Most of the time on this blog, I talk about things related to horses. Today I’m going to discuss another type of equine – mules.
We’ve all heard expressions such as “stubborn as a mule” and “mule-headed,” implying that mules are uncooperative and unpleasant. If they actually are that bad, why were they developed in the first place and why are some people so devoted to them?
Mules are a hybrid cross between a donkey and a horse. Usually a donkey stallion (jack) and a horse mare because the mother has the most influence on the size of the offspring. A hinney is produced by breeding a horse stallion to a donkey and is usually smaller. (Both are referred to as mules.) Almost all mules are sterile due to having an odd number of chromosomes (63). VERY rarely a mare mule may reproduce, but there is no record of a fertile mule stallion.
Mules come in all shapes and sizes from minis (36”) to drafts (17 hands). The average size is slightly smaller than a horse. However they have the hardiness and endurance of a donkey, which made them invaluable for farming and carrying cargo. President George Washington was convinced that they were superior to horses for agricultural work and devoted a lot effort to developing a useful breed of mules. He’s considered the “father of American mules.”
While tractors and mechanization reduced the mules’ role on the farm, they are still valued for their ability to carry weight. All over the world they still serve as pack animals, transporting cargo in areas where vehicles can’t go. Due to their sure-footedness, they are invaluable in mountainous areas. They are used for packing trips, carry riders down into the Grand Canyon, and even transport military supplies in the Afghanistan.
Today, at least in the Western world, they are mostly used for pleasure. Mules can do anything a horse can and are now being shown in every type of class from English and Western Pleasure to Dressage and Reining. They even have their own exclusive event, known as the Coon Hunter’s Jump. In the South, farmers would hunt raccoons that were raiding their farms and during the chase would often encounter wire fences which were hard to see. So they’d put a coat or blanket over the wire and ask their mules to jump over from a standing start. The mules are so good at this type of jumping it evolved into a contest. Instead of running up to a jump as horses do, the mules clear up to six feet from a stand still!
What about the reputed stubbornness? It depends on who you ask. Mules are extremely intelligent – some say smarter than horses due to the hybrid vigor that also makes them stronger. They tend to have strong opinions about things. While horses can be literally worked to death, a mule will stop and say “no more.” They also will not accept harsh handling. So someone who tries to force a mule will encounter stiff resistance. But if you “ask” you can get a very willing, loyal partner. Many people dearly love their mules and prefer them to horses.
I once went on a day long trail ride on a Tennessee Walking Horse mule. While she didn’t gait, she did have a wonderful, ground-covering walk that was very comfortable to ride. How about you? Have you had any experiences with a mule? Gone into the Grand Canyon or packed into the mountains?
************Mule photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/oh37tl5 Pack mule: http://tinyurl.com/nzezt8s Two mules photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/m8lvtde