Rural Heritage Mule Paddock

14 Points to Consider when Mule Shopping
by Betsy Hutchins

After you decide what kind of mule you want, consider the following points while mule shopping:

  1. How much money can you spend? Buy a mule within your budget. Falling in love is not a good excuse to buy a mule priced beyond your budget. Instead, put that animal on your #2 list —but look, look, look for an animal that fits your requirements and your budget before you go to the #2 list.

  2. If an animal has been shown, ask for a record of its accomplishments. Don't take "has been shown" as a recommendation. An animal that has won only in halter classes may have no idea what to do in harness or under saddle. Find out what classes the mule entered, how the mule did, who drove or rode it, how many shows, and how long ago.

  3. Allow the mule to sell itself. Its personality, performance, manners, and behavior when driven or ridden are important in making your decision. Sellers rarely guarantee an animal's disposition and behavior. Most complaints following the purchase of a mule are about bad training, bad habits, and bad disposition usually resulting in bad injuries.

  4. Ask questions. Make a list before you leave home and don't be shy about asking them. Include questions about health history, foot history (mules can founder), habits, disposition, odd quirks, bad habits, and training history. Make clear which bad habits you can deal with and which are beyond your capability. If a professional trained the mule, try to find out about the trainer. Some horse trainers should never be allowed near a mule, while others are fine mule trainers. Even an honest seller may not know everything, but that's okay. Try to find the answers some other way. If you're worried about soundness and hoofs, for instance, rely on a vet check.

  5. Ask why the mule is for sale and think about the answer. It may not be true. If you have any doubts, pay attention to your instincts. Don't show your doubt, but double check anything that seems doubtful. Careful is better than gullible, but don't be so cautious you never buy a mule. Try to hit a happy medium when deciding whether to believe a seller you don't know. The seller's experiences, thoughts, concerns, and priorities are bound to be different from yours.

  6. Whether or not you are experienced in buying equines, take a knowledgeable person with you. That person may be a big help in noticing points you miss and may have knowledge that varies from yours.

  7. Let the seller demonstrate. Be sure you see the animal from the time it is caught to the time it is harnessed or saddled and ready to use. If an animal is tied up and waiting when you get there, perhaps it is difficult to catch or has bad stable manners the seller doesn't want you to see.

    Never buy a mule you haven't seen caught in an open field or in an environment similar to yours. If the mule is young, a judicious amount of treats may help you catch it. An older animal that is hard to catch can be a terrible trial.

    After you see the animal caught and tacked up, have the seller drive or ride it so you can estimate whether the animal is suitable to your experience level. I know a 200-pound woman who bought a small mule after seeing it ridden bareback by a 10-year-old boy, only to discover that the kid was a fledgling jockey and the mule hated weight and a saddle girth. Make sure you see the animal worked the same way you will be using it.

  8. If you plan to keep your mule with other animals, find out how it behaves with that kind of animal. Some mules, for instance, are untrustworthy with calves or colts.

  9. Vets are expensive; you wouldn't want to have a vet check every mule you look at. Instead learn the basic things a vet checks for, including how to look for lameness or other health problems. You might get an equine vet to show you what to check, or consult one of the many available horse books.

  10. When you find a serious prospect have the animal vet checked for soundness and general health. Do not neglect this step.

  11. Drive or ride the mule as much as possible in surroundings similar to yours. An animal that behaves perfectly in an arena may spook at every tree on a trail drive. Drive or ride the mule alone. Many animals will be perfect when taken out with another but will break for the barn when being worked alone.

    I once bought an animal you could ride exactly two miles away from home no matter what direction it was going. He would spin in his tracks and run toward home as fast as he could. I didn't discover this habit before buying him because I did not get far enough away from his stable. I corrected the problem with firmness, but the seller may have laughed had I wanted to return the animal.

    Buying an equine always has pitfalls, but careful trial driving or riding will help you weed out the worst habits before you buy. Many mules probably have the same complaint, but unfortunately they have no recourse.

  12. Don't buy a mule because the seller likes it, but because you like it.

  13. If the mule is registered, make sure the registration papers are in order before the final sale. Do not take anyone's word that "the papers will be sent." Get registration papers when the money changes hands. Insist on full registration paperwork, including a transfer form, and make copies of the transfer and registration paperwork before you send them to the breed organization.

    The buyer suffers if the seller does not do the registration paperwork.

  14. As with any other business transaction, make sure both you and the seller understand and agree on the terms of the sale. Many problems, from disagreements to lawsuits, may be avoided by clearly defining all points of the sale.

    Don't assume the seller will guarantee soundness. Although the seller should at least guarantee that the animal would pass a veterinary soundness exam performed within a specified time after sale, it's better to have a vet check before you buy. Don't expect the seller to give you your money back if the animal goes lame or has some other unsoundness after the vet exam. A new Coggins test should be taken right before the sale or as part of the soundness exam after the sale, and the seller must guarantee a negative Coggins. If a trial period is in the sale agreement, clearly spell out who is responsible in the event the animal is injured, becomes ill, or dies. Talk to people who have bought equines and find out what problems they had.

    Make a reasonable written and dated list of both the buyer's and seller's responsibilities. Sign it, ask the seller to sign it, and both keep a copy. Whatever the ultimate legal value of a sales guarantee, the detailing of intentions will lessen the chance of an eventual disagreement because everything is clearly outlined.

To tell you everything about buying a mule would be impossible. The main points boil down to: think ahead and use self control and common sense.


Betsy Hutchins is co-founder of the American Donkey and Mule Society from which you may obtain a list of mule breeders in your state for 50 cents. This article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Rural Heritage.

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15 April 2012 last revision