HAMILTON - Russ Anderson and his eight-hitch team of cream-colored mules wowed a livestock-savvy crowd on Saturday during the second day of the 25th annual Montana Mule Days.
From his seat high atop a gleaming red and white wagon, Anderson deftly maneuvered his long-eared team across the large outdoor arena and garnered spontaneous applause for his driving ability and his mules' ballet-like skill.
Trotting as they went, the team of eight Belgian draft horse and donkey crosses somehow managed to negotiate hairpin turns with ease, stop their remarkable energy on a dime, and execute a 180-degree turn by carefully sidestepping their way in a giant swing step in order to delicately reposition the wagon in the opposite direction.
What appeared effortless and remarkable to the crowd clearly looked the same way to the judge, and the team from Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, took championship honors in the competition.
Handling and training such a large team was an everyday necessity not so long ago, but today such skill is rare and only found at horse, donkey and mule shows.
Lee Daggett, show announcer, remarked there is no way to put a dollar figure on what it takes to train, keep, outfit and compete a team of eight mules.
It's a labor of love for a small group of people who keep the tradition and pass on the sophisticated driving and harness skills it takes to do it safely, he said.
Keeping the tradition alive is also helped by the mules themselves, engaging creatures that have garnered a committed following.
The three-day showed proved the point by the numbers, said Marilyn Stromberg, show chairman.
Despite high fuel prices, nearly 200 mules were at the show grounds and came from more than five different western states.
People love mules for good reason, Stromberg said.
That old saying? "Stubborn like a mule" - well, it's just not true.
"It's just not the right word," Stromberg said. "They aren't stubborn, they are cautious. They are very cautious animals and that comes from their donkey side - that's where their intelligence side comes from."
"They are very smart and you can't underestimate that," she said.
Aside from being the offspring of a horse and a donkey, a mule its own unique legendary creature, Stromberg explained, because "horses are more forgiving and a mule isn't."
Perhaps that's why mule people don't give their four-legged friends names like "Blaze" or "Lightning." Instead, you'll find the long-eared crowd responding to more human-sounding names such as "Cleo," "Rosie," "Stella" and "Trixey."
"I love horses, I always have," confessed Joy Gardner of Chewelah, Wash., who came to cheer on her husband's mules "Hanna" and "Missy."
"But mules really bond with their people," she said. "They are more personable than horses and they are very intelligent."
Strolling throughout the barn area, a trio of children stopped to admire a friendly mule and its two sociable donkey companions.
The donkeys sniffed and nibbled at their their hands, and the mule moseyed over to get some attention.
It batted its eyes and waggled its ears until the children said hello.
Twelve-year-old Sarah Wilson laughed at its antics and smiled widely.
Of mules, she decided, "I think they're really cute and really friendly."
Montana Mule Days
Montana's largest mule and donkey show, wraps up a three-day run on Sunday with a full day of competition at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in Hamilton. Competition begins at 8 a.m.
Numerous vendors from around the region are on hand selling horse- and mule-related equipment, and there are several food concessions to choose from.