Meet Rose and Bess.
An enormous amount of pressure rests on their haunches.
The 2-year-old Belgian mules will be the fourth pair to serve as mascots of the Mule Club, high-profile representatives of an organization that has been on campus since 1984 at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine.
The new mules are understudies of Tim and Terry, who have served as the official two-mule team since 2008. Rose and Bess are the fourth team of mules in the last 36 years selected to become mascots.
Going forward, it will be their job to put on fancy black-and-silver gear, hitch up to a wagon and become goodwill ambassadors for the university.
The mules appear in dozens of events every year — parades, festivals, fairs and football games. They travel throughout the state for picnics, socials and wagon rides. They encounter hundreds of people who talk to them, pet them and, perhaps, even frighten them.
Few mules have the temperament to stand up to that kind of pressure.
“We have to pick mules that are physically sound and can handle the events that we take them to,” said John Dodam, Mule Club sponsor and chief of veterinary medicine and surgery at MU.
“Not all mules like crowds; not all mules like people, so we have to be pretty careful,” he said.
After the right mules are chosen, they are thoroughly and carefully trained. That can take a few years since maturity in mules comes at 4 or 5 years of age.
“They’re teenagers, essentially,” Dodam said of the 2-year-olds.
As with any teenager, they require boundaries and routine. They must learn how to interact with people and crowds, lead calmly and trust their handlers to get them from Point A to Point B.
“Training starts from Day One,” Dodam said. “You’ve got a four- or five-year investment until you get a usable team.”
Two of his veterinary students, Robert Schmidt and Stepfanie George, handle the day-to-day care, managing the mules’ daily maintenance: feeding, grooming, shoeing and spraying them with insect repellent.
“It’s a process of mutual understanding,” said George, who was vice president of the Mule Club during the past year.
“Not only are we taming the mules, but they are getting to know us as well. It’s a mutual growth experience.”
But handling these animals is not fun and games all the time.
“They’ll kick the fence; they’ll roll on over sometimes,” George said. “So many things can happen with them.”
Hillda and Louise were the Mule Club’s first team. They arrived in Columbia in 1984 after being purchased by Robert Kahrs, then dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
The two females came from an 87-year-old farmer in Fayette who was in bad health and looking for a good home for them.
Not long afterward, a new tradition was born. Before every Missouri home football game, people would wander over to the stalls to see the mules before heading to Memorial Stadium.
To this day, that remains an informal pregame ritual.
“They’ll pet them, and we have to hope they can bring the Tigers some luck,” Dodam said.
Dodam came to the vet school in 1995 and became club sponsor when Mule Club adviser Harvey Gosser* had heart surgery.
“I went to visit him in the hospital, and he’s lying in the hospital bed about to go into surgery. He grabs my hands and asks me to take care of the mules and the students,” Dodam said. “I wasn’t planning on getting involved that much, but I didn’t have much choice. I said yes, and I didn’t quit.”
Hillda and Louise retired in 1996 at age 20, and the reins were handed over to newcomers Jill and Shirley. They served as mascots for 12 years before Tim and Terry, the current team, took on the job.
Stubborn as a mule
A mule, the mixed-breed offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, has been used for thousands of years in various capacities. Their crossbreeding gives them a horse’s strength and a donkey’s brains.
Some of the most well-known civilizations in world history — Greece, Rome, Egypt and Mesopotamia — used mules to carry heavy loads and pull wagons, according to the website for the American Mule Museum in Bishop, California.
Their hardiness and smarts evolved into the well-known idiom, “Stubborn as a mule.” An accurate description?
“With a mule, they get a little bit of that donkey, and that means they think,” Dodam said. “And because they think, that makes them a little difficult to work. Being smarter does not necessarily mean you’re easier to work with.”
Stubbornness has served mules well over the decades, especially in the 19th century during the Western expansion of the U.S.
The mule was especially popular in Missouri when it was the “touch-off” point for those heading west. The animals proved to be a reliable means of getting early settlers through the plains and across the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada because their hooves are harder than those of a horse.
The pack animals were also in demand in the Deep South, where they became an important part of every aspect of agriculture, from plowing to planting to hauling crops to market.
But Missouri remained the largest mule-holding state until the turn of the 20th century, becoming synonymous with the animal in the process.
“My favorite animal is the mule,” former President Harry S. Truman once said. “He has more horse sense than a horse. He knows when to stop eating, and he knows when to stop working.”
Bess, in fact, was named after Truman’s wife.