By Toni W. Riley
Photo by Catherine Riley
The early evening sun casts long shadows as the McCuiston family tacks up their mounts to ride out and check the cattle. There’s the normal family banter about who feeds most, who mucks out stalls and who can’t get their saddle on correctly. The family laughs and teases each other as they put their feet in the stirrups and ease into the saddles of their hybrids — mules, that is.
The McCuistons — Patrick, LeeAnn, Maci, 16, and Tanner, 13, — have become one of the premier breeders and exhibitors in the North American Saddle Mule Association. Mules are the hybrid of breeding two different species: a female horse (called a mare) and a male donkey (a jack).
Patrick says his venture of raising and showing mules was “God given.” His voice is marked with emotion as he describes the special relationship he had with his late grandfather, long-time State Senator Pat McCuiston.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who I called Daddy Pat, as I was growing up,” Patrick says. “He gave me my first heifer calf, an orphan that I raised on a bottle, and my first quarter horse mare. He made me the cowboy I am today.”
The quarter horse mare was named Holly Bar Nita — Bucky for short. Bucky was to become the foundation for the mules, which began in 2001. Patrick needed to pack a mule for a future elk-hunting trip, so he decided to breed Bucky to a jack owned by David Toms. His plan was successful, and a male foal was born, marking the start of what is now McCuiston Mules, delineated by the rolling “Mc” brand. Patrick decided to name it Jake.
When David Toms saw the young mule as a 2-year-old, he told Patrick Jake needed to be shown, but Patrick was hesitant.
“We were really uncertain about showing Jake, but decided OK if that’s what we need do,” Patrick remembers.
He entered Poco Jake in the National Mule Show in Shelbyville, Tennessee, as a halter mule. Patrick admits he had no idea what he was doing. He even had to take a 4-H horse exhibitor with him because she knew how to show “at halter.”
Patrick wasn’t expecting much to come of the show and none of the family went along.
“You can imagine the surprise we had when Patrick called and said that Jake had been named 2004 NASMA National Champion 2- year-old,” LeeAnn laughs.
This began the McCuistons family experiences in riding and showing mules.
Patrick began to break and train Jake, which was something he loved doing with horses. Breaking and training a mule uses no different techniques than a horse, he says, but the trainer must have 10 times more patience.
“Mules are very smart and aren’t going to do anything where they think they will get hurt or you will get hurt,” Patrick explains. “They have to be confident that the trainer knows what they are doing, before they will do what the trainer asks.”
Patrick says mules are intuitive and have great endurance, whether they are showing, working cattle or serving as a pack animal.
As members of the National Saddle Mule Association, the McCuistons began to show Jake in 2007 and realized what an exceptional animal he was at several different levels. The association has four age groups and more than 30 classes that test a wide range of the mule’s ability. A mule can be exhibited in Western, English, speed barrels and poles as well as sorting and team roping, which are classes that test the mule and rider’s ability to work cattle.
LeeAnn says Jake can adjust not only from class to class, but also from rider to rider and still have the endurance to be shown competitively for three days.
One time when Patrick, Tanner and Maci were showing Jake, the mule competed in 18 classes over a three-day show.
“It’s really hard to appreciate what Jake has to do until you think about the fact that he has to switch from an adult (rider) to a youth to an under 10-year-old rider,” LeeAnn says. “When Tanner was in the under-10 class, all they can do was walk and trot. Even if Tanner tried to go faster, Jake instinctively knew not to travel any faster than a trot.”
As Jake became more successful on the NASMA show circuit, which covers a large area across the United States, Patrick began raising more mules. When breeding for mules, Patrick says the breeder has to consider the mule will get its athletic ability from the mare and its temperament from the jack. Patrick wants to continue using Bucky and her offspring, Lexi, because their bloodlines are from strong foundation Quarter Horses. Their jack “isn’t fancy,” LeeAnn says, but it does have a good personality and disposition.
Like many families, the children were involved in several activities during elementary school but have made choices about where they are going to spend their time as they’ve gotten older. Maci chose the mules, and Tanner chose sports.
Parents also have to balance work with pleasure, and the McCuistons are no exception. Patrick, who farms and does electrical work, travels with Maci to shows as far west as Denver and across the Southeast. LeeAnn, who is the Todd County Extension Agent for 4-H, makes sure Tanner gets to his sporting events.
“Someone has to be here to muck stalls and feed when they are gone,” she said.
Even though Tanner doesn’t show, he enjoys trail riding, camping out at Wranglers Camp and riding with the family in parades.
Patrick watches with pride as his daughter describes how much she loves Jake.
“He’s mine now,” Maci quickly pointed out. “He’s my bud and we have bonded.”
Maci talked about how she and Jake butt heads when she tries to work him a certain way, but she loves that part of their partnership. She really enjoys having fun with the other members of the NASMA Youth. One fringe benefit was learning how to “two-step” at one of their events.
Patrick hopes to raise mules full time someday. He built a large arena where he can break and train, but his real emphasis in the mules goes further than just raising, showing and riding.
Again, his voice cracks with emotion when he says, “What makes this so special is that it’s what me and my granddad did, and now me and my kids are doing it.”