All About Mules

This page is maintained by FH not the muleteers.... all of the opinions expressed are FH's alone, readers take advice and information at their own risk.  Please do not reproduce this information without permission.  We hope you enjoy learning more about long ears!

What is a mule?

A mule is a hybrid equine produced by mating a donkey jack with a horse/pony mare.  A hinny is a hybrid produced by mating a female donkey with a horse/pony stallion; hinnies are much less common than mules, the mating to produce them is notoriously unsuccessful.

What about the genetics?

Horses and ponies have 64 chromosomes while donkeys have 62.  This means that mules and hinnies have 63 chromosomes.  This odd number and structure of the chromosomes makes it very unlikely that they will pair correctly, this normally renders mules infertile (see below).

What about mule names?

Female mules are often called molly mules although they are commonly called mares too.  Gelding mules are called john mules but again are frequently termed geldings.

How can I tell the difference between a mule and a hinny?

Unless you know individual parentage this is notoriously difficult!  Hinnies are said to have more horse-like heads, longer manes and shorter ears than mules although it is still very difficult to tell as mules and hinnies can vary hugely.  Perhaps the best way of telling is by assessing chosen companions, hinnies tend to bond more closely to donkeys than horses if given free choice and appear to exhibit more donkey-like behaviour.  Mules will tend to bond more strongly to other mules or horses when given free choice of companions.

Are mules sterile?

Due to the difference in chromosome number described above the vast majority of mules are infertile.  There have been a handful of verified cases of molly mules giving birth to foals, the foals have varied between appearing to be totally horse-like, totally mule-like or donkey-like, the American Mule and Donkey Association provide great info, see their website.

In general though mules are always infertile, they are anatomically normal, molly mules cycle and can suffer from hormonal issues just like horse mares.  Male mules should ALWAYS be gelded, they are anatomically normal but do not possess the correct genetic attributes, they can never reproduce but will retain their natural drive to do so unless castrated.  A stallion mule can be extremely dangerous unless in very expert hands, do yourself a favour and geld as early as your veterinary surgeon recommends.

Are mules anatomically different to horses / donkeys?

Mules can be more horse like or donkey like in appearance due to their hybrid nature this can be very individual.  In general mules will have a larger head than a horse of similar size with a more pronounced brow and larger jaw but with a more delicate mouth and of course they will have large ears!  The neck tends to be thickset and the jugular vein is covered by a thick layer of muscle (this can make blood taking difficult for vets who are not used to mules and donkeys).  The mane and tails tend to be more sparse than a horse's but fuller than a donkey's, mules often have an upright mane, their tails tend to have short, dense hairs at the base and the tail finishes in a long, sparse fly whisk!  Mules are notorious for inheriting the flatter back of their donkey father making saddle fit a challenge.

For further info see 'Vet Info' and 'Mule Feet'

Are mules behaviourally different to donkeys and horses?

Donkeys are donkeys, horses are horses and mules are definitely different!  Mules are a hybrid, as well as inheriting a combination of physical attributes from their parents their behaviour is a mixture but they can often be the best and worst of both worlds!  Mules have inherited the stoicism, toughness and loyalty of the donkey and have inherited the speed, agility and size of the horse.  Donkeys tend to be more fight than flight due to their evolutionary history of living on their own or in very small groups, they will consider their options when threatened and may choose to fight or flee.  Horses are more flight than fight due to their evolution as herd dwellers in huge grassy plains and will nearly always take the option to flee from danger.  The mule has inherited both fight and flight and can flip between these behaviours rapidly; the mule may choose to deal with a problem by fighting (a natural behaviour) or if this does not seem appropriate by fleeing.  Such changeable behaviour can often be interpreted by inexperienced mule handlers as the animal being untrustworthy, unhandled or dangerous, to understand mule behaviour it is essential to learn about the natural behaviour of both horses and donkeys - mules are just more of both.

