How Mules Combine the Best of Horses and Donkeys

Mules are marvelous in every way. First their very existence is a marvel. As horses and donkeys have a different number of chromosomes one would not expect them to be able to breed together and produce live offspring. Mules are about the only animal that can be bred to order. When the mare is bigger than the jack donkey the height can be predicted at approximately two thirds between the two. When both are the same height, the mule is likely to be larger than its parents. By careful selection of the parents a mule can be bred for any job, harness, pack, or saddle. As mules are also sterile mistakes cannot be rectified in the next generation, so mule breeders take good care to get it right first time.

We hear much about ‘hybrid vigor’ from breeders of anything in the plant or animal kingdom; mules truly display this, possibly, more than any other living thing. Physically the mule is a perfect blend of horse and donkey features though it is often said that a mule is “a horse in the middle and a donkey at the extremities” and this is true, to a certain extent. The mule has a rounder, heavier body than a donkey, much more like a horse in shape. But it tends to have finer legs like a donkey ending in small, neat donkey hooves. The ears are much longer than those of horse, almost as long as those of a donkey. The tail is about fifty/fifty; the dock, is longer and thinner than that of a horse but not as long as that of a donkey and the hair, usually sparser than on a horse, grows evenly from top to bottom, not in a tassel like a donkey switch. The mane can be stand-up or floppy but either way mules do not sport thick flowing manes. Measured in terms of what it can pull or carry a mule is usually stronger than either of its progenitors. Donkeys have strong ‘fronts’, shoulders and neck and horses strong hindquarters. Most mules get both.

Mules have long been valued for their economical working capacity. Not only are they stronger than their parents but they can also survive (and thrive) on cheaper poorer fodder and greater extremes of heat. This does not mean they have poor appetites or are not fussy, given the chance, what it does mean is that they can make the best of what is available. Horses are grazers while donkeys tend to be browsers, more like goats. Mules do both thus taking advantage of the best food wherever it grows.

The mule has been described as the 4-wheel drive of the equine world. But it also has hidden, and more important attributes in their brain and character. After nearly thirty years of experience with mules I can only say ‘Amazing!’ It is not just for their physical qualities and their renowned sure-footedness that mules are chosen to work in such important tourist places as The Grand Canyon. They also have a very large slab of common-sense, or mule-sense, especially in their desire to look after themselves. If you are in a partnership situation with a mule, riding or driving, that also means they will take care of you. Mules, particularly mare or molly mules, are extremely affectionate and can be almost maternal towards the humans they know by taking real care of them in moments of crisis. They are extremely intelligent and have prodigious memories. When a mule has learned a lesson, it has learned it for life. This means that early impressions and training are all important. The flip side is that they will not forget, or forgive, cruelty or injustice and will often bide their time to get even.

Pound for pound you get more for your dollar when you buy a mule because a small mule can often do what it would take a much larger horse to achieve. Mules are immensely versatile. There is no field of equine endeavor that a mule cannot be found to excel in. There is no equine that fits my ideal of beauty better than the mule. Those long ears are elegant, neither extreme like those of the donkey nor absurdly short like those of the horse. Color wise, mules come in the same range as horses plus a few subtle shades that are unique to mules. They are economical to keep, I had a mule for twenty-eight years who never had shoes on in her life although in her prime she did a great deal of work under saddle. Nor did she ever lose condition, even in times of drought. Mules of today are no longer considered the lowlife of the equine world but are bred with care and are much sought after. Not surprising, for in addition to their other remarkable qualities each mule has something that I can only describe as ‘quintessential mule’, a hard to define quality which probably explains why being a mule lover is not something anyone outgrows.

Provided by Ann Walker. You can visit her website at

Donkey Folklore

A certain number of hairs taken from the black cross on the shoulders of a donkey, and put into a small bag made of black silk, and worn round a child’s neck afflicted with whooping cough is a never-failing remedy.

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