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Master of the mules, keeps tradition alive

[soliloquy id=”15307″]

Vernon Cornett’s bond with mules was forged early in his life—and, apparently, early in his speech.
“My grandpa hated mules,” he says. “Hated being around them. Anytime he had to work them, he’d turn them over to me, even though I was barely big enough to hold their lines. I loved working them. Still do. My mama told me the first word I ever spoke was ‘Whoa.’”

Cornett, a member of Taylor County RECC who lives, appropriately, on Mule Path Road in Greensburg, is vigorous and lively at 72. Coal was his profession in the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky before he retired as a coal mine general manager. Now, mules are his passion and livelihood. He raises, trains, buys, and sells these hardy hybrids for a living.

As I tag along, the mule man—as the locals call him—prepares to hitch two of his mules to his farm wagon. Inside the garage where he stores the vehicle, he attaches its “tongue” to the front of the wagon, and then bolts the “doubletree” to a place above the rear end of the tongue. He attaches the tongue chains to the front end of the tongue. Then he shows the brake pedal on the wagon, just in front of the wagon seat.

As we walk toward the barn to get the mules, Cornett describes some of the difficulties that mule trainers have when dealing with the public.

“In parades, the participants aboard the floats will toss hard candy to the kids; and sometimes the kids will throw the candy at the mules, to sting them, and then, when the mules jump in surprise, the kids think that’s funny. Or some lady will bring her children forward, and say, ‘Pet the horsie,’ and they think they’re in a petting zoo or something. That can be dangerous to the children.”

Cornett is full of stories of his adventures with mules. “In 1989, I drove a team of six mules pulling a wagon at the Great Lakes International Show in Detroit. Prior to 1989, the only draft animals they allowed at that show were horses, but that year they allowed mules for the first time.

“In my business, I spend a lot of time hauling mules to Pennsylvania. I sell them to Amish farmers there. They still use them to work their farms.”

On average, a full-grown mule is about 16 hands tall and weighs about 1,400–1,500 pounds, compared with a typical saddle horse, which weighs in at about 1,000 pounds.

“A mule is like a chain saw: he’s not for everybody,” says Cornett.

Painstaking preparation
We enter the barn. Fastened to the wall is a row of chains about 18 inches long with a snap link at each end. Cornett opens a door, and calls to Ruby. She steps inside. Cornett takes a halter and slips it over her head. He fastens the ring at the end of the halter to the snap link at the end of one of the hanging chains. Mules are usually secured with chains instead of rope, because they will chew right through the rope.

Then he takes a curry comb and brushes Ruby. “I do this every time I work them,” he explains. “That way, they know what to expect. I’m consistent. Mules are like people: they’re creatures of habit, they like routines. The only reason some of them are ‘stubborn’ is because they haven’t been broken and trained right.”

The mule man steps inside the tack room, and comes back with a collar and its pad, which he puts around Ruby’s neck next to her shoulders. The pad goes on first, and then the collar. He explains that to put on the collar without the pad would be like a man putting on work shoes without socks.

Then Cornett brings out a whole side of harness, which weighs about 70 pounds. He places all this atop, and around, Ruby’s body. On the side of the harness, on each side of Ruby, are the trace chains, each of which is concealed in a tube of soft leather, so as not to scrape against her sides. These bear the strain when the mules are pulling. Breeching straps go around her haunches and a pair of devices called hames are placed on each side of the collar for attaching the various harness straps.

Now it’s time to bring in Rose. Ruby and Rose are full sisters. Cornett places Rose on the right side, just as he always does, to be consistent. He goes through the same motions with Rose as he did with Ruby, getting her harness all strapped in place.

Bridles go on next. These are “blind” bridles, so the mules will not spook at what they might otherwise see to their sides.

Next are the lines, or reins, the driver holds to control the mules. The mules, Cornett says, know when their driver is at the other ends of the lines. “They know my touch,” he says, “and they will know if someone else picks up   the reins.”

Cornett walks the mules to the wagon. He backs them up to it, placing Ruby on the left side of the tongue, and Rose on the right side, just as he had placed them in the barn for the harnessing. Ruby is the “lead” (always left) mule; Rose is the “off” (always right) mule.

He attaches the lead chains at the front end of the tongue to the hames, which are strapped to the collars, then the four trace chains to the singletree.

Cornett then climbs into the wagon seat, and invites me and our photographer to do likewise. “Now,” he announces, “I don’t think we have anything to worry about, but…just in case these critters should take a runaway, you’d want to jump off the wagon, not toward the front, but from the rear. That’d be safer.” We each take a deep breath, smile, and nod.

They’re off!
“It’s ‘Gee’ to the right, ‘Haw’ to the left,” says Cornett. He takes a line (rein) in each hand: the left one for Ruby, right for Rose. Each mule has her long ears cocked backward, listening for a command from her master.

Cornett makes a barely audible kissing sound and the team and wagon start forward. He keeps his foot on the brake pedal, nudging it on any downhill grade, or any other situation in which the wagon might lurch forward. This doesn’t feel half bad—surely the rubber tires help, as does the paved road surface.

After we have gone about half a mile, Cornett decides it’s time to turn the wagon around and head back. Seeing a road adjoining ours at a right angle, and deciding it’s a good turnaround place, Cornett says, “Whoa,” pulls back on the lines, and the team instantly stops. “Back,” he orders in a quiet voice. “Gee, Ruby. Get over, Rose.” Cornett says that, generally, you speak to the lead mule first.

