What Mule Cracker Taught me at Leatherwood Mule Days

You can ride a mule 2,300 miles through America and still bomb the trail class.

Imperfection Exhibit #1: mules Polly, Brick and Cracker with me at Leatherwood Mule Days. I dressed up hoping to win the Best Dressed Man award. I didn’t win but got to be the parade Grand Marshal instead.

This weekend, my wife Julia and I attended Leatherwood Mule Days in Ferguson, North Carolina, about half an hour from our farm. It was a reminder of how much joy and amusement imperfect animals can bring their owners (that would be me and everyone else that dealt with a baulky mule, donkey or horse at mule days).

Even though I have ridden my mules Brick and Cracker thousands of miles cross-country, I have never shown them. That all changed this last weekend. Part of Mule Days is a mule show. I entered Brick and Cracker in the Supreme Trail Mule Challenge. The Challenge is three classes:

  • Trail Mule at Halter (judged on mule’s conformation)
  • Go as You Please (judged on mule’s best gait)
  • Trail Class (judged on obstacle course)

Into the Show Arena

A while back, I rode Brick and Cracker 2,300 miles from North Carolina to Idaho. I figured that qualified me to enter them in the Supreme Trail Mule Challenge. Julia would show Brick and I would show Cracker.

I figured I was pre-qualified: riding mule Cracker across a bridge as a semi-passes us (Bean Station, TN)
Slogging up the road in the rain (outside Novelty, MO)

The first class was the Trail Mule at Halter, where a mule is judged on its conformation. I led Cracker into the arena with 16 other folks showing their mules. I felt confident. Brick and Cracker have been passed by roaring semis, sloshed through snow and taken shelter in a graveyard during a thunderstorm. They can picket out by a front leg, carry pack saddles and walk on ice.

Cracker’s built sorta funny for a mule. He’s got a big belly, bony hips that stick out like a cow’s and bloodshot eyes. Still, I hoped the judge would overlook all that and see him for the trail-riding machine that he is. I lined up with the 16 other contestants so the judge could take a look at our mules.

Cracker’s sort of a funny-looking mule. Here I’m trimming his feet a few weeks before Mule Days.

The judge walked around, clipboard in hand, looking at all the mules. She stood behind one, cocked her head, and made a note of something. Cracker fidgeted and stepped out of line. I turned him around and line him back up. The judge was getting closer. Cracker brayed for Brick. Damn. He jigged and I spun him around.

Then it was our turn to be inspected. I was right. The judge completely overlooked his funny build only because he was spinning, braying and looking for Brick. Oh well.

I left the ring with a great big grin on my face. I think we placed dead last in that class. And that’s fine. Cracker was excited to be at Mule Days. I was having a ball

The second class was Go As You Please where the entrants come into the arena, the judge looks them over and then you ride your mule at whatever pace you want – walk, trot or lope. Cracker brayed at Brick, who was also in the class. I bumped him into a little jog. He stuck his head straight up into the air, like a giraffe, and looked around the arena for Brick.

All the other mules trotted around nice and quiet. Some loped. I dropped Cracker from a jog back to a walk. He walked as fast as the other mules were jogging, trying to catch up with Brick. I hoped that at least the judge was admiring his ground-covering walk.

Cracker, lookin’ good. Too bad this was in the Trail Class, not Go as You Please…

I think we placed dead last in that class. Okay, maybe we placed second to last. Julia was riding Brick in the same class and she threw a bucking fit.

That brought us to the big event, the Trail Class. The trail class consisted of obstacles you had to navigate your mule through. The first obstacle was a length of rope you had to loop around a post, like it was a gate. I rode into the arena. Cracker saw the rope and shied away, right toward the judge’s stand in the middle of the arena. I rode him around the obstacle for a closer look. He spooked again. I rode him closer. How was I supposed to drop the loop of rope over the post if I couldn’t even get close to it?

The rope gate I couldn’t get Cracker close to. Here, Julia and Brick show how it’s supposed to be done. (Shana Hall photo)

Every obstacle had a 30-second time limit. I spent 20 seconds circling the post and wasn’t even able to touch the damn rope I was supposed to loop over the post. “To hell with it,” I thought and rode to the next obstacle – a narrow mattress laid out on the ground. Riders were supposed to ride long-ways up the mattress. Cracker looked at the mattress and ducked away. I rode around the mattress, just like I’d ridden around the gate, to let him have another look. I finally got him to step over the mattress the wrong skinny way. Oh well, at least we got across that one.

At this point, I figured the judge had put down her scorecard and was sitting in the judging booth either smiling or with her hands crossed. I decided to just have fun.

