Mule Days highlights Eastern Sierra holiday

Bishop takes center stage

While famous for its annual tribute to a four-footed hero of the American West, Bishop is actually one of four cities in the U.S. that hosts a multi-day celebration in honor of the mule.

Bishop isn’t even the only “self-proclaimed Mule Capitol of the World,” with Columbia, Tenn. also laying claim to the title.

But Bishop’s annual Mule Days Celebration has the others beat when it comes to variety, quality, and prestige.

Every May since 1969, the city makes way for hundreds of equines and equestrians as they show off their skills to entertain appreciative audiences and compete for major honors.

Indeed, Bishop Mule Days is the only mule show—period—where riders can compete for world championships in their respective areas of expertise, whether it’s barrel racing, team roping or steer stopping.

“It’s the show people want to come to,” said Executive Director Monica Allen. “We have the most prize money, the most prizes, and we’re the only one that does world champion categories in AMA (American Mule Association) shows.”

Mule Days is also the only festival in the world where the fan base is equal parts rock-climber and retiree, veteran and vacationing European, hipster and ranch hand.

And in 2013, Mule Days will be the only show on the planet where small children and college students have the same opportunity to take home world titles as seasoned mule skinners, backcountry pack string operators, and lifelong equestrians.

Allen said colleges that signed up to send pack teams include Oregon State, CalPoly, UC Davis, and the Thacher School.

According to Allen, expanding the competitive opportunities and including more of a youthful energy is all part of a multi-tiered plan to reinvigorate the 44-year-old celebration and ensure a staying power with future generations.

“We needed to look at the demographics of both our spectators and our competitors and find a way to continue the tradition while bringing a different perspective,” she said.

“We looked around and realized that our audience was changing,” said Dan Dean, show committee chair. “Our friends were still coming to the event, still participating in the classes they’ve loved, and still are a big part of our success. But like all of us who grew up with Mule Days, we are simply slowing down. We realized times are changing and that we needed to change with them.”

Reaching out to younger generations was seen as something that would have multiple benefits: having someone to pass the torch on to; expanding Mule Days’ fan base; introducing a more family-oriented vibe; and teaching younger generations about the history of the mule.

“We really want to look to the future and engage families to the wonderful world of mules,” said longtime competitor and McGee Creek Pack Station owner Jennifer Roeser.

To that extent, and thanks to an idea from Mule Days co-founder Bob Tanner, 2013 will see the introduction of the “I Want to Be a Packer” program.

Additionally, collegiate, and what Dean called “more serious” youth events, have been added to the competition schedule; college teams will be riding in Saturday’s parade; there’s a Mule Days Kids Passport (kids can earn “stamps” for visiting various booths and other attractions); and a whole new show has been added to the schedule.

On Thursday, May 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., residents and visitors are invited to the Mike Boothe Memorial Arena (the Main Arena) for the first annual “School Days Show” starring local youth from the Double L Ranch, longtime Mule Days competitor Obbie Schlom, and world-renowned trainer Jerry Tindell.

Dean is particularly excited about the School Days Show.

“There’s going to be stuff you’ll never see in the Main Arena (otherwise),” he said.

“It’s fun, fast-paced and it showcases our local youth … This is something that we’re going to be doing every year, so come out and see it so you have something to compare it to next year.”

According to Dean, Mule Days is also lucky to have Schlom taking part in the show. She has been competing at the local event since age 12 and now, at 18, recently took second place at the prestigious Road to the Horse International.

“She’s a star of the equine world.”

Plenty of talented riders—up-and-coming and veteran alike—can be seen in the Main and East arenas, as well as the West Track, Thursday through Sunday.

Following the trend of the past two Mule Days celebrations, the schedule of events has been rearranged and tweaked so that it better suits competitors’ needs and is fresh for spectators.

It goes back to the multi-tiered plan, which essentially began in the mid-2000s when the traditional Thursday-night concert was moved to an outdoor venue where audience members could dance to the backdrop of a Sierra sunset.

A modernized, sleeker souvenir line followed, and now organizers continue improving and maintaining the array of competitions that makes Mule Days the nation’s premier mule show.

Until now, the key to the revamping plan has been making sure spectators are no longer seeing the same Saturday night show they were seeing for more than 40 years.

It hasn’t been easy juggling a lineup of 181 events featuring 700 mules and their riders, but presenting lineups that are unique year-to-year has garnered positive feedback.

“Every year, on a constant, regular basis, spectators can expect it and so can contestants,” Dean said.

As far as 2014, Dean didn’t want to give any hints, but something major is in store for Mule Days, he said.

This year, according to Dean, the Show Committee has put together another stellar lineup with each day’s roster of events making it just as appealing as the next day.

And that’s just in the arena.

Wednesday, May 24, is the Opening Night Supper in the Charles Brown Auditorium. The Peavine Pickers will perform while guests enjoy each others’ company after a year apart.

Thursday comes with the promise of more high-quality entertainment, this time from country-music sensation Jerrod Niemann (“Only God Can Love You More,” “Lover, Lover”).

“He has a real flair for entertaining and a wonderful voice,” said Mule Days Public Relations Chair Barbara Laughon. “I think he will really surprise people with the show he puts on.”

Friday night, folks will gather back up for a Western barbecue—and another chance to hear the Peavine Pickers.

Saturday dawns with the arrival of the world-famous Mule Days Parade, in which the almost-as-famous Borax 20-Mule Team will make another appearance.

Driven by Bobby Tanner of Bishop, the team is both a living legacy and modern marvel—witnessing two rows of mules lined up 10 deep, turning a street corner while pulling gigantic wagons may not seem exciting … until you see it with your own eyes.

“The grace and elegance of the animals is awe-inspiring,” Laughon said.

The team, one of only two 20-mule hitches in the country, will also make several appearances over the weekend in the Mike Boothe Memorial Arena.

Saturday night is the chance for adults to cut loose in the Charles Brown Auditorium to the sounds of the Last Chance Band, a local favorite.

Sunday sees the naming of world champions and the finale to what Allen indicated could be a generally well-attended event.

As of last Wednesday, more than 500 RV spots were reserved, including two entire lots, and the spots with the electricity are sold out. According to Allen, the electric sites sold out in three days—back in February.

While the RV sales are usually an indication of what’s to come attendance-wise, all Mule Days can do is prepare and plan for the best show possible and hope—a la “Field of Dreams”—that people show up.

Competitors are expected from Venezuela, France, Canada, Tennessee, Vermont, Connecticut, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Oregon.

These and other attendees can rest assured that the Executive Committee of 14, the 20-odd chairman and 300 to 450 volunteers (some from “halfway around the country,” according to Allen) have been working on Mule Days for almost a year to make sure it’s bigger and better than ever.