Ozark Mule Days has been held for years, and if you like fun shows, and like mules, this is an event you shouldn’t miss. It’s a throwback to years past, when mule folks would gather at fun shows all summer long, competing in traditional classes, like barrels, poles, and match races, but also throwing in some quirkier classes, like dizzy bat, back-to-back, and ride-a-buck. I grew up on the back of a mule at these small shows, and learned a lot about riding, mules, and life during those summer shows. Ozark Mule Days captures the spirit of those small shows, and I am thankful it’s held  so close to home. My daughters get to experience a part of my childhood, and they have a blast each time we attend.

But Ozark Mule Days doesn’t just have fun classes, there are performance classes spread out through the show bill, and Sunday featured a double-sanctioned (NASMA and Pinto) show. Whether you want to go fast or slow, there is a class for you this weekend. 

Both nights opened with a mutton busting, where the competitor with the highest combined score from both nights received a trophy and PBR tickets. The grand entry followed, where competitors, riding or driving their mules and donkeys, all file in and fill the entire arena. Many carried their home state’s flag, and Les Clancy presented the American flag. Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag,” played while Les loped around the packed arena on his trusty mule, Luke. The National Anthem was then sung by Savannah Wood, sitting in the arena on the back of a mule, and she began by asking the crowd to sing along with her. It was a patriotic and touching way to start the evening’s events. 

Spectators were introduced to the Missouri Mule Makeover mules on Friday night, where each trainer took to the arena for a brief introduction of their animal, and a chance to address the crowd and judges directly over the microphone. Most of these mules had never been in an arena in front of a huge crowd, so this time was also a good way to see in real time how the mules handle new situations. The judges, Tom Livengood, Donny Oldham, Wes Clancy and Greg Workman, scored the mules during the events on Friday and Saturday, but the scores were not announced and no placings were given. 

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Lori Montgomery, Crittendon, Ohio. “Even if it’s things not to do. When I left home I said Summer would learn more this weekend than in the entire time she’s been with me.” As she side passed, loped, and did lead changes she spoke about how she and Summer had begun to trust each other. 

“Watch what you ask for,” said Matt Caldwell discussing his draw, Leslie. “I said I didn’t care what mule I got, even if it was a fire breathing dragon. And that is exactly what I got.” Though Matt said it took a bit to gain Leslie’s trust, his hard work was evident as he showed off the handle he had put on her.  

“I tried to give him back to Les, but he wouldn’t take him,” said Tim Cross, about his mule Ozark’s Senior Citizen. “But somewhere along the line, he became a willing partner.” Tim had been very upfront about Citizen’s progress, but watching him in the arena during the Friday night spotlight, it was hard to believe there had been any setbacks. 

Chris French’s spotlight was tinged with a bit of sadness, as he first told the crowd about the freak accident that killed Cheers, the mule he originally took home in April. He received a new mule, Dixie, and also explained that even though he had less time with his mule than the other trainers, the mule that he got as a replacement didn’t have the same type of background as the others. “This mule did not have the problems that some of these other mules had,” said Chris. Chris explained that he and Dixie progressed quickly. “Her third ride was in the mountains, and I showed her in a mule show on her eleventh ride.” 

Leon Raber described Radar as one of the more challenging mules he has had. “It’s been hard. He was scared to death of the saddle,” said Leon. “It took two months to get to where I could collect him. ” Leon said that he has never put as many miles on a mule as he has Radar, and that because of that, he is very confident on trails. 

Arizona’s Hotshot 19 was Sharla Wilson’s first mule. “I learned more than she learned,” said Sharla. She rode Hotshot primarily in English throughout the weekend, and said she had done a lot of team sorting, as well as jumping. 

Following the trainers spotlight, Friday night’s Mule Madness began. Spectators were treated to lots of fun classes, including egg and spoon and musical tires, as well as a crowd-judged open gaited class. It was a late night for those who stayed to compete, but everyone I spoke to said the loss of sleep was worth it. 

Saturday morning began with a halter class for the Mule Makeover trainers and mules, used to judge how the mules handle on the ground. The mule jump followed, as well as poles and barrels. 

Saturday afternoon, the trainers took the Makeover mules through a trail course, where they worked a gate, side-passed,  and crossed a rocking bridge, . 

The free-style event was held Saturday night, with each trainer getting time in the arena to present the very best attributes of their mule. They each picked out their own music to perform to and brought their own props to help show off what they had taught their mules over the summer. 

Les began the night by explaining the process of what went into this challenge. “Some of these mules had their issues and problems,” said Les. “But they are about to show you what you can do with hard work and determination.” He also announced that he had secured a trailer for the winner of next year’s challenge. 

