“I've had mules and mule pairs win in their classes in shows and also at the Tennessee State Fair, but last year I had a major accomplishment in mule showing-my mare mule ‘Kit' was crowned King Mule and 2006 Mule Day Grand Champion at the Columbia Mule Day celebration,” explained Eller, who farms tobacco, but raises and shows mules as his main hobby.
“Some people golf, or ski, or gamble or whatever for a hobby, but I love mules, and always have. I worked with mules when I was a kid, had to learn to work with them, and loved it. There's a lot of work that goes into getting them ready for a two or three hour show. You got to clip and shear them, wash ‘em real good, groom ‘em until they practically shine.”
Eller will be making his thirteenth appearance at Columbia's Mule Day Celebration next month, and returns this year as the owner of the 2006 Grand Champion, the aforementioned ‘Kit'.
It might seem strange that the King Mule is a jennet or mare mule. But the King Mule is chosen by an elimination process that includes 26 judging “classes” before getting down to the final three: Champion Mare Mule of Show; Champion Horse Mule of Show; and from these two are chosen the “Grand Champion of show to be crowned ‘King Mule'.”
Four year-old Kit is half of the pair of Kit and Kate, perfectly matched mare mules and Eller's pride and joy, among the total of sixteen young mules he currently stables behind his home on the Scottsville Road north of Lafayette.
Kit winning the top honor at Mule Day 2006 is a major accomplishment for Eller, whose mules won ribbons in ten other categories that same day including seven first-place honors. Mules in the halter class are partially judged on how well they respond to commands, but the show is primarily a beauty contest, and ‘long' is apparently what the judges look for: long ears, long neck and long head, and a long body with straight legs.
The other physical aspect needed to produce an animal who might be judged “King Mule” is a nose with a slight hump, what the mule breeders call a “Roman nose.”
Apparently Steve Eller's jennet ‘Kit' had all these fine, long attributes, what one judge called “Mediterranean good looks and all that length in the right places.”
For Kit, being named as “King” even though she is female (albeit sterile like all mules) is not at all unusual for the Columbia Mule Day. Seventy-percent of all the past King Mules have been jennets like Kit. The mare mules apparently are just naturally a bit better looking or better groomed than the horse mules they compete against.
Steve Eller says the competition has gotten tougher since he started coming to the Columbia Mule Day celebration. “You'll see more of the better mules there than you'll see all year at the other competitions,” he offers in praise of the grand show.
The regionally famous Columbia Mule Day parade route is four or five miles long, and a couple of hundred thousand people turn out and stand four-five-six people deep, as far as the eye can see, to watch the procession. Steve's fine show wagon carried West Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn along the parade route in the 2006 parade. “The politicians always turn out in election years,” the Champion Mule owner noted.
Eller goes to mule sales as far away as Ohio, Illinois, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Show mules are in their prime at four years of age, and lose their luster and show qualities as they get older. A good, three or four year old “show mule” can fetch as much as $7,000 to $8,000.
“I go to a lot of shows, and the prize money when I win brings in about enough to cover my expenses. It's not something you do for a living; it's just my ‘hobby'.”
His hobby paid off with the highest honor available to a mule owner in Tennessee in 2006, and he will have another moment in the sun at the beginning of the 2007 Mule Day Celebration this April, as a tribute is paid to both Kit and her owner for being the previous years' King Mule honoree.