What do I know about mules from personal experience? Other than what I learned watching Francis the Talking Mule, not a lot. This article is a sincere attempt to present some newly acquired knowledge about mules, and especially mules in athletic pursuits. Any mule-savvy readers: please feel free to correct anything in this article that might be over- or understated, or just plain wrong.
The sport/dressage mule
My research on mules includes the Internet and several books I got on interlibrary loan (see bibliography at the end of this article). I also spoke to some "cowboy friends" who had worked with mules before. Donkeys and mules are increasingly popular in the U.S. Their numbers have grown from 27K in 1982 to 105K in 2002 (Equine 2005, Part II: Changes in the U.S. Equine Industry, 1998-2005). The focus of this article is mules in sport, especially the non-western disciplines such as dressage and jumping. There are many different types of mules and breeding specializations: gaited, trail, halter, saddle, pack, coon jumping, etc. However, the dressage, hunter/jumper, or sport mule is an emerging idea. Yes, there are mules competing in these areas, but not in large numbers. Do I think mules will be the Next Big Thing in dressage? Well -- no. But wouldn't it be fun to see more of them? They are adorable.
Most of you probably know that a mule is part donkey (sire) and part horse (mare). According to an article I read by mule enthusiast Lisa Ferguson, to produce a riding mule it's best to select a jack/sire that will allow the mare to determine the traits of the offspring as much as possible. A breeder of a sport-type mule would match a jack that does not pass on his own physical traits with a mare suited to the desired discipline. An AQHA mare might make a trail/pleasure horse, and arabian mommy could produce an endurance mule, while a thoroughbred or warmblood mare might make a dressage or jumper-type baby. Mammoth jacks who stand over 56" high are often used to produce riding horses.
Are mules allowed in dressage?
In 1994, the USEF passed a rule to permit mules to compete in endurance and driving in addition to dressage. Interestingly, in the dressage community a common objection to mules in competition was safety. I know that Harvey is terrified of donkeys, so perhaps they were concerned that horses would not accept their longeared partners. Mules can compete in USDF competitions or mule competitions that offer dressage classes. Christine Duval-Senty (pictured right with Pass the Buck) claims the honor of being the first to compete a mule in a USDF competition. Her mount was Pass the Buck and in their first season they won top ribbons, including several first places, competing against horses.
So what are mules like, anyway?
Meredith Hodges, who trained her mule Sundowner to 3rd level dressage and is a long-time longear advocate, states:
"The only real difference between training horses and mules is that horses will allow people to take advantage of them which makes them look like they are smarter than horses and easier to train, but the fact is that mules are smarter in that they simply will not abide anyone being inconsiderate about training them which makes them seem dumber and harder to train."
There are many differences between horses and mules, but I'll confine this article to things that affect training mules for sport. Several things seem to stand out in mule learning and behavior:
- Everything I have read suggests that mules have a reputation of being harder to train because they aren't pushovers like horses. Horses are flight animals. When they can't escape a situation, they're pretty easy to intimidate. Donkeys (mules are half donkey, half horse) grew up in a more confined habitat. They survived in part by developing the skills to reason, and by nurturing a a cautious, analytical approach to interacting with their environment. Mules and donkeys like to take their time and figure things out. I read an article that said whereas a horse being mistreated will try his darndest to get away, a donkey or mule is more likely to lie down in in a show of supreme resistance. Mules, experts say, resent being bullied and respond badly to inconsistent or poor training.
- They require PATIENCE and work best with a minimium of punishment. Punishment should never outweigh the crime. Mules have long memories and remember injustices. Treat them fairly and they will trust you.
- Principles of behavior modification--rewards and positive reinforcement in particular -- are important for all types of animal training, but clear and consistent training is critical for mules/donkeys. When training donkeys/mules, food is a standard reward -- more so than with horses. Crimped oats is the recommended reward (other treats can distract from the task or even prompt aggressive behavior).
- Donkeys and mules have a stronger need to really bond with their owners than horses have -- training is dependent on this bond. A friend of mine who is an old cowboy type said you want to be the first or second owner of a mule, because a) no one has had a chance to mess them up and b) you'll achieve a stronger bond--like their "first love".
- Donkeys and mules are not tolerant of being off-balance or physically insecure. Resistance is likely to occur where animals are not comfortable with the weight or balance of a rider.
While I can't say I approve of these activities, you have to admire the willingness of these mules and their ability to take care of their fool owners!
This video shows coon jumping (from a standstill).
Meredith Hodges jumping her eventing mule
Photo from Mule Days 2007
Another beautiful mule
Dewey the jumping mule
John Henry, mule with his own web page, foxhunting
Grey jumping mule
Rising Moon mules
Mule owned/ridden by Pat Mitchell of southern California
Dressage mule prospect
D Bar S Ranch dressage mule
Rocky the trick mule is pretty darned impressive. Hats off to the trainer, who seems to love his mule. Check out his big QH butt (the mule, I mean)...
About mules from gaitedmules.com
Addresses some common myths about mule behavior -- do they hold a grudge, are they stubborn, etc.
Mule Psychology 101: Mule's Are Better by Cindy K. (McKinnon) Roberts, mule enthusiast
Donkey vs. horse behavior from longearsmall.com (a good Web site to check out, by the way
Why a mule is not a dumbass from New Scientist (about hybrid vigor)
Natural Superiority of Mules (a book about mule traits and behavior)
Health and physical condition
Mule and donkey nutrition from About.com
Mules, Donkeys, and more from The Horse magazine
Long-eared lovin from The Horse magazine
Health concerns of mules and donkeys from The Horse magazine
Donkey tree (pedigree database)
Anatomical differences in donkeys
Donkeys and Hybrids includes a good description of the range of physical traits seen in mules
Riding and Sport
Mule Days in Colorado (first hand account from a blogger)
Let's show your mule! A book with many pictures of show mules by Robert Mischka
Mules in dressage
Mules and donkeys: relative newcomers to the recreational scene
Training Mules and Donkeys : A Logical Approach to Longears
A book by Meredith Hodges, and accomplished mule rider and trainer who literally "wrote the book" on longear training. She also has a DVD series and an informative Web site.
Lovelongears.com has a good deal of information about mules and donkeys
Lucky Three Ranch is owned by Meredith Hodges -- she provides a wealth of information and expertise on mules.
Why mules? from Rural Heritage.com
With Gas Costs Rising, Farmers Take to Mules (a recent news story from NPR)
Mule and donkey publications from worldhorsedata.com, includes a selection of books and periodicals
Cheers for longears from Grit magazine
Mules and more... magazine