Working with Mules

You’ll want to find a place on the homestead for a hardy and efficient mule.

  • Strong, intelligent, and steadfast, mules make great work animals on the farm
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • A mule will have a smaller appetite than that of a horse, and can use minimal forage very efficiently.
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • Passed down from the donkey parent, a mule's long ears help with heat radiation
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Gregory Johnston
  • Mules are stronger than horses, and they have more stamina, making them a preferred animal for packing.
    Photo by Getty Images/ffaber53
  • Mules thrive on routine. Once they learn a task, they can often complete it with minimal guidance
    Photo by Getty Images/DelmasLehman
  • A mule is the cross between a male donkey and a female horse.
    Photo by Getty Images/MelodyanneM
  • Mules' intelligience and sense of self-preservation have given them a repuation for stubborness, but under the right leadership, a mule will be a trusworthy and willing partner
    Photo by Adobe Stock/FreeReinDesigns
  • Depending on how well the load is packed and how much it moves, a trained and fit pack mule can carry between 20 and 35 percent of its body weight.
    Photo by Getty Images/cilohtac3
  • Bred since ancient times, mules have a long-standing history as sturdy, dependable work animals. They’re surefooted, intelligent, and have plenty of stamina, making them excellent for farm work and packing over rugged terrain.
    Photo by Getty Images/David Arment

Stubborn, obstinate, headstrong — all words that have been used to describe mules. And calling someone “mulish” or “muleheaded” has never been intended as a compliment. Mules have a reputation for being difficult to work with. Stories abound about mules simply refusing to work for their owners. It’s easy to regard such stories as evidence of mules’ unwillingness and laziness, but the truth is much more complicated.

 What exactly is a mule? A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse — more specifically, a male donkey and a female horse. (A hinny is a cross between a male horse and a female donkey.) Horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62. The mule and the hinny both have 63, an odd number that renders them sterile — in the majority of cases. There are never any absolutes in nature, and there’s a handful of documented cases of mules giving birth to healthy offspring.

Mules and their donkey and horse parents share a lot of similarities, but also several key differences. Mules tend to have smaller feet than comparatively sized horses. This gives them a distinct advantage when walking between rows of crops or down steep mountain trails. The donkey has a steeper pelvic angle than the horse, and this is passed down to mule offspring. Mules also have shallower withers, which makes a well-fitted riding saddle or pack rig a must.

Why the Long Ears?

Donkeys evolved in hot, arid climates, where their long ears help with heat radiation. Mules have those same long ears, which are very sensitive and contain many blood vessels.

 As a result of their desert evolution, donkeys came to be able to use minimal forage very efficiently; the mule retains this feed efficiency too. It doesn’t take much overfeeding for a donkey to become fat. Mules have a much smaller appetite than horses, and seem to have the ability to better self-regulate their feed intake. A horse leaving food, on the other hand, would be a cause for alarm. That’s not to say mules’ feed intake shouldn’t be carefully monitored, but do keep an eye out for other symptoms of “off” behavior in your mule.  Mules are also much less prone to colic than horses, and are able to adapt to whatever forage might be available, even if it’s something they wouldn’t normally eat. Mule feet are much harder than those of the horse, which, combined with their uncanny surefootedness, makes them desirable for working in rocky terrain.

Mules have a smoother musculature than a horse, but pound for pound they’re considered to be the stronger animal. Mules also have more stamina than horses, and can maintain a steady walking pace for an entire workday. Depending on how well the load is packed and how much it moves, a trained and fit pack mule can carry between 20 and 35 percent of its body weight. A load that moves around too much will require the mule to work harder to stay balanced and keep the load stabilized.

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