Mule packers
Some of the Cal Poly packers wait for the individual hitch tying to start at the 2022 Mule Days. Pictured Left–Right: Hunter Walden, Lily Bennet, Sedar Cane, Julia Deming, Madison Martinich, Claire Saydah, Lou Moore-Jacobsen, Mary Cizin, and Audrey Hill. (Photo: Chris Martinich)

By Audrey Hill, Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Audrey Hill
Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Mule Days is truly a one-of-a-kind event. Every Memorial Day weekend since 1970, the small town of Bishop welcomes packers, mule riders, and upwards of 30,000 visitors to their Tri-County Fairgrounds for the world-renowned Mule Days celebration. Visitors and competitors watch and compete with some of the most capable mules on the planet. At a glance, Mule Days looks like any other equestrian event, but with a closer look, the variety of events and shows is matched by none. From a 2-mule chariot barrel race to a 20-mule team pulling giant wagons circa the 1800s, anything a mule can do is showcased at Mule Days. As I was told, and shown, at this year’s 52nd annual Mule Days, “Anything a good horse can do, a good mule can do better.”

According to the event’s website, Mule Days got its start when “the outfitters and packers of the region wanted an event to start off the packing season and the businessmen wanted to draw vacationers to the Owens Valley. What began as an informal gathering and a test of skills, has grown into a fun-filled, world-class event.” Today, riders of all experience levels, ages, and sports show off their mule’s skills in English, Western, gymkhana, cattle work, team roping, coon jumping, chariot racing and more. Even water balloon fights and RC car spooking matches are not out of the ordinary. Although almost every equestrian event under the sun has become a part of Mule Days, including a fully non-motorized parade and a costume contest for the intercollegiate competitors, the main events are surely to be the packing events.

Packing is loading mules with saddles that can hold boxes and other goods, then tying specific hitches that ensure the load won’t fall off. Competitive packing at Mule Days comes in a few forms. There are individual hitch-tying events for time, load-based competitions that test quick thinking and hitch-tying speed, and pack scrambles where packers let their animals go, starting a stampede of mules and horses around the Mike Boothe arena. When the timer goes off for the professional pack scrambles, packers must find and catch their animals, saddle them, string them together, and ride around the arena to the finish line. It is an incredible sight to see as dust flies up from the ground while over 50 mules and horses run circles around the arena, stepping over saddles and getting in the way of the packers as they frantically race to catch and load their stock. This type of event seems to only happen in one place on the planet, and that is right here on the eastern side of the Sierras at Mule Days.

Lou Moore-Jacobsen is a long-time friend of Mule Days. She has been training mules since the 1970s and is the matriarch of the Cal Poly SLO equestrian classes and Performance Horse Sale. Moore-Jacobsen also teaches the Packing class where students learn the ropes and train for the competitions at Mule Days. Moore-Jacobsen first came to Mule Days in 1979, only 9 years after its start. Later in 1984, she would come back to compete with her clients’ race mules in the riding classes. Then she started competing in the packing competitions with her husband Rick Jacobsen. The couple met at Mule Days and continue to come back each year to compete, support the Cal Poly teams, and help set up the event. “Most of the people that come have formed long-term friendships with people from all over the country,” said Moore-Jacobsen. “Mules are very humbling animals and mule people share that knowledge that even horse owners may not understand, so coming back to Mule Days every year gives us a chance to see our friends that we share so much in common with.”

There is certainly a competitive atmosphere during the events, but the competitiveness never overshadowed everyone’s generosity and genuine kindness. Competing teams share bonfires late into the night and share feeding shifts early in the morning. Announcers speak and laugh with their old friends near them, even apologizing to the crowd for their casualness and putting smiles on everyone’s faces. Those who continue this tradition do so to keep their connections to the land and American’s history alive while highlighting the capabilities of the sweet-hearted mule.

Thank you, Lou, for giving students this opportunity and for sharing your experience. Thank you, Rock Creek Pack Station, for letting the college teams use your stock and equipment and thank you to all of those that make this event happen every year.