An amazing thing happens: Ruby, walking backward, angles herself to the right. Rose honors that movement, following it. They are pushing against the breeching straps around their haunches, thus backing the wagon onto the adjoining road. When the wagon has backed far enough, Cornett again says, “Whoa,” and then makes that forward-kissing sound once again. “Haw, Ruby. Get over, Rose.” Ruby and Rose move forward. Ruby curves to the left, and, again, Rose follows that movement like a bird dog honoring a point. The wagon has turned around 180 degrees, headed back to where it came from.

“Always watch their ears,” admonishes Cornett. “As long as those ears are working back and forth, chances are, everything’s all right. It’s when they get those ears cocked tip to tip, in the shape of an ‘A,’ you better look out. Something’s about to happen: a runaway, maybe.”

Cornett says, “Watch this.” He clucks to the team with a bit more vigor and volume, and they break into a trot. The ride is just as smooth, and feels as safe as when they were walking.

“All right, it’s time to put the wagon back in the garage,” says Cornett. We step down and he drives in front of the building, turning sharply to the right, getting as close to it as possible. “Gee, Ruby; get over, Rose.” The mules comply. Then, “Back…haw, Ruby; get over, Rose.” He utters a “Gee” or “Haw” to the team as needed, as they push backward against the breeching straps, to back the wagon smoothly into the garage. Each mule obeys her orders flawlessly, mechanically, always attuned to her master’s voice.

Coming “home”
Cornett invites me to take the lines and guide the mules back to the barn. I take the lines, and note that the mules are walking considerably faster than I am. I almost have to trot to keep pace.

“They’re sensing it’s time to go home, so they’re going faster,” he says. And they also sense, he says, that someone unfamiliar is holding the lines.

“Here, let me have those lines. I’ll slow them down some.” He talks to the mules and they immediately slow.

He brings them inside, and again, according to routine, he puts Ruby on the left, Rose on the right. He unharnesses the off mule, Rose, first; then the lead mule, Ruby, last for consistency.

“The first things you take off them are the lines,” Cornett replies to my question. Then comes all that harness; then the collar and pads, the bridles, and finally the halters. Now he sends the sisters through the door, turning           them loose.

“The pads beneath the collars these days,” he says, “are foam rubber on the inside and vinyl on the outside. This way, you don’t have any problem with sweat. My dad and grandpa had to use bed-tick cloth, with cotton, or sometimes deer hair on the inside, for their pads. Lots of sweat would soak into that. You had to hang it in the tack room and let it drip overnight. It’s lots better with foam rubber and vinyl. Not only that, but also, some harness now is made of plastic, rather than leather. It’s lighter      and stronger.”

Thus even mules are beneficiaries of high-tech progress.

Today Cornett has demonstrated the ability, strength, and intelligence of the mule. He has also displayed his own ability in training and handling mules.

The late radio commentator Paul Harvey, in praise of the surefooted saddle mule he had ridden in the mountains of Arizona, once referred to the mule as a workaholic. Watching them work today, I agree. They aim to please, if handled right and if they know what to expect. They deserve a far more positive public image than the negative one they’ve traditionally borne.

Perhaps, in observing mules, we gain some insight into ourselves. Raised right, handled right, and knowing what to expect, we tend to be far more productive and pleasing mortals. If only we have been fortunate enough to have been raised and trained by dams and sires as gifted, skilled, and dedicated as Vernon Cornett.

The hardy hybrid

I once knew a horse trainer in West Texas who told me he charged twice as much to train a saddle mule as he charged to break a horse. Why? I asked.

“Aw, a mule is just harder to break than a horse. Takes about twice as long,” he said.

The more I have observed Vernon Cornett, the mule trainer from Green County, the more I have come to the conclusion that the horse trainer didn’t understand the psychology of the mule; that he used the same procedure for training a mule that he did for training a horse. No wonder he thought the mule was harder to train.

The mule is the first truly man-made animal, as it is the offspring of two species: the male donkey (Equus asinus) and the female horse (Equus caballus). It is mentioned in Homer’s works and in the Bible. As a hybrid of two species, the mule is virtually always sterile—horses have 64 chromosomes; donkeys, 62. So the mule has 63, and that odd chromosome number renders the mule incapable of reproduction (with a few extremely rare cases, such as when a mule gave birth to a colt on the Texas A&M campus in the 1920s).

The mule is endowed with hybrid vigor, which makes it tougher than a horse, easier and cheaper to feed, more sure-footed, and more resistant to hot weather and disease. Mules were so valuable to Southern agriculture that after the Civil War, freed slaves made “forty acres and a mule” a slogan representing the minimum requirement for independence.

Kit Carson rode a mule, as did General George Crook in his campaigns against the warring American Indian tribes in the West. These and others of that era found that the mule could live off the land, sustaining itself on marginal grass on which a horse would have starved.

Thousands of mules served the United States forces in World War II, carrying weapons and supplies up rugged mountain trails where trucks and jeeps could not go. They were also used in Korea. Mules were formally mustered out of the Army in the 1950s.

Yet even today, the mule is still in service. Ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and you’ll rent a mule for the trek—observing the precipitous trail, you wouldn’t want to be on a less sure-footed horse.

With mule men of Vernon Cornett’s ilk, the hope is that mules might gradually make a comeback. And given their place in history, they deserve no less.

But the good news, explains Cornett, “Every mule could be eliminated and we could still make more because they come from mating a horse and a donkey.”

Jack Flippin from November 2016 Issue
 Edd Sterchi

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