By Ben Orcutt -- Daily Staff Writer
FRONT ROYAL -- Steve Foster has the right name for his national champion mule: Steve's Amazing Grace.
The 3-year-old mule recently won America's Ultimate Horse Idol competition at Richmond International Raceway. Grace qualified for the contest earlier in Raleigh, N.C.
Under a splendid fall sky, Grace recently demonstrated in her practice arena behind Foster's Warren County home just what makes her so amazing and worthy of her name. On voice command from Foster, she moved her right front leg eight times when he asked her to multiply two times four.
At Foster's command, Grace went on to push a stuffed animal in a stroller, ring a bell, retrieve mail from a mailbox, put a basketball through a goal, pray at a cross, give him a drink from a cooler and stand on a 289-square-inch box.
And if that wasn't enough, Grace also kissed, smiled and reared up on her hind legs for Foster, with him handing out an occasional treat to her as a reward.
"Everybody -- even professionals -- says it's amazing," Foster said. "They've never seen anything like it in their career."
Foster, 58, met his wife, Pam, 48, when he was riding a mule, and the two have been married for 13 years. Mrs. Foster serves as the master of ceremonies at Grace's shows and informs the audience about the animals. A mule is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey, she says. Mules cannot reproduce, and unlike horses, mules can see all four of their legs at once.
Mrs. Foster is not jealous, and takes pride in the love affair between her husband and Grace.
"She does love him," Mrs. Foster said. "She hears his truck pull up and whines like a dog. She would rather be with Steve than eat."
A devout Christian, Foster doesn't hesitate about what his priorities are in life, including resuming his jail ministry.
"It's God, my family and my mules, in that order," Foster said.
Grace was the only mule at the national competition at Richmond International Raceway over Halloween weekend, with one horse coming all the way from South Dakota to compete.
By virtue of her national championship, Grace will get to open for three major events, and prize money and gifts are on the way, Foster said.
"I don't know where it's gonna take me," he said, "but I know it's gonna go."
In addition to Grace and other mules, Foster also has in his Reliance Road stable 15-year-old Missy, who holds the mule world record with a standing jump of 73 inches.
"Both of them are the highlight of my life," Foster said of his prized mules' accomplishments.
What makes Foster's rapport and Grace's feats so amazing is that he doesn't have to force her to perform.
"She knows the tone of my voice," Foster said. "When to stop and when to go."
Foster said one of his goals is to get Grace to stand on a 12-square-inch box. He's also teaching her to jump over him with a basketball in her mouth as he lies on a 55-inch barrier. His knack with mules is a gift from God, Foster said.
"I don't know all of that fancy stuff," he said, "but I can get 'em to do it [tricks]."
"I love it as much as he does," Mrs. Foster said of the weekend excursions to shows, which includes a lot of packing and unpacking.
It's the love he receives from his mules that inspires Foster.
"To love something is great, but to get love back is awesome," Foster said. "When that mule does what I want her to do, it makes me feel good. I don't hit my mules. I don't abuse 'em."
Mrs. Foster said that when her husband is happy with Grace's performance, she's happy.
"Just to see the joy it brings to him makes it worth it for me," she said.
* Contact Ben Orcutt at firstname.lastname@example.org