Mules tend to bond strongly to people but do take a long time to trust, they are naturally suspicious and may appear aloof or frightened of people, it is essential to train mule foals and youngsters to enjoy human company as early as possible.  When a mule trusts it's handler it will allow them to do virtually anything but if another person tries the same they may appear nervous to begin with.

Are mules really stubborn?

We've all heard the saying "stubborn as a mule".  This is an incredibly unfair saying!  Mules are big thinkers and have an incredibly strong self preservation ethic.  A mule will question the world around it and will stand and think about the best way to deal with a problem rather than unquestioningly follow a handler, this trait is often described as stubborness when actually it should be described as independence and free will.  Mules will also freeze when frightened, this may be accompanied by a fight reaction to whatever has frightened them, again a trait which human's wrongly describe as stubborn.  Mules were never used as a cavalry mount to charge in to battle as their natural self preservation would have made them extremely difficult to persuade - the battle would have been over by the time the mules had been persuaded to charge!  The natural self preservation of the mule has been used by humans for many centuries, precious cargoes can be trusted to a mule who will not run blindly when frightened, a mule will rarely get itself in to trouble unless persuaded harshly to do so by a human.

Are mules intelligent?

Mules are extremely intelligent, this is often where their reputation for being difficult comes from.  The hybrid vigour of mules certainly extends to their cognitive abilities as demonstrated by research at The Donkey Sanctuary http://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/node/1052 .  Mules appear to be quicker and more accurate problem solvers than horses or donkeys.  They are quick to learn good habits and also quick to learn bad habits, this means that you really do need to get things right first time!  Mules are independent thinkers and the aim of all training should be to ensure that the mule is a willing partner and views what is being asked of it as reasonable and to it's advantage.

I've heard that mules kick?

Yes mules can kick when they want to, there is a reason for the saying 'kicks like a mule'! Kicking is a perfectly natural behaviour for a mule, the mule has inherited the donkey's fight response and if it feels threatened may use it's feet, teeth or body as a weapon.  Mules will nearly always warn of their intention to kick (humans are often slow to pick up on this), signs may include a swishing tail, pinned ears, swung hindquarters or the lifting of a leg.  Mules are extremely accomplished kickers and can and do kick forwards, backwards and sideways with both back and front feet. I have seen frightened animals manage to kick with another foot lifted so please don't rely on this for your safety.  Mules often give warning shots which will miss, if a mule misses when it kicks it never intended to get you in the first place in my experience, the speed and accuracy of a mule kick is superior to that of any other equine.  However..... mules rarely kick without reason and a well trained mule who has been treated with respect will never kick without very good reason.  Mules which kick can be rehabilitated but expert help should be consulted.

What are mules like with other animals, I've heard they're bad with dogs?

As described above, mules have a well developed sense of self preservation.  When a poorly socialised mule comes in to contact with dogs, cats or small livestock they may perceive them as a threat and may chase, kick, stamp or bite these 'predators'.  Mules can be trained to accept dogs that they are in contact with regularly and many live happily with sheep, goats, pigs or other livestock.  The mule owner should always exercise caution with mules around any animal smaller than themselves and escape routes for other livestock (under fences too high for the mule) are recommended.  Introduction of mules to dogs and cats should be done very carefully and the natural self preservation of the mule should never be under-estimated if they feel threatened.  Personally my dogs and mules are not allowed to free range together and I would not trust either of mine with new born lambs, calves or foals as both have shown less than saintly instincts towards them!  It is a personal choice but the mule owner must realise that this fight instinct is natural behaviour for the mule; it is not a character flaw.

Do mules make good riding animals?

