by Paul & Betsy Hutchins
"Why would you prefer a mule to a horse?" mule lovers are
asked over and over again. Here are some of our reasons:
Mules endure heat better than horses do.
It has been
scientifically proven that the donkey is similar to the camel in its ability,
when water starved, to drink only enough water to replace lost body fluids. Most
mules inherit this ability. Water founder in a mule is so rare as to be notable
when it does occur.
Mules have fewer feeding problems than horses do.
keep their draft and work mules together in pens with feed available at all
times, yet the mules rarely overeat to the point of colic or founder. Mules from
pony mares, however, may grass or grain or road founder, so the idea that a mule
never founders is not true. Mules require no fancy hayjust plain, clean,
fresh hay suitable for equines. People who buy cheaper weedy hay find that their
mules clean out the weeds first.
Mules eat less than horses do.
Mules that are not working
usually don't need grain at all. Good pasture or clean hay is the usual
maintenance ration, unless extra fat is required for show purposes. Many a man
has complained that his mules won't fatten because they won't eat enough,
requiring the owner to spend extra money buying richer food to put the fat on.
When mules are working, their grain ration is usually about 1/3 less than that
of a horse of the same size. Of course, a mule must be fed enough for its size,
its metabolism, and the work it is doing.
Mules rarely have hoof problems.
Mules naturally have small,
upright, boxy feetwhich is part of the secret of their surefootedness.
Mules that work on pavement, stony ground, etc. are shod, but most pleasure
animals, or mules that work on softer ground, never see a shoe. Regular hoof
trimming keeps them just fine. Their feet are strong, tough, flexible, and
usually not as brittle and shelly as those of a horse. They have less of a
problem with splitting, chipping, and contracted heels.
Mules excel in physical soundness.
Mules last longer, are more "maintenance
free," and are less expensive at the vet's office than horses are. Leg
problems are far less likely in a mule than in a horse, and when leg problems do
occur, they are far less severe. "Why do they stay sound?" wonders
Robert Miller, DVM. "Seeking answers... equine practitioners exposed daily
to the tragedy of lameness in beautiful horses, look at the mules, run their
hands down the tough little legs, and wonder." Not only legs, but wind, "innards,"
and all other parts of the mule including his hide are tougher and more durable
than comparable parts of the horse. Hybrid vigor explains a lot of this; the
tough physical and mental qualities of the donkey explain the rest.
Mules live longer productive lives than horses do.
average 18 years to a horse's 15 years. When the mule is a companion animal
doing lighter work and getting better medical care, better feed, and good
management, the mule can give its owner good riding at age 30; 40-year-old
retirees are not at all uncommon.
Mules can more easily than horses be handled in large groups.
can be corraled on farms 30 or 40 to a group, or up to 500 in a feeding pen,
without the injuries or other consequences commonly seen with horses.
Mules have a strong sense of self preservation.
This is one good
reason why mules physically last longer than horses do. If they are overheated,
overworked, or overused for any reason, mules will either slow down to a safe
pace or stop completely. Mules are not stubborn. Neither are donkeys. Yes, of
you want them to work too hard for their own well being, especially in hot
weather, they will be "stubborn." We have never heard of a messenger
running a mule to death the way legends say they ran their horses! The facts
that mules are inclined not to panic, that they think about what is happening to
them, and they take care of their own physical well being prevents many
accidents that might happen if they were horses.
Mules are surefooted and careful.
Their surefootedness is partly
physical and partly psychological. On the physical side, the mule has a narrower
body than a horse of the same height and weight. He gets this from the ass side
of the family. His legs are strong and his feet are small and neat. This narrow
structure and small hoof configuration enable him to place his feet carefully
and neatly. On the psychological side, mules have a tendency to assess
situations and act according to their views (most of which have to do with self
preservation). A mule will trust its own judgement before it trusts yours.
Mules incur fewer veterinary expenses.
It seems odd and
unprovable, but to the confirmed mule owner a horse seems to be a vet bill
waiting for a place to happen. Hybrid vigor accounts for a good deal of the
mule's sturdy health. The toughness of the ass accounts for the other aspects.
Perhaps the instinct of self preservation that shows up in such diverse ways as
not drinking or eating too much when hot, or not panicking when caught in barbed
wire, accounts for the rest. This is not to say that mules never get sick,
injured, or otherwise "damaged." It is just that they are tougher than
horses and they take care of themselves better.
Mules don't look like horses.
This is the thing about a mule
that is most obvious to the casual observer--of course they look different.
Well, you see, mule lovers like the look of a mule. We love those
magnificent big ears. We love to watch those ears flop in a relaxing rhythm on a
placid drive, or prick rigidly forward when the mule spots something
interesting. We begin to think there is something wrong with those tiny little
useless-looking ears of a horse. We like the mule's look of strength without
bulk. We enjoy being different, knowing that a mule will draw attention where
only the most outstanding and expensive horse will stand out from the crowd.
Everyone looks at a colorful Appaloosa, but everyone "oohs" and "aahs"
over a colorful Appaloosa mule. We like they way a mule sounds, tookinda
silly, but fun.
Mules are loaded with personality.
This is the most difficult
thing to define. Yes, mules are intelligent. They can be very decided about how
they want to do things. They are great at running a bluff, a trait they
undoubtedly get from the donkey. All of our donkeys refuse to do anything until
they are aboslutely positive that we are going to make them do it, then they
give right in and cooperate like angels. Rather than pit your strength against
the tremendous strength of a mule, either outthink him or use some physical
means to calmly outmaneuver him. By physical means, we mean gadgetsyes
that horrifying word. Gadgets that come immediately to mind are tying up a fore
or hind foot; draw reins; twitches; chain leads; etc. Any of these, used
carefully to achieve a specific goal, will allow you to call your mule's bluff.
Once you do that, you have won. The key to handling mules is to do things
simply, calmly, and firmly. Don't lose your temper and don't push too hard until
you are ready and sure you can make it stick. The big secret to having a calm
mule that never kicks and doesn't have bad habits is to handle it firmly but
gently from the time it is born, or from the time you acquire the mule.
and Betsy Hutchins are founders of the
American Donkey and Mule
Society and co-authors of
The Modern Mule, from
which the above was adapted with permission.