The mule has long been used as a draft animal, but it has been particularly associated with the hot climate of the South. It is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.
While there aren’t exactly breeds of mule, not all mules are created equal. The build of both the jack and the mare involved are key factors in determining whether their offspring will be big and husky enough for draft work. Many mules are bred for saddle purposes these days, which means that they often have a lighter physique.
When selecting the parents of a future draft mule, you will want to look for sturdy, strong-boned donkeys and horses of the larger breeds. You will also want to select both parents, but particularly the mare, for good disposition. One of the best donkey breeds for draft mule breeding is the American Mammoth Jackstock. The horse can be of just about any desired draft breed.
- Superb heat tolerance. Historically, the mule was typically the draft animal of choice in the Deep South. The reason was its exceptional tolerance of heat and humidity.
- Exceptional health and hardiness. Few domestic animals are as tough as the mule. It rarely gets sick, and it almost never goes lame. It has a high degree of parasite resistance. Its hooves are exceptionally sturdy and generally don’t require shoes unless it is being worked on pavement or very rocky ground.
- Self-preservation instinct. Mules have an unrivaled ability to look out for themselves. They rarely make themselves sick by eating or drinking too much all at once (cases of founder are usually restricted to mules from pony mares). They will not allow themselves to be overworked, either.
- Calmness. Mules are not prone to panic the way horses are. They may bolt out of wilfulness, but rarely out of fear.
- Low maintenance requirements. Even when working, the mule requires very little supplemental feed (albeit more than a donkey). It does not require a pristine pasture or top-quality hay to stay in peak form. A draft mule is estimated to require about a third less feed than a working horse of the same size.
- Longevity. Draft mules have long working lifespans, up to nearly 20 years with proper care.
- A balance of speed and stamina. Speed and stamina are typically mutually exclusive, but the mule provides a very reasonable compromise. On a continuum with horses representing the most speed but least stamina and oxen representing the most stamina but least speed, a mule would be right about at the balance point.
- Sure-footedness. Out of all the draft animals, mules are among the most sure of their footing, which is a plus on uneven ground or when working in tight quarters as when cultivating. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the mule has a narrower body and smaller hooves than a horse of the same size. The second is that it is always on the alert and acting as circumstances require.
- Versatility. Your draft mule can also perform other work around the farm! It can be broken to ride just a like a horse, and when it is not otherwise employed, keep it in the pasture as a guardian for sheep and goats.
- Prevalence of low-quality mules. Too many people try to make a fast buck by breeding a cull jack to an inferior mare. While miracles do happen, in everyday life any mule that results from such a breeding is highly unlikely to exceed its parents in quality. Purchasing a mule takes some research to avoid picking up somebody else’s nightmare. A docile mare and positive human interaction from birth are two ingredients necessary to make a good mule.
- Expense. If you are starting out with a trained draft team (and you should give it some serious consideration if you are thinking about buying mules), a good mule team can be rather pricey.
- Noise. This should not be much of an issue for anyone who has enough land to be considering draft mules. That said, those of you who are considering a mule for tilling the garden in a more populated area may want to factor in your neighbors’ feelings on the subject.
- Training challenges. Mules aren’t exactly stubborn—they’re just super independent, and they have an exceptional ability to spot a person who isn’t really in control of a situation. But this independence, admirable though it may be in many situations, is not something most beginners want to deal with. Training mules for draft work is extremely challenging, and it requires a fair but firm hand, not to mention a considerable amount of time. Mistakes have long-term ramifications, and bad habits are extraordinarily difficult to weed out. (This is exactly why trained mules are so expensive.)
- Complex harness. Although there are differences, the harness used for mules is much like that used for horses with respect to complexity. It takes time to get it on the animals, and it requires a good degree of maintenance.
- Intelligent disobedience. Even a well-trained mule will disobey if it feels the need, and it will insist on taking time to look over any and all dubious situations before proceeding. This is precisely due to its beneficial self-preservation instinct. That said, not everyone can handle the independence of mules. Horses are more like dogs, mules are more like cats (although not quite to the same degree as donkeys). There is a reason why many people would rather train dogs than cats!
- Sterility. The mule is the only draft animal that cannot replicate itself (with the caveat that most oxen are steers). Granted, your mule team should last for many years. But if you ever need to replace or expand it, you must purchase new animals or keep both horses and donkeys on hand to raise more yourself.
Mules can make a superb team for use in challenging conditions, and they are the epitome of low-maintenance draft animals. Add to that their nice balance between speed and stamina, and you have an excellent choice for serious farm work.
However, there is probably a good reason that draft mules are not more common than they are, and that is their temperament. Not everyone is going to enjoy working with mules. Beginners in particular may find mules to be too much of a challenge when learning the ropes, even when dealing with a trained team. (And an untrained team can be a nightmare for all but the most dedicated and experienced teamsters.)
When it comes to mules, there is no question that they are superb in low-input farm situations. The question is whether or not you are one of those special people who can get along with a mule.
Next week: Donkeys
More information on the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of the mule, from our guide to horse and donkey breeds.