Mules make fantastic riding animals and have a long history of being used for riding, driving and packing.  Anything a horse can do a mule can too, they can trot, canter and gallop and often have inbetweens such as pacing and gaiting.  In the USA mules compete in dressage, jumping, mule racing, driving trials, reining and all manner of other events.  Mules will never posses the speed of a thoroughbred but possess strength, agility and endurance that is superior to that of the donkey or horse.  For this reason mules excel in sports such as western pleasure, le trec, endurance and horsemanship classes. The temperament and physical characteristics of mules varies (often dependent on the mare's breeding) and some are suited to draft work while others are suited to pleasure riding and competition.  Training mules for riding is a huge topic and there are some great information sites out there, all I will say is it is different to training horses, mule riders must have a flexible approach, a good sense of humour and must develop a trusting relationship with their mule.

I've heard fitting tack to mules is tricky?

Unless you are lucky enough to have a mule with unusually pronounced withers you are likely to experience challenges with fitting saddles to your mule.  Mules have inherited a flatter back from the donkey which has less 'sway', this along with their less developed shoulder, often shorter back and forward girth groove can make saddle fitting a challenge.  Saddles with horse trees often rock on the flat mule back and many saddles will slide forward.  Finding a safe saddle which does not slide forward (you may need a crupper or breeching to help) is essential for a happy ridden mule, there is nothing worse than finding yourself on a steep downhill with your saddle sliding under you.  The cost of kitting out a mule should be considered as the 'one size fits all' approach will rarely work.  More info can be found here about our personal experience - http://www.muleteers.com/2012/10/mule-tack-challenges-got-there-in-end.html

A good overview of mules and saddles is found here: http://www.mcclintocksaddles.com/mulesaddle.html

Where can I buy a mule in the UK?

We are based in the UK so don't know much about other places!  Mules in the UK are often advertised in obscure places like Freeads, Dragon Driving and Preloved.  Beware 'free to a good home' mules and never buy unseen.  The Mules UK forum is an excellent source of information and features a 'For Sale' thread - http://mulesuk.freeforums.org  The Donkey Sanctuary often has mules looking for homes www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk


What should I look for in a mule for sale?

If you are a novice mule owner try to take someone experienced with mules with you.  Wherever possible always buy for temperament.  Ask the handler to show you the mule being caught in an open space, led in a headcollar, watch the mule's reaction to being tied up, ask them to lift all feet and pick them out, watch the mule being groomed, assess the mule's reaction to having it's ears touched (many mule's who have been ear twitched in the past may be ear shy) and watch the mule's reaction to its surroundings.  If you are looking to buy a ridden mule see the mule being tacked up - what is it like to be saddled, girthed, bridled and bitted?  Will the mule stand to be mounted, is it responsive to the rider and is it suitable for the task you wish it to perform?  Don't be perturbed if the mule is not as settled with you as a stranger, this is perfectly normal, it will take the mule a while to trust a new person.  Ask questions about how the mule is with the farrier, the vet and if it will be in contact with them dogs and other livestock (see above).  Most of all decide if you can love the mule, he or she is likely to be with you for a very long time.  Mules are more like dogs, they will become a loyal friend and you will be taken in by their charms, judge them as you would a future husband or wife, can you love them and deal with their issues?  If you can - say yes!

Why aren't there more mules in the UK?

The UK population does not have a long history of breeding and using mules and most mules bred in the UK are the result of accidental matings.  In my opinion mules do not excel when trained using the traditional 'BHS' system and are notoriously difficult to fit english style saddles; this may have contributed to their low numbers and bad reputation in the UK.  Mules are also adapted to life in dry areas where food is of poor nutritional quality - the UK has rather a lot of rain and lots of lush grass with not much in the way of arid canyons!

Are mules healthier than horses?

Mules do appear to have hybrid vigour (enhanced traits due to mixed genetics, also known as heterosis) in their physical health.  Mules appear to suffer from disease and accidental injuries less than horses.  Mules are renowned for being tough and rarely suffer from diseases such as spasmodic colic, mud fever or conformational issues.  Mules rarely injure themselves in accidents due to their inbuilt self preservation and tend to be sensible if they become entrapped - they will wait for help calmly rather than struggle and injure themselves more.  Mules appear to be resilient to infectious diseases such as influenza and strangles but can and do suffer from these diseases, they should always be vaccinated for tetanus and if required influenza too.  Mules are also less likely to become sick or die from exotic diseases than horses such as African Horse Sickness, Epizootic Lymphangitis and Trypanosomiasis although they do not appear to be as resistant to these diseases as donkeys.

Two conditions that are common in mules (although still less common than in horses and donkeys in my experience) are laminitis and sarcoids.  Both conditions are serious and can lead to euthanasia, they should be assessed by a vet immediately.  Note that a mule may not show outward signs of pain and disease as would a horse.  They are much more stoic than horses and may display similar pain behaviours to donkeys, a sick mule will often just appear a little 'off colour' or may have a reduced appetite, if you mule displays these signs it is time to call the vet!

What about mules and vets?

Mules can make challenging patients!  Many vets in the UK have little or no experience with mules and can be fazed by the difference.  Mules require respectful treatment and handling and it is a great idea to get your mule used to the idea of being examined before it is required in an emergency.  Practice looking in your mule's mouth, touching him all over and even buy a toy stethoscope to play with!  When your mule has to be seen by a vet make sure you warn the vet coming that they are seeing a mule and discuss any concerns you may have before they arrive.  Approach the examination calmly and ensure that you have everything you need to hand.  Have your mule ready with a sturdy headcollar on and if needed wear gloves, your mule will take his lead from you so try to stay calm and take your time.

Mules can be needle shy in my experience so only take blood when really needed, do be aware that your mule will be quick to learn what a needle means!  Mules tend to lean in to, rather than away from, pressure so for routine vaccinations this can be used to advantage where the needle is carefully aligned by your vet, pressure is applied and the mule almost inserts the needle itself.  By the time they realise what has happened it's all over, hopefully you have a carrot at the ready as a treat.

Mules can be restrained for veterinary procedures using twitches, war bridles, ropes and other such techniques but this should only ever be done in extreme cases where the animal's immediate welfare is in jeopardy, these techniques should NEVER be used for routine husbandry and must never be used by someone inexperienced, the consequences can be highly dangerous.  Such techniques are liable to make a mule suspicious and worse to handle the next time!  I can highly recommend lots of training and positive reinforcement of good behaviour (treats are great for vet exams) and if required sedation prescribed by your vet can be very useful.

A word of warning on sedation - my personal experience with my gang is that they require different sedation than do horses of a similar size, always check with your vet.  If they are at all unsure then The Donkey Sanctuary can offer advice to vets www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk

What about mule feet, are they different?

Mule feet are different to both donkeys and horses, they tend to be a half way house and again exhibit hybrid vigour.  Mule feet are generally smaller than those of a similar sized horse and are longer and narrower, like a cylinder. Mule's feet tend to be more upright in angle than a horse's but are less boxy than a donkey's and they have prominent bars. Mule's hooves are remarkably tough, they tend to flake and crack less than a horse's as they have inherited the elasticity of the donkey hoof.  The donkey has hooves that are prone to becoming water logged and suffering from seedy toe when in damp conditions, the mule may also suffer from similar problems.  The elasticity of the mule hoof means that it is will not chip if allowed to become over long, overgrown 'turkish slipper' feet are not uncommon in neglected mules, unless a mule is wearing it's own feet through roadwork or on tough terrain it will need to be trimmed regularly.  Ensure you find a mule friendly trimmer / farrier who knows how to trim mules, once you find them treat them well as they are like gold dust!

The majority of mules can work without shoes, my ridden mule has done many miles of roadwork and ridden over gravel tracks and has never shown any sign of discomfort, her feet are naturally non-slip and I can't imagine putting slidey shoes on her.  Some mule owners do shoe, I can't offer any advice I'm afraid!

What should I feed my mule?

