Preppin’ For Leatherwood Mule Days

Bernie Harberts trims his mule Polly's mane with scissors.
Caaaarefuuuuullll with those scissors. Polly waits patiently as I trim her forelock for Leatherwood Mule Days. From her calm eye, you can tell she knows there’s a head rub waiting when the job is done.

I sharpened the scissors. I caught mule Polly.  Then I trimmed her mane and tail and took a swipe at her toes.
Man, she’s as spiffed up as mule can be for Leatherwood Mule Days. I’m already thinking Coon Jump, pasture camping and starlight dancing.

I hope you can join us and here’s how you can do it.

Leatherwood Mule days is May 4 – 7 in Ferguson, NC. Think four days of all things mule and burro with a healthy dose of Western Carolina spring thrown in.  If you don’t have an equine, then just bring the family. If you don’t have a family, well, you get it…

While you’re at it, bring some camping gear or a camper and hang out with us a few days. I’ll be giving some talks and the Lost Sea Expedition wagon from the Rocky Mountain PBS series will be on display. Plus, you can meet Ronald Hudson, my buddy who’s even crazier for mules than I am.

Bernie Harberts leaves his farm with a mule wagon.
Leaving our farm for Leatherwood. Julia is driving the lead wagon, the one I took across Newfoundland a while back. Pulling on the near side (mule talk for Left) is Sandy. On the off side, toward the forest, is Polly. Behind are Ronald Hudson and Billie Stevenson (not seen because he’s napping). The 20-minute-drive-by-car took us half a day. Now that’s a civil pace.

Tidying up for Leatherwood

For me getting ready for an event like Leatherwood is as much fun as actually participating.

This past weekend, I pulled mule Polly out of the pasture and giving her a good trimming from toe to forelock.

I like the hands-on nature of trimming mule manes and feet. I like the precision feeling of my hands around the scissor blades, holding them steady on Polly’s mane, squeezing them closed and watching the severed hair spring off the blades. The shorter the hair, the faster they fly off the steel and the higher they shoot.

I like how I have to speak softly to Polly as I do all this so she doesn’t move her head.  It makes my pulse go down and relaxes both of us and shows that calm – not force – is often the way to get things done.

Bernie Harberts and his mule Polly under a white oak tree.
Polly under the white oak tree where I trim her mane. She’s snacking on acorns. Timmo the dog is angling for whatever he thinks I might be eating.
The white acorns that Polly loves. The splash of green is clover.
The white oak acorns that Polly loves. The splash of green is clover.

I like all these thing because they are timeless. They are unaffected by algorithms and automation. No one ever downloaded machine learning in to a pair of scissors and turned it loose on a mule. That’ll probably never happen. And that feels good. It makes me feel like I’m connected to something physical and real in an increasingly virtual world.

It’s easy to get jaded in a world where it seems everything is slated for disruption and dehumanization, from self driving cars to robotic surgery to software-base legal advise. I might worry that computers will one day displace much of what we humans do. But trimming a mule mane with a pair of old chrome scissors? That feels like it’s around to stay and I take comfort in that.

Bernie Harberts trims his mule Polly's mane.
The scissors I use to trim Polly’s mane. They’re old. They’re made in the USA. They’re almost a foot long and I sharpen them with a flat file.


Catching up

Clipping a mule’s mane with scissors is old fashioned. Yes, I’ve had lots of people look at the manes I’ve trimmed by hand say, “you know, it would be a lot faster if you used clippers.” That’s like telling me that traveling across America is slow and now they have these fast things called cars that really speed up the journey.

Yes. True. But I don’t want faster. I want slower. My life is fast enough. I want to slow down. I want to sharpen long old scissors with a flat file.  I want to let the skills I’ve spent putting in to my fingers come back out again. I want to visit with my friend Ronald Hudson as trims his mules next to me – by hand.


A scissor trimmed mane. I like how the stands are just a bit uneven, evidence of a human hand at work.
Polly’s scissor trimmed mane. I like how the stands are just a bit uneven, evidence of a human hand at work.

And so that’s what I did this weekend. After I trimmed Polly’s mane, I trimmed her hooves. Then I tackled 13 more of Ronald’s mules with my hoof knife, nipper and rasp. After I trimmed their feet, he trimmed their manes.

In between, we just caught up on old times, like the time he sent Polly and me off with the vomit bags.

Sure, the job would have been faster with electric clippers. But that wouldn’t have left room for the stories.


Ronald Hudson trims his mule Louie's mane.
Ronald Hudson trims his mule Louie’s mane. I bought Polly from Ronald over a decade ago. He has used her in TV shows (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and magazine articles. More than once, I’ve opened an issue of North Carolina’s “Our State” magazine and been surprised to find a photo of Polly in there.


Ronald Hudson trims his mule Louie while his dog Timmo watches a biscuit.
Polly may like acorns, but what Timmo really wants is a bite of my biscuit. In the background, Ronald Hudson trims his mule Louie. Ronald will be joining us at Leatherwood Mule Days. Timmo is staying home.

At the end of the day, after trimming 56 mule feet, I walked Polly back to her pasture. I scratched her on the withers where I know she likes it. Then I turned her loose.

She raced away from me and made a couple of farting, nostril snorting laps of the pasture. It was like she was a kid again and had just slipped on a pair of new sneakers and suddenly she could run faster than with her old shoes. Now I just have to catch her in time for Leatherwood….

I hope you can join us.


Mule Polly runs in her pasture.
Mule Polly displaying a photo-blurring blast of speed moments after I turned her loose. I think that white-looking haircut acted as a racing stripe. Man, for a 22-year old mule, she can still boogie away from me when she wants.
The Lost Sea Expedition poster.
Leatherwood Mule Days flyer for the Lost Sea Expedition. Thanks to Shannon Hoffman for setting this all up.


2017 Leatherwood Mule Days schedule. Events, like Lost Sea Expedition wagon tours, are being added to this document
2017 Leatherwood Mule Days schedule. Events, like Lost Sea Expedition wagon tours, are being added to this document.

More about mule Polly and my latest project, the Lost Sea Expedition documentary  is over here.


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