Atkins drove everything from his mind except thinking of the task at hand.
“You have to keep your mind on the plowing,” he said in an interview earlier this week at the farm. “If you’ve got trouble with your wife, your life, your money, your neighbor — you bury all that.”
The mule’s reputation for stubbornness isn’t quite true, he said.
“The mule is an intelligent animal who reasons things out,” he said. “If you tell him to do something and he don’t think it will work, he won’t do it. But these mules trust me, my brother Ed, and my son Devin. If we tell them a thing is OK, they’ll do it.”
The relationship between the plowman and the plowers is something like that of horse and rider in Henry Taylor’s poem, “Riding a One-Eyed Horse.”
“These mules go by my voice command. They trust me. But you better never lie to them. They won’t forget it,” Atkins said.
When the competition – held during the Labor Day weekend – was over at Carriage Hill Metro Park just outside Dayton, the team of mules and man had won not just the 2009 state title, but also the U.S. and International matches.
A Grand Slam.
And the mules treated Atkins so well that his peers voted him the Best Teamster trophy as well.
The three judges used 10 standards to determine the winner in each of the three competitions. Each competitor had a plot 25- feet wide and 100-feet long to work with. Judges looked for such things as a straight furrow and a good-looking, level “headland” – a strip of land in a plowed field left for turning the plow at the ends of furrows.
Atkins credited his “swamper,” or helper, Bobby Lyle, with helping him bring the four awards back to Triple Tree Farms, where Tinker, Mike and Snake found a little extra grain in their feedbags the next day.
The 157-acre farm, bought by Mike Atkins’ father, the late John Atkins, 58 years ago, is noted for its Belgian horses – huge chestnut animals weighing a ton each. There are currently six of the horses and four Belgian draft mules in the stalls of the immaculate barn. The mules weigh 1,600 to 1,700 pounds each.
Atkins said he won a state title at Carriage Hill with three of the horses in 2007. He tried the mules in the 2008 competition and won state and international titles, prompting him to enter them again this year.
There were 25 to 30 teams entered from 11 states.
“I enjoy meeting the people as much as I do the competition,” he said. “We exchange tips with other farmers on how to use horses and mules for farming.”
Atkins credits Mickey Dotson, a farrier from just outside South Shore, Ky., with much of the knowledge he has about mules, and horses.
“Dr. Paul Carr (Portsmouth veterinarian) sent him our way for some work, and Mick has just become like part of the family,” Atkins said. “His understanding of horses is outstanding.”
The Belgian horse, which can bring a price of $2,000 to $5,000, is even larger than the Scottish draft horse, the Clydesdale. The world’s largest Belgian stood just over 6-feet, 7-inches at the shoulders and weighed 3,200 pounds.
The Belgian was used as a fighting horse with a knight on its back in the Middle Ages, and later used as a farm horse in Belgium. They were brought to America in the 1800s as work horses, while the Clydesdale is used to pull a beer wagon.
Work on the farm just outside Stockdale, which is involved in Belgians and beef, draft horse training and welding and fabrication of farm implements and horse trailers, is accomplished with the help of horses and mules. Atkins said the only time they ever start up the tractor is to grind corn.
“We’re a part of a dying breed, I guess,” he said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.