Story posted with permission and thanks to Angie Mayfield!
Leatherwood Mule Days and a Special Cowboy
By Angie J. Mayfield
There is no better way to relieve stress and get your equine fix than to attend a Mule Days event. When I mentioned the need for a spring break getaway, some of my mule group Facebook friends from North Carolina suggested coming to Leatherwood Mule Days. Even though it was a 9-hour drive from Indiana, one look outside at my woolly mules standing in the snow was all it took.
Okay, and the fact that I now had an excuse to miss Easter dinner at the in-laws. I started making plans.
We left on Thursday morning, traveling southeast to Ferguson, North Carolina. The landscape made up for the winding roads, but the mules complained occasionally as Doug rounded curves like Earnhardt. We passed by the gorgeous Watauga Lake through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, rushing rocky rivers such as the Elk and Watauga, then crossed into North Carolina and the Eastern Continental Divide near Blowing Rock. The area surrounding Leatherwood Mountains was lush with pines, hardwoods, and Mountain Laurel, while almost every valley was filled with mules or cows. Separating the mountains and valleys, clear gurgling streams weaved along the foothills. Doug and I smiled at each other with a look that said, “We’re here – and let’s just stay.”
The mules and our 3-year-old son, Tucker, were eager to exit their cage and explore. We were greeted at the barn by a white bearded man driving a Gator. He told us his name was Rooster, but Tucker was convinced he was Santa Claus. He showed us where to stall the mules and find our campsite. I unloaded our twin buckskins, Casper and June, and showed them their quarters. Their response was to roll in the shavings then eat.
Susie, our 26-year-old Belgian mule decided she wasn’t going anywhere near her stall, no matter how much grain, hay, and treats were offered. Doug pulled and I pushed, but to no avail. She refused to budge. Rooster pointed out there was a turnout area we could keep her for awhile, so rather than force the issue, we put her in the lot. She rolled twice, drank some water, then happily trotted over to Tucker to accept a treat and attention.
I signed us up for the parade, the novice obstacle course, and the Dutch oven cookoff on Saturday. Shannon Hoffman and the Leatherwood Mountain Resort staff had organized a first class weekend full of non-stop, fun-filled events. There were also several show classes, but we just planned to watch. We were there to trail ride and relax. After unpacking and playing in the creek until Tucker’s feet were wet and his hands chilled, we cooked pork chops over the fire and rested our weary bodies.
That night, we enjoyed a special visitor as a curious raccoon cleaned up our scraps then stood on his hind legs and peeked through the door at us as if to say, “Hey, where’s dessert?” We obliged with a can of peaches. There’s just no way to turn down such a cute little critter.
The next morning, Leatherwood was bursting with activity as trailer after trailer rolled in with mules of every size, color, and breeding. More than 125 mules and donkeys attended. I was like a kid in a candy store. Some were clipped up fancy for the shows, while others, like ours, were just beginning to shed their winter hair. Most were from North Carolina, but there were also mule enthusiasts from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. Tucker was the youngest rider.
A pair of leopard Appaloosa mules, Whiskey and Kate, stood out in the crowd and won the award for Most Colorful. They are owned by Jim and Tara Laughter of Mebane, NC. There was also a sweet pair of mammoth Jennies, owned by Tom Barfield of Greensboro, who won my heart with their kind faces and long, lonely brays. Tucker and I stopped and rubbed Sadie and Katie with each pass through the barn. Their sad eyes beckoned to us, and like the healing effect of petting a purring cat, the joy of stroking or riding an equine cannot be denied. My stress dissolved with each hour in this equine utopia.
The trails were well-marked, moderately difficult, and scenic. We especially enjoyed the rocky overlooks, riding four hours on Friday and another four on Saturday. With a toddler in tow and overweight mules, we didn’t want to push them too hard their first spring ride. Okay, I admit Doug and I were a little out of shape too. With Tucker wanting to stop every 30 minutes for a snack or to throw rocks in the creek, however, there were plenty of breaks.
