It was after a bout of fierce weather, roughly eight years ago, when the organizer of Ozark Mule Days reevaluated the event’s Christian County location.
“Our last year in Ozark was when we got 14 inches of rain in like, two days. We went from a mule show to mud runnin,’” Les Clancy said. “Oh my gosh, I still find mud. All the people were like, ‘We can’t come back if you can’t control the weather,’ so we moved to Springfield.”
Another six years have come and gone, however, and soon, Ozark Mule Days may have to make another move. As of Friday, Aug. 16, competitors from the state of Georgia will make their way to the Midwest to see mules of all kinds jump, trot and race Aug. 30-Sept. 1. That means folks from more than 30 different states will be there.
“I never thought Springfield would be an issue, but now, here we are,” Clancy said. “We’re scrambling, trying to get everybody into Ozark Empire Fairgrounds.”
On Boys Town Ranch in St. James, Missouri, Clancy’s father served as farm manager and the pair started the Boys Town of Missouri Mule Show in 1982.
“We did it for about 15, 20 years there, but then I joined the service and was gone,” Clancy said.
Later, in 1999, according to a 2015 article in Mules and More Magazine, Clancy was stationed in Springfield and moved to the town of Ozark, where, today, he operates a century farm, originally purchased by a Civil War captain for the purpose of raising mules. It was in 2005 when Clancy decided to start another mule show.
“It was just another fun show,” he said. “We thought we’d draw within 150 miles; mules could come play, and that’s all it was, really, for the first couple of years here in Ozark. We drew a big crowd, but not like it is today.”
Clancy credits Ozark Mule Days’ atmosphere and cheap rates for its current success.
“I promote really, really hard and people have fun. You go to a lot of shows, whether it be a horse show or a mule show—I mean, they’re strict,” Clancy said. “I’m a big kid. I try to get everybody involved—the crowd, the kids, the participants—and I’ve got a great announcer. We try to make it a family event.”
The difference between a good and a great time is what keeps people coming back, Clancy adds.
“The Makeover, too, is what’s really making Mule Days explode.”
In addition to Ozark Mule Days’ inception, 2005 is also the year when Clancy met his pride and joy: Luke. He’s a mule who’s done just about everything.
“He’s been in TV stations, radio stations, on the news, jumped over home plats at Cardinals games, pulled a wagon to take senior citizens on rides, competed in roping, worked my cattle, [I’ve] taken him to schools and actually gone into the classrooms, and he’s even been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal,” Clancy wrote in the 2015 article. “In southwest Missouri, just about everybody knows about Cool Hand Luke.”
Luke, most well-known for his jumping, has since retired, though he was also made the mascot of the U.S. Army and received the rank of Corporal in the Missouri Army National Guard.
“For all my awards and decorations for the past 25 years,” Clancy wrote, “this will be the greatest achievement of my military career, and the honor doesn’t even go to me. It goes to the greatest mule I will ever own, Corporal Cool Hand Luke.”
Perhaps Luke was inspiration for Clancy’s Mule Makeover program, which he began last year. It’s similar to Mustang Makeover programs that take place across the country, in which top-notch trainers draw from a group of wild horses, train them separately for 120 days and later bring them to competition.
“It’ll draw 20,000 people to the stands,” Clancy said. “It’s unreal.”
The foundation to which the horses belong then sells them, keeping 50 percent of the profits, and giving the other half to the trainers.
“I’d been going to this Mustang Makeover and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to do it with mules,’” Clancy said. Ozark Mule Days 2019 will host Clancy’s second Mule Makeover. “Nobody in the U.S. is doing it with mules. Somebody might have a weekend or week clinic, but they’ve never taken on an unbroken mule who didn’t have any chance in life but to stand in pasture or whatever.”
Clancy’s Makeover program operates differently from those with mustangs, too. Last year, the program’s trainers were given the same 120 days to train their mules, which they also drew randomly from a group. This year, the trainers—from Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Utah, Idaho and more—were given 150. That doesn’t mean, though, that mules are any less intelligent than horses.
“Mules are smarter. There’s no horses allowed at the Grand Canyon. Did you know that?” Clancy asked. “They’re not stubborn, either; a mule’s not going to do anything to hurt itself.”
The mules then compete in events across Mule Days’ weekend.
“On Saturday night, when we’re done, we’re going to crown the champion,” Clancy said. “The champion wins a $27,000-aluminum trailer.”
Last year, the champion was Iowa man Shane Vaughan’s mule, Gypsy. She now lives in Cookville, Tennessee. Vaughan will be back at Mule Days’ 2019, though, to compete again with another mule, Ruby.
“It’s going to be very tough. There’s some good competitors,” Vaughan told the Headliner News. “I’ve done the best that I could to prepare the best that I could.”
Vaughan said Ruby took time before she agreed to be saddled. She was afraid of strange people, and new environments bothered her.
“We socialized her and took her to a lot of new places—any kind of noisy environment I could get her to,” Vaughan said. “She’s become very kind and sweet. She’d had very little human interaction when we got her.
Vaughan called Clancy’s Mule Makeover program the “premiere mule event in the country.”
“I think everybody needs to pay attention to what happens with it in the next few years,” Vaughan said. “It will be interesting.”
When Mule Days is said and done, the Makeover mules are auctioned off, but this part is different from Mustang Makeover, too.
“Whatever that mule brings, whether it be $10,000 or $20,000, I look at the trainer and say, ‘Do you want your mule, or do you want the money?’” Clancy said. “I don’t get anything.”
Instead, Clancy makes up for the $6,000 he spends to purchase mules through the event’s ticket sales.
“My whole hope is all these people wanting to come watch it,” he said. “Even though it costs only $15 to get in for three days, it’s going to help me pay for it.”
As a matter of fact, Clancy hopes the event will only help others. Last year, Mule Days raised approximately $8,000. It went toward a family with a relative dealing with cancer. This year, Clancy hopes to raise even more to put toward the Wounded Warrior Project.
“Over the past 15 years of us doing this—I’m going to throw a number out there, but I’d say I’m pretty close—we have donated $75,000 to $90,000 to charities and to people in need,” Clancy said.
“The thrill of it,” Clancy said, “is everybody getting to watch the process of an animal who didn’t have a second chance be turned into a high-quality, very expensive mule.”