by Lonny Thiele, Poplar Bluff, Mo.
What do you get when you combine weather in the mid-70s, Ozark Hill country, and a team of mules hooked to a wagon?
Well, you get time to enjoy life, according to a group of men in northwest Arkansas, who are members of the Gee Haw Horse and Wagon Club, based out of Salem, Ark.
“You just get out here and enjoy it. This is the best mental therapy I know of,” states longtime member Coy Stone of rural Viola. “You don’t worry about what’s at home, what you need to do.”
“I just like the comfort,” said Charley Prater, who has mules Reba and Maud, both 6-year-olds, hooked to his wagon, and for the past 10 years has ridden with his sidekick, Taco, a little Chihuahua dog.
The two men took part in the first wagon ride of the season on Saturday, April 6, that started at club president’s Ken Felts rural home, west of Viola. The ride consisted of five wagons, all pulled by mules, and five outriders. They left at 8:30 a.m., mostly drove down country roads that included about a dozen steep hills, and returned at 3:30 p.m., after covering about 20 miles.
Randle Barnett, a 15-year member from Warm Springs, led the wagons with his 1,200 pound mules, Jack and Jude. “I like riding with friends. We see different views on different rides,” Barnett said.
Felts worked his young 2-year-old team Lady and Champ, each weighing around 800 pounds. The two started out the cool morning with plenty of energy. “They’re fired up for some reason,” Felts said. “These hills will take it out of them.” Felts went on to say this was his favorite ride out of the 15 or more rides the club takes each year. “There’s good scenery, good hills, creeks, no traffic,” he said.
Vernon Crow of rural Viola drove the rear wagon with his splendid looking team of sorrel mules that are full sisters, Cheyenne and Sioux. He and some friends started the club back in 1982. In 1978 Crow and a couple of friends started doing some wagon rides. These men had ridden horses for years, but got where they couldn’t ride with comfort, so they went to wagons. Crow started with a small team of horses, but after a year switched to mules. “Mules are a little more steady, more dependable,” he said.
The wagon club consists of 75 members, about half of which take part in some of the scheduled rides. There are three day rides, four day rides where members start out at a member’s home and return that evening, spending the night there, and start out from the next day.
Meanwhile back at the ride Felts can be heard urging his young mules up the dozen or so steep hills. “Lady, come on. Let’s go. You have to stay after her more than Champ,” he says as he taps her lightly with a whip, while Champ squats down digging into the gravel with his hooves.
Last year the club did three self-contained rides where they don’t return home for the night, but instead camp out where they end up and head on down the road the next morning. These rides last six days or longer and cover 100 miles or more.
Last November they did a five day self-contained ride that left Viola, traveled to Calico Rock, Melbourne and Salem. This year they plan to do this ride in reverse. “We carry our own necessities, we have ways to clean up. We take food for ourselves and our mules,” Felts said. “There are places we stop at and eat. We take tools to repair minor breakdowns and we take (mule) shoes along. If someone has a flat or harness problems, we fix it up the best we can.” Felts said there are generally six to 10 wagons on the self-contained rides. Last year they did two other self-contained rides, one from Viola to Gainesville, Mo. and back, the other was a six day ride to Mansfield, Mo.
Many of the members easily exceed 1,000 miles annually with their mule driven wagons. Mules are quiet creatures. The most noise you hear on the wagon rides are the clip-clop repeating sounds of their shoes hitting the rocky roads. Combine these sounds with the beautiful scenes the Ozark Hill farms provide and Stone’s words come to mind—best mental therapy I know of. For more information on the Gee Haw Horse and Wagon Club, contact Felts at 573/429-8096.
Thiele is the author of the mule book: That Son of a Gun Had Sense; Mule Stories from the Bootheel Area during the 1930’s-1940’s Era. To contact him call 573/300-3085 or email firstname.lastname@example.org