A mule has a jack (male donkey) for a father and a mare (female horse) for a mother. The result is an intriguing blend of equine characteristics that rarely occurs in the wild, but that has occupied a special place in human life since ancient times.
Mules were first bred in the Middle East, where they were commonly used as mounts for royalty. A respect for mules spread further east into Europe as civilization advanced. Mules participated in the chariot races of the Greek Olympics before the time of Christ and became the chosen steed of the clergy afterward.
In fact, mules became so popular in Europe that King Ferdinand of Spain had cause to fear the virtual extinction of horses in his country. In 1494, he decreed that no able-bodied man could ride a mule; the hybrid’s use was to be restricted to the clergy and to women. This did not stop the Spaniards from bringing jacks to the New World. Mule breeding became commonplace in all Spanish territories, fostered by the missions.
But the person who played the greatest role in making mules popular in America was George Washington. Seeing a largely undeveloped country before him, he realized that a sturdy animal would become the basis of agriculture and transportation for years to come. Washington concluded that a large type of mule was needed. He had the necessary mares already, but the big jack he envisioned was of a Spanish type. By that time, the Spanish government had adopted and was jealously guarding the mule business. Exporting Spanish jacks was illegal.
George Washington, however, was a renowned figure by 1785. When King Charles III of Spain learned of Washington’s quest for the right jack, he graciously made an exception and sent two to America. One died at sea, but the other, named Royal Gift, was put to stud along with a Maltese jack given to Washington by his good friend Lafayette.
Washington made the breeding of large draft mules possible in America. Soon afterward came an additional impetus for the production of such a mule. In 1793, the cotton gin was invented. In short order, cotton became king in the South, and the mule became a valued field hand. The birth of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 created still more demand for mules, as did the opening of various parts of the West to settlement.
Before long, the mule became an American icon, numbering over 5 million on our shores by the 1920s. It had its place on farms from New England to the Deep South, from the East Coast to the Desert Southwest. Many states bred mules, but none became so firmly associated with the animal as Missouri, the nation’s center of mule production.
But the mule suffered with the horse when machines became the norm. By the late 1960s, there were fewer than 10,000 mules in America.
A fascination with sustainable farming and traditional methods of raising crops once again increased the production of mules, however. People with small acreages and an interest in living at a slower pace now frequently choose mules as their preferred work animals, particularly in the South. The mule also thrives in the West, where it remains a favorite for packing and trail riding in rough country.
The purpose that any given mule can fulfill is largely (although not exclusively) determined by the size and purpose of its mother. Therefore, a mule’s “breed” is determined by the mare’s breed. For example, a Quarter mule is part Quarter Horse, an Appy mule is part Appaloosa, and a Belgian Draft mule is part Belgian.
Larger mules of heavy-breed ancestry are often used for draft purposes, including farming. In fact, some small-scale farmers consider them the superior source of power on hilly terrain.
A more moderate-sized mule of a light breed is suitable for either packing or riding. Depending on its ancestry, this type of mule might excel at jumping, dressage, eventing, hunting, reining, penning, cutting, roping, or barrel racing. A popular sport designed just for mules is the coon jump, in which mules jump fences up to six feet high from a standstill.
Miniature mules, usually bred from a Miniature Donkey and either a Miniature Horse or a Shetland Pony, are mainly kept as pets and companions.
Mules tend to display the personality traits of both donkeys and horses. There is far more to their nature than stubbornness; obstinacy is usually a response to a perceived threat.
A secure, well-trained mule is curious, even playful. It can keep its cool in tough situations, and will actually reward its rider’s attentions with devoted affection. Female (molly) mules are quite stable even when in season, rarely displaying the unpredictable behavior of a mare.
However, mules take time to think things through. They do not blindly obey orders. New tasks and routines must be explained to them patiently but firmly. Likewise, they must be given time to accept strangers. Incautious advances may be received with a deadly kick.
A mule never forgets. Mistreatment or a frightening experience that occurs when the mule is young will color its disposition for the rest of its life. It will hold a grudge and can be a dangerously calculating enemy.
Even though they are sterile, male (john) mules are extremely dangerous and willful. For safe handling, john mules should always be gelded.
A combination of hybrid vigor and instinct for self-preservation protects the mule from many of the injuries and digestive upsets that horses are prone to. Although it is the owner’s responsibility to prevent accidents, a mule generally will not let itself founder on too much food or water, and will typically protect its feet and legs from damage.
Note that a mule’s hoof is very similar to a donkey’s hoof and should be trimmed the same way—upright, unlike a horse’s hoof.
Most mules are sterile due to genetic differences between their donkey and horse parents. However, the occasional molly mule can breed and give birth, a phenomenon which scientists still can’t explain.
Finally, owners must realize that mules are not impervious to all injury and disease. Symptoms of pain or illness can be extremely difficult to detect because most mules are stoic by nature. By the time that a mule displays signs of discomfort, the associated condition has usually caused irreversible damage.
- Hybrid vigor.
- Survival instinct.
- Heat tolerance.
- Parasite resistance.
- Ability to thrive on nothing but grass.
- Easy foaling for the mother of the mule.
- Smooth ride.
- Exceptional strength.
- Tremendous endurance.
- Difficulty of breeding a jack to a mare; they are typically uncooperative unless raised with the other species from the start.
- Need for experienced training and handling.
- Late maturity.
- Slow working pace.
This book from Homestead on the Range answers common questions about working with draft mules, covering challenges, harness, training, and more. Free sample pages are available.