Deep in the Ozarks where I grew up, so far back in the woods they had to pipe in sunlight, mules were the preferred mode of transportation for coon hunts. A horse doesn't make as good a hunting animal as a mule in this instance. Coon hunters don't ride the mule over the fence like English fox hunters, but instead lead the mule up to the fence, and the mule jumps from a standing start.
Where I came from, if you had a good mule, you had a good thing. Good hunting mules aren’t born, they’re trained. And like a good woman, you’ll get better results if you use sweet talk rather than cruelty. It's not too hard to train a mule if you get him when just a colt and if he hasn't been ruined by being whipped by someone trying to make him jump. As the old saying goes, “You can tell a horse, but you've got to ask a mule."
Fortunately, mules tend to have a strong desire to please their trainer.
My brother-in-law, Jim Lashley, was one of the best guides and hunters in the Ozarks. My sister, Renee, could keep up with him on any hunt, and was also a champion archer and fisherman, er, fisherwoman. Jim taught his mules, Fanny and Red, to jump any fence that needed jumping, and those mules would do almost anything for him. The only thing was that if you happened to be riding Fanny when it was time to head home, you’d best be hanging on tight because she would make a beeline at top speed for the barn.
No one told my other sister, Rita, that small fact, however.
One day Rita decided she’d like to take a mule ride down to the river, her first mule ride ever, and she was riding Fanny. She, Jim, and Renee rode down to the river where there were some tourists floating in canoes who wanted to take their pictures, as city folk don’t often see country folk on muleback, I suppose.
About midway into the impromptu photo shoot whilst Rita was smiling prettily, Fanny got it in her head they were headed home. Jim laughed so hard, he almost fell off his mule just watching Rita hanging on for dear life and Fanny’s feed bag with her, as that mule was determined to be the first one home. She’s sure her photo ended up on a postcard somewhere.
“How do I stop him?” she yelled to Jim just before she got out of earshot.
The last thing she heard was, “Don’t worry! You’ll stop when you hit a tree!”
Training a Mule to Jump
It only takes about an hour to teach a mule to jump. The easiest way to train a mule to jump is to lower the jump to about knee high. Then all you have to do is treat him with sugar cubes when he jumps, raising the jump at intervals.
Mules look at a fence and expend only as much energy as they need to clear it. Most mules will clear the fence only by about an inch. It rarely happens, but if a mule catches himself on a fence and gets fastened, he’ll be as still as he can be until you get him unfastened. If you were traveling on a horse and the same situation happened, he’d likely as not tear himself up trying to break free.
How exactly do you get a mule to jump a barbed wire fence while hunting? You have to get off the mule and you lay your coat or jacket (some hunters carry a tarp just for this purpose) across the fence so the mule won’t get hung up in the wires and so he can see what he has to jump over. If you’re riding with a saddle, you’ll also need to tie the stirrups together so they don’t get caught on the fence. Despite the mule’s reputation for stubbornness, he will readily and willingly jump. As long as he trusts his rider or handler, he’ll do most anything.
That’s not to say that he won’t ever refuse to do something. In fact, if he balks, chances are you’d better listen to him. Mules tend to sense what they can do and what they can’t. You’d be wise to hold your temper and not whip or pull at your mule when he balks. Doing so only adds to his fear, mistrust, and resistance. Through time and trust, he will become a pleasure to work with.
When Choosing a Mule
The ideal size of a mule is around 13 hands or 52 inches at the withers. If the mule is much taller than that, you'll spend all your time playing dodge and duck with the tree limbs, and if he is shorter than that, you will always be dragging your feet in the brush. But good temperament is far and away the best attribute of any mule, and you can help that along by spending time with him. You've got to train him so that if you get into trouble, he'll stand perfectly still and won't hurt you.
If you get lost while hunting on a mule, all you need to do is to let your mule loose; he'll bring you in. No GPS needed. He'll never get turned around. Good to know when you’re miles into the forest, it’s hours until sunup, and your cell phone battery is dead.
Coon hunting on muleback surely is one of the most fun adventures of an Ozarkian upbringing. Just ask anyone who has survived it….
- The record mule jump (to date) was set in 1989 by Don Sam and Sonny in Arkansas. Sonny jumped 72 inches (about 1.80 meters).
- A male mule is called a john or horse mule. A female mule is called a molly or mare.
- A female donkey is called a jennet and can be bred with a male horse to create a hinny.
- Horses have 64 chromosomes, donkeys have 62, and mules and hinnies have 63.
- Mules are 99.9 percent sterile.
- Though mules can kick in any direction, a well-treated mule is not likely to do so.
Raccoon Hunting Season Info:
- Missouri Raccoon Season: Nov 15 – Jan 31
(link: http://huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/hunting-trapping/species/raccoon/raccoon-seasons-hours )
- Arkansas Raccoon Season: Sept 1 – March 31
(link: http://www.agfc.com/hunting/pages/huntingseasons.aspx )
- Kansas Raccoon Season: Nov 18 – March 31
(link: http://ksoutdoors.com/Hunting/When-to-Hunt/Furbearers )
References: Missouri Dept of Conservation; Arkansas Game & Fish Commission; Kansas Dept of Wildlife and Parks; Bittersweet, Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978; Lake Nowhere Mule & Donkey Farm