Monday, August 25, 2008

Mules: the Next Big Thing in dressage?

go to 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.

rising moon mulesMost 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.
I bet this sounds intimidating! It makes one wonder how much you can really do with them. Well, the pix and videos below may help you see what they can do...

Trail mules
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!

Jumping mules
This video shows coon jumping (from a standstill).

Here is a link to a hunter mule.

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

Dressage mules!

Mule owned/ridden by Pat Mitchell of southern California

Dressage mule prospect

D Bar S Ranch dressage mule


Trick mules
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)...

Mule resources

About mules from
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 (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

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

General interest

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. 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

With Gas Costs Rising, Farmers Take to Mules (a recent news story from NPR)

Muletopia Gazette

Mule and donkey publications from, includes a selection of books and periodicals

Cheers for longears from Grit magazine

Mules and more... magazine


  1. Wow! I read your article and I can't wait to read the other resources you linked. I've been really curious about mules for a while now. I haven't had the pleasure of riding one yet (although I've ridden a large donkey once).

    I tend to enjoy intelligent, "stubborn" to some, horses. So I've begun to wonder if I'd enjoy a mule.

    Thank you for the info!

  2. no NO NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! My eyes! My EYESSSS!!!!

  3. Anonymous, anonymous. May your eyes be opened to new and different forms of beauty!!! Personally I find them lovely and amazing.

  4. i've always been fascinated by mules. i have a mild problem with the whole "interspecies" thing, but i can get past it in this case. i think mules are amazing too! and they are adoooorable. i'd love to have one. this was a great informative post. i'm going to check out the links too :-) thanks!

  5. What a wonderful, informative post. There is a very popular spotted mule in our area who does very, very well in dressage and eventing. He and his young rider have managed to beat some of the big dollar warmbloods in several dressage events.

    I love mules. I'd love to have one one of these days. I've foxhunted mules in the past and they are an absolute BLAST.

  6. Great post!

    We have a miniature donkey who LOVES to jump - he squeezes into our arena when my daughter is jumping her pony and follows them right over the jumps.

    It does seem true about the training differences.

  7. Wonderful article. My husband farmed with Percheron mules in Indiana. The jumping from a stand still is amazing, as are those trail mules. I wonder what an Arabian mule cross would be like? You make me want to go to Dreamhorse and just see what mules are available. I took care of an old German man, and he said his knees were bad from farming with mules in early life. He spent long hourse behind a walking plow. He had an old Victrola and a 78 record he played on it for me, and the song was "Git Along, Mule!" It was cute, but I can't remember the words.


  9. Great article, but I object to one thing. This article says "I know that Harvey is terrified of donkeys, so perhaps they were concerned that horses would not accept their longeared partners." I am a mule owner who shows in horse shows, and I believe a rider should have enough ability to restrain their horse that there should not be horses out of control because of a "horse with long ears". Besides, horses aren't shown in the ring together in dressage. Thank you for this article!

  10. I have owned and ridden a mule for four years. I board at a large stable. Others are amazed at my john mule's calm demeanor and willingness to work hard. Yes there have been times when he felt his safety was compromised and was reluctant to move forward. The first few trail rides out alone, for instance. He is a true joy. And the bond they have with their trusted owner is so strong.


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.