"You just get out here and enjoy it. This is the best mental therapy I know of,” states longtime Gee Haw Horse and Wagon Club member Coy Stone of rural Viola, Arkansas. “You don’t worry about what’s at home, what you need to do.”
“I just like the comfort,” said Charley Prater of Paragould, Arkansas, who has six-year-old mules Rebel and Maud hooked to his wagon.
The two men are members of the Salem, Arkansas-based club, with a membership of 75, about half of which take part in at least some of the 15 or so wagon rides they organize each year. There are three and four-day rides, where participants start out at a club member’s home, return that evening and spend the night, then strike out from there again the next day.
Last year the Club did three self-contained rides where they don’t return home for the night, but instead camp out where they end up and continue on down the road the next morning. These rides last six days or longer and cover 100 miles or more.
At 64, Stone has been doing wagon rides for 21 years. “I’ve worked with four different teams,” he said. He presently uses a 14-year-old mule named Ike with a 2-year old named Bill. “Ike, I’ve had for 11 years," he says. "Bill, this is his first hurrah. I raised him from a foal. I worked him some last year. He’s in training.”
Stone and Prater took part in the first wagon ride of the season on Saturday, April 6, that started at club president Ken Felts' rural home, west of Viola. The ride consisted of five wagons, all pulled by mules, and joined by five outriders. They left at 8:30 in the morning, mostly drove down country roads, including about a dozen steep hills and returned at 3:30 p.m. after covering about 20 miles.
The small convoy of mule teams was led by Randall Barnett, a 15-year member from Warm Springs, Arkansas, who drove his 1,200-pound mules, Jack and Jude. “I like riding with friends. We see different views on different rides,” Barnett said.
Felts worked his young 2-year-old team Lady and Champ. She weighs 750 lbs. and he weighs 800 lbs. The two started out in the cool morning with plenty of energy. “They’re fired up for some reason,” Felts said. “These hills will take it out of them.” Felts added that this was his favorite ride out of all that the club takes each year. “There’s good scenery, good hills, creeks, no traffic,” he said.
The rear wagon was driven by Vernon Crow, also of rural Viola, with his splendid looking team of full-sister sorrel mules, Cheyenne and Sioux, and for the past ten years has ridden with his sidekick, Taco, a little Chihuahua dog. Back in the late 1970s Crow and a couple of friends started doing some wagon rides. These men had ridden horses for years, but got where they could no longer ride with any comfort, so they switched to driving wagons. Crow started with a small team of horses, but after a year switched to mules. “Mules are a little more steady, more dependable,” he said. Crow and his friends then started the club back in 1982.
Meanwhile back at the ride, Felts can be heard urging his young mules up the steep hills. “'Lady, come on. Let’s go. You have to stay after her more than Champ,” he says as he taps her lightly with a whip, while Champ squats down digging into the road gravel with his back hooves.
Felts, also 64, has been a club member since 1982. Initially he only participated in one or two rides a year using his team of Fox Trotter mares, while he lived and worked in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. After retiring he moved to rural Viola in 2007. He used the mares for three years, then switched to mules in 2010 as the mares never adjusted well to the slower-paced mules.
“My brother-in-law had two teams of mules that he wasn’t using,” Felts recalls. “He asked me which team do you want? I said, ‘The best ones.’ He said, ‘You’d better take the sorrels.’ And I’ve had them since.” The sorrels are small mules, weighing around 750 lbs. apiece, but they have been good wagon pullers. He alternates rides with the small team and the young team.
The mares Felts owns all trace back to Cricket, a buckskin mare his father bred, owned and farmed with during the 1930s and '40s in the Viola area. To both honor his father and maintain that family lineage, Felts bred his mares to jacks, producing Lady and Champ, whom he raised and broke.
Last November the Club did a five-day 110-mile self-contained ride originating in Viola, then traveled to Calico Rock, Melbourne and Salem. This year they plan to do this same ride in reverse. “We carry our own necessities, we have ways to clean up. We take food for ourselves and our mules,” Felts said. “There are places we stop at and eat. We take tools to repair minor breakdowns and we take (horse) shoes along. If someone has a flat or harness problems, we fix it up the best we can.” Felts said there are generally six to ten wagons on the self-contained rides. Last year they did two other such rides–one from Viola to Gainesville, Missouri, and back; the other was a six-day ride to Mansfield, Missouri. Each of them were in excess of 100 miles.
Many of the members easily exceed 1,000 miles annually with their mule-drawn wagons. Mules are quiet creatures, so the most noise you hear on the wagon rides are the clip-clopping of their shoes hitting the rocky roads. Combine these peaceful sounds with the stunning beauty of the Ozark hill farms and woods, and Stone’s words quickly come to mind: "Best mental therapy I know of."
For more information about the Gee Haw
Horse & Wagon Club, contact Ken Felts