43rd Annual Bishop Mule Days

By July 18, 2011
Bright red vintage "mail wagon" pulled by a pair of heavy breed mules

Vintage mail wagon in the opening parade. (Photo by Victor J. Otten)

The journey to Bishop Mule Days on Memorial Day weekend was a long and strange one this year. It was long, because I drove from Los Angeles to Prescott to pick up a trailer. Had I known the drive from Prescott to Bishop would take 11 hours, I would not have spent the night drinking tequila on Whiskey Row. It was strange, because my trainer and I had decided not to bring our mules due to the EHV-1 outbreak, marking the first time in five years that I would be there without them.

Eleven hours in a car inevitably leads one to ponder some weighty matters. I spent the majority of the ride considering the meaning of life and, as usual, analyzing the greatness of mules and their role in history. I was also trying to convince myself that I, like the thousands of people who attend the event, could have fun without competing.

The decision to not bring my mule to Bishop was a difficult one. Mule Days is the most important event of the year. This marked the 43rd year the event has taken place, and people come from all over the U.S., training for months for the chance to excel against many top riders. My trainer, Kris Keeler, assured me that even without the mules, we would have a great time—we’d go fishing, drink some beer, socialize with old friends and make new ones. It was a good pitch, and as my mules are more than just show animals to me—they are my pets—there is no way I wanted to take a chance of them getting sick or taking germs back to the 110 other horses at the Empty Saddle Club in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Mules engage in the cowboy sport of cow sorting at Mule Days.

Sorting at Mule Days. (Photo by Victor J. Otten)

The fact that Mule Days wasn’t cancelled was in itself controversial, given that horse and mule shows were being shuttered all over the Western United States. Bishop draws animals from all over the country, and since there’s no way to separate the animals, there was clearly some risk. That said, several vets that I spoke with did not seem concerned.
The event typically attracts about 30,000 visitors, which means that all 800 local hotel rooms are sold out. Additionally, there are 1,000 campsites on the show grounds. It seemed obvious that fewer competitors were in attendance this year as a result of EHV-1. At night, I’ve always enjoyed the sounds of the mules and donkeys calling out to each other. I’m not sure how many equines are usually on the fairgrounds during the event, but this year, the pipe stalls seemed nearly empty, and the sounds that normally echo through the barn were muted.

The big question was whether the spectators would arrive by the weekend. While the stands were full for the Saturday show, the rest of the week had a slightly empty feel. Bishop Mule Days executive director Kim Craft said the mule count was down about 150 from last year, numbering 350-400, but says spectator attendance was about the same, and campsite occupancy was actually up, at about 800. “We were pleasantly surprised that many of the people that normally come with their mules chose to come without them and support us anyway.” Craft admitted that “of all the events in California, the EHV-1 scare probably hit us worse than any other, because it struck a week before.

Tony Lama High Point-winner Tim Phillis rides his western-broke mule Tuff Stuff at a walk.

Tony Lama High Point-winner Tim Phillips and Tuff Stuff (Photo by Ira Gostina)

This year the 20-mule team assembled by Bobby Tanner served as the grand marshal. The 20-mule teams started in the late 1880s and were used to carry the mineral borax out of Death Valley. This year, Tanner secured use of actual borax wagons that were used to haul the cleaning crystal on the Death Valley runs. It was truly magnificent and provided a dramatic opening to the week’s events.

One of the great things about Bishop Mule Days is that it has classes you just don’t see at other shows. Perhaps the most ridiculous is the Chariot Steer Stopping. Each chariot has a driver and a person on the back to rope the cattle. A herd of cattle is let loose in the area, and all hell breaks loose.

The Fun Classes at Bishop are always entertaining as well. These include Musical Tires, the Dolly Parton Race, Run, Ride and Lead and the Bed Roll Race. Last year I got my butt beat by a bunch of little brats and fell off my mule during one of the classes (when kids wearing tennis shoes with spurs made their way to the starting line, I knew I was in trouble). By Thursday the strain of being only a spectator was starting to show on Kris. It’s hard to explain, but there was just a certain edge and uneasiness to her as she watched the show, contemplating how her mules would have performed. Still, we all did manage to have a good time.

While the World Champion Fun Mule was won by Dan Sehnert and Action’s Graduate, the crowd favorite once again was Bryce Hathaway on his mule White Trash, who took the Reserve. Bryce is a heck of a nice guy and a rising star at Bishop. He will be part of the show for years to come.

Unsurprisingly, Tim Phillips and Tuff Stuff dominated the proceedings, winning the Tony Lama World Champion High Point Mule. Tuff Stuff is a remarkable mount that does nearly everything from cows to English classes. They also rose to the top of the class for Champion Cow Working Mule and were Reserve Champion English Performance Mule. AMA board member Kellie Shields and Call Me the Fireman won the Reserve High Point Mule and were Reserve Champion Green Western Performance Mule. The Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park of Three Rivers won the Champion Pack Team award, with Reserve going to the Rock Creek Pack Station of Bishop.
As legend has it, the people who worked at the various pack stations in the Eastern Sierra started the tradition of the Sunday night bonfire. While the official Mule Days Celebration ends Sunday afternoon, at dusk the packers and other contestants build a gigantic fire in the middle of the arena.

Bryce Hathaway, flanked by two women, poses with his snow white mule White Trash.

Bryce Hathaway (center) and White Trash were once again the crowd-pleasers. (Photo by Victor J. Otten)

It’s a time for socializing, discussing the events of the week and heavy drinking. It’s also the night before a long drive home. Around 10:00 p.m. some good old boy started passing around a bottle of Jack, and I had a few swigs. I don’t recall much of the rest of the evening. The first vivid memory I have is waking up in the arena and brushing the dirt off of me; the party was just winding down.

The 44th Annual Bishop Mule Days is scheduled for May 22–27, 2012. For information, visit “www.muledays.org. To read more about mules, visit Vic Otten’s blog at www.mulerights.com.


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