Cracker and I continued with the course. I couldn’t get him to back through an “L-shaped” obstacle, side pass along a pole or walk a little circle inside four poles. The thing he did best was walk through a bunch of “trash” – empty plastic bottles, pool noodles, etc – laid out on the ground. That makes sense. He’d walked through lots of litter walking up the side of the road from North Carolina to Idaho.

I left the ring with a great big grin on my face. I think we placed dead last in that class. And that’s fine. I haven’t practiced those things. I was having a ball.

Brick, who also joined me on my journey to Idaho, did much better. Maybe because Julia was riding her.

Julia riding Brick across the mattress I couldn’t get Cracker to walk over lengthwise (Shana Hall photo)

Imperfect Creatures

So why am I telling all the things that Cracker, my tried and true long-distance riding mule, sucked at? Because it shows that you can do wonderful things with imperfect creatures. Most of the mules in Supreme Trail Mule Challenge could open a rope gate, step across a mattress and side pass way better than Cracker. Hell, they could stand much better than Cracker. And yet, even though Cracker couldn’t do these things, he was able to carry me from North Carolina to Idaho.

I hadn’t practiced any of these show ring skills with Cracker. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know how to open a rope gate or walk lengthwise across a skinny mattress. If anyone was to blame for the rough performance, it was me. But I won’t do that, either. I just wanted to have some fun with my mules and catch up with friends, regardless of how technically well my mules did.

This should give you hope that next time you want to tackle something you don’t think you’re ready for (career change, trip, new business), it might get messy but you’ll probably do fine.

Some Photos From Leatherwood Mule Days

Cecelia and a friend were selling cookies and lemonade. Cracker is giving me the heavy look hoping I’ll buy him a sugar cookie. The lemonade stand was for a good cause. Cecelia and her friends were raising money to aid Ukrainian refugees. Yes, I bought Cracker a cookie.
Julia with Pie and Magneto. Horses are welcome at Mule Days. After all, no horse, no mule.
Max Poplar soaking up some mule time. He was down with his family for the weekend.
Max’s rattlesnake headband. Max is an F-15 pilot.
Julia and I getting ready for the Leatherwood Days Parade
Mistakes were made: somehow, I was made Parade Marshal. I got to lead the parade on a loop through the Leatherwood stabling area, the parking area, the campground and in front of the Saddlebrook grill. It was a peak experience in my mule-riding career. I only wish Cracker had stood as quietly for the judge during the Halter class.
Let the parade begin
Score! Julia is fist-pumping the air because, seconds before, my mule Polly got away from e and Julia snagged her. It’s bad when the Parade Marshal loses one of his mules.
Purple Mule Power with Nancy Sluys!
The Supreme Trail Class map: The wrinkles are from where I folded the map and put it in my shirt pocket. It was my favorite shirt. The blue stain is from where my ink pen leaked. All over my favorite shirt…

A Whole Lotta Balking and Braying

Bring together a bunch of donkeys and mules and you’re going to have a lot of balking, side-eying and braying. In the “good ol’ days” that meant you’d have a bunch of swearing, beating and cursing. Not so Leatherwood Mule Days. I was so proud to see how everyone treated their mules and donkeys with kindness and respect. They’re not the easiest critters to mess with and can sure test your patience.

I think the number one thing behind all this is that folks are finally starting to understand that understanding and positive reinforcement, not force and harsh equipment, is the way to forge a partnership. As a society, we can all learn from this.


A big congratulations to Judy Smith and Sweet Sue for winning the Supreme Trail Mule Challenge! You guys (Judy and Sue) have worked really hard and it sure paid off. My only regret is that we didn’t get more time to visit during Mule Days.


It takes a whole lot of people to put together an event like Leatherwood Mules Days. Thanks to:

  • Shannon Hoffman for putting this all together
  • Abbie, Trevor, Wayne, Jamie and everyone else at Leatherwood Mountain Resort for hosting Mule Days
  • Ty Evans for the mule clinic
  • All the sponsors for supporting the event

Thanks, as well, to the very patient judge, Jessica Brooke Maiello, for having a good sense of humor about Brick and Cracker’s premier show ring performance.

Ah, home again. The critters enjoying some pasture time back home, after Leatherwood.

Next Leatherwood Mules Days is May 9th – 14th, 2023

Sing up to Hear About my New Book

Cracker hanging with young Captain America at a catfish farm in Tennesee. One of the many stories from the new “Trash to Triumph” book.

I’d be happy to let you know when my new book “Trash to Triumph” comes out. The book is about my trip through America with Brick and Cracker. You can sign up to hear about the release right here.


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[…] Here, in no particular order, are some photos I though you’d enjoy. I took these the first two days of Mule Days. Remember that the big hurrah events – the mule show, the coon jump (no, no coons are involved) and the parade – are this Saturday so you still have time to catch the action. I’ll post photos of those next week. In the meantime, you can check out the post what my mule Cracker taught me at an earlier Mule Days. […]

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