Mules have inherited the donkey's ability to survive on low energy, highly fibrous foods.  Mules are browsers as well as grazers and love to be able to eat non-poisonous logs, hedging plants and scrub as well as grass.  Mules do really well on a forage only diet and do not need cereals or sweet feeds to maintain or gain weight; feeding cereals may predispose your mule to developing diseases such as laminitis, gastric ulcers or colic.


The majority of my mules' diet is straw (barley preferably) which is supplemented with grazing (limited by electric fencing) or high fibre haylage.  Their diet is supplemented with a vitamin and mineral balancer designed for donkeys and mules http://www.topspec.com/products/topspec-donkey-forage-balancer/ , there is also factsheet about feeding donkeys and mules here: http://www.topspec.com/assets/documents/pdfs/members-area/Donkey_2012.pdf .  They are regularly given non-toxic logs and branches from ash, birch, hawthorn, sycamore and hazel trees, they also love limited quantities of my willow tree.  Their favourite treats are bananas (especially the peels), pears, carrots and apples.

19 comments:

  1. Wow! There was a lot I did not know about mules! Thanks for the info. And I did not know that they way a mule was bred resulted in either a mule or a hinny.
    Thanks for sharing the info! Very interesting!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it Allison, hopefully I'll get round to adding more along the way!

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    2. just found your page, thank goodness for you! i became the owner of a young (3 )Molly mule last year as she was in a sorry state so i bought her. After having horses and donkeys for many years i thought, how differant can a mule be?? HA! how wrong was i , i love her dearly but she is crackers!!! she had a stand up scrap with my horned ram and hates the dogs, head down , teeth bared . i thought it must have been something to do with her dodgy past. She chases cats out of the feild and i have only put young fast sheep in her and her elderly pony companions paddock to keep the grass down as she loves to chase them, spin round bronco, and do several fabulous dressage moves mid air at the same time.
      I am planning on breaking her to harness to give her a purpose, think i need some advise from you guys !!!!!!!!

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    3. Hi Jane! Welcome to the wonderful world of mules! They are such amazing animals and will teach you so much, sometimes frustrating, sometimes scarey, most of the time awe inspiring and fun :-) Horses are horses, donkeys are donkeys and mules are different. Training and working with mules is the most satisfying thing and you'll be a convert I'm sure.

      Everything you describe is 'normal' behaviour for your mule so don't worry, she'll grow out of a lot of it but some of it is 'just her'. Probably the best thing you can do is give her a job of some kind, it tends to focus their minds and give them something to think about, mine are never happier than when they're working or doing something.

      Stick around and ask questions, we're hoping to get Dragon driving this summer - fingers crossed!

      Hope to see you back at the site soon.

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  2. Wonderful article!. Mules are beautiful and extraordinary creatures, bringing the best from both worlds. I love their intelligence, surefootedness and determination. Mules and donkeys have always been in my heart. Wish I lived in the UK to adopt from the Donkey Sanctuary. I follow their stories from close.

    So, here is to Bella Callie (beautiful) and Dulce Mini (sweet), salud!

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    1. Thanks Carmen, mules and donkeys are just the best, they are such characters and they really do have the best of everything. I feel privileged to be able to spend my life with such fantastic animals and enjoy sharing them with their blogging friends :-)

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  3. Vey interesting. Thank you
    Best wishes from Judy in Cambridge

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it Judy, watch out for more soon :-)

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  4. Very Interesting site, I had always thought willow was poisonous In any quantity due to the Salycylic acid It contains ?

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    1. Welcome to the site! Willow does contain salicylic acid in the bark which is where aspirin originates from. You're right that in large quantities this may cause problems (although extremely rare) but in small quantities there is no evidence for problems in equines that I'm aware of. My willow tree is not in the mules' paddock, we prune it regularly as it grows so fast and the branches go to the mules, as long as they only get a couple branches each this is no risk in my view. I wouldn't advocate letting them have free access to the tree as it would soon be no more! When it comes to poisonous plants the real nasties like yew, ragwort and hemlock should never be anywhere for curious equines to nibble, for other plants like ivy and willow - moderation is always the word, hence the guidance 'limited quantities' (the mules wouldn't agree though, they'd like to eat the whole tree - especially Dragon!)

