Stephanie Barnette, of Bozeman, leads her pack animal Oliver to the opposite fence where contestants had to build a fire, cook a flapjack and then race back to the finish line.
Racing, packing and driving on display at Montana Mule Days
HAMILTON – Colton Price and his donkey Dibs have been coming to Montana Mule Days for as long as he could ride.
“It’s about having a lot of fun to me. It’s not about winning, it’s about coming and spending time with the rest of my family,” the 18-year-old said.
Price said because most people ride mules instead of donkeys in the different classes of competition, he has generally placed highly over the last few years. On Sunday, the last day of the three-day long event held over the weekend, Price finished just off the podium in a rather unusual event: the Flapjack Race.
Each contestant in the Flapjack Race started the race on foot at one side of the arena at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds. After a countdown to the start, the half-led, half pulled their animal across to the other side to a small pile of wood that had been set in the dirt. Each contestants had to use matches to get a fire started, then take a pan and pancake batter from their mule or donkey’s pack and make a pancake at least four inches in diameter.
Once the flapjack was done, they ran it back across the arena to a judge, who tasted their pancake to ensure that it was properly cooked and hadn’t picked up too much dust along the way.
Price, from Whitehall, took fourth place in the Flapjack Race, while his uncle Mike Price placed third.
“The secret is in getting the fire going. I have a pocket knife and I shaved off small chips of wood to get it started,” Price said.
When he’s not competing, Price said his family uses their donkey as a pack animal, bringing gear into the back country or pulling out an elk after a hunting trip.
Others have a more sentimental story. Stephanie Barnette of Bozeman said it was her first time at Mule Days. She bought her mule Oliver from a slaughter pen in Billings two months ago.
While there were more traditional rodeo-style events like barrel racing, Mule Days also had some unusual and quirky categories. In the Old Clothes Race, contestants rode their animal as fast as they could down to the far end of the ring, then get off and grab a bag of clothing off of the ground. While keeping their mule in line, they had to put on each item of clothing, mount up and ride back to the other end, with the winner being who could accomplish the feat the quickest.
Dan Henry, who co-organized the show with Marilyn Stromberg, said alongside the cart-drawn races, the Packers Scramble team event was probably the signature sight of the weekend.
“It models after a scenario where they start in their bedroll with all of their equipment in the middle. We scare the mules to send them running, then they have to get up, get their animals and get everything packed,” he said.
Stromberg said although she has been putting together Montana Mule Days for about 25 years, the three-day event has only been held in Hamilton for the past seven. About 130 mules and donkeys took part in this year’s Mule Days, coming from as far away as Washington, Oregon and Arizona.
“These mules are multidisciplinary. They ride and drive and pack, they do it all. Some of the animals here will be in 30 or 40 events over the weekend,” he said.
As opposed to horses, Henry said mules are more sure-footed and reliable.
“They’re also more affectionate, and they’re smarter,” he said.