Stock Show 2004
February 11th, 2004
Competing at national show is family affair
DENVER -- They came home with a trunk full of ribbons, one shiny belt buckle, a bunch of good memories and a trailer full of tired mules.
The Hurley family of Grand Meadow, Minn., participated in the 98th annual National Western Stock Show, Rodeo and Horse Show in Denver in late January, squeezing in as many classes as they could in the four short days they were at the show.
Scott and Terri Hurley say the event gives their three girls a chance to compete at the national level and to develop riding skills and self-confidence.
The couple traveled to Denver two years ago to see what would be involved in competing at the show. Last year the whole family made the trip -- with a trailer load of mules.
Mrs. Hurley and the two older girls competed last year; this year it was a true family affair, with Mr. Hurley helping and all the female side of the family riding or driving mules into the show-ring.
Alyson, 7, has been riding "since she could sit," her mother says, and it was tough for her to wait patiently in the stands last year as her older sisters performed. She got some show experience last summer, and this year joined her sisters in the quest for ribbons in Denver.
Did she have show-ring jitters? "Nope," she said, with a determined shake of the head. She was so excited about being in the arena she didn't have time to be nervous.
Her partner through the show was Kate, a sorrel mule pony inclined to express her displeasure with a few half-hearted bucks from time to time.
Her 11-year-old sister, Jennifer, rides and drives Kate's companion, a 17-year-old sorrel mule pony named Pete. Pete took a corner stall because he loves attention and mopes when he cannot be an unofficial ambassador for the longears community. Jennifer's big concern was keeping Pete moving, but she knows him well and knows how to encourage his cooperation.
The oldest of the girls, Mary, 13, is a serious competitor who has graduated to working with the larger mules.
Alyson's first competitive venture was the trail class. The girls had practiced long and hard at home, Mrs. Hurley said, but the mules didn't seem to remember. Kate pitched a mini-fit toward the end of the class, and Alyson received a seventh place ribbon -- not as high as she'd hoped.
"She could have done better at the mailbox," Alyson said. "And I'm kind of disappointed that she kicked."
Alyson allowed herself a moment of reminiscing about the first-place ribbon she won at a show the year before.
"I was the only entry in the class, so it was easy to win first place," she said.
In addition to the riding classes, the Hurleys competed in several driving classes. Jennifer is young enough that she has to have an adult passenger with her during competition. The passenger rides along in case of trouble, but is not supposed to assist the young driver during the class. Her father rode with her during one class (and told her not to give Pete a little tap to encourage him move out, she said) and her mother rode with her in a second class. Her mother's advice during the class, she said, was to smile.
Mary competed against her mother in the side saddle class -- a class her mother won last year. Mary's chief concern was getting her mule to lope correctly. Usually riders use their legs to communicate how they want the mule -- or horse -- to lope. With both legs on one side, Mary had more of a challenge to get her mule to do what she wanted it to do. She received sixth place in the class.
Despite an injured ankle, Mary competed in all the classes she'd signed up for, and probably would have been up for more.
"I like to compete," she said.
So does her mother -- but the more important reason for going to shows is to enjoy a family activity, Mrs. Hurley said.
"We're together when we practice. We're together when we travel. We're all here getting ready for the classes -- it's all time spent together," she said.
Mr. Hurley said he likes watching his family show the mules. He's the one standing in the warm-up arena, ready to greet the girls when they leave the show ring. He's also the one who fetches a forgotten helmet, adjusts the harness one more time before the rig goes into the arena, helps Mary pull on her oh-so-tight riding boots and helps with the thousand other little tasks that go along with showing mules -- or horses.
Alyson had an added responsibility this year: she had to represent the entire mule show industry in an approximately five-minute-long live television interview.
As she held gentle Kate by the lead rope, Alyson had another new experience -- she got tongue tied. After several attempts to get her to provide information, the announcer asked her if she was from "way up north in Minnesota," and she answered, "Nope." Which was true, of course. The family lives in southeastern Minnesota.
It was at that point, however, that the announcer had to move on to the weather forecast, and his segue was enough to bring a smile to Midwesterners' faces.
"There's a storm in New York, which is close to Minnesota," he said.
As the station aired film clips of the blizzard conditions in the eastern United States, Kate brayed. When the cameras returned to live coverage of the show grounds, the announcer asked Alyson what Kate was trying to say when she made all that noise.
"That she wants to be with her brother," was the sage reply.
Competing at a national show is not all fun and games. There was a moment of panic in the tack stall when nobody could find an English bridle. The batteries in the video camera died for good, with three classes left to tape. Sometimes classes were so close together that everybody had to hurry through changing show gear -- human and mule -- to get ready for the next effort in the ring. And often, in the concentration and concern in the show-ring, the girls forgot to smile for the judges.
If the girls wanted to practice, they had to get up early. The arena opened at 5 a.m., and they were there each day with their mules. That meant a lot of sleepy faces by mid-afternoon.
The 2004 show attracted more than 350 mules and donkeys -- a healthy increase from the year before, according to show officials.
"The competition was a lot tougher this year; the quality of the mules was very high," Mrs. Hurley said.
Getting ready for the show is tough too. Denver enjoys a milder climate than Minnesota. To be competitive, the Hurleys have to make sure their mules have sleek coats -- not the fuzzy kind that their mules would usually have in January.
"They're in the barn all winter. We have to blanket all winter," Mrs. Hurley said. "That's one reason I really prefer the April shows. They can go all winter and then we can body clip them."
That's part of the family's discussion, as Mr. and Mrs. Hurley consider whether or not they will participate in the Denver show in 2005. The snow and ice storm on the way home will probably also factor into their plans for next year. After all, there are other shows, slightly later in the season, that would offer the girls a good opportunity to participate at a national-level show. In Texas, for example...
o Amateur mule showmanship -- Mrs. Hurley, first place (and a big belt buckle).
o Youth mule obstacle driving hitch -- Mary, second.
o Youth mule pleasure driving, single -- Jennifer, second; Alyson, third.
o Youth mule obstacle driving single -- Mary and Pete, second; Mary and Kate, third.
o Open mule obstacle driving single -- Mrs. Hurley and Pete, second; Mrs. Hurley and Kate, third.
o Junior mule hunter under saddle -- Mary, third.
o Open mule pleasure driving single -- Mrs. Hurley, third.
o Youth mule pleasure driving hitch -- Jennifer, third.
o Youth mule showmanship -- Jennifer, third; Mary, fifth; Alyson, seventh.
o Youth mule trail class -- Mary, third; Jennifer, sixth; and Alyson, seventh.
o Open mule side saddle -- Mrs. Hurley, third; Mary, sixth.
o Junior Mule Western Pleasure -- Mary, fourth.
o English hunter under saddle, Mrs. Hurley, fifth.
o Senior mule hunter hack -- Mrs. Hurley, fifth.
o Amateur mule western pleasure -- Mrs. Hurley, fifth.
o Amateur hunter under saddle -- Mary, sixth.
o Open mule drive and ride, Jennifer, sixth.
o Youth mule western pleasure -- Mary, sixth; Jennifer, seventh.