The Day the Mules Went Crazy

Due to my youthful ignorance, I really wasn't aware of how desperate the situation was during the great depression, however I'm sure that my parents were very concerned. Being more or less a rancher, my dad didn't have a regular job as such, but we were probably much better off than most people because owning several head of cattle provided us with all the meat we needed. In addition, we always had a big garden to supplement the beef. The real problem that my dad had was getting money to buy the other things that we needed. As he would say, "It was hard to find two dimes to rub together."

mules_sm.jpg (12890 bytes)Actually, calling my dad a rancher was stretching things a bit. He did lease a section of grassland and ran a few range cows but for the most part, he made a living by trading cattle. He had an uncanny ability of being able to look at a cow and guess its weight almost to the pound and would know how much it would sell for at the weekly cattle auction in Amarillo. If he could buy something for less than what he could sell it for, he made a profit. While most of his trades involved cattle, he would buy or sell just about anything that he thought would turn a dollar.

One of FDR's programs to put people to work involved building earthen dams to conserve water during the dustbowl days. The dams were built across places where water naturally flowed during rains. By hiring local people to build these dams, the government not only kept the much-needed water from running away, but it had a secondary benefit of providing people with jobs. Engineers would come out, survey the property for the location of the ponds, decide how big they needed to be then figure out how much money the government would pay for building them. The going price ranged from about thirty dollars for a small dam up to a couple hundred for a larger one.

My dad and my uncle who lived next door decided that if they could come up with a pair of good mules, they could get in on the contacts to build some of those dams. They finally located a matched pair of young mules, which could be had for almost nothing because neither of them had ever been broken to harness. Not only had these mules never felt harness on their backs, but running loose in the Canadian River breaks, they had seldom ever seen a human. They finally negotiated a price of five dollars for the pair after viewing them from a quarter mile away as they disappeared over a hill in a dead run. It took three days on horseback to find them again, drive them to our ranch and get them herded into a catch pasture.

Even though my dad had been breaking horses all his life, he knew absolutely nothing about breaking mules. He figured that it should be no more difficult than breaking horses and set about it in the same way. They soon discovered that the only similarity between mules and horses was size and looks.

Their first mistake was trying to break both of them at the same time when any good mule skinner knows that the only way to break a mule is by putting it between a pair of mules which are already broken to harness. After a considerable amount of bucking, braying, kicking and biting, they were finally able to get ropes around their necks and tie them the snubbing post in the middle of the corral. The main problem with having their heads tied to the post was that the dangerous end was always pointed toward you. They quickly discovered that a mule can kick at least twice as far as the average horse. My dad eventually conceded that the only way they were ever going to get harness on those mules was to get them on the ground with all four feet tied together.

For the next several days, they would tie one of the mules to the snubbing post, rope a hind leg and throw him down. Once he was on the ground, it still took at least an hour of hard work to get the harness on him. As soon as they let the mule up, he would start bucking, braying and trying to throw the harness off. It usually took until noon just to get both of them harnessed. At the end of the day, if the mules hadn't succeeded in bucking the harness off, they had to go through the same battle again just to get the harness off.

After about two weeks of constant battle, interspersed by countless kicks, bites and a few broken ribs, they were finally able to get the mules harnessed together and standing quietly side by side at the snubbing post. This was a red letter day in their battle with the mules but they were still a long way from being able to get any work out of them. At least it was progress.

My cousin and I were about seven years old at the time and far more concerned with playing kid games than in the battle going on between man and beast. We had seen our dads working with livestock before and what was going on in the corral held no interest for us. What did interest us at that particular moment was a half-grown cat we had found hiding in the feed room in the barn. It was as wild as a box of snakes and did a lot of spitting and growling when we came close. It's a known fact that boys of our age are never able to leave well enough alone, so after a considerable amount of scratching and biting, we finally got it trapped in a gunny sack. It wasn't enough to simply catch the cat, we had to do something to or with the unfortunate animal.

We found a woman's black knit stocking, or hose as they called them in those days. Because of the way that they were knitted, if you pulled on each end it would stretch in length while getting smaller and smaller in diameter. You could stretch one of those things to at least six feet in length while the diameter would be no bigger your arm.

We dropped the cat headfirst into the stocking and shook him down until his fuzzy little nose was poking through a hole in the toe. It's a lucky thing for the cat that there was a hole in the stocking or he most likely would have smothered. Then we cut holes for its feet to stick through. The cat would run around the feed room with the rest of the stocking dragging behind like a long tail. Still not satisfied with the level of torment being inflicted on the unfortunate kitten, we wadded up newspaper and stuffed it in the sock behind him until we had what looked like a long, black snake with four little fuzzy feet sticking out at the head. We were having great sport with the cat until he escaped our clutches, raced out the door, around the barn and out of our sight.

My dad and uncle were resting out of the sun in the back door of the barn, drinking some water and contemplating their success in getting harness on the mules without any major injuries when a big black snake came streaking around the side of the barn and right between the legs of the two mules. This was the only time in their lives that those two mules that they ever did anything in unison. They screamed in mortal fear and shot straight into the air, jerking their halter ropes over the top of the snubbing post. My dad and uncle ran to catch them but when they hit the ground, nothing was going to stop those crazed mules.

They knocked my dad and uncle for a loop, crashed through the corral fence and headed straight for where my mother was hanging her wash on the line to dry. She saw them coming and ran for the safety of the house. One mule went on either side of the clothes line pole, ripping it from the ground and dragged the whole thing away with them; sheets, shirts and socks flapping in the air. All that stuff waving in the air behind the mules drove them even crazier.

The next victim of their rampage was the telephone pole next to the house, which they straddled the same way that they had the clothesline. The pole snapped like a matchstick and before the wires finally parted, they jerked the old crank-style phone off the wall, sending it crashing into a pot of beans cooking on the stove.

They made a circle around the house and headed for their final target, one of the poles for the new electric line that the REA was running along the edge of our property. This pole proved to be far more substantial than the others because even though they hit it at full tilt, it only shook slightly. This was a case of an unstoppable force striking an immovable object and the harness was what gave way. The last thing my dad and uncle saw of the mules was them racing toward the back of the ranch. Piled against the REA pole was not only the shredded remains of their harness but everything else that they had gathered in their rampage, including my mother's wash.
Without a word, my dad began to sort through the pile of carnage left by the runaway mules. After he had gathered up mother's wash and returned it to her, he picked up a leather strap from the harness about the length of his arm and came back to where my cousin and I were standing. That was the only real whipping that I can remember my dad ever giving either of us, but it was one which would last a long time.

I guess that they sort of gave up on breaking the mules to harness because they started trying to sell them. But when the potential buyers saw how wild the mules were were, they seemed to lose all interest.

The saga contiues: Click here for "The Last Buffalo" which will also detail the fate of the wild mules.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman