Managing Mules

More people today are turning to mules to take advantage of the temperament and work ethic of these horse/donkey crosses.

The population of mules in the United States is growing, although their numbers are still calculated in the thousands, while horses are in the millions. However, more and more people are discovering that this lovable hybrid can be a joy to ride, pack, or just have around as a family pet.

Since these numbers are growing steadily, owners and prospective owners are seeking to learn more about mules.

Horse and mule fans alike are aware that there has been great progress in the world of scientific research, especially as it relates to caring for equids. New procedures have been developed and sophisticated diagnostic equipment and treatment options are now considered the norm at many veterinary clinics and hospitals.

Although all three are equids, donkeys, mules, and horses have many differences, and not all of the techniques and procedures can be applied in the same way. We'll examine some of those differences as we put management of mules in perspective.

Mule Facts

Mules are the product of mating a horse and a donkey. It can go either way-- breeding a stallion to a jennet or breeding a donkey jack to a mare. The offspring of the former is called a hinny and that of the latter is a mule. Because a horse has 64 chromosomes and a donkey has 62, the mule winds up with 63, making it impossible for the chromosomes of either a horse or a donkey to pair up with those of a mule. As a result, mules are sterile, although there have been rare instances where female (molly) mules have given birth when bred by a donkey jack.

The first scientifically documented case of a mule giving birth occurred in 1984 when Krause, a molly owned by Bill and Oneta Sylvester of Champion, Neb., gave birth to a mule foal. She was bred back to the same jack and had another foal about a year later. It was determined that both youngsters had 63 chromosomes and that Krause was definitely the mother.

Because of the sterility factor, all male (john) mules should be castrated. Suzanne Burnham, DVM, a Texas veterinarian who has studied and worked with mules and is a consultant to the American Donkey and Mule Society, warns that care must be taken when castrating either a donkey or mule. Castrating without ligation (stitches), she says, can result in heavy bleeding that could possibly cause the animal's death. The fact that both donkey and mule testicles are larger than those of a horse figures into the equation, perhaps.

Many mule owners prefer to castrate their young males at an early age--around two months--in order to prevent studlike behavior. A problem can result with early castration, says Tex Taylor, DVM, a retired professor from Texas A&M University. That problem is evisceration (passage of the intestine from the abdominal cavity to the outside through the castration incision). Young mules castrated at 1 to 2 months of age are more likely to experience this problem than mules castrated later, Taylor says.

Mule owners must be prepared to have their animal or animals around for a long time because mules, generally speaking, live longer than horses. This attribute appears to be inherited from the donkey, which can live on into its 30s and 40s.

In farming days of long ago, when at least a portion of the animal's value depended upon how long it could work, mules averaged an estimated 18 years of work, compared to 15 for the horse.

The old-time pamphlet Jacks, Jennets and Mules, which was published decades ago to tout the stellar qualities of mules, has this to say:

"One of our members employs 160 mules in harness. He buys 3-year-olds and never sells one. When they become unfit for work they are humanely destroyed. His records are exact. Of 89 mules in 1921, 28 were still at work, aged 24 years, in 1942. The average age of death of the 61 that had passed away (or were put down) was 20 years."

Today's Mules

Mules in the modern world are not expected to pull heavy equipment from morning until night, with most of them being used for recreational purposes only. Thus, the modern-day mule, working less, receiving better nutrition and medical care, often has a useful lifespan of 30 or more years. As the mule ages, it behooves the owner to be even more cognizant of proper food intake and to provide dental and hoof care on a regular basis.

Mules can be used for any discipline a horse can be used, including dressage, cutting, and pleasure riding. Just like horses, not every mule is suited for every discipline. There are some good reasons to have a mule as your mount.

Perhaps it involves the donkey heritage, but mules appear to have a higher tolerance for heat than horses. The donkey developed in dry, desert country, where water supplies were scant and, as a result, evolved into an animal that could get by on very little.

This is not say that water is not essential to mules when exercising. Water definitely is required, but both donkeys and mules have a built-in mechanism, similar to camels, in which the animal, when starved for water, will drink only enough to replace lost body fluid. A dehydrated horse, on the other hand, might drink until it becomes ill.

An example concerning mule water intake: When we were living in Kentucky, annually we would load horses and mules into the trailer and head for a camping trip in the mountains of the West. It was two-day trip each way and traversed the central part of the United States, where soaring summer temperatures were common.

One of our pack mules would not consume a drop of water on the trip. We worried about impaction and tried all of the ruses known to get her to drink. We brought water from home, and we tried flavoring the water. Nothing worked. When the mule was traveling, she wouldn't drink. Quite often she wouldn't drink until we came to the first river crossing. Then, she'd drink her fill, but often she was finished before the horses and other mules that had consumed water along the way on a regular basis. Yet, this mule never had an impaction or any other problem from her lack of water intake.

In managing mules, one must also be aware that there is a definite metabolic difference between mules and donkeys when compared to horses. Donkeys have been known to founder after eating a single bowl of high-protein (about 27%) dog food when scavenging for snacks. While a number of commercial horse rations are in the 16% protein range, donkeys and mules appear to do far better on a ration that is in the 10-12% protein range.

Pound for pound, a mule will eat less than a horse. When mules are working, they should be fed about one-third of the ration fed to a horse of the same size and doing the same work.

For the most part mules will not overeat. During the days when thousands of mules packed freight across the country, they often were housed in huge communal corrals during stops. Feed bunks were filled with grain and forage, and the mules were allowed to eat what they desired. It was rare that a mule would consume food to the point where colic was a problem.

Tough Feet

Robert Miller, DVM, of California, known as the father of imprinting, but also a mule fancier and owner, says mules generally have fewer lameness problems than horses, but this doesn't mean the feet should be ignored. The mule's feet should be trimmed regularly and, in some cases, the mule should be shod.

Jake Clark of Ralston, Wyo., an outfitter who uses only mules to pack clients into the Teton mountains, says he shoes his mules only when the hooves show signs of wear, and then only the front feet are shod. Clark's mules travel into and out of the mountains on a daily basis, traversing hard-packed, rocky trails. He uses mules exclusively, he says, because most horses can't handle the workload that is required on a daily basis.

The only horse included in Clark's string is the "bell mare." Mule packers discovered years ago that mules have an affinity for mares--especially gray mares. They found that if they put a gray mare in the lead with a bell around her neck, they could turn loose the pack mules and they would follow the bell mare wherever she went. When they camped for the night, the pack mules would all cluster around the bell mare while feeding. As long she remained in camp, they would do likewise.

Preventing Problems

Mule owners should also recognize that mules often have more problems with external parasites than horses. The reason is quite basic: In the spring, the horse sheds out rather quickly. The mule, with its heavier, coarser coat--inherited from the donkey--needs more time to rid itself of the excess hair, and this provides a longer period for external parasites, such as lice, to remain in business.

External parasites were a problem with mules when they were used extensively in both world wars. British army officials at one point in World War I decided to solve this problem by shaving the entire animal in early spring. The results were disastrous. The parasites were eliminated, but many of the mules died of exposure.

When a problem surfaces, whether it is caused by parasites, fungus, or bacteria, the approach should be to have a veterinarian take a skin scraping to determine precisely what the problem might be--lice, rainrot, ringworm, or whatever--and treat it accordingly.

Mules should receive the same immunizations as horses residing in the same part of the country. They also should be treated for the same type of internal parasites and on the same schedule as horses.

Stubborn as a Mule?

There are psychological differences between horses and mules, and these come into play when managing mules. For one thing, the mule has a strong sense of self-preservation. If the mule feels he is being asked to do something that puts his welfare in danger, he very often refuses to do what is being asked. It's often said by those familiar with mules that you can tell a horse, but you need to convince a mule.

On the other hand, mules some times seem fearless because of their sure-footedness. On one of our trips into Montana's Beartooth Mountains, we had packed one of our mules quite heavily. Not to worry. He was a stout john mule and he could handle the load with relative ease. He was a real pro as we traveled through rugged country to our camping spot, never missing a step and never tightening the lead line. We spent close to a week headquartered at a beautiful lake, fishing and taking day rides into the surrounding area; returning to our headquarters camp at night. On the way out, the mule--named Rowdy--had only a light pack because of the food that had been consumed, and he was well-rested. When he wasn't being asked to work hard, Rowdy had a tendency to get bored.

One portion of the trail down the mountain was along a ridge that dropped off into a deep canyon on one side and sloped gently away on the other. The trail was totally safe because the ridge line between the trail and the dropoff prevented anyone from venturing too close to the edge. I was leading Rowdy on a slack line, half dozing in the saddle, when my wife, riding behind us, let out a shout. I jerked awake and looked back. There was Rowdy, walking along the narrow ledge, looking down into the canyon below. He was confident that he wouldn't fall and was relieving his boredom by walking the ledge.

Take-Home Message

It is highly important to understand the world as a mule sees it if you want to own, enjoy, and properly manage this long-eared creature. While mules are, indeed, equids, they are not the same as horses in temperament, physical makeup, or psychological outlook. Many folks today are choosing mules as their pleasure animals because of the sure-footed nature of the beast and usually kind demeanor. However, you should spend some time around a mule before you decide a mule is the right mount for you.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners