What is a Mule? (A Complete Guide)

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What Is A Mule?

Mule foals are the offspring of a female horse (a mare) and a donkey (a jack). A tough, industrious animal, mules are renowned for their toughness and placid nature and are considered a perfect working animal by many. The mule has featured in almost every major human conflict, which is a testament to their endeavor and strength.

A hinny is the opposite of a mule as they are the offspring of a male horse (a stallion) and a female donkey (a Jenny).  

History

The mule’s origins can be traced back to the days of antiquity. Undoubtedly the oldest manmade mammal, the mule was commonplace by the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Between 2100 BC and 1500 BC, they were used to transport the Egyptian lower-classes around.

Such was the mule’s influence on Egyptian society that they were often depicted on cave paintings commissioned by the Pharaohs. Their industry and resilience were greatly admired in the country’s hot, arid landscape, and purchasing a mule was said to cost a huge fee. 

The animal’s popularity continued to grow throughout the Ancient World. In Asia, mules were considered three times more valuable than a reliable chariot horse. As most of society was comprised of the lower classes, the demand for the mule was far greater than an opulent transport horse for the elite. 

Their impressive strength was greatly prized by the Ancient Romans and they were often used to transport heavy armor and artillery up steep hills and inclines. So impressed were the Romans that soldiers ended up carrying their own equipment as a tribute to the endurance and strength of the mule. 

Mules In The New World

These pack animals were introduced to the modern world by Christopher Columbus. After their introduction to Europe during the Middle Ages, the mule had reached worldwide recognition and was considered integral to the function of the New World. 

George Washington recognized their importance and aimed to breed the species’ very best specimens in the United States. By the early 19th-century, the American mule industry was worth around $60 million – an astronomical fee even today.

The use of mules continued to grow, and their attributes were heavily used in World War One. They would cover 60 miles a day in mountainous regions whilst wearing 250lbs of equipment – a true testament to their strength and endurance. 

World War Two marked the end of the mule as a widespread military animal. After featuring in virtually every major conflict since their inception, the advent of the tank and the airplane rendered horses and mules increasingly obsolete. 

Although mules aren’t as widely used in today’s Western world, they continue to fulfill an important role in the societies of the developing world and can be found in farms all over the world. 

For you to understand them, let’s take a look at some of their trademark characteristics and evaluate what sets them apart from their parents – the horse and the donkey.

Mule in a field

Characteristics

They have short heads, long ears, thick hooves, and a thick, muscular build. Their stock bodies are what gives them strength, and their thick, powerful hooves provide great cushioning on hard terrain.

They are usually grey or brown in color, but regional breeding practices can result in mules that are red, black, and even beige in color. 

Other defining characteristics include:

  • A height between 47 and 59 inches
  • A bodyweight of up to 1,000lb (although most mules typically sit at the 800lb mark)
  • A mental sharpness inherited from its donkey parents
  • Its physical prowess comes courtesy of its horse parents

A mule’s weight is usually determined by its mother (a mare horse), as an example, a heavier weight mule is usually born if their mother was originally a draft horse.

Mules look more similar to horses, but it’s said that they take after their donkey parents internally. Their patience, docileness, and intelligence are traits all associated with donkeys, so they are truly the best of both worlds with these two animals. 

What Do They Eat?

Now that we’ve learned some rudimentary facts about mules, let’s get into another integral facet of their lives – their diets.

Understanding an animal’s diet is key to ensuring its survival and success over time. If an animal isn’t eating right, then you’ll be unable to get the most out of it in your agricultural pursuits. With that in mind, let’s break down a mule’s diet into its three favorite foods:

1. Grain

Much like humans, the complex carbohydrates found in grains help give them energy as they work. A working mule needs to consume far more grains than a docile one, however, too much grain can result in them gaining weight rather quickly. 

The caloric nature of grain may help keep a mule satiated, but too much of it can cause it to become lethargic and slow. Overall, however, grains are an important part of their diet.

2. Pasture

This is by far the most common food consumed by mules. Nutritious, cheap, and low in calories, pasture has been a staple of a mule’s diet ever since its inception. 

Mules do gorge on food the way most other mammals do, so owners don’t need to worry about overfeeding I’m most instances. 

3. Hay

Mules, much like their horse forefathers, eat and enjoy hay. Whilst it may not be as integral to their diets as pasture and grains, basic, good-quality hay is always a good option for them.

It isn’t necessary to splurge out on fancy hays as mules aren’t particularly fussy eaters and some of the legume hays can cause mules to develop digestive issues. 

Mules don’t have the most expansive diets in the world. They’re creatures of habit and will only eat from a very limited menu. 

Breeding And Uses

As stated before, mules are primarily used to undertake tough, rigorous agricultural work. Life on the fields remains challenging even today, so being able to crossbreed animals gives farmers and workers a real advantage. 

They can carry 20 percent of their body weight, making them ideal for the transportation of both humans and goods. Their ability to carry things across a wide range of terrains has long been admired by humans over time.

How Are They Bred?

Mules are bred by interbreeding a male donkey (a jack) and a female horse (a mare). Occasionally, the parents’ genders are reversed and a male horse (a stallion) will breed with a female donkey (a jenny) and produce a hinny, but this is less common. 

Male and female mules can’t reproduce and are 99% infertile. This is because horses and donkeys have different amounts of chromosomes, and mules are born with 63 chromosomes which are widely different from another. 

Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that a mule will be able to reproduce without outside help. The differences in both the type of chromosomes and the number of chromosomes are simply too large for mules to overcome. As a result, they are largely infertile creatures. 

In the five hundred years between 1527 and 2002, only 60 cases of mule reproduction were recorded. That statistic alone will tell you that it is not likely your mule will ever get pregnant. 

Where Do They Live?

Mules live all over the world. Ever since their inception in modern-day Turkey, they have spread to every corner of the world. 

Today, Mexico and China have staked their claims as to the world’s largest mule breeders. A testament to their booming agricultural pursuits, millions of mules are bred every year in these two countries alone. 

Mules aren’t too fussy about climates and can work in cold, dry, hot, and arid landscapes. Their versatility has long been exploited by humans and mules can be found in every country. 

How Long Do They Live?

How long a mule lives depends on various factors. If the animal is fed well, housed properly, and not overworked, then a mule can live up to 50 years

The average mule, however, lives for around 35 to 40 years, as most of them lead hard, productive lives which see plenty of action. Considering the average lifespan for a horse is 35 to 40 years, mules are a long-lived and healthy breed of mammal. 

How Much Do They Cost?

Female and male mules range in price and command a price range between $1,000 and $8,000. Young, healthy mules are more expensive than old, weathered ones, however, there may be regional differences in prices. For example, a mule in China may be cheaper to buy than a mule in Northern Europe, due to the supply and demand factor. 

Initial costs aren’t the only thing to consider, though, as it costs a pretty penny to keep a mule healthy and active. After the initial purchase, owners need to keep in mind food, shelter, and other factors which all cost money. 

1. Food

The average mule consumes around $150 worth of food every month. Whilst this may sound affordable for one mule, the costs quickly increase if you’re looking to own several. 

2. Maintenance And Healthcare 

Mules are not known to be prone to sickness, but they may need vaccination against regional diseases depending on their location. 

Shoeing is another thing that’ll cost money. Mules do a lot of walking, so an owner will need to make sure their hooves are well-trimmed and free of injury. If an injury does occur, then expect to shell out a vets’ bill which, depending on the severity of the injury, could cost a fair amount. 

Whilst mules may not be the most expensive animal to keep, there are a few monetary things to consider before you purchase one. The initial downpayment may not be much, but the additional costs will definitely burn a hole in your pocket eventually. 

Are They Good For Beginners?

Mules are great animals for both farmers and riders who are just starting. They’re incredibly peaceful, docile animals who are not prone to flares of aggression or anger, and their patience is a true virtue of theirs. 

Mules Rarely Develop Illness

As we said earlier, mules rarely develop illnesses which means they are very reliable year-round. Whilst some mammals (including humans!) are susceptible to all sorts of seasonal viruses, pathogens, and bacterias, mules are rarely blighted by these and are very healthy animals in general. 

Mules Are Intelligent Animals With Great Risk Judgement

If you’re looking to venture into the world of horseriding but are too afraid of the unpredictability of horses, then mule riding may be for you. 

Horses tend to act before they think and often put themselves into precarious, scary situations. They are also prone to anxiety and are known to throw the rider off their back if they are scared. Mules, however, are brilliant at avoiding risk and will not put themselves into danger on purpose. 

They Are Also Very Low Maintainance 

Mules can thrive in every country, climate, or terrain, which is one of the main reasons behind their prolonged success. They’re also well-behaved animals who are not stubborn or abrasive. Ideal for riding, working, mules are certainly ideal for beginners who may not have the confidence to get on a horseback just yet. 

Another plus for riders is that mules don’t have the anxiety that a horse does, meaning that it is unlikely to throw you off when startled or scared.

Should I Get A Mule?

Modern-day mule owners may not need to lug their belongings on a mule’s back if they’re moving house, but there’s still a lot of uses for the animals in today’s world. 

Horseback riding has become a massive industry and mules are great substitutes due to their smaller size and stature and placid personalities. They’re also a lot cheaper to own than horses because of their resilience and smaller calorie consumption. 

Farm owners should definitely consider purchasing a mule to help them with work and security. They’re also good-natured and would make friendly companions on rural fields.

Final Thoughts

By now, you should be an expert on all things mules. Half horse and half donkey, this animal is a combination of its parents’ best qualities. Mules are a true combination of brains and brawn, a duo rarely seen in the animal kingdom. 

They are incredibly efficient, reliable animals that were created by man back in the days of antiquity. From the moment they were introduced, societies everywhere began to recognize the importance and versatility possessed by mules and their popularity quickly became widespread.

Five-thousand years of military use will tell you that they are definitely doing something right. They may have been mostly retired from military service, but mules have played an important role in humanity’s many battles. 

Despite being infertile, the mule population continues to grow every year. The demand for reliable, dependable mammals will likely never go away, meaning that mules will always have a place in society. The Western world may have mostly moved on, but mules are still used for transport in several countries. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Now that we’ve looked at mules in detail, let’s take a look at some of the most frequently asked questions about the animals:

What’s The Difference Between A Mule And A Hinny?

As well as the differences in the genders of their parents, the mule, and the hinny also have a few other fundamental differences. For example:

  • A hinny moves slower than a mule 
  • Hinnies are better at traversing steep, rocky terrain 
  • The hooves of a hinny resemble a donkey’s whilst a mule’s hooves like more like a horse’s
  • Hinnies are more selective eaters than mules

These differences may be unnoticeable to the untrained eye, but a closer look at the two breeds will reveal several key differences. 

Will Mules Protect Livestock?

Contrary to popular opinion, mules actually make terrific guard animals.
 
This is because they’ve inherited behavioral traits from both of their parents. Horses have a ‘fight’ reflect whilst donkeys have a ‘freeze’ reflex. The result is offspring that are patiently assertive.

Mules won’t decimate invading farm predators, but they’ll competently guard your farm and they can be vicious to larger, more formidable intruders. Dogs, for example, can be great guard animals, but they lack the size and presence that mules have.

Mules have everything you could want in a bodyguarding animal. They’re aggressive enough to scare off predators, but no so aggressive that they become a liability. Their mix of horse and donkey attributes make them ideal animals to have on a farm. Just be sure to train them properly before you unleash them!

Will Mules Kill Coyotes?

Mules do not like canines and are perfectly capable of stomping, biting, and even killing coyotes. If trained properly, even the most docile mule can become a stone-cold killer and guard.

However, one problem with training mules to kill coyotes is that they can get confused. If you have a pet dog on your farm, then a mule can easily mistake them for an invading coyote. Therefore, special caution must be given when training your mule to avoid an unwanted bloodbath. 

Are Mules Stronger Than Horses?

Horses weigh a lot more than mules which gives them a strong advantage. If we’re merely talking about total volume carried, then the horse wins every single time.

However, mules are still preferred over horses in some instances. For example, mules are more surefooted and better at climbing steep inclines. Furthermore, a mule does not panic when faced with a tricky, tight situation, unlike horses, who tend to panic and become aggressive when claustrophobic. 

Which Is Better – A Mule, Or A Horse?

That depends entirely on your goals and needs.

Horses have been the de facto transportation animal for thousands of years due to their strength, speed, and size. A mule can’t possibly compete with a horse when it comes to speed and strength, so the horse is definitely better in those regards.

Mules, on the other hand, are true working animals. They may not be the biggest or strongest, but they’re patient, versatile, and very easy to tame.

If you’re working on a farm and need an animal to act as a makeshift bodyguard, definitely choose the mule. If you’re looking to get somewhere as quickly as possible, choose the horse.

There is no ‘better’ animal, they are just different breeds with their own pros and cons. 

Can Mules Swim?

A common misconception is that mules, and equines in general, hate water and will panic when coming across it. This is a total myth.

Mules don’t actually mind water that much, and will happily trundle through it with no issues. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you plan on introducing your mule to a body of water:

1. Make Sure The Water Is Not Too Deep

We all started somewhere.

Think back to your earliest swimming lessons when you were a kid. Did your first lesson entail you to swim in the deep end of the pool? Hopefully not. Chances are, you were introduced to the shallow end of the pool and progressed from there.

Exactly the same philosophy applies to mules. In order to prevent it from panicking (which is rare), be sure to take baby steps with your mule and allow it to acclimatize to the water around it. Once it gains confidence, you can start introducing it to water more often.

2. Make Sure You Know How To Swim

This is obvious advice but it’s true nonetheless.

If you don’t know how to swim or are not very confident in bodies of water, then trying to ride an 800lb animal across a body of water probably isn’t the best idea.

3. Take It To A Familiar Area

You never know what’s hiding underneath the waves, so make sure your mule is in an area that you know well. Dangerous debris, such as glass or rocks, can hurt your mule’s feet, so make sure your confident in your surroundings before you go.

Mules can definitely wade through bodies of water, but remember that the task is extremely demanding on them. Go easy on it and make sure it isn’t overworked. It’s certainly possible for a mule to drown if it collapses in deep water, so be wary of that. 

So there you have it! A comprehensive breakdown on all things mules. Powerful, smart, and highly adaptable, they must just be one of mankind’s finest creations. 

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