When Sallie Sharpe was a little girl growing up in the countryside north of Columbia, she had a speech impediment. One person she felt comfortable talking to was not a person at all, but a mule named Slick Rick.
“I was embarrassed to talk,” Sharpe said, “but I could talk to ol’ Slick Rick.”
“My dad found Slick in a cow pasture, chained to a tree. His skin had grown over the chain. We brought him home. I used to feed him carrots. I was about 5 or 6. That little mule followed me everywhere.”
All the way, it might be said, deep into Sharpe’s heart where her love for mules is without question.
“They are amazing animals. They are so personable, but they can be more challenging than a horse because they are so smart. They have a heightened sense of self-preservation. You’re never going to see a mule worked to death. They are too smart. Some people think they are ugly, but I think they are the prettiest animals around. And they love to show off.”
And a lot of them will be doing just that come Oct. 14-15, when the Donkey and Mule Show takes place at the S.C. State Fair in Columbia.
“Mules and donkeys,” Sharpe said, “will be coming from all over – Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and many more states – as this is one of the biggest (mule and donkey) shows in the United States.”
Sharpe and her chestnut mule, Rick-A-Shade, will be competing in a dressage class.
What, you say? Dressage? A mule?
You bet. Dressage and a mule.
When Shade steps into the dressage arena, she’s as capable as any horse out there as she manages the intricate steps involved in the most graceful and, many would argue, the most challenging of equestrian endeavors.
“I showed Shade in English pleasure classes for years,” said Sharpe, “but she was not happy.
“We were invited to participate in a dressage seminar. From the first second we started, Shade became a new mule. She was so excited to move from the mundane English pleasure work – where you just go around in a circle – to doing patterns or ‘tests’, as they call it in dressage. At her first dressage show, she received a score of 68.7 which is really, really high. She has been to countless shows, and especially at horse shows, she excels. We have a chest full of ribbons.”
On a recent morning, before it got too hot, Sharpe and Shade went through their paces inside a dressage arena at the Poole Training Center in Swansea. Shade’s long ears were alert. Her neck bent. Her strides, precise and collected.
“Our relationship is based upon a partnership” Sharpe explained. “Mules are strong and know it, unlike most horses. You cannot force them to do something they don’t want to do. You have to make yourself a better trainer. The mule is always asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ It’s got to be fun or you can forget it. You tell a horse. You negotiate with a mule.”
Shade, who is 16 years old, often competes against horses in the dressage arena.
“When we get around dressage people, some of them laugh and stare, but then, when Shade hits the arena, you can tell she loves it. She’s got a walk that a dressage person would die for. We won a blue ribbon at a show, and the judge told me, ‘Oh my gosh, that mule is wonderful.’ ”
Sharpe and Shade have been doing dressage for about two years now.
“Dressage has really brought Shade out. It’s her favorite thing to do. She thinks she’s taking cotton to town. She shows out like you wouldn’t believe. She’s also very opinionated, and most of the time we get along just fine. I mean, here I am, 40 years old, learning dressage because that’s what Shade wants to do.”
Shade is also proficient at something called “coon jumping,” which involves leaping over an obstacle from a near standstill.
“Farmers used to get off the mule,” Sharpe explained, “climb over the fence and then ask the mule to jump over. They rock back and just explode over the jump. But when Shade decides she doesn’t want to jump anymore, she just pushes the jump over.”
Sharpe leaned forward in her dressage saddle and rubbed the inside of Shade’s ears.
“She likes me to do this. She’s got some big ears, but I love them. Mules can do everything horses can do, but better. I mean, people that love mules, well, they really love them.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.