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  5. Hello from Canada....I have really enjoyed reading all of the info that you have put together .....
    I am going through the "Vet" issues right now with my mule Homer...The vet has come out twice now to try and give him his shots. He wasn't having any of it. I just picked up some powdered sedative to give to him the next time she comes over to give the shots. She has been great with him and has not pushed him too hard....She really cares about not leaving a bad imprint on him. In your opinion do you think it takes more sedative for a mule then a horse. I am doing trial runs with this drug to get it right for the vet visit. She had suggested a twitch but I just don't want to put him through that...He had a bad past and I only want to show him kind hands.
    As far as a great farrier is like gold dust...I totally agree...Our new farrier has saved my little donkeys lives...they were so full of white line and their angles were off so bad that they could hardly walk... He happens to be our vets husband too ..So they are great together...and very helpful....I look forward to reading more from The Three Muleteers....cool name!!!! I belong to a couple of great Facebook mule groups. I can send ya the names of the groups if ya like.. Keep calm and mule on..Jamie Lynn (\_/)

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    1. Hi Jamie Lynn, glad you found some of the info useful! Always nice to have other mule owners visit and comment :-) Vet issues can be a long education process for a mule that has not had the start that he should.

      I do think mules often need more sedation but it's really important to realise that each will be an individual, both of mine react very differently to sedation and need different doses. It is often trial and error and trusting your vet who is the best placed person to judge. If your vet needs advice about sedation for mules I would advise them to talk to the vets at The Donkey Sanctuary (they can email or call) who are used to dealing with these types of issues.

      XL mules makes some good points below. I do have to say in my experience and opinion that twitches should be the last resort, they can be needed for emergency situations or when all else fails but do work on the basis of pain and restraint, they should only be used by experienced hands and under your vet's guidance. Mules learn quickly about bad things as well as good and if you can use other options first then all the better but you must balance this with your safety and that of your vet, if a twitch is required to get a really important job done quickly without hurting anyone then this may be your only option. Treat training, desensitisation and oral sedation work wonders with my gang but it takes time to build the trust and training.

      The most important thing is to stay safe, always work with sedated or restrained animal with hard hat, gloves and other protective clothing!

      Good luck with Homer and hope to see you here again soon!


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  6. Dear Anonymous, sedating mules is different than sedating horses.....Homer may "fight" the sedative and more may be needed than for a calm, well-socialized mule or horse....also, sedative will sometimes increase the mule's tendency to kick, so keep that in mind..it appears to make some "hyper-sensitive". All of our mules and American Mammoth Jackstock raised here do not have issues with needles, however, we rescued a pony mule and he is twitched to get his shots and blood pulled...there is absolutely nothing wrong with a twitch and I would highly recommend its use rather than the sedative....it would be safer for all concerned and will not hurt Homer one bit:-) Deb and the longears

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  7. Hi Deb....Thank you for the reply...Glad you mentioned the potential for kicking under sedation...I will be watching for that..

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  8. Hello. Sorry if not best way to contact, but is the only one I've found.
    My name is Gabriel and living in Ibi (Alicante) Spain.
    I'm collecting information about "Donkeys & Mules", and have found very interesting pictures and texts in your sites. If you let me show your photos with links to your web site, it will be fantastic.
    Thanks you in advance.
    Gabriel Lazcorreta.
    http://pinterest.com/gabrielibi/burros-mulas-y-yo-donkeys-mules-me/
    http://artelazcorreta.com

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    1. Dear Gabriel, Welcome to the blog! Always nice to hear from other donkey and mule fans :-) Yes of course you may use and link to the images on your site. There are some images here where the copyright belongs to others but these are clearly labelled, all other images are fine if used for the purposes of your pinterest site.

      Hope to welcome you back here again soon.

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