Tucker doesn’t know a stranger and socialized with everyone, but he quickly partnered up with a man named Jim whose mule was in a stall close to ours. “There’s a real cowboy,” Tucker squealed the first evening and rushed over to visit. Tall, lean, and weathered, Tucker’s new friend certainly was the quintessential cowboy with his handlebar mustache, handkerchief, chaps, giant belt buckle and black cowboy hat. Tucker had a new hero and every time there was a Jim sighting over the weekend, he ran, hugged his new buddy, and jabbered on and on about his mule, the raccoon, the rocks he’d found, and the fun he was having. Jim listened intently and even let Tucker ride his mule. Tucker declared him his “favorite person.”
Cowboy Jim, like most equine folks, was a genuinely good guy. We learned later that Tucker’s new friend was the equine legend Jim Isley, a rodeo veteran, award-winning trainer, showman, and “real deal” as someone told us at the awards dinner. Kids and mules are great judges of character and gravitate to those who treat them well.
After a delicious chicken dinner Saturday evening, ribbons and prizes were awarded for the competitions and raffles. My friend Lindsey Goode’s trick mule, Rocky, was a big winner and crowd pleaser at Leatherwood. Riding bridleless while throwing candy, Lindsey and Rocky won Best Mule Overall in the parade. They also placed in every show and obstacle class. My friend Florence Brimstein, who drove seven hours from Ohio, placed in two of the Western show classes with her mule, Shooter.
Arguably the most beautiful – and photographed – equine at Leatherwood was Hootenanny, a truly breathtaking black and white mammoth Jenny owned by Nelson and Becky Garnett of Vass, NC. She won Best Donkey. I’m still drooling and have decided I must have one.
The Mayfield family did Indiana proud in the Dutch Oven Campfire Cookoff. Doug won first place in the main dish category with his famous beaver stew. Our stuffed beaver, Wally, was the talk of the event. Doug had trapped a beaver a few days before, and numerous people ate the tasty dark meat for the first time at Leatherwood Mule Days. Actually, it tastes almost identical to beef roast, but don’t tell Wally.
The People's Choice Award at the cookoff went to Clint Thomas of Maryland who poached a trout from Elk Creek the night before the contest. Talk about an “A” for effort. Sometimes a minor disregard for the law is necessary for a good cause – and it was delicious!
I won first place in the dessert category for my fruit cobbler. Doug and I now have matching Leatherwood Mule Days aprons. Jim asked if we participated in these cookoffs often. Actually, it was the first one we had ever heard of but we enjoy cooking over the campfire and had a great time participating. We may not be fancy or even clip our mules, but we eat well.
The weekend flew by, and before we knew it we had to pack up and leave beautiful Leatherwood and the festivities for home. Tucker didn't want to go, but when we checked out Easter Sunday, he had a surprise waiting for him. Jim had left Tucker a signed cowboy hat. Our little buckaroo was so excited – and we were very touched. Leatherwood Mule Days will always hold a special memory for our family, and certainly in a little boy’s heart. Tucker beamed with pride as we pulled away, wearing his special white Ponderosa hat. “I’m going to be a cowboy just like Jim when I grow up!” he beamed. And I know he will.
This was the first year for Mule Days at Leatherwood, March 28-31st 2013. I had been thinking of hosting an event like this for a few years. Abbie and I decided to go for it! I hoped to get 50 or 60 mules to come. We ended up filling the entire place and had over 125 Mules, Donkeys and a horse or two! We will host this event again in 2014, the 1st weekend in May! If you love Mules and Donkey and want to join in on a family oriented celebration, then this is where you need to be!! Thank you to Leatherwood and everyone who helped host the event
Nelson and Becky with Hootenanny
Mike Toberer circles the Pack String around Shannon and Amanda
Rascal and Angie
Mule and Donkey group from Maryland
Carol winning the Egg and Spoon class, from Pennsylvania
Friends Hanging out
Kellie and Sadie Mae on the trails
Line up before the LONG trail ride
Noelle and Annabelle signing up for show
Mike and Zack Toberer with Pack String and Zack riding Seven
Rascel and Hickory demonstrating logging
Sandra and Steve Hyder
Todd and Katie
Queen Cody Lee
Lindsey and Rocky
Parade Grandmaster Teddy with Daisy
Lindsey working gate with Rocky
Zack Toberer rode Seven in the parade