All of the trainers and mules put on a show for their crowd. Matt Caldwell went through a waterfall made of pool noodles, walked through a plastic pool, and pushed a soccer ball. Lori Montogmery cracked a bull whip, shot a pistol,  roped a barrel and pulled it behind her, then side-passed and jumped the barrels. Leon Raber rode into the arena while sitting on Radar who was standing on a flat bed truck. The pair also went through the noodle waterfall and across the tarp. Sharla Wilson, dressed like a fireman in honor of her mule’s namesake which she chose in tribute to the 19 firefighters who lost their lives in the wildfires in Arizona, showed an impressive display of hunter hack jumping, even jumping through one jump that was on fire. Chris French put his young son up on his mule to make a lap around the arena, as well as doing some cowboy mounted shooting. Shane Vaughan did cowboy mounted shooting, flying lead changes, roll backs and spins, as well as a cutting and roping a cow in the arena. He ended his performance by laying Gypsy down. Tim Cross pulled a tire, crossed a tarp, and pushed the soccer ball. Most trainers got on and off of their mules, as well as picked up all four feet. 

Once the final scores were tallied and it was time to announce a winner, all seven mules and trainers were called back into the arena. This was the same arena where these trainers were introduced to their mules 120 days prior. I was there the day they picked their animals up, and I saw how they acted on that very first day. I couldn’t help but think about what would have happened to these seven mules if it hadn’t been for this challenge. It wasn’t just a “makeover,” it was a chance at a second life. These mules were given the foundation and the training to make them “productive members of society,” so to say. These mules probably wouldn’t have had much to contribute if it hadn’t been for being selected for this competition, and as I watched from the bleachers, I thought about how I hoped all of the trainers know what an impact they had made on these animals. 

An auction was to take place as soon as the winner was announced. Les announced that Shane and Gypsy had won the event. The auction began and the number climbed higher and higher, stopping at $10,300. The remaining mules were auctioned off in no particular order. Lori, Chris and Tim all opted to pass on the  money and take their mules. Matt sold his for $2,100 and Leo sold his for $2,000. Sharla Wilson sold hers for $4,600, all of which was funds raised by Ozark Mule Days to purchase a mule for Nate and Tara Medcalf who lost their animals in an accident earlier in 2018. 

Saturday night’s Mule Madness began once the auction was over, kicking off with a crowd judged open western pleasure class. Barrels and poles followed, both with a $200 payback, as well as more fun classes. It was another late night, ending with the youth, women and men’s mule race. 

Sunday morning started with a church service, officiated by Wes Clancy. Sunday’s show was double sanctioned, with both NASMA and Pinto Association points being awarded. 

Some of the trainers reflected on their time with their animals. “I’m not good with words,” warned Shane, but he had a very touching message about his time with Gypsy. “Late last night after most everyone went to bed, I walked back through the barn to check Gypsy’s hay and water, and I might or might not have shed one small tear. I got to thinking about what words would describe the emotions that might have caused this. I came up with a lot of words, like ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘worried,’ ‘lucky,’ and ‘relieved,’ but the main word is ‘blessed,’ for so many reasons. I am blessed for being chosen to be in this competition with so many nice people...and to have gained six new friends. I am blessed for the time I got with Gypsy. I am blessed that I get to do what I love for a living and I get to do it with the love of my life, Amy Heitland.” Gypsy went home with Shane and Amy for another month of training, and Shane reported she had definitely found a good home. 

“Radar went from being afraid of stepping on blacktop to gravel, to a mule that had so much trust and faith in a human that I was able to hop him on a flatbed trailer and haul him into the arena,” said Leon. “I am pretty dang happy how he ended up. Radar actually competed in a driving class during Sunday’s show with his new owner. “I think he did pretty good for the first time in open blinds,” reported Leon. 

“This was a great journey,” said Lori, who sold Summer after the auction. “Summer has a great new home and I told her it was all up to her now. She made me very proud.” Summer has since competed at her first Pinto show with her new owners, who reported she was “amazing!”

“Dixie was awesome and gave me everything she had the last couple days,” said Chris. “She didn’t sell, and I really couldn’t be happier for it. She has come a long way with her training over the last 70 days, and I feel she’s only going to get better.” 

“We have no words!” said Tara Medcalf, who is now the owner of Hotshot. “We fell in love with Hotshot and wouldn’t you know it, she will now be my best friend and partner in all things! We will be back next year to see everyone and have some fun. You have helped heal our hearts in a way that no one could ever understand.” 

Plans for next year are underway, with some changes coming to the schedule.