COLUMBIA — Thomas Stewart, 74, spoke soothingly to his mules as he brushed debris from their eyes and led them around his farm.
Interacting with mules in this way disciplines and socializes them, he said.
Since 1993, Stewart has been raising mules to "ride, drive, pack and show." Stewart and his mules will be competing in the Boone County Fair mule show at 5 p.m. Saturday.
The show, which started at the fair last year, will feature 30 to 40 mules in 28 classes, show organizer Marsha Coleman said. Each mule can compete in multiple classes. Participants will come from all over Missouri and even parts of Arkansas.
Mules have deep-rooted history in Missouri. Mid-Missouri used to be known for raising mules, Coleman said. At one point, the animals could bring in more money than a cow.
In recent years, mule raising has experienced a revival, Coleman said. People are drawn to the mule as they are reliable and sure footed.
"Mules are not what people used to think they were," she said. "A lot of people turn to them because they are a fun, interesting animal."
Stewart said he bought his first mule to assist him in elk hunting. His purchase quickly developed into a passion that has taught him stamina, integrity and perseverance.
Stewart said there are three things that make mules exceptional: genetics, environment and diet. He takes raising his animals seriously. Stewart breeds them carefully and feeds them lespedeza hay, which he thinks is the best food available. .
To prepare his mules for the show, Stewart will brush and slick them. Otherwise, they have been raised well and are ready to show, he said.
Stewart takes satisfaction in showing his animals. Anyone who is proud of their animals likes people to see them, he said.
"It's keeping me young working with these mules," he said with a laugh. "I think I've accomplished a lot with my mules."
Supervising editor is John Schneller.