With just a little encouragement from Mike Call, Radar shows off his jumping skills at Call’s central Missouri farm.
If the Olympic games included mule jumping, Radar would certainly represent the United States. The Appaloosa mule, owned by Mike Call of Henley, would likely give the other challengers a good run for their money. He’s won nearly every contest he’s entered and has a rock star’s following wherever he goes.
“People come from all over to see him jump,” says Mike, a member of Three Rivers Electric Cooperative. “Each year, he’s gotten a little more famous.”
Mike’s dad, the late Bob Call, bought Radar when the mule was about 2 years old with the intention of entering him in jumping competitions.
“My dad has a cousin who lives in north Missouri. He went up to visit. He saw the mule and bought him. It was two weeks before the state fair, and that’s where my dad picked him up.”
Radar jumped at the fair that year and took fifth place. The elder Call could see he had potential, but like any athlete needed training.
“He had some problems that me and my dad had to work out of him,” Mike says. In time, Radar showed he could learn.
His best jump so far is 6 feet 2 inches, not bad for a 5-foot-3-inch mule. Radar’s best came at a benefit show in Saint James. “He jumped 74 inches and that was as high as their jump would go,” Mike says. “I’ve never got him that high again. But he was on fire that day.”
Mule jumping got its start with coonhunters who taught their mules to leap fences that would otherwise get in the way.
Unlike human high jumpers who build up speed before leaping, mules must jump from a standstill. They must clear the bar within a minute after entering a 15-foot box. “He didn’t want to do that when we first got him,” Mike says. “He just wanted to keep on moving and go over. If you do that, they disqualify you.”
The jumps usually start at 42 inches, and the height is increased 2 inches at a time until only one mule can clear the bar. Each mule gets two chances to clear the height.
Wooden dowels the size of a matchstick hold the bar in place, so if a stray hoof touches the bar, the pegs easily break.
Mike has lost track of how many times Radar has won the Missouri State Fair event. “He’s got beat a couple times,” Mike says. “You can’t win them all. Sometimes he makes a mistake when he jumps. Sometimes I make a mistake.”
At a mule jump, Mike serves as Radar’s coach. He holds the end of a long lead rope and yells, “Get up there,” in the rapid-fire manner of an auctioneer. When Radar’s ready, he raises his front legs, and Mike throws the lead rope at the bar.
Radar seems to defy gravity and turns from mule to bird as he gracefully clears the bar. Mike’s style differs from most jumping teams. He stands on the same side of the bar as the mule and lets Radar find his own way over.
“I’m about the only person who jumps like that,” Mike says. “Most people will stand on the other side from where the mule is. When the mule gets in the center of the bar, they will pull down on the rope to get his front down. I never did that. He don’t need it.”
Over the years, Radar developed a rivalry with a mule named Powder River. “That was one mule my dad wanted to beat,” Mike recalls. “And as far as I know, Radar is the only mule who ever beat him. That was the last show my dad ever went to. That day we beat Powder River down in Lebanon, it made his day. He bought us all steak dinners.”
As Radar’s fame spread, the Calls traveled as far away as Texas, where a boot company wanted him to put on an exhibition. Mike recalls going to the Kansas State Fair where a fan recognized him as the man who jumped Radar.
The mule’s personality has won him as many fans as his ability to jump. Once at the Missouri State Fair, the snap holding the lead rope to Radar’s collar broke as he cleared the bar. Radar trotted over to the railing and grabbed a hot dog from the hands of a spectator and promptly ate it.
At the American Royal, Radar hammed for the crowd, eating up the attention as they chanted “Go Radar.”
“The crowd would holler his name, and he would be ready to go again,” Mike says. “He knows when people cheer him on. That’s why he does so well at the state fair.”
People often ask Mike how he keeps a jumping mule in the pen. The answer is, he doesn’t. “If he wants to, he could clear that fence with no problem,” Mike says.
To keep Radar from getting into mischief, Mike bought another mule named Willie. “We had to buy him because the neighbors had horses. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, he could smell them and he’d be out. He just wanted some friends.”
Mike bought Willie for $100 and believes he’s every bit of 30 years old. Willie quickly showed he was worthless as a jumper. “He knows how to knock the bar down,” says Mike’s wife, Doris. “He’ll knock it down with his nose and think, ‘OK, I did a good job.’ But if you take Radar out, he’ll jump right out of there. ”
One day Radar was being put through his paces for a reporter. “Pretty soon, here comes that black mule,” Mike says. “He jumped out. And you can’t get him to jump decent at a show.”
Even at 18 years old, Radar is far from calling it quits, Mike believes. He’s got one more challenge for the mule — winning the Pea Ridge, Ark., contest that has so far eluded them.
“As long as I can and he’s willing to do it, I’m going to keep right on going. When I retire him, it will probably be at the state fair because that’s the first place he’s showed. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down now. He’s still wound up.”