What is a mule?
A mule is a cross between two species of equine: the horse or pony (Equus caballus) and the domestic donkey (Equus asinus). The word 'mule' is often used for either the cross of male donkey on female horse or female donkey on male horse, although the latter cross is more correctly known as a 'hinny'.
Despite the fact that both mules and hinnies each have one horse and one donkey parent, the two crosses generally differ from each other in appearance and stature and to some extent in temperament - a fact which has been recognised since they were first bred.
What does the mule proper look like?
The mule proper is said to have the body of a horse with the extremities of a donkey. The most noticeable points are its long ears, short thin mane, which may stand upright like a donkey's or be a little longer and flop over, and a tail which has shortish hairs on the dock a little longer than the donkey's but also has long hairs like the horse's, and is much fuller than the donkey's. The withers are low or non-existent, the back flat with a goose rump, the body flat-sided with weaker quarters than the horse, and also narrower and less deep-shouldered. The legs are, like the donkey's, straight, with small, hard, dense, upright, straight-sided hooves. The head is a little narrower than the donkey's, but otherwise very similar, except for the eyes, which are specifically mule - but difficult to describe.
The hinny generally has the body of a donkey with the extremities of the horse. The ears are shorter than a mule's, the mane and tail longer and thicker, the legs sturdier with hooves which are rounder and less upright, the body rounder and deeper, and the head shorter and narrower. The most common coat colour is blue-grey roan. However, it is noticeable that hinnies differ far more from each other than do mules, with every imaginable variation, from being almost indistinguishable from a horse, through being mule-like, to being almost indistinguishable from a donkey
What are the advantages of mules?
Mules, having hybrid vigour, can grow taller than both parents. Weight for weight they are stronger than horses, and are much longer-lived with much longer working lives, although maturing slightly later. They rarely become ill or lame, can withstand extremes of temperature, can live on frugal rations, have tremendous stamina and resilience and are exceptionally sure-footed.
Hinnies are said to lack hybrid vigour, and it has always been recognised that they are smaller than mules (although this may partly be due to their being carried in a smaller womb), less strong and with less stamina and hardiness.
Mules have a reputation for being obstinate and bad-tempered, but as with donkeys, the mule's legendary stubbornness is in fact a manifestation of its talent for self-preservation. There are times when a human finds this 'talent' annoying, when he is disobeyed by a mule, but there are many other times when it can be a great advantage: if a mule takes care of itself, then it follows that it is also taking great care of its cargo, human or otherwise. It is not for nothing that mules are chosen rather than horses to take tourists down the Grand Canyon! By intelligent handling, it is quite possible to foresee occasions on which a mule is likely to be 'stubborn' and to avoid them.
The undeserved reputation for bad temper is, I believe, due to the mule's unexpectedly sensitive and untrusting nature. Until he has learnt to trust a person, he is worried that the person may do him harm, and will take defensive action (never offensive) by kicking them, should he feel the occasion merits it. And mules are splendid kickers - they kick fast and accurately, and if a mule misses, it is because he intended to. Unfortunately many of the people who have worked with mules over the centuries have not appreciated this sensitivity, and have not understood another characteristic of the mule: that you cannot force him to do anything, but must persuade him, or organise his work so that he is only asked to do those things which he will want to do. Failure to appreciate this has led to many a battle between man and mule, and to the mule's bad reputation.
Mules are highly intelligent - mule devotees would say more intelligent than horses - and are very quick to learn, with a grasp of a situation which often seems little short of miraculous. This means that their handlers need to be quick-witted to stay one jump ahead of them. A well-trained and handled mule is obliging, kind, patient, persevering, calm, tolerant, sensible, loyal, affectionate, playful - and also proud, jealous and calculating. Being so intelligent, a badly trained and handled mule can be a problem.
Hinnies tend to be more donkey-like in temperament, which may be partly due to the fact that they were reared by donkeys, although this is unlikely to be the whole of the story. They are generally quieter, more compliant, less curious, less adventurous and less independent than mules. Being less sensitive and untrusting, they are less likely to kick, preferring to avoid trouble rather than confront it. Despite their reputation for being less useful than mules, there are many examples of their being much appreciated.
How big do mules grow?
Anything from about 32" to 18hh plus, depending on the size of the parents, but most
mules in Britain at present are under 13.2hh.
Do mules come in male and female and can they have foals?
They have all the normal sexual characteristics, both physical and temperamental, but males are always infertile, and females normally so - fertile mules are very rare indeed. However, males should be castrated to avoid them becoming aggressive; most females come into season either regularly or occasionally, but are only rarely 'mareish'.
What can you use mules for?
Anything you can use horses and ponies for, depending only on size: riding - racing, endurance riding, hunting, jumping, gymkhanas, dressage, shepherding etc.; in harness - private driving, scurrying, cross country, dressage, light and heavy haulage, agricultural work; under pack - for work or leisure.
Are mules really bad tempered and do they kick?
Mules are only bad-tempered if handled incorrectly and with lack of understanding. They can kick with great speed and accuracy, but only do so in self-defence, when they are afraid or think something is going to hurt them.
Are mules as stubborn as everyone says?
They are exceptionally intelligent, which some handlers find difficult to cope with; this, and their great sense of self-preservation (which means they also look after their rider or cargo) accounts for their totally undeserved reputation for stubbornness. If mule and handler trust and understand each other, so that the mule knows that what he is asked to do is in his interests, there will be no problems.
How much will I have to pay for a mule?
An impossible question; as a general rule, a small, young, unbroken mule will cost the same as or slightly less than a similar pony, e.g. £200-£500; a big, mature, well-trained and handled mule, which can be ridden and driven, being rarer than a similar horse, could cost more, e.g.£2,000- £4,000. So much depends on supply and demand, and these prices are only a very rough guide.
Where can I buy a mule?
They are sold at horse sales, advertised in horse magazines, and the BMS keeps a register of mules for sale and wanted, being contacted from time to time by people with mules for sale.
How do I breed a mule?
Choose the parents with care; the mare's conformation should compensate for any faults in the jack, and she should have a similar amount of bone to that required in your mule; both parents should have good temperaments. Big jack donkeys are few and far between in Britain at present, but a donkey can serve a mare up to 3hh larger than himself; if he is unwilling and not all donkeys will serve mares - or if you want to breed with a mare more than 3hh bigger than the jack, it is relatively easy to use artificial insemination.
Are mules difficult to look after?
They are very easy to look after in that they are rarely ill or lame, rarely need shoeing, are not fussy about their food and can withstand extremes of climate.
Are mules difficult to train?
No, but their natures are different to horses you must gain your mule's trust and learn to understand each other, and then he will do anything for you.