Southern Arkansas University mascot Mulerider Payton Baird is excited that her final ride will be close to home as the Muleriders are set to play Saturday at noon in the Live United Bowl in Texarkana.

“There is no better place to have my final game as the Mulerider than in Texarkana,” said Baird. “I have had such a wonderful support group throughout my reign, and with my home town of Fouke being just south of Texarkana, this means that even more of those I love will get to come out and cheer on the Muleriders!”

Baird grew up raising and riding gaited mules with her grandfather. Although she has appreciated how being the Mulerider has given her the opportunity to form relationships with many admirable people, she said what she will miss most is Molly Ann, the statuesque gaited mule donated by SAU alumnus Ron Harrell.

“I have raised mules my whole life and have been around them enough to know that each one has their own personality, but Molly Ann is a breed of her own. She has become a companion to me and to my family, and she will be greatly missed at our home.”

As one of the most unique mascots in collegiate athletics, the Mulerider position requires more than just appearing at football games. Baird has been featured in SAU marketing initiatives and has made appearances in parades and other events across the region.

"Payton has had quite a ride as the SAU Mulerider,” said SAU President Dr. Trey Berry. “She has represented SAU with energy, grace and integrity."

Molly Ann’s height paired with Baird’s bright smile and welcoming personality have garnered many fans, and their selfies, at parades, SAU’s “Mulegating” festivities and on the sidelines of the Mulerider football games. As much as Baird enjoyed seeing kids’ faces light up, she said her most memorable moment was a summer trip with Molly Ann and her “grandpa” to Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.

“Loretta Lynn has been an idol of mine my whole life, and to be able to go to her home place and take Ann with me was so remarkable! We rode many miles throughout the mountains surrounding her home, and I was able to tell the story of how I became the Mulerider, and how famous Ann was. It was definitely a memory that I will hold dear to me forever.”

Baird is slated to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in May. Although she described that being the Mulerider has been her “greatest accomplishment thus far,” one might argue that being able to balance her responsibilities as the university mascot with challenging nursing courses as the true testament to her dedication. In fact, she has gone above and beyond with her academic endeavors as she also completed a summer externship at CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System in Texarkana.

“Throughout the summer, I worked in the Emergency Department there and what an awesome opportunity it was for me. I had the pleasure of working alongside registered nurses who were very worthy of their jobs and taught me so much.”

She said she is also thankful for the opportunity given to SAU senior nursing students this semester to complete hands-on clinicals at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

“Talk about rewarding! We spent several days working with children with all different diagnoses; and personally, I know I found my dream profession while we were there.”

Along with her degree and experiences, she will also be taking with her the custom Mulerider mascot outfit she has worn. Rusty Hayes, SAU rodeo coach and Mulerider mascot mentor and adviser, ordered Baird’s custom outfit when she was hired for the job. It includes handmade chaps and a custom belt buckle. She, like Muleriders Megan Maye and Sunny Wilcox before her, will get to keep her outfit in recognition of her service to SAU.

Hayes said he will begin taking Mulerider applications for Baird’s successor on February 15. Email wrhayes@saumag.edu for more information.

To find out more about SAU, the SAU Department of Nursing, or the history of the Mulerider, visit www.SAUmag.edu.