Communicating with Your Mule
by Sophia Sarember

Communicating with an animal is like communicating with a person who speaks a foreign language. If I am trying to get a person who speaks only Chinese to do a task for me and I speak to him in English, he will not understand. If I yell at him in English, wave my arms, and get angry he still won't understand and he may become fearful of what I am about to do. (If this sounds ridiculous, consider for a moment how some teamsters lose their tempers with their equines, which undoubtedly have perfect hearing and are quite intelligent.) In the process of getting my Chinese-speaking friend to help me in my work, I will learn a little Chinese and he will learn some English.

In trying to communicate with mules, the first thing to understand is that they want to please you. Underneath what may appear to be an unfeeling character is a willing and intelligent creature. I have had experience with draft and light horses, mules, and donkeys. I can say with confidence that after communication and trust have been established, donkeys are some of the hardest working and devoted souls I have ever dealt with. The mule inherits this quality and it makes him a reliable, dependable, and loyal fellow.

Most people who are interested in farming, driving, or riding are familiar with the horse, so their observations on the mule tend to draw comparisons to the horse. The donkey is taken into consideration as far as the mule's physical values go, yet the mule is expected to think and act like a horse. When it does not, it is labeled as stubborn or recalcitrant. Herein lies most, if not all, the difficulties that trouble mule handlers.

In addition to inheriting the donkey's penchant for hard work and loyalty, the mule acquires the donkey's attitude of extreme caution. While horses instinctively react, donkeys appear to evaluate a situation for themselves and then act. The key to working through difficult situations is directly linked to how much trust a mule has in his handler. This trust is gained through patient and systematic methods of training. Whenever a mule refuses to obey, it is because he has not understood you or he does not trust you in what you are asking of him.

You can never force a mule to obey you. If you try, any compliance will be short lived. The best methods are based on explaining to the mule what you want. If you use a method of restraint, like a twitch or a Scotch hobble, it must be approached with the idea that you are explaining to the mule that you want him to stand still, not that you are forcing him to submit.

Handlers often try to "drive" a mule to compel it to do what they wish. Horses may be driven, or pushed into an impulsive state of energy. When a whip is applied to the horse, he will instinctively spring into motion (although sometimes not in the desired direction). When a whip is applied to a donkey, his instinct is to remain where he is until he is sure of the situation. If you continue to whip the donkey, he becomes more resolute and may drop to the ground in a heap of defiance.

It is not the donkey's nature to panic and flee, as may be observed when a donkey is spooked. He will walk or trot (or, in an extremely frightening situation, canter) a short distance, stop, and evaluate conditions before going farther. A spooked horse may bolt uncontrollably over a great distance, causing harm to himself in the process. What puzzles many mule handlers is that in any given situation the mule may act like either the donkey or the horse. The muleteer must recognize and appeal to both the horse and the donkey temperament resident within the mule.

A mule's or donkey's attitude to his work is one of partnership with his handler. While well-trained horses obey without question, mules and donkeys are more task oriented. They seem to be concerned with the overall job, rather than with isolated cues. Once you have taught a job to a mule he will continue to perform the task almost unaided and in clockwork fashion. If you interfere with his task by continually giving cues, he will be offended and may resist.

Here is a simple example: I regularly ride my saddle mule Stanley through a particular gate on our property. When I return from my ride I close the gate while mounted and we go on our way. When I first taught Stanley to work the gate I had to explain with leg and hand cues how to move and what to do so I could close the gate without dismounting. Once he learned the task and knew the routine, it became his job. Now when I go through the gate Stanley automatically turns and positions himself so I may do my half of the job of closing the gate. If I were to give Stanley the physical cues to work the gate he would be confused and resentful—he knows his job, so why am I hindering him?

Some horsemen find this attribute maddening. To others it is a great asset in the process of completing daily chores. But what if you need to change your routine? That, too, is quite simple. Just explain to your mule in a quiet and confident manner that you want him to proceed on a different course.

In the example of the gate, if I no longer wanted to shut it, the first time we went through Stanley may throw his head and refuse to walk on without shutting the gate. Without reacting to his protests I would wait a moment and again ask him to go on. After a couple of days of going through the gate without closing it, he would realize that we are no longer doing this task and he would be fine. Mules can be retrained, but they need assurance that it is not their fault the retraining is required.

My mule, who happily skids logs for firewood, is also a sensitive dressage mount and jumper. Such accomplishments are within the grasp of any responsible, thinking handler. Contrary to what seems to be common belief, mules may be guided with the lightest of cues.

A mule is hard mouthed only when:

  • he does not understand

  • you have lost his trust

  • you have pushed him past the limits of his training level

When you set out to train or retrain a mule, start at the beginning. Assuming your mule already knows something will only leave gaps in his education. Break down tasks into their simplest form, ask only for a little improvement each training session, and reward every effort your mule gives. Build successively from one training goal to another. If you are consistent, fair, and logical in your methods, your mule will gradually learn that under your apparent cool exterior lies a person who has his best interests at heart.

Whenever possible, take time to observe, read, listen, and ask questions about mules and donkeys. Your mule will be your best instructor if you take time to open a respectful dialogue.


Sophia Sarember of Tijeras, New Mexico, gives clinics on mules, donkeys, and horses (both draft and light). This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Rural Heritage.

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15 April 2012 last revision