Whitesburg KY

Learning to plow with Dock the mule

During my earliest years in the head of Blair Branch, my dad would get the itch to trade off the mule he had fed all winter and get one better suited for spring plowing. Which, of course, brings into question, why on earth he had kept the mule all winter to begin with? I suppose it was so he could have something besides the cow and chickens to feed all that corn and fodder that he’d slaved to raise and get into the barn the previous year. And heaven knows he couldn’t have done that without the mule.

That, plus the fact that mules didn’t fetch nearly as much, price wise, at the fall stock sales and if he’d sold him then, he wouldn’t have had anything to trade on come spring. My dad, at that time in his life, fancied himself a mule trader from way on back. He was proud of the reputation that you couldn’t trade nickels with him without throwing in a penny to boot. He would often trade milk cows so frequently that they didn’t even have time to get used to their new names. Sometimes mules only lasted on our place for the week between Saturday auctions at the Isom “Stock Sale.”

He’d bring one home and discover that he or she walked too fast or too slowly or that it was bad to “take the studs”, meaning it would “balk” and simply stop right in the middle of whatever he had it doing and just stand there walling its eyes and swishing its tail and refusing to move its feet. Sometimes he’d discover that it didn’t know gee from haw, gidup from whoa, that it was blind in one eye or couldn’t hear thunder.

In other words, it took one heck of a mule to suit my dad. But the truth of the matter is that he didn’t mind bringing home a “plug” because that gave him an excuse to go back to the Stock Sale and, in essence, try to trade up to a better model.

But all that was before he brought Ole Dock home one spring in the late ‘50s.

Dock was not a mule. He was a 1600-pound Percheron draft horse that Dad purchased for logging timber. He dwarfed any mule that I had ever seen and nobody at the time, Dad included, would have ever believed he had any utility when it came to plowing a garden because he was about a thousand pounds too big and either one of his front feet would have covered at least four mule tracks.

During the first two or three years that we had Old Dock, Dad also kept a plow mule on the place. Unlike most mules, Old Dock was very loveable, possessed a friendly disposition, thrived on affectionate petting and, to this day, I believe he thought he was a dog. I know for sure that my mom loved him better than any dog we’d ever had on the place. Suffice to say that the merest hint that he might sell or trade Ole Dock generated enough ire that Dad very rapidly dropped the notion.

Dad also discovered that he could turn a bottom under with Ole Dock in about half the time required with a mule. A bottomturning plow is about four times heavier and as many times harder for a draft animal to pull than a bull tongue plow that was used to prepare most gardens for plowing. Mules have to stop and rest very frequently and they are notorious for doing just that. The old saw “stubborn as a mule” is well earned, even though most things, other than my wife, aren’t.

But pulling a turning plow was scarcely more strenuous to Dock than a leisurely stroll around the pasture because he was accus- tomed to pulling saw logs that more than a ton.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened but one spring somebody offered Dad more than twice as much cash for a little chestnut mare mule than he thought she was worth. Her name was Mert and she turned out to be the last mule we ever had on the place because her absence enabled Dad to discover that Dock was just as nimble at plowing a garden as a mule and far better at the chore than most.

To make a much longer story short, Ole Dock taught all three of my younger brothers and me to plow. He was patient with us too. During the learning process, when we would accidentally let the plow run out of a furrow or a tad too deeply into unplowed ground, he would stop, turn his big head and stare us down until the plow was righted. If we got to the end of the furrow and needed to turn right but, instead commanded “haw” instead of “gee”, Dock would stop and turn his head as if to ask, “Are you sure about that?” I’m reasonably sure that I’m not the only person who has frequently apologized to a horse.

By the time my brother, Keith, was 9 and I was 11 we were plowing most of the gardens on Blair Branch and even Doty Creek and Spring Branch after school and on Saturdays. If the ground stayed dry enough, we could earn more money in a week in April than Dad did shoveling coal for 50 hours in a deep, dark mine.

My old Troybilt horse tiller has finally bit the dust and it pains me to no end that a new one is going to cost me about three times as much as my dad paid for old Dock. I probably don’t need to be telling you which one I’d rather have even though my little garden would not come close to getting Ole Dock through a hard winter.

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