Morgan Murphy

What You Must Know About Keeping Mules.

You probably know the expression, "Stubborn as a Mule." Mules, the result of crossing a male Donkey and a female horse are renowned for being somewhat obstinate. However, this isn't necessarily the case when you know how to handle a mule correctly. The mule not only makes a great companion but, in many cases, is a highly competitive equine athlete.

A Grey Mule*

Each year on Memorial Day weekend, the Bishop Mule Day celebration takes place in Bishop, California. Here you will see mules taking part in steer roping and penning events as well as working hunter, jumping and even dressage competitions. The event also hosts the biggest non-motorized parade in the US.

More about mules
Mules are cross between a male donkey, a "Jack" and the female horse, a mare. They are classed as an Equine but are very different to horses, the build and characteristics of the mule largely coming from the "dam" or mother. Larger build, draft mules are ideal for farm work as they are steady and reliable workers. As a general rule they can carry or haul approximately 30% of their body weight.
Mules are essentially sterile: the males cannot sire young and it is unusual for the mares to have estrus cycles. However, the occasional female mule that is capable of estrus is called a "Molly." Mollies have been known to have offspring either naturally or via embryo transfers. Gelded male mules are often called, "John Mules." When a stallion is crossed with a female donkey, the offspring is referred to as a Hinny. But, they are far less common in mules.

Mule Physiology
The average weight for a mule is between 750 -1000 lbs. Mules, much like their donkey sires, tend to require less food than a horse. The mule has a short, thick head, very long ears, relatively thin limbs, small sturdy hooves and a short thick mane - very similar to a donkey. Unlike the thick, uneven coat of the donkey, the mule has a smooth coat  without tufts. The body shape appears more horse-like particularly in the length of the neck. Coat color can vary from solids through to roan, palomino, dun, buckskin even Appaloosas.

Mule Temperament and Intelligence
The mule is regularly chosen as a working animal due to its great temperament, sturdiness and sure footed abilities. Their hooves and coats are extremely hardy. Mules are strong animals who can work in all conditions and weather. Often more intelligent than their parents, mules tend to enjoy social interaction. They tend to be gentle, docile creatures, making them great family pets as well as working animals.

What Makes Mules Special?
Among the unique traits possessed by many Mules:

The mule, much like the camel, is at home in a desert like climate, able to leverage scarce water rations far more effectively than horses. It is rare for a mule to become dehydrated.

Mules live longer than horses, on average. The median lifespan of a horse is 15 years whereas, it is 18 years for a mule. Some mules have been known to live well past 40 years of age.

Mules have super strong hooves. While their feet are small, they are far more robust and much less brittle than those of the horse. Fairly resistant to hoof problems, their feet can be kept in great condition simply with regular trimming. They are very surefooted and careful due to their small, narrow hoof structure.

The saying "stubborn as a mule,“ rarely applies. A mule will work hard, but this saying likely comes from the ability of the mule to resist abuse. Unlike a horse, if a mule becomes overheated, overworked, or overused, he will often slow down to a safe pace, sometimes stopping completely.

Mules have very few feeding problems :they do not get colic and laminitis as easily as horses and require very little grain feed, subsisting beautifully just on forage. Their hay does not need to be top range, often second cut or older hay is fine. Mules are calm, reliable animals. A common expression in the mule industry is, "Mules must be trained and handled the way horses should be trained and handled." In other words, horses are far more forgiving about mediocre training whereas mules can become permanently difficult when trained improperly.

*Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons